Monday, March 30, 2020

An Announcement about MSC's April 26th Concert

Due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, we unfortunately have to cancel MSC’s final concert of the season on April 26th, because this program involves several artists traveling from Texas and NYC. We are planning to reschedule this program for our 40th anniversary season 2021-22.

In order to continue serving our audience and Central PA community, we are planning to continue the recently launched “A Weekly Dose of Great Music” program for a foreseeable future. Our weekly emails will offer curated concert programs on video and audio with a blog by Dr. Dick Strawser. These emails will be also shared on Facebook, Instagram and website:

We deeply appreciate your support and understanding. You may request a refund of your ticket(s) to the April 26 performance by emailing, or choose to donate the cost of your ticket(s) to support Market Square Concerts.

We wish all of you to stay safe and healthy during this challenging time. We are looking forward to sharing with you our exciting plans for the Summermusic 2020 and the next concert season soon!

Sincerely yours,
Peter Sirotin & Ya-Ting Chang
Market Square Concerts Co-Directors

Friday, March 27, 2020

Music in a Time of Cancelations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

As concerts are being canceled due to the fears about the spread of the Coronavirus, Market Square Concerts has canceled its March and April concerts. The Harrisburg Symphony, where frequent MSC performers Stuart Malina is the music director (celebrating his 20th Anniversary with the orchestra this year) and MSC Artistic Director Peter Sirotin is the concertmaster, has also canceled its concerts for March (where principal flutist David DiGiacobbe was to be the soloist for Kevin Puts' Flute Concerto) and April (where Peter Sirotin was to be the soloist for Beethoven's Violin Concerto), we felt it appropriate to feature several musicians of the Harrisburg Symphony – including Peter Sirotin and David DiGiacobbe – from the concert that opened the 2018-2019 Season with the complete Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach, collectively one of the Great Works of the Baroque Era if not of Classical Music in general.

Here are the excerpts Peter chose for the second week of “weekly doses of great chamber music”:
from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, the opening Allegro:

and the concluding Minuet:

From Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, the Andante, with soloists Peter Sirotin, violin, David DiGiacobbe, flute, Andreas Oeste, oboe (in which the trumpeter Scott Sabo gets to rest his chops between the work-out of the two outer movements):

...and to conclude, the complete Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, featuring violinist Peter Sirotin, flutist David DiGiacobbe, and harpsichordist Arthur Haas:

If you are interested in learning more about the background of this music, you can read my blog-post from October 6th, 2018, “The Brandenburg Concertos, Together Again.”

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A "Virtual Concert" You Can Enjoy In the Safety of Your Home: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Our March concert may have been postponed by the concern over spreading the Coronavirus COVID-19, but we thought you might like a "virtual concert" of sorts. Peter Sirotin, Market Square Concerts' Artistic Director, is sending out a mass-email with links to videos of previous MSC performances recorded at Market Square Church by their "resident sound guy," Newman Stare.

We begin with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin's performance of one of Mozart's later quartets, the String Quartet in D Major, K.499, sometimes called the "Hoffmeister" Quartet; then follow that with one of the pieces included on the program with the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio – Francis Poulenc's Trio in its original configuration for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (or was it?). Poulenc and Mozart fit into the same "classical" approach to clean lines and clear structures, so we felt, especially given the news these days, these works might be more soothing that something in a more dramatic style.

And then we'll end with one of those wonderfully delightful works that's no doubt the equivalent of musical comfort food, the Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Antonín Dvořák. Our performance, if you weren't able to attend our Summermusic 2015 season, features the Harrisburg Symphony's Music Director Stuart Malina as pianist with members of the resident Summermusic ensemble.

Enjoyable, certainly. "Escapist," maybe, but great music all the same. I hope you'll find some time to sit back and enjoy the experience. The important thing right now is to stay safe, and stay well – and look after each other. When this is all over, we'll meet again at a Live Concert, with any luck sooner than later.

Since I was scheduled to offer the pre-concert talk for the Trio, here's my "virtual talk" for those of you interested in background information about the "biography" behind the music, what was going on in the composers' lives at the time they wrote it, and... well, lots of other stuff. (For instance, did you know Poulenc was a Dog Person? Check out the accompanying photos to see pictures of the composer with his beloved terrier, Mickey! Imagine what we might know about Mozart or Dvořák if they could've taken such candid shots, much less selfies, back in their days.)

Looking Ahead to a Bright Future: Mozart Writes a String Quartet 

[photo by Daniel Hanack]
The 2012 Season began with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (left), as it’s officially known, because it was founded by four principal players from the legendary Berlin Philharmonic’s string section where they are all currently members. They’ve won high praise around the world for their performances but something about violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s comment speaks a great deal: “I’d like to hear music always played as beautifully as you play.”

Between regular appearances at Carnegie Hall or London’s Wigmore Hall, they’ve also been invited to play private concerts for the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and the Spanish Royal Family. Two days after they play here in Harrisburg, they’ll be performing the same program in Carnegie Hall, so… yeah!

Their program opened with Mozart's String Quartet in D Major, K.499 which is in the standard four-movement scheme except the minuet (a rather bumptious affair, not quite so elegant as the typical listener would expect) in second rather than third place.

According to his work catalog, he completed it on August 19, 1786, the year after he had completed a set of six string quartets ‘dedicated to Haydn.’ His next (and last) set of string quartets would be the three written for the King of Prussia between 1789 and 1790.

The “Haydn” Quartets (some of the finest in the entire quartet repertoire) were composed as a specific project, Mozart studying the latest quartets by his older friend and the recognized “father of the string quartet (as well as the symphony)” and hoping to emulate them in the combination of various stylistic and compositional elements and better realizing the potential of four string instruments playing together.

The “Prussian” Quartets were the result of a trip to Berlin after which Mozart hoped writing the king a set of six quartets would prompt King Friedrich Wilhelm II to offer him a job in the royal court. But something must have happened along the way because by 1790, Mozart had completed only three quartets and abandoned that particular project. These works weren’t published until a few weeks after his death in 1791.

This particular quartet is kind of an “odd man out.” Usually, in those days, composers wrote sets of works, not single works – the six “Haydn” Quartets or the various sets by Haydn (usually six at a time, sometimes three), even the six quartets of Beethoven’s Op.18 or the three of his Op.59 – because part of the experience was to explore the different possibilities of the ensemble. There might be a “concertante” quartet which would feature the 1st violin (making it a mini-concerto, in a way, or a sonata accompanied by three other stringed instruments), a “dramatic” quartet (often the only one in a minor key), a more lyric one and a more complex (often described as “symphonic”) one where the instruments might be on a more even balance, perhaps a “pastoral” one to balance the dramatic one.

But the D Major Quartet, K.499, stands alone. Why?

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Hoffmeister” Quartet which sounds confusing (as if 'the Mozart Haydn Quartets' isn’t confusing enough: which composer wrote it?). Franz Anton Hoffmeister, if he’s remembered at all today, was a composer as well but in his day was more famous as a music publisher. In fact, the Leipzig branch of his firm was bought out by C.F. Peters in 1806 which is still one of the leading publishers in the world today.

Mozart, 1788
Mozart was to compose three piano quartets (something new in the music world) for Hoffmeister who’d just founded his publishing company in 1784. In those days, new compositions were often sold “by subscription” before their release date in order to help defray expenses and, unfortunately, there was so little interest in Mozart’s new works, the plan was scrapped by mutual agreement. Only the first two were composed – and yet what works!! Mozart completed the G Minor Piano Quartet (K.478) in October, 1785, and the E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) in June, 1786. Eventually, the older firm Arataria published these two works in 1787 and even though they failed to attract much attention in Vienna, amateurs throughout Germany snatched them up and played them with considerable enthusiasm (“Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such-and-such a princess or countess possesses and plays it!,” the 18th Century answer to word-of-mouth advertising).

It’s suggested that Mozart wrote this string quartet for Hoffmeister by way of apology, giving him something that might fare better and make up for the lost effort with the piano quartets.

Libretto from Prague, 1786
1786 had started off a busy year for Mozart. Most of the first half had been taken up with composing and producing the opera, The Marriage of Figaro (which, incidentally, did also not go over well in Vienna in May, 1786, but became a hit in Prague that December). Before finishing Figaro, Mozart wrote two great piano concertos – the A Major (K.488) and the dramatic C Minor (K.491) – both in March. Figaro, officially K.492 in Köchel’s catalogue, was completed in April and premiered in May. The E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) was finished in June.

Then, in early August, Mozart wrote his delightful Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (K.498) known as the “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he and friends played after a dinner party.

On the 19th of August, Mozart added the freshly finished D Major String Quartet (K.499) to his own catalogue.

Curiously, he completed no other new works until November. In October, his son Johann Thomas Leopold, was born and died of suffocation less than a month later.

What else was going on in Mozart’s life at the time?

After moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart had become estranged from his father, Leopold, and his recently married sister Maria Anna (ever known by her childhood nickname, “Nannerl”). This became even worse after Wolfgang married Constanze Weber whom Leopold highly disapproved of and then the birth, in 1785, of Nannerl’s son, named in her father’s honor, Leopold (it had been a bone of contention that Wolfgang had not named his first son after him). As Leopold (Sr.) had created the prodigies of Wolfgang and Nannerl, he set about doing the same with Little Leopold only to be disappointed to discover the boy had no talent, much less genius.

Not long after arriving in Vienna, Mozart still thought of moving elsewhere to find a better paying, more stable employment situation but it wasn’t until an English musician arrived in Vienna to study with him that Mozart began thinking about London – even to go there on an extended tour. Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born impresario in London, would not arrive until later – he was responsible for enticing Haydn to London: Mozart, alas, was tied up with commitments and a sick wife, then, but he was younger and they would try this again sometime.

Possible arrangements were made through connections with his student, Thomas Attwood, and the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), that Mozart would go to London for the season in 1787 and write three operas (for any other musicians, he could write whatever music he wanted, just not operas). But Constanze was sick and Mozart would not travel without her. Later, when he asked his father Leopold if he would look after their two children while they traveled to London, Leopold was outraged, telling Nannerl in a letter that he didn’t wanted to “get stuck” with two children if something happened to them or they decided not to come back: he was already raising (and attempting to train) her son, Little Leopold! So the plans were dropped. Later – there was always later.

But later never came for Mozart. He died at 35 in 1791, four years later.

Imagine – again, the “what if” fantasies – if Mozart had gone to London and written three more operas and who knows how many symphonies and concertos and quartets and sonatas for the London audiences, the way Haydn would write his last twelve symphonies plus several other quartets and sonatas while he was there!

And it was a big disappointment for Mozart who had started learning English well enough to try reading English novels and plays – including Shakespeare – looking for potential opera subjects.

Keep in mind, Haydn earned 24,000 florins in his two trips to London, the first in 1791, the second in 1794. Mozart had earned about 3,000 florins in all of 1786. Another “what-if” – what if Mozart didn’t have to write all those letters begging for money from his friends in the last years of his life?

Anyway, in the midst of all this, Mozart composed this lone string quartet when he was 30 years old, building on the skills he’d learned from writing the six “Haydn” Quartets and feeling the joy and enthusiasm at a very fruitful time in his life – the concertos, the opera, even that dinner party at the Jacquin household with its effervescent “Kegelstatt” Trio, surrounded by friends and, despite Vienna’s apparent loss of interest in the one-time prodigy who’d played for kings and empresses when he was child, a fair bit of hope for the future.

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If at First You Don't Succeed: Poulenc and his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano

The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio's program for our original concert this weekend – the first weekend of Spring! – included the Trio by Francis Poulenc: not the original version for oboe, bassoon, and piano but an arrangement for clarinet, cello, and piano. This performance was recorded during the Summermusic 2012 at Market Square Church, featuring oboist Gerard Reuter, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang.

It's in the usual “fast-slow-fast” combination of three movements, but it begins with these very serious sounding chords in the piano, almost a little off-putting with their dissonances. Imagine this in the mid-1920s as Late-Romanticism's lushness gives way to a harder edged Neo-Classicism, the “New Classical Style” with what many of its contemporaries called “Wrong-Note Harmony.” It has the same clean lines of Mozart and Haydn's 18th Century, but with something... well... a little different. It's almost as if Poulenc were giving his "serious" listeners, as they say, the bird (see photo, below)...

After this introduction, it's almost like “aaaaand they're off!” A rollicking presto seems anything but serious, something that must have struck its critics like a mash-up of “Mozart Meets Offenbach.” The slow movement, lyrical and flowing, shows off Poulenc's melodic gift – he would later become one of the great song composers of his day – before the gigue-like finale frolics along to its delightful end.

Poulenc at 18 (with Bird)
Francis Poulenc was a French composer, through and through – more specifically, a Parisian composer, born there in January of 1899 and dying there in 1963. But not just born in Paris: in the 8th arrondissment centered around the Champs-Élysées with the famous Arc de Triomphe at one end, a district known for its theatres, cafés, and luxury shops, if not the “Main Street” of Paris, certainly one of its most famous streets in the world (even if you only think of George Gershwin listening to taxi horns while sitting in a sidewalk café). No doubt Poulenc's growing up in the heart of this joie de vivre had some influence on his light-hearted musical style.

And because of this, Poulenc is often not “taken seriously” by serious-minded music-lovers. When showed his Rapsodie negre, Poulenc's first “serious” composition (considering the very first piece on his list of works was a "Procession for the Cremation of a Mandarin" from 1914), a professor at the Conservatoire thought the 17-year-old composer was trying to make a fool of him. It hardly got any better as he explored the various possibilities open to a young composer in the Paris of World War I at a time when Debussy was dying and Ravel was at his peak.

Poulenc's family was wealthy – manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, in fact (interesting connection considering our present situation...) – and his mother was “an excellent pianist” who started giving him lessons when he was 5. Her brother, known to us as “Oncle Papoum,” introduced him to Paris' lively theatrical life. He could recite Mallarmé from memory at 10 and at 14 was among those amazed at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. At 16, he began studying piano with the great Ricardo Viñes, a friend of Debussy's and Ravel's, and soon met some other composers named Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric (they soon added two more friends including Germaine Tailleferre, to form a group known as Les Six – as if their musical style wasn't daring enough: a group of composers that included a woman!) not to forget Erik Satie, a major influence, who was the front-rank avant-garde composer du jour.

He tried studying with Ravel but that apparently didn't work out: Fauré, then the director of the Conservatoire, had an assistant, Charles Koechlin (much over-looked by American audiences today), who proved more sympathetic. Poulenc studied with him off-and-on between 1921 and 1924. “By mutual consent,” according to Grove's Dictionary, “Poulenc's involvement with counterpoint went no further than Bach chorales,” meaning he never bothered with fugue-writing, one of the cornerstones of the development of ones contrapuntal skills. His ballet Les biches was a huge success with Diaghilev's company in 1924. (The untranslatable title can be loosely translated as “The doe-eyed young ladies” though there was also the underworld slang of “someone, male or female, with 'deviant sexual proclivities'.”) In the meantime, he started several pieces of chamber music – easier for a young beginning composer to get performed than writing orchestral and operatic works.

Two years later, while staying in Cannes on the coast of Provençe, he wrote the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, a rather unusual combination, and dedicated it to his friend, Manuel de Falla. At that same time, he met Wanda Landowska who was re-introducing the harpsichord to modern audiences and she commissioned a concerto from him.

But between 1918 and 1926 there had been seven pieces of chamber music: a sonata for clarinet and bassoon (heavily influenced by Stravinsky's 1918 L'Histoire du soldat) and another for horn, trumpet, and trombone, both from 1922, survived (not counting the piano “arrangements” he made of both works). But his catalog of works also lists two violin sonatas, a string quartet, and a quintet for clarinet and strings which did not (the string quartet was rumored to have been consigned to the famous Paris Sewers). Notice the survivors were works for wind instruments; the ones destroyed or lost were primarily for strings.

Poulenc never was comfortable writing for strings: he considered his one surviving Violin Sonata (his fourth attempt and the only one published, 1943) a failure, and he thought much of the Cello Sonata (written over a span of eight years in the '40s) would've sounded better on the bassoon. While a string trio and another string quartet would be trashed, one of his happier experiences with chamber music was the Sextet for Piano and... Wind Quintet!

While it's conceivable this Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano could've been written initially with clarinet and cello, the infectious joy and the heart-on-sleeve romance in the slow movement may have struck him later as better suited for the combination he ended up choosing. (Perhaps I should reconsider using the word “infectious”...)

Poulenc (in his 30s) with his beloved Mickey
Self-taught because his parents intended him for a career in the family company, after coming under the influence of that great Parisian iconoclast Erik Satie, he was convinced music was his life. He described himself as a “Vulgarian” who wrote in his trademark light-hearted style to his final years in the early-1960s, long after such a style had gone out of fashion. However, in the summer of 1936, after an unexpected religious awakening following the death of a close friend and fellow composer in a violent car accident and his visit to a famous religious shrine shortly afterward, he began composing with a new-found and often religious seriousness, writing dramatic choral works during the Nazi occupation setting words of Resistance poets, which culminated in his intensely dramatic opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites of 1957. Still, there are passages in some of his religious works that remind me of those photographs you might find of nuns playing soccer.

Poulenc loved to absorb almost anything that caught his imagination. He might evoke the past or the new-fangled sound of jazz. His love of Mozart is evident through many of his works, even this trio: he opens the slow movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos, written in 1932, with a definite bow to Mozart but it quickly moves off into a style that is decidedly his own. There are, as well, tinges of jazz by way of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, premiered only a few months earlier, not to mention the appearance of the Balinese gamelan which he'd first heard the year before.

Poulenc (late-40s) with Mickey
Even though his contemporaries might disparage his style, he himself was more open-minded than we might think. In 1921, he traveled to Vienna where he met Arnold Schoenberg and “talked shop” with him and his pupils (Schoenberg at the time was developing what soon became his “Method of Composing with 12-Tones”). A fan of Pierre Boulez, playing recordings of his Marteau sans maître for some friends, Poulenc wrote in 1961 how he was sorry to have to miss a performance of Boulez' recent Pli selon pli “because I am sure it is well worth hearing” (Boulez did not return the sentiment).

In 1942 he wrote to a friend, “I know perfectly well I am not one of those composers who made harmonic innovations like Igor [Stravinsky], Debussy or Ravel but I think there is room for new music which doesn't mind using other people's chords. Wasn't that the case with Mozart-Schubert?”

But all that would come later. For now, enjoy a composer in his 20s finding the right note!

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On the Long Road to Finding Success and Acceptance: Dvořák Finds His Voice

The last work on our “virtual concert” is the ever-popular and frequently heard Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81, of Antonín Dvořák in a performance recorded at Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2015 with Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello; and Stuart Malina, piano.

Dvořák in 1885
Composed over a period of about seven weeks between mid-August and early-October, 1887, the quintet's also in four movements. The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto (“not too lively”), opens with a pair of lyrical themes (first, in the cello; the second, about 2½ minutes into the movement, in the viola) with a variety of expanded and contrasted, often more dramatic material before the ultimately exuberant ending. The second movement is the slow movement, based on the dumka, a Slavic dance contrasting lyrical or dramatic moods and fast or slow tempos (most famously used in his so-called “Dumky” Trio but also a main feature of many of his works, even if it's not specifically labeled).

The third movement is the lively “scherzo” movement, in this case a Furiant, a Czech dance that uses strong accents alternating between groups of 3s and 2s (think 1,2,3 – 4,5,6 and 1,2 – 3,4 – 5,6 where each number is given the same beat-duration). This is a rhythmic (or metric) pattern familiar to lovers of Brahms for instance – technically, it's just called hemiola – and you can hear it in the famous “America” song in Bernstein's West Side Story, but here it has the particular feel of a strongly rhythmic folk dance.

(It's important to realize that while these dance rhythms and forms may originate in the folk music of a given culture, in many cases, rather than quoting already established tunes, composers took the characteristics of this music and wrote their own "original" folk-like themes or motives. Brahms and Liszt, inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, did both; Bartok, researching the ethnic folk music of Eastern Europe, created what he once called "imaginary folk-music." In this case, Dvořák is writing his own themes but they sound so natural, those of us unfamiliar with this culture just assume they're folk songs. On the other hand, I remember how surprised I was as a student to discover some of my favorite tunes from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka or various pieces by Tchaikovsky actually are folk songs!)

The finale is light-hearted and high-spirited, though not without that contrapuntal process, the fugue which so many composers used to show off their skills to prove they were – see? – a serious composer! Some composers can do this seamlessly while others – Tchaikovsky strikes me as one, here – just crack me up because, no, they can't do it and end up making it sound completely unnatural. Nearing the end, there's a drop back in the forward momentum, a reflective tranquillo moment, before rushing head-long into those highly anticipated and exuberant final chords. Dvořák has done this before (one of my favorite moments like this is the extended passage he would later write at the end of the Cello Concerto) but Brahms used it often enough (the end of his own Piano Quintet's dramatic finale, as well as the Violin Concerto). In fact, it's so prevalent a form of “structural contrast” – one last way of holding back the expected – you could call it a cliché; but it rarely fails to ramp up the audience's excitement.

Technically, we should refer to this as Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op.81, to avoid confusion since not only was there an earlier piano quintet floating around from his youth, it was even in the same key. Completed in August of 1872 when he was not yet 31, the Op.5 Quintet never satisfied him – though published, he destroyed the score after its disappointing premiere – and it was an attempt to revise it fifteen years later that proved frustrating enough to reject it again and start a new one from scratch. It's interesting to compare the “distance” Dvořák traveled, musically, in these two works, only 15 years apart, but a lot had happened in between.

Unlike Beethoven who grew up in a musical family, difficulties aside, at a royal court in provincial Germany and Brahms who grew up in a major city, the seaport of Hamburg, Antonín Dvořák was born in a small village not far from a small town several miles outside the provincial capital of Prague (to the good citizens of Vienna, this would be, like, “the sticks”). And like Beethoven whose big break was going to Vienna at 21 to study with Haydn, and like Brahms who met the Schumanns when he was 20, Dvořák’s big break came when Brahms saw some of his music and recommended him to his publisher – when Dvořák was 36.

If you consider that was really the start of Dvořák’s career, consider this: by that age Mozart was already dead one year and Schubert, five…

As Grove’s Dictionary puts it, “his music is characterized by a remarkable fertility of invention coupled with an apparent, yet deceptive, ease and spontaneity of expression.” It’s interesting to trace how this musical voice evolved over the years.

His father, the local bucther, has been described as a musician even if his abilities were limited to playing the zither and writing a few simple dance tunes for the village dance-band where his son, taught by the local schoolmaster, would eventually play the violin. Of course, his father’s intention was to have his son go into the family business as he had done with his father. So, in accordance with the needs of reality, the boy dropped out of school at the age of 12 to become an apprentice butcher. It’s not clear whether he finished that apprenticeship but a year later, he went off to the nearby town of Zlonice where he could better learn German and where, intended or not, he found more opportunities for his musical interests.

This need to become more fluent in German is significant. Ethnically, Dvořák is Slavic, specifically Czech – whether we call his country Bohemia, Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic – but it was a province of the Austrian Empire and a fairly backwards one, once you were beyond the city of Prague, despite its great historical past as a significant Central European kingdom (Good King Wenceslaus was, incidentally, just one of many good (and bad) Bohemian kings). This cultural memory was very strong even in the peasants who hated the Austrian rule. The only way anyone was going to get beyond the rural life was to learn the language of the “occupying nation” – in this case, German.

Apparently acquiescing to his son’s wishes to pursue music as a living, his father sent him to another town in the north of Bohemia when he was 15 where he also began more serious studies of music, including harmony and playing the organ. A year later, he was accepted at the Prague Organ School – the city’s second-best conservatory – where he was preparing for a degree as a church musician. One of his teachers there was interested in “contemporary music” – in this case, Mendelssohn (who had died ten years earlier) and even that avant-garde composer, Franz Liszt who, by then, had already composed 12 tone poems, two piano concertos and his Faust and Dante Symphonies.

Dvořák had become a decent enough violist (do not insert your standard viola joke here) to play in the pit for performances of Wagner’s most recently completed operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. He attended concerts and heard pianists like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, though he couldn’t afford to buy scores – a senior student allowed him to borrow from his own library and also gave him access to use his piano. But he only won the 2nd Prize in the highly competitive graduation process, told he was excellent but better in practical work rather than, say, theory. It was not much of a recommendation for the real world.

So he made a living playing in theater orchestras, in pick-up bands for restaurants and dances, and took on the occasional student. When he was 21, he became the principal violist of the new “people’s equivalent” to the court orchestra. The next year, Wagner came to town and conducted the Tannhäuser Overture, excerpts from his latest operas, Die Meistersinger and Walküre plus the new Tristan Prelude.

Dvořák at age 27
This was apparently the ignition he needed to start composing seriously and, not surprisingly, this early music of his imitated everything Wagner – his first two symphonies, a cello concerto, a song cycle (inspired by his love for one of his pupils: after she married someone else, Dvořák would marry her sister) and eventually his first attempts at opera which were almost produced.

It was a time of increasing nationalist cultural awareness – most recently ignited by revolutions and political uprisings around Europe in 1848-49 (the one in Dresden got Wagner, having just finished Lohengrin, in considerable hot water) and when Bedrich Smetana became the conductor, Dvořák found a strong inspiration in his music, now, especially his reliance on the folk music of their native Bohemia.

Dvořák was always having trouble making ends meet. At the age of 32, after struggling with his first piano quintet in A Major, he was hired by a wealthy merchant to be the house musician – essentially the home-entertainment center, giving the children music lessons as well as accompanying the wife and daughters in their evening musicales. From this point on, Dvořák could rely more on teaching to earn a living which offered him more time to concentrate on composing.

By now, he was abandoning his Wagnerian influences in light of Smetana’s. Smetana conducted his 3rd Symphony not long after he’d completed his 4th. He revised an opera that had previously been rejected but this time was accepted and actually produced. His music was now being published by a small but limited Czech firm in Prague.

This gave Dvořák, now almost 33, the confidence to enter fifteen of his works, including these last two symphonies, for the Austrian State Prize, a major music competition in Vienna which was intended to help young but poor, struggling artists. The judges were the director of the Imperial Opera, the music critic Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms. Dvořák won a prize of 400 gulden (I do not know what that might be worth today or how it compared to, say, an annual income in the 1870s). More confident, he began another symphony and a new opera. He competed for the prize several more times, winning two of them – in 1876 and 1877. (These were the years Brahms had completed his 1st Symphony and then wrote his 2nd, still working on his Violin Concerto.)

In November of 1877, Hanslick wrote to Dvořák informing him he’d just won a prize of 600 gulden and that Brahms had taken an interest in his music, suggesting to his publisher, Simrock, they take on Dvořák’s vocal duets.

Two weeks later, Simrock took Brahms’ advice and commissioned their new client to write some piano duets inspired by Bohemian dances, considering Brahms’ Hungarian Dances had proven such a lucratively popular success. Published next year, his first volume of Slavonic Dances was well-reviewed and performed to great success in Berlin and London. His new String Sextet in A (op.48) was premiered in Berlin by Joachim’s quartet and the two Serenades (one for strings, the other for winds) also received successful premieres. In fact, his music was now being performed from Latvia to New York City.

This was also a time that makes Opus Numbers unreliable guides to the chronology of his works: not only was an early work given a higher number to make it seem more mature, because Dvořák was now having successes with several new works, he went through the pile of rejections and sent some of them out to new publishers. This time, they snapped them up.

However, when Hans Richter tried to program Dvořák’s new 6th Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, the anti-Bohemian sentiment among the Viennese musicians strongly opposed the idea and so the work was withdrawn.

Though people loved his dances inspired by folk music, the fact he was a Bohemian (essentially a provincial hick, in cosmopolitan Vienna’s eyes) writing symphonies was similar to the American literary elite’s reaction to, say, a red-neck attempting to produce the Great American Novel. Long gone were the days when many of Mozart’s respected colleagues were Bohemians.

Hanslick and others had urged Dvořák to leave Prague and center his career – as Brahms and Beethoven had done before him – by moving to Vienna but his national pride made him refuse their offer, “acutely aware of the way his people suffered under the Hapsburgs and of the continuing animosity and condescension of the German-speaking people toward the Czech nation.”

His 6th Symphony, despite the reluctance in Vienna, was well received in Leipzig and his choral music – large-scale works like the Stabat Mater – was all the rage in England. So, London decided to commission him to write a new symphony – his 7th, in D Minor – which he resolved would be “a work to shake the world.”

When the Vienna opera house suggested he write a German opera rather than a Czech one, he composed a large-scale opera based on the incident of the False Dmitri of Boris Godunov fame (maybe not a Czech, but at least still a Slavic one). And of course it was rejected: this time, he was told, “the people were rather tired of five-act tragedies.”

“What have we two to do with politics,” he wrote to Simrock when he was told he needed to spell his first name “Anton,” in the German style. “Let us be glad that we can dedicate our services solely to the beautiful art. And let us hope that nations who represent and possess art will never perish, even though they may be small. …[A]n artist too has a fatherland in which he must also have a firm faith and which he must love.”

Three months after his 7th Symphony was such a success in London, Dvořák began work on his Piano Quintet in A Major (Op. 81). He was now touring as a conductor of his own music – Budapest, London, Dresden. He was invited to teach at the Prague Conservatory (he waited two years before he accepted their offer). In June, 1889, Dvořák (now pushing 50) was awarded Austria’s Order of the Iron Crown and received an audience with the Emperor as a result. He had just finished a number of other works including his Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87, and the very popular Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.

His fame continued to spread far beyond the limits of Prague. In 1891, invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to become the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvořák made a kind of farewell tour with some of his latest works: the “Dumky” Piano Trio and the Carnival Overture. Once settled into life in America (where he did not speak English), he wrote his New World Symphony and the “American” Quartet, two of his most frequently performed works. When Mrs. Thurber's money ran out, he hurriedly returned to Prague, finishing his B Minor Cello Concerto (generally regarded as the cello concerto) which had been inspired by hearing a cello concerto by an Irish cellist-turned-composer/conductor named Victor Herbert, later conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and who won more enduring fame as a composer of operettas. But that all happened later.

If you really want to experience the shift in Dvořák's “voice,” if you have the time and curiosity, listen to his early Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.5 (a performance with Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet accompanied by the score), written when he was a starving composer sharing a flat and a rickety spinet piano with five other guys, then compare it with the ease of the mature quintet, written when he had now not only proved himself to the world-at-large (at least, in this case, Vienna and London), but also, presumably, proved himself to himself.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, March 15, 2020

UP-DATE: The Concert on March 21st Has Been Postponed

clarinetist David Shifrin, pianist Anna Polonsky, & cellist Paul Wiley

At this point, given the current concerns over the Coronavirus COVID-19, this coming weekend's concert with the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio has been postponed. It is too soon to say when it might be rescheduled, depending on the artists' schedule and an available venue, perhaps sometime in June. We will let you know what that information has been finalized.

I was getting ready to post this in preparation for the concert, so let me leave this here so you have a little chamber music to listen to, art that will brighten your soul in a time of uncertainty. This performance by the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio of Beethoven's early Trio in B-flat Major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op.11, was recorded last November at Yale University. 

In the meantime, please stay safe, look after yourselves and check on your friends and neighbors, particularly the elderly.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The March Concert: A Coronavirus Up-date

Market Square Concerts: Coronavirus Statement


We are looking forward to seeing you on Saturday, March 21, @8 pm, at our next concert featuring the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio. The health of our audience members, performers and volunteers is paramount to us. Market Square Presbyterian Church is using a professional cleaning service to disinfect the surfaces you may come in contact with, and the sanctuary allows ample room for our audience to disperse and avoid close contact.

If you are ill, or trying to self-quarantine, and are unable to attend this concert, you may use your ticket for any other MSC concert. You may also request a refund by emailing, or calling (717) 221-9599. Should any changes to our regularly scheduled performances be made, we will quickly announce those updates.

Best regards,

Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang
Market Square Concerts Co-Directors