Thursday, April 23, 2020

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Welcome to this week’s dose of great chamber music which, as Market Square Concerts Artistic Director Peter Sirotin said, “offers two charming and whimsical oboe quartets featuring soulful playing by Gerard Reuter, who performed for our audience on many occasions. While Josef Rheinberger and Bohuslav Martinu are not composers familiar to everyone, their light-hearted pieces are full of ear-teasing surprises.

And while "quartets" usually brings to mind string quartets, these two works are written for slightly different combinations of four players, featuring first and foremost the oboe.

While many people are “passing the time” (a euphemism for “trying not to go stir-crazy”) during 40-some days and 40-some nights of isolation either by refamiliarizing themselves with old favorites or by discovering new things, here's something that will probably fall under the category of “discovering new things” that are yet somehow familiar.

How many of you could say Joseph Rheinberger is a familiar composer? Probably not many – and I mean more than those who heard the original performance of this piece in July of 2011.

And yet he was one of the leading composers in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a respected teacher at the Munich Conservatory from 1867 until his death and no less than the conductor of the Bavarian royal chapel in Munich from 1877 until he retired in 1894 for reasons of health. He died in November of 1901 at the age of 62.

The Quartet for Oboe, Horn (or Viola), Cello and Piano in F Major by Joseph Rheinberger is a work in two movements, the first being basically an extended slow introduction to a sonata-form second movement marked “Allegro molto.” Here's the 2nd Movement from Summermusic 2011 recorded at Market Square Church with oboist Gerard Reuter, violist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang:

While the composer's name might be unfamiliar to you, his musical style might remind you of Robert Schumann (who'd died in 1856) and a bit of Johannes Brahms (who died in 1897). Rheinberger would fit in with this more conservative wing of German Romanticism and it's quite possible this piece was written fifty years after it sounds like it was.

The first theme unfolds in a leisurely lyrical fashion that might also remind you of Mendelssohn (who died in 1847). The second theme, also lyrical, begins in the cello at 1:28, the exposition of the two themes is then repeated beginning at 3:37. The expected development section which treats the two themes in various ways, deals with them less lyrically, more dramatically this time with a decidedly old-fashioned fugal work-out (a good sign of a good academician) until the first theme reappears (this is the “recapitulation” of sonata-form) at 8:50, the second theme at 10:13, before proceeding to a triumphant ending.

Grove's Dictionary says “His career was accompanied by many, if not all spectacular, successes which brought him numerous honours and marks of recognition.” No less than Hans von Bülow, one of the leading conductors of the day, champion of both Wagner and Brahms, had said of him, “Rheinberger is a truly ideal teacher of composition, unrivaled in the whole of Germany and beyond in skill, refinement and devotion to his subject; in short, one of the worthiest musicians and human beings in the world.”

So why is he virtually unknown, his music largely forgotten?

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When Peter said he'd chosen this piece for this week's program, I went back to my posts for Summermusic 2011, expecting to copy "the Rheinberger bit" verbatim into this one. While I've often been accused of writing 30,000 words about 30 minutes of music, my mention of Rheinberger's Quartet over six separate posts consists of 24 words: two mentions of the composer's name and the piece's title, plus the detail “a contemporary of Brahms.” Not much, eh?

Granted, in many cases, that might be all you need to know to enjoy the music – in fact, you could enjoy it with considerably less, that's true. But my purpose here (if I have one) is to fill in the wealth of background that makes the composers something other than those marble busts we sometimes see and to let you know what was going on in their lives around the time they were composing these works: the human context, if you will.

But I can't even find an opus number for this piece or a date is was composed or published! If he was a contemporary of Brahms', what was Brahms writing at the time? How does Rheinberger fit into the "contemporary music" scene?

Executive Director (and pianist) Ya-Ting Chang told me this was definitely something that Gerry Reuter had discovered, I assume from rooting around in old libraries or back catalogues, always on the look-out for unknown if not downright unusual repertoire for the oboe. She told me when the score arrived, it came with both a horn part and a viola part: as was often the case, composers who wrote for "unusual" instruments, alternate versions had to be published, substituting something more likely found among the amateur demographic where the publishers expected to make their money. If it weren't for that kind of reasoning, violists wouldn't have two of their finest Sonatas, the ones Brahms didn't write for them...

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Joseph Rheinberger
Despite his reputation, despite the vast amount of music he composed, lists of his works are far from complete and those that are mentioned are often completely lacking in detail. Even Grove's Dictionary glosses over his chamber music output without mentioning the instrumentation of the few pieces they've included. However, one – the only one in F Major, this Quartet's key – is his Op.191a (which makes me wonder what plain old Op. 191 is...?) but a closer inspection, and the use of a magnifying glass, indicates this is apparently one of a set of piano trios (and itself a pleasant, rather Brahmsian work from 1898, the year after Brahms died).

So, who was Joseph Rheinberger? You might assume he's a German composer but without getting into the complex history of Germanic culture as opposed to its political identities, technically Rheinberger is a Liechtensteiner, from an independent state within the former Holy Roman Empire that, since 1396, was not beholden to Bavaria (to the north) or Austria (to the east), and which, by 1719, became the present-day principality, named for the family who'd owned these lands as feudal lords since 1140 or so. (There was a time, during the Napoleonic Wars, Liechtenstein was part of Napoleon's “Confederation of the Rhine” until the Congress of Vienna restored its independence in 1815, but I digress.)

Rheinberger, born in the capital city of Vaduz in 1839, was the son of the court treasurer of Prince Aloys II who ruled until 1858 – two of his sons would, in turn, become Princes: Johann II reigned for 70 years (the second longest European reign ever); his younger brother Franz I till 1938; his grand-nephew Franz Josef II, ruled till 1989, when his son Hans-Adam II (Aloys II's great-great-grandson) became the current reigning Prince – and while we might think little of a little country of a mere 62 square miles, it does, after all, have the highest income-per-capita of any European state today!

At any rate, young Rheinberger was clearly a prodigy: by 7, he was already organist at the parish church in Vaduz, his first composition performed a year later. In 1849, he crossed the border into Austria's Voralberg province to study music, and then on to Munich where he entered the conservatory in 1851, joining the faculty shortly after graduation. He spent the rest of his life in Munich.

Ludwig II, who, besides his mania for building castles, was a huge fan of Richard Wagner, became King of Bavaria at the age of 18 in 1864, when Rheinberger was a rehearsal coach and pianist at the Royal Opera House in Munich. As a composer, Rheinberger was more inclined to favor the classical side of German Romanticism, primarily Schumann and Mendelssohn – and, as an organist, going back further to Bach – so it was not a pleasant experience for him, working with Wagner in preparing the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865.

Mr. & Mrs. Rheinberger
At any rate, two years later Rheinberger resigned from the opera and also married a student of his (she was actually 8 years his senior) – (see photo of him and his wife Fanny (Franziska) taken shortly afterward) – then ten years after that was appointed court conductor for the royal chapel which required he also write a great deal of music for the Catholic church (he wrote 14 masses, 3 requiems, numerous motets, and the Christmas oratorio, The Star of Bethlehem).

Today, if he's remembered at all, it's as a composer for the organ: apparently, he had planned to write a series of 24 organ sonatas, one in each key, but completed only 20 of them; there are two concertos with orchestra that have been recorded (check out the finale of the 1st, written in 1884) and could be substituted once in a while for the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, completed in 1886 – but then who would buy tickets to hear an unknown like Rheinberger when you know people will flock to hear a beloved war-horse like the Saint-Saëns?

In addition to several stage works, two symphonies and a piano concerto, he wrote a great deal of chamber music – three string quartets, a string quintet, four piano trios, even a trio for organ, violin and cello (here's the Finale), as well as a piano quintet in 1878, plus a nonet for winds & strings – and somewhere along the way this otherwise unmentioned Oboe Quartet – there's also enough piano music (including four sonatas) to fill a 10-CD box set.

He was an influential teacher, in a time when many young Americans were still coming to Europe (especially Germany) to study before American schools had set up reputable music schools of their own: while Rheinberger counted among his students Europeans like the future composer of Hansel & Gretel, Englebert Humperdinck, in the mid-1870s, and the Italian-German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari in the 1890s, he also taught George Whitefield Chadwick (before 1880) and, among others, Horatio Parker in the early-1880s, who would later teach at Yale where one of his students would be Charles Ives.

Given Rheinberger's conservative tastes, one wonders what he'd've made of his future grandstudent's Variations on “America”, written in 1891 by the 17-year-old Ives? (Since Rheinberger would live another ten years, it's conceivable he could've heard it, though I doubt he'd've had the opportunity.)

Oh wait, here's a coincidence, considering there are only 12 notes to go around: the National Anthem of Liechtenstein, “Oben am jungen Rhein,” written in the 1850s, uses the same tune as “America” a.k.a. “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” a.k.a. “God Save the King”! Hmmm...

So, after all that (and all those digressions) – not to mention about 1,500 words – how does such a highly respected and frequently performed composer like Rheinberger who wrote an awful lot of music – which, incidentally, is not the same as “a lot of awful music” – disappear from public awareness?

Trust me, this a question many a composer asks whenever a new piece comes to mind...

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The second piece in this week's program is the Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Piano by Bohuslav Martinů written between September 15th and October 21st, 1947, when he was 56. This performance, with oboist Gerard Reuter, violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, took place during Summermusic 2013.

The first movement is marked Moderato poco allegro, full of that bustling neo-classical texture Martinů made his own. The slow movement, an at-times lilting Andante following a dramatic opening at 5:40, almost blends into the lively, at-times quirky finale, marked Poco allegro, starting at 8:36, which ought to leave listeners smiling.

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Martinů at 5

As Liechtensteiner Rheinberger spent his life in Munich, Paris would eventually become home to the Czech-born composer, Bohuslav Martinů, raised in a small-town church tower in an apartment 193 steps above the street (talk about a “walk-up”...). He gave his first violin recital when he was 14 but since the age of 10 he'd been focused on becoming a composer. He played in the 2nd Violin section of what became the Czech Philharmonic after the nation's independence following World War I, but in 1923, now in his early-30s, he received a scholarship that allowed him to study composition in Paris where he remained for the next 17 years, making a living as a “poor, starving musician” – a true Bohemian! With the outbreak of World War II, he managed to escape before the Nazi Occupation of Paris and settled in the United States. It was here that he wrote the Quartet we're going to hear on this program.

Martinů in 1945
Martinů was a prolific and seemingly effortless composer. A great deal of his music has this overall happy sense of well-being, usually energetic and often optimistic. It's not that his life was necessarily well-adjusted: aside from the poverty of his Paris days (recognition came slowly, if at all), when he fled the approaching Nazis who had already black-listed his music (which, I suppose, was a kind of recognition, though it was primarily for his role in the Czech Resistance), he was forced to leave most of his manuscripts behind and had difficulty booking passage to America, first finding refuge in Southern France, then Lisbon. It took almost a year to get a boat to New York City where he arrived speaking no English and bringing with him only the few scores he'd composed in the past year.

It was Serge Koussevitsky in Boston who came to his rescue – much as he did with another war-time immigrant from Central Europe, Bela Bartók (the result, there, was his famous Concerto for Orchestra). And so, Martinů composed his 1st Symphony for the Boston Symphony, gained some recognition and re-gained some much-needed confidence before setting off to write four more symphonies and several concertos over the next five years. After the war, he was invited to return to Prague to teach at the conservatory there, but the new Communist regime blocked his passport and he now found himself stuck in America.

That summer of 1946, he was appointed to the faculty at Tanglewood (another Koussevitsky save) but he was unable to fulfill it because of a serious fall from a balcony resulting in a fractured skull and a concussion, afterward drifting in and out of a coma. All this affected his hearing and his nerves, not to mention hitting him with serious medical bills. As he recuperated, a friend at this time described him as "a different man: gaunt, irritable, crippled and in pain from the accident." It required a few years, as one source put it, before he was able to return to his former state as a solid composer.

And yet the following year, living in New York City in 1947, he composed this Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano, a work that hardly reflects the reality of the context it was written in.

If you're interested in hearing more works by Martinů, I recommend his String Quartet No. 7, also written in New York in 1947, completed in late-June, just before the Oboe Quartet which he began in mid-September.

The first work of his I'd ever heard (friends at Eastman were playing through it, back in the early-'70s, when I walked past their practice room and it stopped me in my tracks) was the duet for violin and viola called "Three Madrigals" (here's a wonderful performance with Arnaud Sussmann and Paul Neubauer), which by the way was also written in New York City in 1947, from mid-February to mid-March, starting it just eight months after the accident! Talk about music written in trying times!!

Later, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in NYC and then at Curtis in Philadelphia – his students included Alan Hovhannes and Burt Bacharach – even after he returned to Europe, where he spent much of his time in the South of France, also teaching at the American Academy in Rome. But he was still beset by financial insecurity: Paul Sacher, a noted Swiss conductor and patron to many famous composers, invited Martinů to live on his estate in Switzerland, where he died two years later at the age of 68.

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser

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