Thursday, August 27, 2020

Brahms and the Power of Music to Soothe: The Adagio from his 2nd Piano Quartet

This week’s dose of great music features one of my favorite movements in the entire chamber music repertoire, the slow movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major.  I am always grateful for this music’s deep exploration of the heartaches inseparable from the human condition. There is a bittersweet tenderness of unfulfilled longing, vivid memories of youthful passion, and dreamy contemplation, which add up to an astoundingly insightful masterpiece, particularly for a 28-year old composer. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Director of Market Square Concerts

This performance of the Poco adagio from the 2nd Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms features violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Stuart Malina, recorded in July as part of Summermusic 2019 a little over a year ago (regardless how long ago it feels...). (The concert, which also included Brahms' 1st Piano Quartet, was recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church by Newman Stare.)

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After what Peter said about this one movement, out of all the chamber music Brahms composed – or anyone else, for that matter – being his favorite, I would have to say the same thing. After the concert, I'd mentioned to Stuart Malina how much I enjoyed their playing, especially of the Adagio, which was one of my all-time favorites, and he said, with typical Stuartian enthusiasm, “I know, mine, too! Isn't it incredible? Michael [Stepniak, the violist] told me the same thing after a rehearsal.”

What is it about this music that has this kind of impact on so many of its listeners?

Without applying a “program” or story behind the music – either in the sense it's telling a story or was inspired by one – I know my first response to hearing it for the first time was to sense a gentle rocking motion, so comforting, like being in a boat on a calm lake on a brilliant, relaxing summer afternoon, perfect weather, perfect place; and by the end of the first phrase having such a smile on my face, how the cadence is extended with these echoes interweaving between the parts (at 0:47, 0:54 and 0:57), heightened by that one note (at 0:59) in the violin part in the final cadence (I'll get to that in a minute) which made me sigh: just the right note! So effortless. So soothing

How does he do that!

And then, welling up from underneath, this ominous wave in the piano (at 1:12), intruding on this gentle stepwise rocking motion, followed by an emotional outburst until (at 1:56) reminding us life is not always going to be mere pleasantness, we soon return to the opening's rocking stability (at 1:56), but now with the roles reversed, the melody in the strings, the inner voices in the piano.

That “ominous wave” is nothing more than a diminished-7th chord built on the tonic note – in this case, an E – a chord that was all about “harmonic instability.” When Carl Maria von Weber used it as an independent chord, a sharp attack, tremolo, in the horrific “Wolf Glen's Scene” of his often supernatural opera, Der Freischütz in 1821, ladies in the audience swooned at the shock of it! Here, it's not so horrifying, but it still has the ability to unsettle one, doesn't it?

What did Brahms “mean” by this? Probably nothing more than just wanting to introduce an unexpected note of tension into all this wonderful harmonic simplicity of the opening phrase. It becomes a frequent and easily recognized “sound” heard throughout the piece, and almost always presaging some emotional contrast, until one last appearance at the very end, perhaps signifying not the happiest of resolutions if, in fact, a final resolution at all... But whatever it “means” to a listener like me thinking of rocking gently in a boat when a wave comes by and unsettles the atmosphere, no, Brahms never mentioned anything, certainly not like that. It wasn't his way – but then, I wonder if the technical idea of the music itself (how it works harmonically) came before the emotional response a listener might have to it? In Brahms, a “classicist” when it comes to Romantic Composers, it's the proverbial chicken-and-the-egg, but as is also typical of Brahms, the abstract idea and the emotional content could easily be go hand-in-hand.

Before I run out of clichés, let's look at the first page of this movement, here from the original edition of the work. When you listen, you're probably not listening for technical details like the number of measures in a phrase or how a cadence works, you're listening for the overall satisfaction all of this gives you (or doesn't).

The Opening Page of Brahms' Adagio

The basic harmonic plan of this whole phrase – the complete first page, a minute of music – is so simple, any sophomore theory student taking a basic harmony class could probably have written it (well, almost...), though I think Herr Professor von Pauker would raise an eyebrow at the student's use of his five-bar phrasing when we have it pounded into our heads that, in text-book music, music moves in four- and eight-bar units. But at least the half-phrase sounds natural enough, so Herr Professor begrudgingly lets it go. 

Most students would no doubt have ended this phrase at the cadence in the first measure at the bottom of the page, going right to the last measure with the stepwise motive in the cello (placing the piano's resolving chord on the downbeat). But notice how Brahms extends the phrase with echoes of the downward melodic cadence interweaving in different registers between the instruments. I've enclosed these in green boxes: one, two, and three. 

Now, within those you'll see little red arrows pointing out a D-natural which is a note outside the scale of the tonic E Major and points up a harmonic suggestion leading to the sub-dominant A Major chord, a way of “coloring” the basic cadence with an ever-so-slight digression away from the tonic, but not quite (All-Mighty Bach, after all, was very fond of this in his final cadences!). While there's an unwritten rule that repeating (or restating) something three times is sufficient, what appears to be the fourth time expands on the idea not as a repetition but as a “development” of it, and Brahms, in this case, places that D-natural more prominently in the upper voice (here, the violin with the viola moving in parallel thirds below it for a fuller texture), which becomes that “Ah!” moment I'd mentioned earlier.

And at that point, Professor von Pauker knows this student will become a composer.

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There are contrasting themes and returns of the opening theme through these brief 11 minutes as Brahms creates considerable variety with his emotional content on the surface, but never far from that surface is this rocking, upwards-then-downwards step-wise motive of gentle eighth-notes. This helps unify the piece into a single fabric, holding everything together in our memory (and "form" in music is all about what we remember and recognize while we're listening to it flow past).

In the first movement, there was an awful lot of hemiola, one of Brahms' significant musical fingerprints. Now, hemiola has nothing to do with blood (unless you consider rhythm the “life-blood” of the music): it's an old-fashioned musical term for, among other things, juxtaposing two against three (or vice-versa). In other words, as you listen to Brahms' gently rocking pulse (another musical medical term), count “1 – 2, 1 – 2.” Now, keeping the beat the same, subdivide it into three, like this: “1-2-3, 1-2-3.” If you can do that back and forth, excellent. If you and a friend are counting, and one of you is doing “1-2, 1-2” and the other switches to “1-2-3, 1-2-3” so you're singing them simultaneously, that's an example of hemiola. And Brahms does that a lot. It adds to the rhythmical ambiguity – is it in duple time (2/4) or triple time (3/4)? And it adds to the textural complexity.

Now, in the opening appearance of this theme, it's fairly simple. In fact, the use of triplets occurs only twice – I've marked them with a blue bracket in the piano part). But listen each time the opening theme returns: in the inner voices or in the accompanimental background, the use of triplets increases each time. Though it's clearly the same theme, it's presented slightly differently to create a little variety within the overall unity.

This again is something a composer would do: a student would have just repeated the theme as is each time. Bor-ing...

So what was going on in Brahms' life when he wrote this?

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Brahms in 1863
In the spring of 1861, Johannes Brahms, about to turn 28, returned to his hometown of Hamburg, a major German port on the Elbe River in the north of the country. Already recognized as a pianist and a composer, the plan was for him to conduct the Philharmonic in a program that included his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who played his own very popular violin concerto (known as the “Hungarian” Concerto since it employs many elements of the traditional style of his native Hungary) and – since in those days, orchestra concerts also included chamber music as “interludes” – a Beethoven violin sonata. The goal was to impress the good people of Hamburg and more importantly those on the Philharmonic's board so they would hire Johannes Brahms, hometown boy made good in the wider world, as their new music director.

He also teamed up with an old friend of his, the baritone Julius Stockhausen, collaborating on three song cycles (Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann), and played chamber music in the houses of other old friends. After one of these gatherings, one of these friends, “Frau Dr. Rösing,” described him in a letter to a friend:

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Of medium height, and delicately built, with a countenance beneath whose high, fine brow were set flashing eyes, with fair hair combed back and falling down behind, and an obstinate lower lip! An unconscious force emanated from him as he stood apart in a gay company, with hands clasped behind his back, greeting those who arrived with a curt nod of his fine head.”

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Dr. Elizabeth Rösing was also Brahms' landlady during his extended summer stay, offering him fine rooms in the country suburb of Hamm (as opposed to the cramped quarters of his family's home where Frau Brahms, proud of her returning son, often interrupted his composing to introduce him to people who would stop by to see the house were the famous musician lived). In return for this – since she didn't want to charge him any rent – Brahms dedicated his A Major Piano Quartet to the good Frau Doktor.

I mention these details because – first of all – most of us have an image of Brahms as the cigar-chomping stodgy man with the great mane and shaggy beard. (We also tend to be surprised he'd died about a month before his 64th birthday.) Plus there is the idea Brahms led an uneventful life, certainly compared to the likes of Beethoven (he was always being compared to Beethoven!) which didn't stop Jan Swafford, himself a composer, from writing an excellent and eminently readable biography of Brahms, published in 1997 and weighing in at almost 700 pages. 

In addition to the two piano quartets on this first program of Summermusic 2019, both of which “date” from this same summer of a homecoming, there is one other event to make note of: that job at the Philharmonic? Much to Brahms' dismay, the board eventually decided to give it to Julius Stockhausen, his friend the singer, instead. As a result, Brahms was so – what, disappointed? embarrassed? angry? – that he left Hamburg and decided to settle in Vienna where he then made his home for the rest of his life.

“What if...?” Brahms had gotten the job, stayed in Hamburg, never had as much time to compose, never moved to Vienna and, perhaps, never became the influence he did on other composers? If he had a career conducting an orchestra, perhaps he would've written more symphonies, and maybe some more concertos for his friends to come and play in Hamburg – after all, it worked for Mahler (the symphonies, at least), who survived as a “summertime composer.” Or maybe not...

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We can see these two works are something of a pair: the G Minor is Op. 25 and the A Major is Op. 26, after all. They're usually said “to have been composed in 1861” when, more accurately, they were completed in the summer of 1861. We tend to think that means they were written one after the other or, perhaps, simultaneously. But in fact, he'd been working on them for some time long before that fruitful summer.

Point of fact: the G Minor (Op. 25) was premiered in November of 1861 in Hamburg with Clara Schumann and Brahms would make his debut as both composer and pianist in Vienna with it later that year, in November. Another point of fact: the A Major (Op. 26) wasn't premiered until November, 1863, in Vienna. Yet another point of fact, in case you're thinking those “Op. Numbers” have anything to do with the chronological order of the works in question: his next composition, the Variations on a Theme of Handel, completed in September, 1861, is Op.24.

Incidentally, the piano quartet he'd started even earlier than these two, in C-sharp Minor, wasn't completed until 1875 (one year before he finally completed his 1st Symphony), fourteen years later, and now appearing in C Minor as Op.60. So while he may have been working on all three of them initially, perhaps as far back as the mid-1850s, they all share a common genesis. 

(By the way, the C Minor Piano Quartet has another gorgeous slow movement. You should check it out if you have time.)  

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There is a fragment of a sketch from the opening of the A Major Quartet that has somehow escaped Brahms' frequent conflagrations. It show the barest outline of the melody in the right hand and the simplest of harmonic suggestions in a bass line in the left – two lines only. We think of Brahms' music as dense both in terms of texture and harmony, the way he fills in those inner voices (pianist friends of mine – in fact, pianist friends of Brahms' – complained about his fistfuls of notes), but here, at some point in this gentle music's genesis, is the simplest of outlines, barely suggesting its potential. Under the bass line, he scribbled in the traditional harmonic shorthand we call "figured bass" implying what chords were needed, where.  Anything else could always be filled in later.

Later in his life, when Brahms would examine young composers' works, he often covered up the inner voices of the piano parts of songs, for instance, because if the melody wasn't interesting, and the bass-line wasn't strong enough to give it direction, it didn't matter what you did with all the stuff in between!

As for Brahms' sketch – assuming this is typical of his approach – he would then take this (so-to-speak) skeletal outline and fill it in when he had the time once he had worked out the Important Things. And if it wasn't satisfactory, he'd put it aside (Brahms had more back-burners than most great chefs would have pots and pans) and come back to it later. Perhaps years later. In the case of these two piano quartets, perhaps six years later!

So, as you listen to this single movement from his 2nd Piano Quartet, notice the melody and notice the bass-line – in whatever instrument's playing them – then listen to how the inner-voices (what a harmony student would consider “filler”) fill out and complement the outer layers. But Brahms isn't writing “filler” here: often, what he did, creatively, is stuff only young harmony students can dream of.

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, August 20, 2020

When Words Fail, There Is Music: Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio and the Memory of a Friend

 "This week’s dose of great music features the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio which was written in the memory of his close friend, great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.  This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most sincere works ranging from wistful melancholy and searing despair to ethereal lyricism and majestic vigor. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts

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When we consider the events of the past several months, watching the numbers of deaths from Covid19 climb daily, it's sometimes difficult to imagine the news is real. For those who have lost friends and family to the virus, a work like Tchaikovsky's Trio may prove cathartic. It is difficult for many of us to express our sense of loss in words, and so perhaps music can help bridge the gap, music that may cover a gamut of emotions from happy memories to deepest grief. 

Tchaikovsky in 1880
Nikolai Rubinstein had been one of Tchaikovsky's closest friends, at times his teacher, at other times his mentor, sometimes insufferable (as when he raged against how awful he thought his first piano concerto was) and sometimes an advocate who stood by him at the worst times of his life. They shared picnics with friends and late-night drinking bouts - and they made a great deal of music together. 

Tchaikovsky was shattered by news of Rubinstein's death in Paris in March of 1881 from tuberculosis. During December through the end of January, he composed his Piano Trio and then, after hearing a few private performances, made several revisions before it was officially premiered in October, 1882. 

The pianist in those performances was Sergei Taneyev, a student of Tchaikovsky's and a composer in his own right (you can hear the set of variations from his string quintet in an earlier post, here). When Tchaikovsky died in 1893 during a cholera epidemic, it was Taneyev who completed what had been left unfinished of his teacher's 3rd Piano Concerto.

This performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was given by the members of the Mendelssohn Trio - Peter Sirotin, violin, Fiona Thompson, cello, and Ya-Ting Chang, piano - on July 19th, 2015, in memory of former Market Square Concerts Director, friend and mentor to many, Ellen Hughes. It was recorded at Market Square Church by Newman Stare. In this week's "dose," we'll hear just the first movement.

The trio is basically in two movements: the opening Pezzo elegiaco (Elegiac Piece), is about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. That would make the entire trio about 50 minutes long! And all of it written at white heat over a period of five weeks.

While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, fairly straight-forward, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone (not that the music of the first movement isn't Russian at its very core) and offer various contrasts of both slow movement and scherzo as well as finale. Some of these variations are "character pieces" that might have stepped out of Schumann's Carnaval - there's a music box; a salon waltz; even a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant conclusion when the first movement's opening theme comes back as if reality suddenly intrudes upon these pleasant memories. The piece ends with an emotional funeral march that dissolves into a slowly fading pulse.

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Nikolai Rubinstein
 In the winter of 1880-1881, Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy, then moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams. The first informed him Nikolai Rubinstein was quite ill, his condition hopeless; the second one told him Rubinstein had died. Tchaikovsky left at once for Paris.

On the 28th of March, he wrote a long letter to his patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck in which he described how his thoughts, following the funeral that morning, have turned to religious matters. He was now preparing to return to Moscow, accompanying the body of his friend. 

After returning to Moscow, he writes to Mme von Meck that he has declined the Directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, having been asked to replace Nikolai Rubinstein in the post. It would have been the best income he could imagine as a teacher, but it would also be the end of his creative life.

Shortly afterward, he left for his sister's country estate in Ukraine, his beloved Kamenka. She was ill and her husband was taking her to Switzerland for her health and so Tchaikovsky found himself, despite his concern for his sister's health, in a more enjoyable role – playing Uncle Petya to her children. He writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, “I have no inclination to compose. I wish you would commission something. Is there really nothing that you want? Some external impulse might reawaken my suspended activity. Perhaps I am getting old and all my songs are sung.”   

He describes himself as “gray, without inspiration or joy” but then recalls he'd been through similar periods “equally devoid of creative impulse” and survived.

Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.

Rubinstein had called Tchaikovsky “a composer of genius” but still didn't care for some of the more modernist tendencies in his harmony and form (keep in mind, even as a pianist, he was more of a classicist than his wildly romantic brother, Anton). One of the few works that Rubinstein could totally endorse was the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880, and one of Tchaikovsky's more neo-classical works, certainly by comparison to the next work he wrote, the 1812 Overture.

This often contradictory history between them did not keep Tchaikovsky from missing Rubinstein terribly, valuing him also as “one of the greatest virtuosi of the day” and one of the main props of his own creative life. Rubinstein had always been the best interpreter of his music, either as pianist or as conductor. In fact, one time, Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky's G Major Piano Sonata so well that even the composer “did not recognize it.” He knew that, with his music in Rubinstein's hands, he would experience “no disappointment.”

And now this champion was gone forever.

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In late summer, Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev that “I believe I might never write anything good again.” Taneyev was still hoping to convince him to come back to the Conservatory but Tchaikovsky declined (at least for now) and told him, “You, on the contrary, seem made to carry out Rubinstein's work.”

And his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, had hoped Tchaikovsky would provide her with a piano trio – for her “house trio,” musicians she's hired to play regularly for her and her guests and to teach her children their music lessons. This included a young pianist she'd picked up in Paris on her travels, a teen-ager named Claude Debussy who had just written her a piano trio of his own. 

But in October of 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to her that 

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“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this [request for a piano trio] is beyond me. My acoustic apparatus [!] is such that I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. I cannot explain this physiological peculiarity; I simply state it as a fact. Piano and orchestra – that is quite another matter but... here we are dealing with two equal opponents. ...On the other hand, how unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, the violin and the 'cello! Each loses something of its value. The warm and singing tone of the [strings] sounds limited beside that king of instruments, the piano [which] strives in vain to prove it can sing like its rivals. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, as the background of a picture. But a trio implies equality and a relationship and do these exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a piano trio...”
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Now, almost 14 months later, Tchaikovsky writes in December 1881 to tell her “the beginning of [my new piano] trio is finished.”

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“In spite of this antipathy,” he writes later, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted. Whether I shall carry it through, whether it will sound well, I do not know, but I should like to bring it to a happy termination.” He adds, after telling her he is only trying this to bring her some pleasure – since no one specifically asked him to write it, not even his publisher – that “I will not conceal from you that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form,” this combination of piano with strings.

His next letter, January 25th, nine days later, informed Mme von Meck that “the trio is finished... Now I can say with some conviction that the work is not bad.” Having written orchestral music all his creative life, the idea of writing chamber music (despite his earlier string quartets) was unfamiliar territory for him and he feared he may have “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio instead of writing directly for my instruments.” He tried to avoid this, he adds, but wasn't sure he's succeeded.

One wonders what her young pianist, Claude Debussy, would have made of this work, had he seen it – or played it. He was employed by her only for the summers in 1880, 1881 and 1882, so it is quite likely he might have. Considering what Tchaikovsky thought of the 18-year-old Debussy's Danse bohemienne which she'd sent him in September, 1880 – “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity” – history has apparently not recorded young Monsieur Debussy's reaction to Tchaikovsky's Trio.

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 And then, eleven years later, a 20-year-old composer whom Tchaikovsky had thought so highly of, a young man named Sergei Rachmaninoff who'd written a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky was looking forward to conducting, composed a Trio élégiaque dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky who had just died at the age of 53. Certainly one of Rachmaninoff's emotions concerned the loss of someone who could've been an important mentor in his life – perhaps like Nikolai Rubinstein had been in Tchaikovsky's.

And while Rachmaninoff's work is clearly modeled on Tchaikovsky's trio, complete with a vast second movement set of variations, it is also... even longer...

It is interesting to contemplate, listening to Tchaikovsky's Trio, how music perpetuates itself, how Tchaikovsky, by championing Rachmaninoff, managed to carry on the role that one friend, one great artist, had had on his life.

It is just one of those magical connections we can find in this mystery we call Art.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Gabriel Fauré and the Perseverance to Find the Perfect Ending

“After revisiting a set of variations by Sergei Taneyev last week, this week’s dose of great music features two movements from the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Gabriel Fauré who was Taneyev’s close friend and duet partner. From the somber opening of the contemplative slow movement to the triumphant ending of the stormy finale, this piece is full of beguiling surprises and contrasting moods. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts

When Gabriel Fauré wrote his 1st Piano Quartet, it took him over two years to finish it. But even then, three years after it was premiered, still dissatisfied with the original finale, he wrote a whole new last movement. 

As we deal with the uncertain times we're living through, wondering when we'll all get back together to hear live music again and we want it all to happen NOW, remember even the music you might be listening to wasn't always done effortlessly in a short period of time. In Fauré's case, it took considerable patience and perseverance to make it come out right and find what it was he was looking for.

In this performance from Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2018 (which seems like soooo long ago), we'll hear Peter Sirotin, violin; Blanka Bednarz, viola; Fiona Thompson, cello; and Stuart Malina, piano.

Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor: III. Adagio; IV. Finale: Allegro moderato (beginning at 7:56). 

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Fauré in 1875
Gabriel Fauré in 1875
Fauré was in his early-30s when he began his first piano quartet in 1876, though he didn't finish it until 1879. After it was premiered the following year, he revised it and wrote a completely new last movement in 1883. The quartet is in the traditional four movements with a brief scherzo in second place rather than the usual third. Today's dose includes the slow movement, Adagio, and the “new” finale. 

The slow movement has been described as “majestic and profound,” serene, poignant – dark – not unlike a pavane (a slow, stately dance in duple time from the medieval era, or at least as it was thought to be in late-19th Century). Contrast (at 2:11) comes with the nostalgic dream-like (song-like) middle section when, as if the dreamer awakens surrounded by this sense of sadness (at 4:49) the opening theme returns (or more likely resumes) but accompanied by the arpeggios of the contrasting theme still in the piano until it wears itself out by 7:30. 

Whatever the original finale was like and for whatever reasons it left the composer disatisfied, the new finale begins out of this dark C minor cadence, the piano setting up a moto perpetuo under a motive in the strings clearly drawn from the slow movement's main theme. One can psychoanalyze this in so many ways: turning grief into moving forward? Without any specific explanation from the composer, it is our interpretation which might say more about our state of mind than the composer's. Stylistically, it is the chord sequence (blocked chords beginning with the viola melody) at 8:47 that strikes us (at least the listener in 1884) with something new: the first movement started out fairly conventionally, in terms of its harmony, but through the slow movement especially he began to prefer certain types of chord movement which were slightly different and less typical. 

It is these sounds which strike the modern listener as “essentially French,” emerging from the shade of Cesar Franck (who composed his Piano Quintet in 1879) and pointing the way toward Debussy (whose first compositions started to appear in the early-1880s; he was still a conservatory student in 1884) and to Ravel (Fauré's own student, eventually, who'd begun composing around 1890 and who would later dedicate his 1905 String Quartet to Fauré, his teacher and mentor). 

The “status quo” returns with the real second theme (at 9:36) with a few harmonic slips into raised-eyebrow territory for the more conservative listeners at the time At 10:40, the opening theme's motive appears against the “metric uncertainty” of the piano (another example of “hemiola”) which seems to be moving in an almost different (slower) tempo, like a reflection. Then (at 12:14) the opening theme comes galloping back in in the piano (the strings continue the slower layer of the contrasting chords) then building harmonic tension (especially through a prolonged, unstable augmented chord) which (at 12:50) brings us back to a full statement of the opening theme (resolution!). This then, sounding like the expected Recapitulation, is stopped short by an unexpected and prolonged piano chord (around 14:08) before switching (still unexpectedly) into a fluttering passage with elements of both the first and second themes intermixed or superimposed.

Eventually, we end up (expectedly) in C Major for what is ultimately a triumphant conclusion – C Minor is often considered a dark and tragic key; C Major, by contrast, the brightest, most triumphant of keys (just ask Beethoven's 5th or Brahms' 1st Symphonies) – one that is as full of energy as any German composer's finale. 

If you want to read more about Fauré's life and the music he wrote in his long and inspiring career – and look at some “visuals” about some Romantic and Impressionist art and find out more about this distinction of all this "German" and "French" stuff – check out the original post. Just scroll down past the second set of asterisks. 

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Music for a Time of Transition: Meet Sergei Taneyev, a Bridge Between the Old and the New

"This week’s dose of great music features a delightfully inventive set of variations from a String Quintet by Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky’s protégé and a mentor to such giants of Russian music as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner and Prokofiev. Taneyev’s richly polyphonic style offers an uncommon range of sonorities culminating in a final fugue based on three different themes. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts
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Sergei Taneyev

Almost every day, you hear contradictory things in the news, how on the one hand people are yearning for the quick return to normalcy and, on the other, wondering what the "New Normal" will be like – and when! How much of what we're used to will still be a part of what we'll be living with in a "Post-Pandemic World"? How much of what we'll have to adapt to in the future can we catch a glimpse of now?

When they call Taneyev a bridge between the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, don't expect to hear the seeds of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in this piece (or, rather, this one movement from this piece). With the close of Romanticism, the dawn of what would become Modernism was still some years away, and Taneyev was hardly the "last gasp of Romanticism" in Russian music if you follow the career of Sergei Rachmaninov. This places him in an intriguing position and, after all, one composition is only a fragment of the mosaic that makes up the onward flow of music history.

The original program from Summermusic 2018 paired Taneyev's quintet with his more-famous teacher's more-frequently-performed String Sextet, the "Souvenir of Florence," which Tchaikovsky completed in 1890, after he'd returned to Russia from a visit to Italy. However, that's another story entirely and perhaps we'll save it for a future dose.

Meanwhile, here are violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Blanka Bednarz, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Cheung Chau in the "Theme & Variations" which conclude the String Quintet in G Major, Op.14, by Sergei Taneyev.
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(recorded at Market Square Church on July 25th, 2018, by Newman Stare.)
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Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a piano soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also, not coincidentally, a composer.

Composition came slowly to him: he described how he would take his ideas, explore their various potentials with all manner of possibilities, and only then, choosing the most interesting, begin putting them into a piece.

Teneyev chose the less frequent “two-cello” option compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet in the repertoire is Schubert's C Major with two cellos). He began his first string quintet, a work in three movements, in 1900 and completed it the following year, published it as his Op. 14. 

Each one of Taneyev's variations is self-contained like a little complete-in-itself character piece gathered into a series of contrasting moods or natures. At times, it feels more like a collection of individual movements, not just a "third movement" but a "third and fourth movement."

Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 16:01) after what you'd be convinced was a break between a slow movement and the finale.

Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the vast scale of those finales in his 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's choice of theme here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 9:03, dominated initially by the lower strings. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part slow movement, part finale), it could, conceivably, have gone on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.

By the way, his second string quintet, Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slowly for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

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Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their famous teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but otherwise, by themselves, often overlooked (at least in the wider world). This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but lets examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)

Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday one year, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser