Saturday, July 20, 2024

Summermusic 2024: Martinů and Turina, from the 20th Century

On this last program of Summermusic 2024 – Sunday afternoon at 4:00 in the air-conditioned Market Square Church – our microcosm of “Modern Music” (however we choose to describe music that can now be over a hundred years old) samples only a fraction of this diverse century. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet – another work in G Minor, though so different from Mozart’s Piano Quartet or the Chopin Cello Sonata in the same key – was the subject of the previous post which you can read here.

This post is about the first two pieces on the program: the Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Bohuslav Martinů and the Piano Trio in A Minor by Joaquin Turina.

The 20th Century, now that we’re in a position to look back on it (at least those of us who grew up in it), turned out to be a fractured array of differing and often conflicting styles with no set “-ism” to create a common language like we have in 19th Century Romanticism or 18th Century Classicism. What we tend to overlook is that, to someone who grew up in those centuries, there were also several different styles that ranged the gamut of audience reactions. Just ask King Frederick the Great, more like Frederick the So-So when it came to his being a composer, what he thought Haydn was doing to “good music”; or how a pro-Wagnerian music critic accused Brahms of being so dry his music sounded like “musical trigonometry” (that would be the String Sextet in B-flat, by the way).

In the 20th Century there was Arnold Schoenberg writing atonal and serial music (there’s a difference between the two); Igor Stravinsky, after crashing down the curtain on the 19th Century with his Rite of Spring, turning to what became known as “Neo-Classicism” before eventually embracing his rival Schoenberg’s serialism; and then, while composers like Samuel Barber or Benjamin Britten wrote in a more Romantic style, there was also the “chance music” of John Cage or Iannis Xenakis with its seemingly anarchic reliance on improvisation; when along came Minimalism (which was also tonal and “classical”) with Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams.

We call it an “eclectic century,” composers picking and choosing whatever appealed to them. There seemed to be no clear guidance on what would become a single stylistic focal point like, say, the 19th Century. But while it all sounds so different to us, now, imagine if, at some future point, whoever’s left still being performed in another hundred years, all this will sound “pretty much the same” as most of the 19th Century does to the average 21st Century music-lover today, even though, if you really get “into” it, there’s a whole world between, say, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms on one hand and Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner on the other.

In case you missed the reference in the “Chopin Post” paraphrasing Plato’s theory of the two horses harnessed together – one horse tame, the other “wild” – that depending on which horse was more in control would determine whether that person was more logical (“tame”) or more emotional (“wild”), terms we later adapted to be viewed as “classical” (more clarity of structure and texture) or “romantic” (more reliant on an emotional response to the surface elements, where the structure, especially the harmony, and the textures were more unclear). Talking about this in any art is, of course, purely subjective and for several generations it was considered that a “logical” artist was dominated by Apollo (viewed basically as the god of logic) or Dionysus (generally, the god of wine who led to drunkenness and a wildness that was antithetical to logic, going more by inspiration than by rules) – and of course various levels in between (imagine being classified as 4 parts Apollo & 6 parts Dionysus?)… For a while, it was considered the left brain controlled our rational impulses, going by the evidence, and the right brain controlled our irrational ones, prone more to going with our gut or taking our cues from inspiration. I’m also reminded of the classic (to use another meaning of the word) expression where the Native-American sage explains how each of us is made up of two wolves who are fighting each other: “which one wins?” the young man asks; the grandfather answers, “the one you feed.”

Martinů in NYC, 1946

After exploring the amazingly ear-opening world he experienced in Paris after growing up in a Czech village, Bohuslav Martinů clearly fell into the “Neo-Classical” camp (oh, sorry, poor choice of word, there – I’ll get to that in a moment). He would write a series of short pieces he called “madrigals,” though they have nothing to do with the “fa-la-la-la-la” kind that word brings to mind. In 1947, inspired by the brother-and-sister duo of Joseph and Lillian Fuchs of a Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola – and by their commission from them to write something similar for them – Martinů composed a set of three such madrigals, delightful explorations full of good humor and virtuosic interaction.

Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quartet is a mix of two-parts classical structure, underlined by a strong hint of German influence, with surface flavors from two-parts native Spanishness and one-part Frenchness from his student days in Paris before the War (in this case, World War I), surrounded by the new-fangled Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel and the old-fashioned academic worlds of Gabriel Fauré and Vincent D’Indy.

To break it down into our “Two Horse Theory,” then, given what each composer absorbed early in their careers to find their “own voices” as mature artists, we might say, as simplistic as it sounds, Martinů is the classicist, the “tame” horse ascendant, and that Turina is… well, lets say there’s more of the “wild” horse in evidence, certainly more than we’d hear in Martinů’s music, but the “tame” horse is not to be ignored. Curiously with Shostakovich, we can hear the “tame” horse inspired by Bach and the old-fashioned rule-conscious writing of fugues in the opening two movements, when the “wild” horse makes his presence felt in the scherzo. What about the Intermezzo? More mild than wild, a bit of both, some combination? And what about that enigmatic ending? Are both horses wearing masks to keep you (either as performer or listener – or, probably, more importantly, the Soviet critic) guessing?

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Here’s the first work on Sunday’s program, Martinů’s Three Madrigals which Joseph and Lillian Fuchs premiered in 1947 (not sure when this recording was made, though).

Here is the Piano Quartet by Joaquin Turina, with pianist Marianna Shirinyan, violinist Benjamin Bowman, violist Michel Camille, and cellist Richard Lester, at the Esbjerg International Chamber Music Festival in Denmark, 2011. It’s in three movements: (I.) Lento – Andante mosso; (II.) Vivo; (III.) Andante – Allegretto

While many eyes are on Paris in the coming days, Paris would also influence Martinů – in his case, this was Paris of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Roaring aside, Martinů sampled a wide variety of styles, adding to experiences he’d had with the folk music of his native Bohemia – he was born in a 193-step walk-up of a bell-tower in a village on the Bohemian-Moravian border that was then part of Austria – and then his student-days at the Prague Conservatory where he was dismissed for “incorrigible negligence” (more for lack of practicing and frequent cutting of classes than for any lack of talent).

But once in Paris after the War (again, World War I), he sampled a bit of jazz, some of Les Six’s Neo-Classicism, even a dash of surrealism (no doubt supplied by Cocteau and Friends), whatever was trending on the musical horizon. Neo-Classicism won out but as World War II was brewing beyond that horizon, Martinů found himself blacklisted by the Nazis now occupying his homeland. As the war came to Paris, Martinů fled first to southern France, then to Spain, and eventually, with financial support from various musical patrons, he and his wife went to America. Unfortunately, they spoke little English, found living in Manhattan sheer chaos until he found a place in a suburban neighborhood in Queens where it was so quiet he liked to walk at night, going over his newest projects in his head until he would become so lost, he had to call a friend to help him get home.

While in Queens, he wrote to Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, in 1942 who’d thought highly of some of his earlier music and then commissioned what became his 1st Symphony. It was also thanks to Koussevitsky that Martinů was invited to teach at the Berkshire Music Center, part of Tanglewood. Later on, Martinů, who’d been dismissed from the Prague Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence” in 1910, would teach at Princeton University and the Mannes School of Music where among his students were such diverse composers as Alan Hovhannes and Burt Bacharach.

Remember also how Martinů used to “zone out” while concentrating on a new piece he would work out in his mind while walking? On July 17th, 1946, not long after completing his 5th Symphony, Martinů was taking his usual evening walk – this time on the terrace of his apartment at Tanglewood – and fell from a place where there was no railing, hitting the pavement below. He was hospitalized with a concussion and a fractured skull which would leave him with a serious hearing defect, dizziness, and headaches for the rest of his life. According to composer David Diamond who knew Martinů a few years later, when his wife returned from visiting Paris that summer, she found him “a different man: gaunt, irritable, crippled and in pain from the accident. It required a few years before he was able to return to his former state as a solid composer."

Yet, in October 1946, barely three months later, he completed his “Toccata a due canzone” for small orchestra (he’d begun the work in May, but completed it in early-October) – you can listen to the second Canzona here – then his 6th String Quartet by Christmas Day, and, by mid-March of 1947, the Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola!

Friends who knew him realized how organized he was about whatever he was composing. He was intensely prolific and wrote rapidly, creating a diverse catalog of over 380 pieces by the time he died of stomach cancer at the age of 68, completing 14 works since he’d been diagnosed and completed a work for children’s choir called “Greeting” six weeks before his death.

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Meanwhile, in Spain… Joaquin Turina was born in Seville, capital of the southern region of Andalusia, eight years Martinů’s senior. He began exhibiting musical talent at the age of 4, playing the accordion, and, some might say wisely, switched to the piano, taking theory lessons by the time he was 12 and almost immediately began composing. After working with some local teachers, he went to Madrid to take up more serious studies and, like many young Spanish musicians, went to Paris in 1905 where he studied with Vincent D’Indy, one of the leading composers and teachers of the day. Through D’Indy, Turina was able to absorb the legacy of Cesar Franck as well as Gabriel Fauré, still teaching at the Conservatoire. Turina also met many of the leading Parisian composers like Ravel and Debussy, then the leaders of a new school considered by many to be “avant-garde” (in 1902, Debussy’s new opera, Pelleas et Melisande, was the big scandal: many conservatory professors forbid their students to go see it; Ravel, studying with Fauré, never missed a performance).

Most of the music Turina composed in this period was heavily influenced by the French Impressionists. Among his friends were fellow students like Manuel de Falla and also Isaac Albeniz, a generation older, then working on his Iberia. It was a remark by Albeniz that prompted both Turina and Falla to focus more on the popular songs and cultures of their native Spain. When Albeniz died in 1909, his advice apparently inspired Turina, then in his late-20s, to write a string quartet he dedicated to Albeniz. It opened with a pizzicato flourish earning it the nickname, “de la Guitarre.” Most themes show a distinctly more Spanish profile, especially the scherzo, a wild Spanish dance called a zorezico, in 5/4. Well-received in Paris, this was the turning point for Turina’s discovering his “true voice.” In 1914, with the advent of World War I, both Turina and Falla returned to Spain where Turina, now a member of the Madrid Symphony, was involved in the premiere of the orchestral version of his friend’s ballet, El amor brujo in 1916, the same year Turina composed a zarzuela, a popular-music-inspired operetta, of his own.

There are another fifty or so compositions written in the fifteen years between 1916 and 1931 when he composed his Piano Quartet in A Minor. 1931 was also the year Turina was appointed Professor of Composition at the Madrid Royal Conservatory. Most of the ten pieces of chamber music he composed since 1926, curiously, have only abstract titles – his first Violin Sonata, two piano trios, the Piano Quartet – and only two bear Spanish titles like the Violin Sonata #2, Sonata española, or one of his last works, the Homenaje a Navarra, sobre diseños de Sarasate, Ciclo plateresco III of 1945 which unfortunately, with my lack of familiarity with Spanish, I can only translate as “Homage to Navarra on Designs by Sarasate, Plateresque Cycle No. 3” (plateresco refers to a typically ornate architectural style originally from the Gothic Spain).

Joaquin Turina, 1930 (without his familiar mustache)

Perhaps it was a sense of needing to seem “academic,” now that he was a professor, that inclined Turina to reign in the “wild horse” of his Andalusian roots? There are many flashbacks to earlier influences, sounds reminiscent of the Impressionists alongside unmistakably Spanish themes and rhythms, even the sound of castanets. Some writers point out it’s “only” in three movements, beginning with a nocturnal slow movement “evocative of nights in Seville” though one could also point out Beethoven did much the same thing in his famous “Moonlight” Sonata, a four movement sonata without an opening movement, and a slow movement that inspired one critic to say it evoked “moonlight on a lake.” The “cyclic” use of material from the earlier movements in the finale was something much used by Franck and D’Indy, though in this context, one could mention Bruckner also made use of this as a unifying device.

Now that Turina is pushing 50, the past, here, is neither gone nor forgotten, but blended in with what was no longer new. He has found his mature voice and he’s comfortable using whatever he feels he needs to make a statement, however his inner horses are aesthetically harnessed.

– Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Summermusic 2024: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet: Music from a Time of Anxiety

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941

There are basically four great piano quintets in the repertoire. Three of these, to list them chronologically, are Robert Schumann's Quintet, followed by the one by his protege, Johannes Brahms which itself is then followed by the second one by his protege, Antonin Dvořák. Each one of these is regarded as a major work of 19th Century Romanticism.

And there's the one by Dmitri Shostakovich, considered one of the great chamber works of the 20th Century. 

At 4:00 on Sunday afternoon, Market Square Concerts concludes Summermusic 2024 with Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Quintet, performed by members of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, pianist Ya-Ting Chang, joined by violinist Claudia Chudacoff and violist Michael Stepniak. 

The earlier two programs explored the 18th Century's Classical Style with Mozart's piano quartets and the 19th Century's Romantic Era with works by Chopin and Schubert. This program focuses on music composed in the midst of the 20th Century, a look at the "Modern" Era (which doesn't seem all that modern when we realize it was over seventy years ago, now) that can adapt elements from both the Classical and the Romantic style. I'll cover the other two works that open this program - some of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's "Madrigals" and the Piano Quartet by Spanish composer Joaquin Turina - in a separate post.

In 2013, former Director of Market Square Concerts Ellen Hughes, in her role as Patriot-News columnist, interviewed both Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina for “Art & Soul” about the Shostakovich Quintet prior to a concert that season:

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Sirotin calls this quintet an intensely dramatic, symphonic work. "Shostakovich always thought in terms of the orchestra, so this is ideal for Stuart, as both a conductor and pianist," Sirotin said. "The quintet is triumphant and cheerful on the surface, with sardonic and tragic elements underneath."

Sirotin grew up in the Ukraine. He told me that he identifies with Shostakovich's dilemma as an artist living in a repressive society, as evidenced by this astounding work, especially the composer's use of farce to disguise a sense of menace.

Malina calls it an amazing piece. He's played the piano part four times in concert, each time with a different ensemble. "It doesn't let up," he said. "Though it seems simple at the start," he said, "it becomes crazy and difficult, with the right and left hands playing in a canon with each other." Every time he agrees to do it, he said, he rediscovers just how daunting it is.

But the end result is "really a pleasure," he said. "I feel fortunate and excited to play such an incredible piece with an impeccably prepared string quartet," he added, despite or perhaps because of those challenges.
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This performance, with pianist Stuart Malina and the Jasper Quartet, was recorded at the opening concert of the 2013-2014 Market Square Concerts season in Market Square Church. The video was recorded by Newman Stare.

It's a work in five movements – at many of the initial performances, the third and fifth movements were encored, giving rise to the quip “the quintet is a work in five movements of which there are seven.” It opens with a grand flourish in the piano which is eventually answered by the strings' entrance. If the opening proceeds like a Bach prelude, keep in mind the first two movements are, in fact, labeled “Prelude & Fugue.” In that sense, I often think of this as a single movement of which there are two: one does not make sense without the other.

The next movement is called a Scherzo, Italian for “joke.” Beethoven had begun using the term to replace the more stately minuet of his teacher's generation with something a little more down-to-earth. In either case, these third movements were intended to be light-hearted. But frequently they became more dramatic, even demonic (Brahms' C Minor Piano Quartet's scherzo is hardly light) and with Shostakovich, very often his scherzos can be cynical and violent.

By contrast, the Intermezzo is understated, a return to the seriousness (if not the somberness) of the fugue.

Ask most Americans about Russian music and they will find its common denominator being untold sadness. Back in the late-70s, I asked a Soviet ethno-sociologist who was visiting the University of Connecticut where I was then teaching a course in Russian Music, “why does Russian music sound so sad?” She replied as if she'd never thought about it before: “I don't know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

After all this – and keeping in mind the expectations of a finale following the triumphal march we usually associate with Shostakovich's 5th Symphony or the “flippant hilarity” of the 6th's conclusion, both of which he'd recently completed – this finale is at times light-hearted but not vulgar, often more wistful than sad and the ending is almost like a movie's final scene where the characters walk slowly into the sunset as the light fades. I am always reminded, when I hear this ending, that Shostakovich as a boy played piano in a silent movie theater and one of his favorite characters was Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

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After the intense symphonies Shostakovich would later compose (particularly the emotionally charged 7th, known as the Leningrad) and the complexities of his personality – not to mention the complexity of his personal situation as an artistic spokesman to the world for official Soviet art, and especially after the still controversial posthumous memoir published as Testimony by Semyon Volkov (largely discredited but frequently discussed and difficult to dismiss) – it is always tempting to go back to his music to look for “hidden programs.”

What a composer “thinks” while he is composing can only be proven if, somewhere, he writes or has said “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this music.”

Beethoven might tell a friend, in order to understand the mysterious opening movement of his D Minor Piano Sonata, “read Shakespeare's Tempest” (which is why it's called the Tempest Sonata), but he also was watching a rider galloping past on a horse and then quickly returned home to improvise what became the last movement of the same sonata (we know this because this same friend was there to witness this: therefore, the sonata could also be called “The Rider Sonata”).

But because Beethoven never said anything about moonlit nights pertaining to his C-sharp Minor Sonata, we cannot say “Beethoven was thinking of moonlight when he wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata” – the kind of “sounds-like” thinking we often use to explain the inexplicable that could also lead to the last movement giving it the nickname “The Thunderstorm Sonata” or, just to be confusing, the Tempest...

So we don't know what Shostakovich “meant” by this finale. One writer hears a “kindly babushka” (the quintessential Russian grandmother) consoling us in the opening theme that everything will be alright. The second theme, we are told, with its little fanfares and sprightly melody, is actually an inversion of a traditional fanfare used to introduce the clown acts into the Russian circus (and please let's not call it the Send in the Clowns Quintet...).

It would not be a big leap from here to a discussion on Shostakovich and the traditional Russian view of the “Village Idiot,” the urodivi or simpleton, better translated as the “Holy Fool.” The most famous example of this to a Western audience is the character in Mussorgsky's historic opera, Boris Godunov where (if you end the production with the Revolution Scene and not Boris' death) it is the Holy Fool who is left lamenting the fate of the Russian People.

Boris Godunov & the Holy Fool
Earlier in the opera, in a scene frequently cut from Western productions for some reason, there is a confrontation between the Simpleton and the all-powerful Tsar (who reportedly had had the rightful heir to the throne murdered so he could ascend the throne). After the street-children had stolen his last penny, the Simpleton asks Boris to punish the children, to kill them – like he did the Tsaryevich (the rightful heir). But Boris stops his soldiers from arresting the fool – instead, he asks the fool to pray for him. Russians believed these "holy fools" were closer to God and could intercede for them and therefore were given more leeway than ordinary people might be granted.

Oh, I should mention that, in 1939, between completing the 6th Symphony and beginning work on his Piano Quintet, Shostakovich did his own re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

But while that's a possible influence or just a coincidence of timing, still, it makes it pure conjecture to tie it into the Quintet's finale (and yet...).

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The G Minor Piano Quintet began life as almost his 2nd String Quartet. But friends of his in the Beethoven String Quartet had asked him to compose something with piano that he could play with them, and so the quintet began to take shape. He began working on it during the summer of 1940 and completed it on September 14th. He and the Beethoven Quartet gave it its first performance on November 23rd at the Moscow Conservatory. It was received with universal acclaim and the scherzo and finale both had to be encored.

In fact, it was so well received, it won the Stalin Prize in 1941, something rather unusual for a chamber work without an overtly political programme, given the timing, but also ironic, perhaps, since Shostakovich had been in such political hot water for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which resulted in the (in)famous attack in the press – the article “Muddle Instead of Music” – brought on by Stalin's dislike of the opera and its “degenerate Western influences” (Stalin and his wife went to the opera and stormed out, highly offended, despite the fact it had already proven to be a box-office success). He was able to save himself – quite literally – by composing his famous 5th Symphony which someone (not the composer) called “A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism.”

To place things in a chronological perspective, that article appeared on January 28th, 1936; in the spring of 1937, he was nearly arrested (he would have been one of over seven million people who'd be arrested in Stalin's purges between 1936 and 1939) and was saved only because the person who was preparing his arrest was himself arrested first!

Interrogated on a Friday, the composer was told to come back Monday. But imagine your relief if, after a weekend's sleepless anxiety, you'd packed a “to-go” bag of personal necessities and gone into the police station to resume the interrogation, expecting it would end in your being sent off to prison, only to find the officer in charge of your “case” no longer there and told instead, basically, to “take your little bag and go.”

This was around the time he'd already been sketching what would become his 5th Symphony. He finished sketching it on September 11th, 1937 and completed the “short score” a week later and the full score in October. The premiere on November 21st was a huge success that no doubt saved his career (and quite possibly his life).

In 1938, he wrote his first string quartet, starting what would become a new interest in chamber music through the rest of his career. If for no other reason, it usually failed to attract the attention of the government bureaucrats who were more concerned about the large-scale “public statements” the composer made in his more public works like symphonies and operas. He would save many of his most personal statements for his chamber music, especially his later string quartets – like the 8th which incorporates his famous musical signature, his initials D SCH in the pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural in German notation.

His Sixth Symphony, then, composed shortly after the string quartet, was a more “public” work and was being anticipated as “more of the same,” an offering to the concept of Soviet-Socialist Realism. Unfortunately, the work met with almost universal confusion and has always been a difficult symphony to make sense of, in three movements with a long, slowly unfolding first movement (instead of the traditional allegro) and then a seemingly unrelated scherzo and galloping finale, something vulgar when compared to the expected heroic finish.

This was premiered in November, 1939.

The following summer, then, he composed another chamber work – which, as I mentioned, was originally going to be a second string quartet before being turned into the Piano Quintet.

As Shostakovich told the story to his life-long friend, the literary critic Isaak Davidovich Glickman:

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“Do you know why I added a piano part to this quartet? So that I could have the chance to perform [it] myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now the 'Glazunovs' and the 'Beethovens' [the two quartets whom he'd scheduled performances of the quintet with] won't be able to do without me – and I'll get a chance to see the world.”

We both burst out laughing.

“Are you joking?” I asked.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] answered, “Not in the slightest! You are an inveterate stay-at-home, while at heart I'm an inveterate traveler!” But from the expression on his face it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. We had this conversation in the summer of the year preceding the war [1941].

[Glickman, Letters to a Friend, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.165]
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Though Shostakovich performed the quintet often during his career as a composer-pianist, the quintet never became the “vehicle” that allowed him to tour the world. There were trips abroad – one notable one to Paris where he recorded the two piano concertos but where the illness that would make it impossible for him to continue playing was already affecting his hands.

The next-to-last time he performed in public was in February 1964. He was scheduled to play the quintet with the Borodin Quartet in the city of Gorki, but played only the Intermezzo because of the unreliability of his hands. Though he announced it was to be his last public appearance, he agreed to accompany Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano who was married to his friend and protege, Mstislav Rostropovich, and a baritone in a program in May 1966, but he was so nervous about the concert and whether his hands would cooperate or not. His friend Isaak Glickman who was in the audience saw the composer was in physical agony, presumably brought on by his nerves.

The next night, Shostakovich suffered a serious heart attack and spent the following two months in the hospital. It was while he was in the hospital this time that he chose the texts for his 14th Symphony which is a combination symphony/song-cycle for soprano and baritone with strings: all of the texts deal with death...

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When Shostakovich performed the piece for the first time with the Glazunov String Quartet (in 1941), the cellist recalled how

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“We, the string players, wanted to 'sing,' to play with more emotion. Shostakovich accentuated the constructive, motor elements and achieved his effect through clarity and the flow of the music. The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of strings. He demanded the minimum use of vibrato. The fast tempi excluded in themselves any possibility of emotional exaggeration and an open cantilena.”
[quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered”, p. 165.]
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Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist of another quartet – this one, not yet called the Borodin String Quartet – recalls their first association with the composer in 1944 when they were still conservatory students. He was coming to hear them play his first quartet and “he had arrived a few seconds after nine [o'clock]. To my amazement, he started apologizing for being late.”

They didn't perform the quintet with him until 1947, but Berlinsky recalls some details from their rehearsals:

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“...which took place at his home. In the Prelude, he asked us not to make a ritenuto [a drawing out of the tempo] despite its being written in the score. 'But ritenuto is written here,' we exclaimed. He came up to us very nervously, took out a pen and crossed out the marking in every part.

“Rudolf Barshai was the violist in the quartet at the time. In the Finale there is an imitation between the cello and viola. It's in the score now but it wasn't then. The cello and viola were supposed to play together but Barshai made a mistake and came in after I did. Shostakovich stopped playing and said, 'Please, mark it the way you played it just now.'”
[quoted in Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Barshai told Ms. Wilson separately his side of this story:

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“Barshai was also studying composition [she writes in a footnote] and on occasion would show Shostakovich his scores. Once, just before the rehearsal mentioned [by Berlinsky], he visited Shostakovich and during their meeting they talked about the Piano Quintet. Barshai suggested a small correction in the finale. 'Play it like that tomorrow in the rehearsal and we'll see,' the composer suggested. At the rehearsal Barshai played the suggested correction in the relevant bars without warning his colleagues. Shostakovich then stopped the rehearsal and told him, 'Leave it like that, please.' Berlinsky in turn was skeptical... telling me that it was unheard of that Shostakovich should accept advice from anyone.”
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Berlinsky continues, saying how, in all, the Borodin Quartet played the quintet eight times with the composer, the last time being that sad occasion where he could only play the Intermezzo.

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“Shostakovich was a very anxious performer. Because of that all our tempi tended to be too fast. The amazing thing is that he appeared to be ashamed of his own music. He used to say, ' Let's play it fast, otherwise the audience will get bored.' He particularly rushed the slow movements. For instance, in the 3rd Quartet, he hurried us on in the great funeral march of the fourth movement. 'No, no,' he would say, 'while you're stretching out that first C-sharp, the audience will fall asleep.' In general, his marking of the tempo often contradicted what he really wanted.

“We would say, 'But, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, your metronome mark is such-and-such.'

“He replied, 'Well, you see, my metronome at home is out of order, so pay no attention to what I wrote.'

“Sometimes he wrote in the metronome markings after the first performance by the Beethoven Quartet [who usually premiered his new quartets]. It's leader, Dmitri Tsyganov, was by nature a fast player, and this influenced Shostakovich's tempo markings. We never played the same tempi that the Beethoven Quartet took.

“Many years later, we recorded the first eleven quartets [there would eventually be fifteen, in all] in Japan and we presented Shostakovich with the records. Shortly afterwards, he wrote us a very detailed letter which didn't contain a single reference to the tempi. Most of the complaints were in regard to the dynamics... and to some wrong notes. These mostly turned out to be misprints in the score.”
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.280]
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A violinist who later joined the Leningrad Philharmonic, Yakov Milkis recalled seeing Shostakovich for the first time in the late-1940s when he was in his prime as a performer.

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“I often heard him perform his own works and I particularly remember his concerts with the Beethoven Quartet. He was a wonderful pianist and when performing, he was completely absorbed in his own world. His playing conveyed an ideal sense of form and structure but more than that it was an expression of his innermost world, one that cost him sweat, blood and tears. He played with a special touch and colour, and often quite intentionally treated the piano as a percussion instrument. It is rare that a composer uses the upper register of the piano like a xylophone, making a sharp, percussive sound. This is how he played the Scherzo from the Piano Quintet, for instance. I still have the particular sound of his sarcastic dry staccato in my ears today. It completely suited the style of the music.

“He always sat alone [in orchestra rehearsals] preferring some inconspicuous spot in the stalls. He... seemed to retire into himself, melting into his surroundings, so as to be left undisturbed while listening and working. This incredible modesty was apparent also when he was in a gathering of people. Here too he appeared to fade into the background, doing his best not to attract attention to himself.
[Wilson, “Shostakovich: a Life Remembered,” p.355]
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1948 had been another terrible year for Shostakovich. Unlike the attack in 1936, Zhdanov's decree was intent on rooting out Western influences in Soviet music in which Shostakovich, Prokofiev and several other leading composers were condemned first by the Stalinist bureaucrats and then by their colleagues. This affected Shostakovich differently, this time.

Rather than writing another “Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism,” he ceased composing at all. Or, that is, publishing anything. Life was difficult, his income dried up – no one would perform his music so he had no income and who would risk commissioning new works from him with Stalin's displeasure so close to the surface? – and so he turned inward, writing solely for himself, often leaving things unseen by others in desk drawers, like his Violin Concerto and, perhaps, much of his 10th Symphony which either didn't see the light of day or wasn't begun until after Stalin's death in 1953 (the same day as Prokofiev's, as it turned out).

But he did compose a series of piano pieces inspired by Tatiana Nikolayeva's performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Imagine what it must have meant for a composer, accused of being too influenced by Western Music and Germanic forms like the symphony, to sit down and write Bach-inspired fugues: there can hardly be a more Germanic formalist approach to writing music than a fugue! How completely un-Soviet!

And yet his Piano Quintet, composed in 1940 before the Nazi invasion drew the Soviet Union into the 2nd World War, opens with a Prelude and Fugue, as Bach-like, Germanic and formalist as anything he was accused of writing in 1948!

And yet in 1941, this Quintet won the Stalin Prize, the Soviet Union's highest award in the arts!

If it had been such a patriotic issue to attack a composer for his “formalist Western” style in 1948, why was the same “formalist Western” style worthy of receiving the government's highest award seven years earlier?

Vagaries of politics aside, given all that, now listen to Dmitri Shostakovich playing his Piano Quintet which he himself premiered in 1940 with the Beethoven Quartet for whom it was composed, but recorded here in 1949, the year he turned 43:

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– Dick Strawser

Monday, July 15, 2024

Summermusic 2024: The World of Schubert's C Major String Quintet

The second of this summer’s three concerts takes place at Market Square Church in air-conditioned comfort on Wednesday at 7:30. It opens with two works for cello and piano by Frederic Chopin, the fairly well-known Introduction & Polonaise brillant Op. 3 and the almost unknown Cello Sonata in G Minor, his last major work. (You can read about them in this earlier post, here.)  

The second half of the program features one of Franz Schubert’s final works, his String Quintet in C Major, composed in two, maybe three weeks’ time only a matter of weeks before he died at the age of 31.

As Peter Sirotin said, getting ready for the last program of MSC’s Summermusic ten years ago, "Any day which includes a performance of the Schubert Quintet is a good day." He admitted the work is one of his "Top 3" favorite pieces. I’ve often referred to it as one the Great Pieces (Period) – not just of Chamber Music, but Classical Music In General. 

Three Composers: Johann Jenger (l.), Anselm Hüttenbrenner, & Franz Schubert (r.), by their friend Joseph Teltscher (c.1827)

There are so many things that continue to amaze me no matter how many times I hear Schubert’s Quintet.

This performance of the quintet – complete in one “clip” – was recorded at a summer music festival in Montana in 2016 with the Dover Quartet joined by cellist Matt Haimowitz. You may remember the Dover Quartet from their appearance with Market Square Concerts in 2017.

The first movement, with its expansive and harmonically tentative opening, and striking contrasts between sections of contemplation and high drama, is proof this is going to be not only a serious work, it’s going to be seriously long. The first two movements combined, in fact, are as long as most four-movement string quartets are in their entirety up until Beethoven began writing his Late Quartets only a few years earlier in 1825. The famous slow movement – to describe it in words is, as Lucy Murray points out in her program notes, “to do it an injustice” – begins at 21:00. The scherzo, its joyful, earthy first section and otherworldly contrasting meditation, begins at 35:50.

If a single adjective can summarize any of these individual movements – sublime comes closest to describing the slow movement – exuberant best catches the finale’s mood, typical of that earthy Viennese spirit we’re familiar with in Brahms’ finales (written some sixty years later), especially with its Hungarian dance-like elements. This finale is probably Schubert at his most convivial, out enjoying Vienna’s night-life (and Schubert and his friends did love to party). In fact, if anything, as trite as it may sound, there’s really no other single work I can think of that looks at so many different aspects of “the meaning of life” as this quintet.


People have said there must have been a rush to complete as much music as he could before he died, not that you'd know how much time you have left in your life. And certainly not if you were in your early-30s like Franz Schubert. But that’s the way Schubert was most of his life, writing as much music as he could possible get down on paper: how else do you end up with nearly a thousand pieces in your catalogue in a span of just 18 years?

From November, 1827, to his death a year later, Schubert wrote (if not completed) 36 works, according to Otto Deutsch’s catalogue, including
- Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, published as Op.100) - November ‘27 (the B-flat Trio had been written the month before)
- Fantasy in C for Violin & Piano (D.934) based on the song “Sei mir gegrüsst”) - December ‘27
- Four Impromptus for Piano (D.935, published as Op.142) - December ‘27
- Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Duet (D.940) - January-April ‘28
- “Auf dem Strom” (D.943), song for tenor, horn & piano - March ‘28
- Symphony in C Major The Great” (D.944) – though we now think it was probably composed two years earlier, there had been evidence it was begun (or more likely, revised) in March ‘28
- Three Impromptus for piano (D.946) often called more generically “Drei Klavierstücke” - May ‘28
- Mass in E-flat (D.950) - begun June ‘28
- Quintet in C for Strings (D.956) - sometime in August-September ‘28
- Fourteen Songs known asSchwanengesang” (D.957) - finished between August & October ‘28
- Piano Sonata in C Minor (D.958) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in A Major (D.959) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D.960) – last page dated 26th September ‘28
- Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”) (D.965) October ‘28

Whether you’d consider them all “masterpieces” or not, this list of fourteen works (really 27, since you should count the songs of Schwanengesang individually as it’s not really a single work per se) does not include nine other songs (two or three written earlier that could’ve fit into the set of “Swan-Songs”), eleven part songs and short choral works (including a setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew, written for a specific temple’s Sabbath service), four other “miscellaneous” works for piano solo or duet and - oh yes – two large-scale unfinished works, a symphony in D Major (D.936a) and an opera, The Count of Gleichen, listed as D.918 because it was begun the previous summer. And one should also include some “homework assignment” for his counterpoint lessons, which I’ll get to, later.

Look at those works completed if not all written in September 1828, the three last piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet and several of the Swan-Songs (only the first and last are actually dated). While there are sketches that exist for material that ended up in the piano sonatas from earlier that summer, most of the work on them was done in a matter of three weeks.


But the original manuscript of the quintet has vanished and with it any preliminary sketches, though Schubert rarely “sketched.” Friends described his inspiration as being “at white-heat.” Even if he dropped a page on the floor (so the wives’-tale goes), he would prefer to start over on a new page rather than waste the time to pick it up. Was this quintet a product of “white-heat?” Was it really composed, as several biographers conclude, in two weeks’ time? In addition to the sonatas he was either composing or copying over in final form to send off to publishers, that is one very intense month!

And in less than eight weeks, he died ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.

It’s not that he knew he was dying. His health had not been good, off and on, especially after 1822 when, at the age of 25, he began showing the first symptoms of syphilis, presumably in November, not long after he finished... or rather, left unfinished the B Minor Symphony (“The Unfinished Symphony”), the score dated October 30th, 1822, and the virtuosic Fantasy in C, a piano solo known as “The Wanderer Fantasy,” also one of his most dramatic, violent and, at times, pessimistic pieces. Signs of illness may not explain the despair of the fantasy or even why he never completed the rest of the symphony (he had started the third movement but stopped after nine measures), since we normally think of works of art being unhampered by reality, but the chronology is difficult to ignore.

It was at the end of August, 1828, that Schubert, on the advice of his doctor, moved out of his friend Schober’s house in downtown Vienna to take a room in his brother’s new suburban home just outside the city, since the air – and no doubt the quieter life – would be better for his health. And then in the next few weeks he wrote the string quintet and three sonatas. Could there be some correlation between his health and his inspiration? Certainly, the quintet is one of the loftiest works anyone has ever written under any circumstances.

Today, a composer could brag he (or she) doesn’t write anything unless it’s commissioned or would at least have a performance of it already lined up. We’ve lost that romantic notion of the struggling artist writing for the sheer pleasure of creating art, the product of pure inspiration.

To say Schubert was famous may not be entirely accurate but statements about his being unknown are not exactly truthful, either. His music did not bring him a great deal of money, though his short dance pieces for piano were popular and his songs were well-known, probably circulating more in manuscript copies, the early-19th Century answer to ipods and illegal downloads. By a small group of music lovers, he was certainly respected, but he had difficulties getting his works performed, mostly because he was writing things that were not practical for Vienna in the 1820s: keep in mind, things had gotten tough enough, economically, that even Beethoven threatened to leave for new financial possibilities in Paris or London.

Ironically, the first public, largely professional concert of Schubert’s music was also his last. It took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death as it turned out, and included the E-flat Piano Trio, several songs and part-songs including Auf dem Strom, after opening with a movement of (presumably) the not-yet-performed G Major String Quartet. The attendance was good, the response, since it was mostly of Schubert’s many friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic, but there was no critical mention of it in the press because all of Vienna (in fact, all of Germany, apparently) was taken up with the five concerts being given by the then-all-the-rage violinist Nicolo Paganini, performances which brought in about 5600 florins per concert. While I have no idea what a florin in 1828 might be worth today, it’s enough to mention that Schubert’s concert brought in 320 florins total, less than 6% of Paganini’s box-office take. For him, he thought he’d done fairly well – not enough as he’d’ve liked, but he was feeling flush enough to plan a couple of summer vacations. Unfortunately, these never came about.

Which brings me back to those “counterpoint lessons” Schubert had set up just before he died. When he was working on the Mass in E-flat earlier that year, he had been studying Handel oratorios: Messiah, he’d said, was one of his favorite works. A few months before his death, Schubert told friends about these Handel scores, realizing “Now for the first time, I see what I lack.” He arranged to take lessons with organist Simon Sechter to “make good the omission.”

What was it that Schubert, at the age of 31 and who’d been composing since before he was 13, lacked?


Usually, this is assumed to mean “the writing of fugues,” something that by 1828 was pretty old-fashioned already. Composers might insert “a fugal section” to show that they know how to do something academic, that they’ve learned their craft. It might not always sound natural, given the flow of things: Beethoven aside (who at least admitted he approached it “with some license”), I often feel like we should do The Wave whenever a 19th Century composer breaks into a “learnéd” fugue midstream (there’s one in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony of 1885 that usually reduces me to a puddle of giggles).

It's possible the "writing of fugues" was what concerned him, though. In 1826, he had applied for (and not gotten) a post as assistant court composer for church music and had, no doubt, written the Mass in E-flat as an audition piece. But he was passed over for a more senior and more professionally successful composer, Josef Weigl, primarily an opera composer. Perhaps they figured "Schubert - he's what, 29 years old? Let him try again next time..."

When I listen to Schubert’s quintet, it amazes me that he felt so insecure that he had to go study counterpoint. I’m not familiar with his masses – at least the last two “mature” ones – but fugues aside, the art of writing melodically and rhythmically independent lines that are interdependent harmonically, a broader definition of counterpoint, is not something I would think Schubert was lacking!

All you have to do is listen to the opening of the second movement.

Listen to at least a few of the opening minutes of this performance with live musicians, the Borodin Quartet with cellist Alexander Buzlov. I specify “live musicians” because often, when you see these “graphic scores,” the sound is sometimes computer or synthesizer generated. For those who do not read music, this can give you a visual image of what the music “looks” like; even for those who do read music, it can help clarify the textures, how the lines move, or how the intensity rises or falls.
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I realize this passage is not “three melodies” which is what a definition of (three-part) counterpoint implies, especially to someone familiar with Bach; I’m referring to three independent lines and how they relate to each other. Long slow notes in two- and three-part harmony in the inner voices (as they’d be called, regardless of the fact they’re instruments), with rhythmic filagree-like patterns in the 1st violin that remind me of birdsong, and one cello plucking along on what sounds like the downbeat with the harmonic underpinning. These are three fully defined layers of easily identifiable ‘sound’ – the long slow notes actually turn out to be the melodic layer – that becomes clearer the second time around, about 2½ minutes later, when the “bird-calls” of the 1st violin are replaced by plucked chords answering the cello’s bass line. Then, having taken about 5 minutes to run twice through this theme – speaking of expansive – there’s a sudden change of mood: the violins now have the decidedly more dramatic theme, here, the cellos’ bass-line now more insistent, turning back over on itself, and the middle voices now playing an agitated pattern, filling in the harmony but completely separate, rhythmically, from the outer parts, a far cry from the relaxed contemplation of the first theme.

Why would anybody who could create passages like that feel that insecure about needing to study counterpoint?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what impact those lessons with Simon Sechter would have on Schubert’s later music. He only took one lesson – on November 4th, 1828. He had already complained of feeling sick the week before but managed to walk the four or five miles to the church where his brother Ferdinand’s Requiem was being performed, not counting a three-hour walk they and the choirmaster took afterwards before walking home (no public transportation to the suburbs in those days). Complaining of feeling tired, understandably, Schubert still felt well enough to walk the mile-or-so to and from his teacher’s house for the counterpoint lesson the next day. That weekend, Schubert attended a friend’s dinner party where much wine was drunk and everybody thought he was feeling pretty good (in any number of ways). By Tuesday of that week, then, he “took to his bed,” did not make it to the next lesson - in fact, never left the house again.

Another friend showed up with a copy of his setting of Psalm 23 which needed some corrections. There was no real anxiety – he had been ill before and had recovered before – and Schubert himself complained only of feeling tired, not of any pain. A few days later, he sat up in bed to make corrections on the publisher’s proofs for the second half of the Winterreise songs – keeping in mind the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), one of the most desolate songs in the repertoire. He wrote to his friend Schober, asking if he could borrow any books by American author James Fennimore Cooper he hadn’t read yet.

Two days later there was, as they say, “a turn for the worse,” presumably after friends came and played Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, for him at his request. By the end of the  performance, he had become so excited and his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, they put him back in bed. His friend the librettist of The Count of Gleichen came by to visit the next day or so: Schubert had continued to work on it up until that week, and they even talked about another collaboration once he finished this one. Apparently, in these first two weeks of November, he also worked on the sketch for the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, before things got so bad, he was unable to work at all. A few more days passed: on the 18th, Ferdinand wrote later, Schubert began hallucinating, then died the following day. As his friend, the poet Grillparzer wrote for the epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”

So it is impossible – for me, at least – to listen to this quintet and not dwell on things deeper than the acquisition of contrapuntal skills or on the expansion of harmonic and structural techniques to create a work that lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. Schumann, who didn’t know the quintet existed then, wrote about the “heavenly lengths” of the Great C Major Symphony which Ferdinand showed to him during a visit in 1839. The Quintet, equally heavenly, somehow didn’t surface until 1850. Like the symphony, it was just too long – for the audience but also for the players – and both were first performed in heavily cut, shortened versions.

Igor Stravinsky was never one to mince words about other composers (of Benjamin Britten, he said, “He’s an excellent accompanist”), but when someone asked him if he weren’t “sent to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert,” he replied, “What does it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Summermusic 2024, No. 2: The Complete Works for Cello & Piano by Frederic Chopin

Chopin in 1847

The second of three concerts with our Summermusic 2024 takes place Wednesday at 7:30 in the air-conditioned comfort of Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, and explores “the passionate and nuanced world of Romanticism.” The first concert sampled the epitome of the Classical style with Mozart’s two piano quartets. One of the Great Works (Period) concludes this second concert, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, but I’ll save that for the next post. This post will take you behind the scenes with two pieces Chopin wrote for cello and piano: the Introduction & Polonaise brillante and the Cello Sonata in G Minor.

If you’re thinking “Cello Sonata by Chopin? I never knew he wrote a cello sonata!”, you’re not alone. Chopin’s reputation rests entirely on works for solo piano – and of course the two early piano concertos he wrote before he was 20 when his dream was to become a great concert pianist of the old Traveling Virtuoso variety. Fortunately for us, living out of a suitcase turned out not to have the appeal young Frederic thought it might.

By the way, violinist Nicolo Paganini was a prominent influence around the time Chopin was writing his own piano concertos – and who, dreaming of the concert stage, could not be dazzled by Paganini and his music? While Franz Liszt would become one of the Greatest Pianists of All Time, Liszt had a great respect for young Chopin and his playing when they met in Paris in 1832. They lived a few blocks from each other and frequently performed together. Chopin dedicated his Op. 10 Etudes to Liszt not just because he was a great pianist but because he was a great friend and musical champion (Chopin once remarked to a fellow pianist how he would like to “steal” the way Liszt plays his Etudes). However, when Liszt performed one of Chopin’s nocturnes in 1843 with several improvised embellishments, Chopin (a great believer in playing what was on the page) told him “either play what is written or don’t play it at all” (ouch). That was basically the end of their friendship.

But Chopin also wrote a few pieces that included “instruments other than the piano” plus collections of songs as well, all fairly negligible in his output. The Polonaise brillante for cello and piano, his Op. 3, and a piano trio, Op. 8, were written before he turned 20. There’s also a Grand Duo Concertante for Cello and Piano, a pot-boiler fantasy on themes from Meyerbeer’s smash hit, the opera Robert le diable in 1832, written jointly with the cellist Auguste Franchomme, the same cellist he would compose his Cello Sonata for. 

Since the first half of the program will conclude with the Polonaise – it does make for a more rousing finish – let’s start there. 

To say “Chopin’s Complete Works for Cello and Piano” is a bit disingenuous, perhaps, considering he only wrote two pieces for cello and piano, but considering he also wrote very little that wasn’t for solo piano (or like the two concertos, featured the piano in a solo role), it’s a rather curious aspect of his creative output. In addition to the presence of the piano, another common denominator, though, is the Polish dance known as a polonaise (in other words, quite literally a “Polish dance”). The folk music of his native Poland was a primary thread in all of Chopin’s music. This cello piece, his Op. 3, written when he was 19, is his first statement of “national identity.” The last piece he would complete was a mazurka, one of his favorite Polish folk dances.

Chopin’s first – or at least first published – foray into national pride came at a time when Poland, usually divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria over the previous centuries, was beginning to feel a resurgence of national awareness as the now-dominant Russian government became “more arbitrary” and the idea of Poland as a nation, no longer just a memory, began to find expression in various secret societies that broke out in open rebellion in the fall of 1830, eventually leading to a crack down resulting in the bloody crushing of any hopes for independence as 6,000 Polish resistance fighters and intellectuals were exiled to France. Barely a month before this uprising began, Frederic Chopin had already left Poland, never to return, eventually settling in Paris. The memory of his homeland and his friendship with a number of ex-patriots would inspire the “sound” behind the music, even when it wasn’t making use of folk rhythms or folk-like melodies.

Chopin plays a private recital for Prince Antoni Radziwill and his guests, 1829

This polonaise was written between October 20th and 28th while Chopin was visiting the estate of Prince Antoni Radziwill, a prominent Polish aristocrat, the Duke of Posen (as it was then called, a province of Prussia) who dreamed of leading a renewed and independent Polish kingdom. Given his brother’s leading role in the 1830 Uprising, Radziwill lost what political potential he had and ultimately is best remembered today as a patron of the arts with palaces not only in Posen (Poznan) but also in Berlin with a summer home in west central Poland. His family also owned numerous estates in what was then Eastern Poland but is now part of Belarus. He had married the niece of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and his daughter had been engaged to the future German Emperor Wilhelm I until it was broken off in 1824. By the way, his wife opened the first Public School for Girls in Posen (Poznan) in 1830.

The prince was also an amateur cellist and guitarist and not only produced “opera concerts” in his palaces, he frequently had musical guests who performed for his other guests. In addition to Chopin in October of 1829, there was Nicolo Paganini in May, 1829. In 1815, Beethoven dedicated his “Name Day” Overture, Op.115, to the prince whom he'd met during the Congress of Vienna that reshaped Europe after the Fall of Napoleon. Since Chopin would also dedicate his Op. 8 Piano Trio to Radziwill, it can be assumed Radziwill was the intended cellist for both pieces and, judging from what Chopin composed for him, no slouch, at least as a cellist.

(By the way, pardon the aside: if the name "Radziwill" sounds vaguely familiar to readers of a certain age, Prince Antoni's great-great-grandson Stanislaw married Lee Bouvier, the younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, in 1959. Their son was, incidentally, named Anthony.)

Here’s a recording of Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante for cello and piano with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax:

For those of you who can follow the score, which I’m assuming is taken from the original edition (the work was published with the addition of an Introduction, written in April, 1830), you’ll notice several discrepancies between the printed music and what the musicians are playing: in many instances, the cello part is greatly revised. Some of the more bravura passages in the piano’s right hand are transferred to the upper register of the cello; at other places, the cello is given something more interesting to do (like not counting rests) and certain passages are played an octave higher to take them out of the middle register where it would be lost in the piano’s texture, giving it more of a soloist’s prominence. One source I’ve read said “because of the simplicity of the cello part, many cellists will add revisions and embellishments of their own.” But what Ma and Ax are playing here, I suspect, is the revised version made by his new friend, Franchomme. It’s also possible other cellists will have made their own “improvements” as well, but at least Franchomme helped him understand how to “better write for the cello.”

(Incidentally, the same kind of thing happened with Tchaikovsky’s famous Rococo Variations for Cello & Orchestra when the dedicatee not only rewrote the cello part, he even rearranged the order of the variations: to hear it as Tchaikovsky initially intended, the work is by comparison a disappointment.)

The end result of Franchomme’s collaboration was less invasive and led to a life-long friendship: Chopin wrote his Cello Sonata for Franchomme fifteen years later: they premiered it in 1848. And then Franchomme played for Chopin on his deathbed in 1849.

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Like most sonatas and symphonies of the 19th Century, Chopin's Cello Sonata is in four movements, though he places the scherzo with its own Polish "sound" to it after the first movement for greater contrast, especially with the slow movement, an expansive Largo, coming between it and the finale. That sound is, to anyone familiar with Chopin’s works, unmistakably Chopin – that opening four bars in the piano! – but as the piece evolves, it tends to sound less and less like what we’d expect. I’ll get to that later – see below – but first, here’s cellist Truls Mørk and pianist Kathryn Stott in a performance (with score) of Frederic Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 68.

As a young pianist learning a few Chopin pieces he could play and listening to a lot he couldn’t (and also wanting to play the cello), I was struck how two of the preludes, Op. 28, could’ve been cello pieces. Looking at the few pieces Chopin wrote in the realm of chamber music, it surprised me the cello was the common denominator. When I first heard about the Cello Sonata, I assumed it too would be an early piece. It surprised me to discover it was in fact “a late work.” Given the fact it was his last major work, it doesn’t get much “later” than that...

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Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man.

If you want to get “behind” the music – beyond the technical aspects of the written notes, their harmonies and formal structures, and into how someone is to make sense of them, either as a performer or a listener – this quote may help explain not only Chopin’s music but the person who wrote it. I’m not sure what the source of this quote is, or when he might have written it (or to whom, assuming it was in a letter), but it's a good reminder of the idea "Classical" Music appeals to the mind and "Romantic" Music appeals to the heart – as if one could exist without the other!

Chopin was born at the beginning of what we call The Romantic Age – I’ve already cut over 900 words out of this post trying to describe Romanticism and Classicism (lucky you) – and in many ways he exemplifies if not the Romantic Ideal, at least the Romantic Stereotype: the suffering artist (given his frail health), the short-lived artist, the tragic background, the outsider, frequently misunderstood, and, above all, a complicated man.

Perhaps Franz Liszt understood him better than most when he said to a friend, “I want you to meet a man who comes from another planet.”

Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, written around 370 BC, offers an image of our dual character as two horses harnessed together, one docile and one wild. If the docile horse is more pronounced, then we’re dealing with “classical” elements; if the wild horse is more pronounced, this is the “romantic” spirit, “revealed to the delight of the young, the adventurous, and the less tame spirits of society and to the public rebuke of the old, the conservative, and the domesticated.” The two different horses, according to Plato, are controlled by the charioteer who represents “reason.”

The “content” of Chopin’s music is, on the surface, emotional. He writes, for the most part, short pieces in simple forms (mostly involving three segments, a statement, a contrasting segment, and a restatement of the opening segment, diagrammed as ABA). He collects them into groups of several such pieces – 24 preludes, 8 mazurkas, whatever – but each individual “piece” is in itself complete. Given the emotional appeal of much of his music, his “wild horse” was definitely in control.

Yet to the discerning eye, there is also an innate sense of structure to his music: the balance of phrases, the sense of harmony and an adventurous tonality that can push the boundaries of the expected between the start of a phrase and its cadence. Some hear "hints of Wagner," forgetting that by the time Chopin died, Wagner, one of the most adventurous of 19th Century composers, had only recently completed Lohengrin). If anything is hinted at, the question is how much did Chopin influence Wagner? Since Wagner was a good friend of Franz Liszt early in his career, and Liszt was a champion of Chopin, this "man from another planet," chances are Wagner was well aware of what Chopin had written. But while the aspect of this surface is Romantic, the essence is, at its core, Classical, or at least classically inspired, building on the past but creating something new. Music, to his contemporaries, from another planet.

One observation would be that there is so much to attract our attention on the surface of Chopin's music, we tend to overlook what lies beneath the surface. It is not uncommon for the typical music-lover to think there is nothing important beneath the surface.

It’s true Robert Schumann (a German Romanticist more famous as a critic than as a composer in his day) described Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata, not published until 1840, as “an arbitrary family consisting of four of his most unruly children.” In a sense he’s not wrong but is it fair to judge another composer’s work as a failure because it’s not the way you think it should be? Considering Chopin was the young composer Schumann the Critic greeted in December, 1831, with the line, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!”, this later response to Chopin’s sonata must have been a disappointment. Was this still echoing in Chopin’s mind when he started to work on his Cello Sonata a few years later?

Auguste Franchomme

Uncharacteristically, Chopin also spent a lot more time and sweat on this piece than he did his earlier works, “writing,” as he told his sister, “a little and crossing out a lot,” leaving behind large amounts of material. Collaborating with his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme – the manuscript bears this marking, “Cello part of the sonata for piano and cello by Chopin written under his guidance by me Franchomme” – Chopin felt the need to keep the piano part in check because balancing the two instruments was an old issue, partly explained by the lack of repertoire for the cello. Beethoven wrote five sonatas (the famous A Major Sonata dates from 1808, but Brahms’ first cello sonata didn’t come about until 1865). Johann Nepomuck Hummel, a pianist and composer whose style and playing technique influenced the young Chopin had written a cello sonata in the mid-1820s and it’s quite likely both Chopin and Franchomme would have known it.  

A more likely model might have been Felix Mendelssohn’s two sonatas – and Franchomme was a close friend of Mendelssohn’s as well – written in 1838 and 1842 (particularly the scherzo of the 2nd which begins at 7:48). In fact, since more than one commentator (other than me) has heard a prominent reflection of Mendelssohn in a work that is not always typical of Chopin’s own voice, chances are pretty good...

Most sources say Chopin wrote his sonata “in 1846-1847” (two different sources mention he began work on it in 1845) and that it was finished in the summer of 1847, printed in October, 1847, and premiered at least in part in February, 1848, in what became his last public performance in Paris. It was also to be his last major work: he would die in October of 1849 at the age of 39.

Franchomme and Chopin met shortly after Chopin established himself in Paris in early-1832, having left Warsaw for Italy (he’d previously found Vienna not to his liking) before intending to only pass through Paris on his way to London (Italy having turned out not to be to his liking, either). Instead, he decided to stay and spent the rest of his life in Paris.

When Franchomme and Chopin premiered the new Cello Sonata in Paris in 1848 – not including the first movement, for some reason – this recital which was well received has sometimes been called Chopin’s last public performance. That’s not entirely accurate. As fine a pianist as Chopin was and despite his initial dream of becoming a virtuoso concert pianist, he was not comfortable in a large hall. Some critics said his tone was “too small” for such places. Instead, he performed in salons around the city, small rooms to small crowds. That didn’t seem to affect his fame. 

Regardless, when the “February Revolution” broke out in Paris six days after the Cello Sonata's premiere, Chopin left for London on the invitation of a former student of his, Jane Stirling, a wealthy amateur pianist who arranged a place for him to stay and took him on a tour of England and Scotland. While he again performed mostly in private homes, people attending these recitals included the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as well as the famous singer Jenny Lind and writers like Thackeray and Thomas Carlyle.

Delacroix's portrait (1838)

Chopin’s health had always been precarious: he’d nearly died of tuberculosis while visiting Majorca with George Sand in 1838. But while in Edinburgh in October of 1848, his health deteriorated once again, and he wrote his last will and testament, intending to return home to Paris but not before he played a badly planned public concert in London in November. They’d meant well, raising funds for Polish refugees from the revolution there in 1848, but unfortunately the audience was more interested in the refreshments and dancing than in Chopin’s playing – and that sad experience which exhausted him even further did turn out to be last public performance.

The rest is even sadder reading which I won’t go into here. With no income, Chopin was reliant on friends who covered his rent and other expenses. During this time, he composed a few short pieces, including the Mazurka in F Minor with its amazingly slippery harmonic sequences, published posthumously as Op. 68 No. 4, harnessed to three other unpublished works from the late-1820s. (Here’s a recording by Artur Rubinstein)

During this protracted final illness that stretched out for almost a year, Chopin was visited by many friends and fans – Pauline Viardot, the famous singer, complained “all the grand Parisian ladies considered it de rigueur to faint in his room” – and several came to play music for him from an adjacent room, including Auguste Franchomme. When the end finally came, not long after he completed that F Minor Mazurka, Franchomme and the artist Delacroix who’d painted Chopin’s most famous portrait (see above) were among the pall-bearers. At the funeral, they performed the Mozart Requiem (Viardot was one of the soloists) and at the graveside, there was an instrumental version of, naturally enough, the famous Funeral March from his Second Piano Sonata.

Dick Strawser