Sunday, November 14, 2021

Homecoming, Part 1: Two Bs – The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio & Young Beethoven

The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio

Another milestone for our 40th Anniversary Season: we're back home at Market Square Church (for newcomers, that's the big red-brick Presbyterian Church on Market Square in downtown Harrisburg) where the much-awaited and Covid-delayed renovation, another victim of the Pandemic, has been completed. Get ready to check out new pews, new floors, a lot of new stuff you won't immediately see, and the acoustics which you'll certainly be able to hear.

It's a program with music by Young Beethoven and Old Brahms – starting with two sonatas from the Twilight Years of Johannes Brahms, but ending with Beethoven's breakout hit, his youthful Septet (slightly reimagined). This post will give you some insights behind the Beethoven; behind Brahms and music inspired by two specific performers, read Part Two.

Our performers call themselves the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio, bringing together David Shifrin, one of our most acclaimed clarinetists and a former director of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, Peter Wiley, a former cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio and the Guarneri Quartet, and pianist Anna Polonsky who has performed with major orchestras and ensembles around the world.

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With Beethoven's 251st Birthday still – officially – 30 days after our November concert, we can still claim this program with Beethoven's first Big Hit as part of a Beethoven 250th Anniversary Celebration.

Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably the best-known if not the greatest composer of classical music, was born – or at least baptized – on Dec. 16th, 1770, but somehow most of the world planned on celebrating that anniversary starting in January of 2020, just weeks after his 249th birthday (so much for being a purist...) until the Pandemic came along and pretty much changed everybody's plans, regardless of timing, about everything.

(For people who like to plan Big Anniversary Festivals, take heart: the 200th Anniversary of Beethoven's Death is only seven years away! And while “deathdays” don't seem as happy an occasion for celebration as a birthday, they offer us as much an opportunity for retrospective as a birthday anniversary. My suggestion has been, rather than performing even more Beethoven than usual (he is already the most performed composer in the world's entire repertoire), to include commissioning lots of new works by living composers, both aspiring and established, to celebrate the influence and inspiration of Beethoven and his legacy to move that celebration from retrospective into the future, but I digress...)

Last month, we heard the Arianna Quartet play Beethoven's very first completed string quartet which became the third of the set of six completed in 1800 as Op.18. He would turn 30 that next birthday (he was still 29 for most of that year!)

This concert, then, the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio performs his Septet in E-flat, Op.20, a work published in 1802 but written between 1799 and 1800, and given its first performance in April of 1800.

So, astute reader, you're probably wondering how three people perform a work written for seven – and why?

Most of it has to do with economics and marketing – not that our performers didn't feel like hiring an addition five players and leaving Ms. Polonsky sitting in the wings (there's no piano part in the original Septet). And those economics and marketing are not ours but Beethoven's.

Scored originally for violin, viola, cello, and bass, plus horn, clarinet and bassoon, the work consists of six movements rather than the usual four we're used to with symphonies, string quartets, and most sonatas. In that sense, it's more of an old-fashioned Serenade. And it's a lot of music, some forty-plus minutes' worth of music, in all. The first movement, with its slow introduction (still standard in the very-late-1700s), is a substantial opening sonata-allegro movement, followed by a beautiful and equally substantial adagio. Then along comes this slight little minuet – and so far, isn't it really like a symphony's first three movements, and about twenty-one minutes or so. In the 1790s, Haydn's half-hour-long symphonies for London were considered rather long for the audience's attention-span, so the idea of a dance and then a lively finale helped offset the longer, more complex opening two movements.

So here, all Beethoven would have to do is add a finale, and there you'd have something symphony-like – a multi-movement, large scale work for a “chamber orchestra of strings and winds” (basically, given the mindset toward what was then considered “orchestral” music before these gigantic orchestras filling these gigantic concert halls with 75-100 musicians we're used to today).

But no, Beethoven adds another slow-ish movement, a set of variations in a “walking” tempo (andante), a second dance-movement (a scherzo, livelier than a minuet), and then, after another slow-ish introduction (marked alla marcia or “march-like”) with a Mozart-infused Presto complete with a violin cadenza (like a concerto). And, voilá, you have a forty-some minute piece.

Its performance was well received – Beethoven, quite pleased, proudly exclaimed, according to a friend who was there, “that is my own creation,” as if he couldn't believe he'd written it (or he'd written that much music, or that it was that well received). During his lifetime, it would become his most frequently performed piece. But there was one movement that caught the popular fantasy even more keenly. If you've never heard the entire Septet before or even heard of it, you'd probably smile in recognition when you hear this:

Perhaps not as famous as Beethoven's immortal, belovéd Minuet in G that would haunt him the rest of his life, but still so prevalent as to be annoying when, after all, he did write other things...

So, as you listen to this voluminous work, remember you're listening to Beethoven, recently a student of the great Franz Josef Haydn, always a fan of the late Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who was really his primary model), and not yet the great titan of his 5th and 9th Symphonies, or the esoteric tortured soul who produced those Late Quartets never equaled by anyone since.

When the Young Beethoven was working on this, a piece geared for popular appeal, he was also writing his first String Quartets (Op.18) and a few piano sonatas (the famous Pathetique was written the year before and the more famous Moonlight, the year after).

And remember what I'd said about audience attention spans and Haydn symphonies?

The premiere of the Septet on April 2nd, 1800, was part of that first major concert Beethoven, recently acclaimed as a major piano virtuoso, gave in Vienna to prove himself now as a composer and the program, not terribly specific by modern standards, included, along with a “grand symphony by the late Kapellmeister Mozart,” some arias from Haydn's recently premiered oratorio, The Creation, one of Beethoven's first two piano concertos (probably the C Major) and, before his “new Grand Symphony” (that would be No. 1 in C Major) fresh off the rack, Beethoven improvised at the piano (in those days, pianists who could successfully improvise were considered greater than a pianist who merely performed a printed work).

If that wasn't long enough already, in the middle of all this was this new Septet of his – a forty-minute work in between two symphonies and a piano concerto, not to mention an improvisation which could easily have gone on for quite some time itself. Attention spans may have been one thing but it gives rise to the thought perhaps “Binge-Watching” TV shows is not a recent phenomenon.

Alas, the one printed review spent more time talking about (as they still do today) the performance (not the best) than the music (the symphony made too much use of the winds) with only passing praise for the concerto and the septet. However, the audience response was very keen and the Septet went on to become Beethoven's most frequently performed work during his lifetime. In fact, the Minuet became so popular, Beethoven later regarded the Septet with annoyance: like many young composers, as Jan Swafford points out in his epic biography from 2014, Beethoven – Anguish and Triumph, Beethoven had to suffer when compared to great masters like Haydn and Mozart; in his later years, his newest, more mature and far more challenging works “had to endure unfavorable comparisons to his younger self.”

The Septet was not meant to challenge. Geared to be readily accessible to both audiences and performers alike, particularly accessible to talented amateurs which were a composer's bread-and-butter, the sale of scores-and-parts to be used in household performances. Circulating by hand-copied manuscripts before it was published, once available to the public en masse there were numerous arrangements for other combinations so that other amateurs, those who perhaps could not muster the seven required, might enjoy themselves with this delightful, often toe-tapping music. Before the days of copyright, others made arrangements of the piece (or of movements, especially the Minuet) for piano (both two- and four-hands), for string quartet (many households could support a quartet: even Schubert's family had it's own quartet, where his father played the cello, his two brothers played the violins and he, by default, the viola), even for guitar duet – and especially for those aristocrats who kept a “wind band” (think those arrangements of Mozart's opera tunes for wind octet) so such a long piece of music became more palatable when accompanying a lavish dinner to entertain the guests with something popular, pretty, and practical!

Beethoven (in 1803)
In 1802, there was an exchange about such arrangements between Beethoven, his younger brother Caspar Carl (father of the ill-fated nephew who would also haunt Beethoven's later years) who was at the time acting as the composer's agent with various publishers. Carl had offered one publisher the possibility Beethoven would arrange the entire septet for piano solo which the publisher declined. When Ludwig got wind of this, he wrote to the publisher agreeing with his decision: he complained of this “unnatural rage” for transplanting piano pieces to strings, “instruments so utterly opposite each other,” which “should come to an end,” something that only a Mozart or a Haydn could do with their own music.

Fast forward (slightly) to the following year, and Beethoven published his own arrangement of his own Septet for piano trio, allowing for the option of either a violin or a clarinet to play the “top” part. It was dedicated to his new doctor, Johann Adam Schmidt – by this time, Beethoven was already seeking treatment for his incipient deafness (oh yeah, while the Septet dates from 1800, the heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament in which he admits to fears he will soon become totally deaf and wonders what will become of a composer, only 31 years old, who cannot hear: that was dated October 6th, 1802!). Dr. Schmidt was also an avid amateur violinist with an amateur pianist for a daughter. What the personal inclusion of the clarinet was here, I'm not sure, except – again, think of Mozart's works for the clarinet written for his friend Anton Stadler, around 1790, the Kegelstatt Trio, the famous quintet, and the great Clarinet Concerto of his last year, 1791 – there were good amateur clarinetists around looking for things to play but not enough to warrant the kind of sales would-be violinists would offer.

Besides, one of the charms of this septet is the way Beethoven plays the clarinet off the violin as an equal. But he didn't just write out the clarinet and cello parts and adapt everything else to the freshly added piano: it's a transcription of the music to suit the instruments involved, which you can tell by comparing two of the videos below complete with scores.

Curiously, later on Beethoven's student, the long-suffering Ferdinand Ries, admitted some of his duties (no doubt proffered as a learning experience) involved arranging some of Beethoven's works for other combinations under the composer's supervision. Beethoven would make revisions as needed, but then these works would be offered to various publishers by Brother Carl as “arrangements by Beethoven.” Perhaps this trio version of the septet was one such project.

Regardless, it was Beethoven's music, he “approved” the transplant, and he profited from its sales. It was often not a creative decision by a musical genius feeling “you know, I think this would make a wonderful piano trio!”, but an economic decision and a way of paying his doctor a compliment.

Whatever its origins, however, what fun to listen to – and no doubt to play! 

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I know listening to three videos of the full Septet is a bit much to expect, so pick which ever you want to view – the trio version, since that's the one you'll be hearing Wednesday night; or a bit of each score version to compare the two; or just the original Septet version in a live performance (with something people who can't read music might find a better experience) and imagine what Beethoven (or Student Ries) could have done with this delightful music to turn it into Music for Three when you attend the concert.

This performance of the original Septet was recorded at a Dutch music festival in 2011 with violinist Janine Jansons and one of the most acclaimed clarinetists in Europe today, Martin Fröst:

This next performance, from 1977 with the Vienna Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, includes the score:  (remember, if you want to read this in a larger screen, there's a “full screen” icon, the little square box, in the video's lower right corner)

Here is the complete Trio (with Clarinet) Version, with score, keeping in mind the top two lines are one part, one for the violin, the second one for the clarinet: The performers are clarinetist Ronald van Spaendonck, cellist Marie Hallynck, and pianist Muhiddin Dürrüoglu.

If you would like to hear our performers for this up-coming concert – and who wouldn't? – play the other Beethoven Clarinet Trio (originally for Clarinet but also available in Violin if you'd prefer), here they are with the earlier Trio, Op.11 from 1798. Several sources indicate this work has “nothing substantial to recommend it” compared to the more technically and intellectually challenging Piano Trios, Op.1, published in 1795. But aside from also being fun to play and listen to, doesn't the fact he wrote it a year before he included a clarinet so prominently in his Septet count for something? If nothing else, here is the future superhero, Beethoven the Titan, practicing his popular appeal, a very important skill for a young composer going up against the likes of the already famous Mozart and Haydn hoping to find some recognition.

And now, on to Brahms!

– Dick Strawser

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