Live at Deertrees July 12
Opera lovers know Donizetti as one of the great masters of 19th-century Italian bel canto opera. What might come as a surprise, though, is that he also wrote a number of non-operatic works, including many symphonies, string quartets, and cantatas.
Young Donizetti showed his gifts early. Born into extreme poverty in Bergamo, in northern Italy – his father was the caretaker of the local pawn shop – Gaetano was taken under the wing of Simon Mayr, a noted opera impresario who ran a school in Bergamo. Mayr took the boy into his school, recognized his talent, and nurtured him for years. When Gaetano was fourteen, Mayr wrote a piece for five of his students in which Gaetano was assigned the role of “the little composer” and was given the line, “I have a vast mind, swift talent, ready fantasy – and I’m a thunderbolt at composing.” It proved to be prophetic.
Gaetano’s first attempt at opera didn’t come until he was about 19. In the meantime, while still a student he busied himself writing church music, quartets, choral music, piano pieces, and other chamber pieces. He often took part in music-making at the salon of Lady Marianna Pezzoli Grattaroli in Bergamo. The charming Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano on today’s program may have been written for a performance there.
Once he began writing operas, Donizetti wrote quickly, producing as many as four operas a week. Over his lifetime he composed some 70 operas that ranged from farcical one-act romps, to great comedies like L’Elisir d’Amore, to powerful dramas such as Lucia di Lammermoor. (When he was told that Rossini had composed The Barber of Seville in two weeks, he replied, “That does not surprise me, he has always been lazy.”) By the time of his death at 51 from syphilis-related dementia, one of every four Italian operas performed in Italy was by Donizetti.
Today’s Trio is a hint at what was to come. The lovely Larghetto is songful, with a simple aria-like melody that is passed back and forth among the three instruments. The flute and the bassoon in particular make for an appealing combination. The mood is placid throughout except for one brief minor-key interruption. The second movement of the Trio is a lively Allegro. The piano takes the lead in a cheery movement filled with bouncy rhythms. While the Trio is a youthful work, it already points to the lyrical, bel canto style that would make Donizetti famous.
The Lake Guide was composed in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, and is written for a septet of its longtime performers. The three movements of the 16-minute work portray different ways of enjoying a lake: rowing, floating, and diving down into the water. While the first two movements spend their time on the lake’s surface, the final movement takes the listener underwater, where the different temperatures and currents become more fleeting, shifting unpredictably. Many thanks to the SLLMF for its support of this project, and congratulations on its important milestone anniversary this year. (written by Beth Wiemann)
(For Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Strings (Violin, Viola, Cello, Double bass)
Beethoven presented his E-Flat Major Septet to the Viennese public at his first concert for his own benefit in 1800, a colossally long event that also included his first concerto, first symphony, some piano improvisations, a Mozart symphony, and a few arias from Haydn’s “Creation.” The concert was a resounding success, and the Septet was a sensation. It was such an immediate hit that Beethoven, fearing it would be pirated, urged his Leipzig publisher to bring it out quickly. For years it was Beethoven’s most popular composition, overshadowing his more revolutionary works.
There is good reason for the Septet’s popularity. Like the divertimenti and serenades of Mozart and Haydn, it is Classically graceful, with each of its six movements having an easy freshness and geniality. Yet there are also some striking breaks with tradition, beginning with the Septet’s instrumentation. In the traditional divertimento, instruments often are paired. Here, each of the seven winds and strings is assigned its own role, which gives Beethoven greater flexibility and allows for colorful interactions among the winds and strings. In the richly themed first movement – which begins with a stately Adagio that leads into an energetic Allegro con brio – and again in the second-movement Adagio cantabile, the violin and the clarinet take the lead. As the movements unfold, the spotlight continually shifts.
For the Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a melody from his piano sonata Op. 49 No. 2, adding a bouncy rhythm and a playful trio for the horn and the clarinet. Then comes an engaging set of variations that are another example of Beethoven’s evolving vision. He already had written many ornamental variations, like the set in the Op. 8 Serenade. But in the fourth movement he moves beyond this external approach, instead creating five complex and imaginative variations that exploit the textures and colors of different combinations of instruments. Next, the horn leads a breezy Scherzo that features a soaring cello solo in the lyrical trio. The Septet ends with a rollicking Presto, prefaced, as in the first movement, by a solemn introduction. Unusually for a divertimento, this finale features a virtuosic violin cadenza, probably included because the Septet was to be played at its premiere by Beethoven’s friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Vienna’s leading violinist. It’s a brilliant ending for a work whose scoring inspired other composers, including Schubert, who modeled his Octet on Beethoven’s instrumental combination.
Live at Deertrees July 19
Widely admired as a composer, conductor, and virtuoso pianist, Carl Maria von Weber played a significant role in the launch of 19th-century musical Romanticism. Along with Schubert, he pointed the way to the ascendance of melody. And with his groundbreaking opera Der Freischütz he launched German Romantic opera. Set in a German forest and based on German legend, Der Freischütz pointed in a new nationalist direction that led in a straight line to Wagner. Chopin admired Weber’s piano compositions. Berlioz studied his inventive orchestration. Wagner lauded his approach to opera. After he died, he was interred to funeral music that Wagner arranged from one of Weber’s operas.
Weber composed prolifically. While opera was his first love – he wrote ten operas – he also wrote many orchestral works, including two symphonies, a number of compositions featuring the clarinet, many virtuoso pieces for piano (most famous among them “Invitation to the Dance”), and several chamber works, including this convivial, melodically rich Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano in G Minor.
The G Minor Trio is a whirl of virtuosity and striking contrasts. The sonata-form Allegro Moderato that opens the Trio, with its contrasting themes and dramatic outbursts, sets the tone for the whole work. The darker minor-key opening theme, with the cello and the flute playing long melodic lines over a rumbling piano accompaniment, soon gives way to a sunny second theme that dominates much of the movement. At the end of the exposition all three instruments join in staccato octaves, a dramatic device that propels the development section. Like the good dramatist that he is, Weber ends the movement with a surprise, when the opening theme returns and whispers to a close.
The Scherzo also is a movement of contrasts, with a stern, rhythmically offbeat martial theme alternating with a frothy waltz. Weber departs from standard scherzo form by not including a trio. For the third movement, “Shäfers Klage” (Shepherd’s Lament), Weber turned to a Goethe poem that several others composers, including Schubert, also set to music. Weber charmingly portrays the lovelorn shepherd in the field, playing his lonely tune. The Lament serves as a calm bridge to a high-spirited Finale, with Weber spinning off a profusion of melodies while giving all three instruments a chance to shine. As the music critic John Warrack wrote, “Even within a classical framework, Weber’s Romantic imagination is running high.”
Piazzolla and tango—the words are nearly synonymous. As a young composer Piazzolla hadn’t at first intended to spend his career focusing on Argentina’s native dance. But a fellowship to study with Nadia Boulanger in France changed everything for him. Boulanger was unimpressed with Piazzolla’s classical compositions – symphonies and sonatas inspired by Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, and other early 20th-century composers. But when she heard one of his tangos, she proclaimed, “That’s Piazzolla!” From then on, Piazzolla applied his classical training to experiments with the sound and structure of the tango, creating tradition-bending, appealingly original music that became known as the new tango.
In Histoire du Tango Piazzolla shows the history and evolution of the tango in all its variety, from the exuberant music of the 19th-century bordello, to the more subdued café music of the 1930s, to the rowdier music of mid-century nightclubs, to the modern-day concert tango. Piazzolla’s own program notes describe the musical journey:
Bordello, 1900: The tango originated in Buenos Aires in 1882. It was first played on the guitar and flute. Arrangements then came to include the piano, and later, the concertina. The music is full of grace and liveliness. It paints a picture of the good-natured chatter of the French, Italian, and Spanish women who peopled those bordellos as they teased the policemen, thieves, sailors, and riffraff who came to see them. This is a high-spirited tango.
Café, 1930: This is another age of the tango. People stopped dancing it as they did in 1900, preferring instead simply to listen to it. It became more musical, and more romantic. The tango has undergone total transformation: the movements are slower, with new and often melancholy harmonies. Tango orchestras come to consist of two violins, two concertinas, a piano, and a bass. The tango is sometimes sung as well.
Night Club, 1960: This is a time of rapidly expanding international exchange, and the tango evolves again as Brazil and Argentina come together in Buenos Aires. The bossa nova and the new tango are moving to the same beat. Audiences rush to the night clubs to listen earnestly to the new tango. This marks a revolution and a profound alteration in some of the original tango forms.
Modern-Day Concert: Certain concepts in tango music become intertwined with modern music. Bartok, Stravinsky, and other composers reminisce to the tune of tango music. This is today’s tango, and the tango of the future as well.
Schumann’s Piano Quintet was the first great chamber-music work that paired the piano with a string quartet. In the year Schumann wrote it, he was on a typical-for-Schumann emotional roller coaster. Miserable while his wife Clara was away on tour, he was depressed, drinking heavily, and unable to compose, although he did pass the time studying counterpoint and the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He quickly revived, however, after Clara returned home. By the end of the year he had written three string quartets, a piano trio, a piano quartet, and the glorious Piano Quintet, his most famous chamber work.
It took Schumann less than three weeks to finish the Quintet, which he wrote for and dedicated to Clara. Not surprisingly, given Clara’s brilliance as a pianist and his own love of the instrument, the piano is front and center for much of the Quintet. But the work is also very much a lush exploration of the sonorities produced when piano and strings work together.
From the outset the Quintet is marked by what Ronald Taylor describes as “the feeling … that Schumann saw its entire course from the very moment of its joyful opening bars.” Schumann launches the work with a bold unison opening that will reappear in several guises later on. In one of Schumann’s magical transformations, this opening motif melts almost immediately into an expressive song. Next the cello and the viola present an equally disarming second theme. Virtuosic piano runs in the development section and a satisfyingly big sound at the end are among the highlights of a movement marked by Schumann’s melodic gifts and his sense of high drama.
Each of the movements that follow is brilliant in its own way. The solemn second movement has the air of a funeral march, although both a lyrical second subject played over a restless piano and an agitated middle section affect the opening mood. The instruments chase one other up and down the scale in the acrobatic Scherzo, which features two trios, the first a lyrical inversion of the first movement’s opening theme, the second a whirl of motion. The Quintet ends with an exultant Allegro that sweeps to a stunning coda: a fugue whose subjects are the first theme of the opening movement and the main theme of the finale.
Clara was ill for the Quintet’s first private performance, so Felix Mendelssohn sight-read the demanding part for a memorable launch.
Live at Deertrees July 26
Boston in the late 19th century was a flourishing classical music scene, where a group of gifted composers known as the Boston Six were bringing American music to a new level of craftsmanship and sophistication. Steeped in German Romanticism, The Six were writing music that held its own against much of the late Romantic music coming out of Europe. One of that group was Arthur Foote, a distinguished teacher, an accomplished organist (for 34 years he was the organist of Boston’s First Unitarian Church), and a composer whose music won applause from audiences here and in Europe. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered several of his compositions, and Serge Koussevitsky was one of his champions.
Born in Salem to a prominent family – his father was publisher of the Salem Gazette – Foote didn’t develop an interest in music until his early teens, and didn’t take his first piano lesson until he was 14. A few years later, though, he was ready to enter Harvard as a music major. After he graduated he earned a master’s degree from Harvard – the first Masters of Arts degree in music awarded by an American university. Under the tutelage of Harvard professor John Knowles Paine, another of the Boston Six, Foote became steeped in the music of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Wagner. He was greatly influenced by a trip to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1876, which turned him into a lifelong Wagner admirer.
Foote composed steadily for more than 45 years. His chamber music in particular was widely admired and performed. The musicologist David Ewen described his music as “always thoroughly lyrical, with broad and stately melodies, romantic in rhapsodic moods, and classical in structure.” You can hear all this in the Nocturne and Scherzo for Flute and String Quartet. Foote wrote it in 1918; a few years later the Nocturne was published separately as “A Night Piece for Flute and Strings” and thereafter became his most performed work.
The Nocturne begins and ends with the flute playing a melodious, dreamy song. Throughout the movement, flute and strings pass melodies back and forth – sometimes the flute alone, sometimes the strings alone, sometimes together. The tonal combinations are beautiful, the harmonies rich, the rhythms varied. The languid mood is interrupted occasionally by brief, tempestuous surges, especially in the more dramatic middle section. But tranquility is the prevailing mood. The Scherzo that follows is nimble, witty, and light-hearted – a charming change of pace.
Shostakovich’s closest friend was Ivan Sollertinsky, an erudite musicologist and scholar known for his great intellect, passion for music, and mischievous sense of humor. In February 1944 the 41-year-old Sollertinsky died of a heart attack. Shostakovich was devastated.
The summer before, he had begun work on the first movement of a new piano trio on Russian folk themes. Within days of Sollertinsky’s death he finished the movement. Several months later he completed the Trio and dedicated it to the memory of his friend. By then, other tragedies were weighing on Shostakovich: the horrific toll the war was taking on Russia, and the appalling news of the Holocaust that was beginning to reach him. So the Trio can be heard as an elegy both for Sollertinsky and for the war’s millions of victims. It’s a powerful work, filled with pain, anger, melancholy, and mordant wit. It begins eerily, with a ghostly melody that is introduced by the cello at the top of its range, picked up by the violin in the middle range, and finally repeated quietly by the piano in the low bass. Other themes evolve from this opening fugato as the Andante builds through a series of escalating climaxes. Contributing to the movement’s emotional force are the strident rhythms and the startling contrasts in tone and mood that are characteristic of Shostakovich’s music.
With the second movement, despair gives way to manic energy. Sollertinskly’s sister described this brash movement as “an amazingly exact portrait of Ivan Ivanovich, whom Shostakovich understood like no one else. That is his temper, his polemics, his manner of speech, his habit of returning to one and the same thought, developing it.” Funereal bleakness returns in full force in the Largo, a passacaglia in which the strings weave an anguished lament over a repeated set of eight tormented chords. The ironic last movement begins with a macabre Yiddish-sounding dance – the first appearance of the so-called Jewish theme that would play an ongoing role in Shostakovich’s music, both as a comment on anti-Semitism and because the modes, rhythms, and ambiguous attitudes of Jewish music and folklore suited him musically and temperamentally. Here the dance builds to a frenzy before ending abruptly. Shostakovich brings back the fugal theme from the first movement and the chords from the Largo, after which the strings whisper the dance theme one last time to bring the Trio to an exhausted and sorrowful close.
Schubert’s output always was prodigious, but nothing matches what he wrote in the fall of 1828, when he was mortally ill and just a few weeks from death. In little more than a month, he composed his last three piano sonatas and the monumental String Quintet in C Major. Of the Quintet Jan Swafford wrote, “Everything about this work is extraordinary – its breadth of expression from deepest tragedy to exultant joy to transcendent peace, its freshness of sound, its contrapuntal depth…. By the end of this work as with few others, one feels one has traveled an immense distance – musically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
In this Quintet the fifth instrument is a cello, rather than the viola of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s quintets. The added warmth and richness of texture is evident throughout the Quintet, as Schubert works his magic through familiar devices: tender lyricism, ravishing melodies, unexpected modulations, shifts to unexpected places, and an often-surprising mix of moods. The opening measures of the first-movement Allegro point to much of what will follow. The opening chords, with their harmonic coloring and textural richness, shift back and forth between major and minor modes, which are associated in Schubert’s music with hope and despair. A cello duet – a highlight of the movement – introduces a lyrical second theme, and a march-like third theme enters in yet another key. At an unhurried pace, these ideas are amplified and probed in the development section, where contrapuntal passages alternate with lyrical ones, and in the recapitulation, which ends on two chords that encapsulate the movement’s tensions.
The textures and sonorities of the tender but melancholy Adagio are breathtaking from the beginning, as three of the instruments harmonize around the theme, while the first violin sings high, poignant phrases and the second cello punctuates with a low pizzicato. Good humor is restored by the Scherzo, a vivacious, rhythmically driven country dance. There is a somber, minor-key Trio, but the return of the buoyant Scherzo dispels all gloom. The Allegretto, like the rest of the Quintet, is filled with constantly varied textures that have a small string ensemble producing sounds that seem to come from a much larger group of instruments. With its wonderful themes – one sounding Hungarian, another, Viennese – and its exuberant ending, this last movement is a life-embracing affirmation and a perfect close to a stirring journey.
Live at Deertrees August 2
Although Johan Halvorsen never achieved the international prominence of his colleague and friend Edvard Grieg, he was an important and popular musical figure in Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Halvorsen was a musician of many talents. He was a virtuoso violinist; a conductor who for 30 years headed Norway’s National Theater in Christiania (now Oslo); and an admired composer whose works ranged from scores for the theater (he wrote incidental music for more than 30 plays, from Shakespeare to works by Norwegian dramatists) to three symphonies, other compositions for orchestra, and many pieces for the violin.
Halvorsen made his violin debut in 1885 in Bergen, where he met and began his lifelong friendship with Grieg. Among their important collaborations was their role in creating a written record of Norwegian folk music. Halvorsen’s interest in this music was awakened in 1901 when, at Grieg’s request, he sat down with a folk fiddler named Knut Dale and wrote down the tunes Dale played for him. It was a challenge to transcribe the traditional folk style, with its intricate ornamentation. When Halvorsen had finished his violin transcriptions, Grieg re-transcribed the tunes for piano. Their violin and piano versions were then published simultaneously – an event that Grieg’s biographer John Horton called “a landmark in musicology comparable to Bartók’s early folk-music transcriptions, which they antedate by several years.”
In recent years, thanks to a flurry of new recordings of much of his music, Halvorsen has been rediscovered as a composer of colorful, beautifully crafted works. Several of his compositions have never gone out of popular favor, including Bergensiana, a set of variations for orchestra that is played each year at the opening ceremony of the Bergen International Music Festival. Among Halvorsen’s best-known works is this Passacaglia, a bravura adaptation of a movement from Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G Minor for Harpsichord. The Passacaglia begins sedately enough with Handel’s theme. Quickly, though, Halvorsen leaves Handel behind as the two instruments engage in a dazzling, fast-paced dialogue, replete with rapid runs, double stops, flamboyant gestures, and just about every technique in the string player’s repertoire. A showpiece that has been a crowd-pleaser ever since Halvorsen wrote it for a Bergen church concert, it’s a virtuosic romp that is as much fun to listen to as it is challenging to play.
Josef Fiala, a celebrated oboe and viola da gamba player and a skilled composer, led a peripatetic life common for a musician in the 18th century. Princes and noblemen often had their own private orchestras and employed large musical staffs, and musicians like Fiala traveled from one to another for work. Born in Bohemia, Fiala began his professional career as an oboist in the service of a countess in Prague. In 1774 he joined the wind band of Prince Kraft Ernst of Oettingen-Wallerstein. In 1777 he went to Munich to play in Elector Maximilian Joseph’s wind band. There he met and became good friends with Mozart, who helped him get his next position, with the Archbishop of Salzburg. After a stint in Vienna, in 1786 he went to St. Petersburg, where he worked in the court of Catherine the Great. Then it was on to Prussia in 1790, where he was a viola da gamba player in the court of Friedrich Wilhelm II. He made his final move in 1792 when he became Kapellmeister to Prince Furstenberg of Donaueschingen, a position he held for the rest of his life.
A prolific composer, Fiala wrote many compositions for Prince Furstenberg’s wind ensemble, including the Duo Concertante for Oboe and Bassoon. It’s an attractive duet that puts the oboist and the bassoonist through their paces while showcasing the expressive ranges of these two wind instruments. The Duo shows that Fiala not only had an ear for harmony and a mastery of form, but that he also had a sense of humor.
The oboe takes the lead in the amiable, ABA-structured Allegro assai, with the bassoon sometimes harmonizing with the oboe’s melodic line, sometimes imitating it, and often weaving elaborate embellishments around the oboe melody. In the Adagio, Fiala uses a simple harmonic structure to great effect, as the bassoon’s arpeggios and triplets support the oboe’s melody. The third-movement Allegro is a playful rondo in which oboe and bassoon egg each other on, and each gets a separate chance to show off. Amusingly, at the end of each repeat of the rondo theme, the music briefly runs out of steam. The wilting is most dramatic at the end of the last repeat, after which both instruments let loose in a final surge of high spirits.
Fun fact: Friedrich Wilhelm II honored Fiala by giving him his own family crest.
Francis Poulenc was a man of contradictions. He was both a hedonist and a deeply religious Catholic. He could write witty melodies that would be at home in a Parisian music hall, as well as sacred music inspired by his faith (the latter included his great opera Dialogues of the Carmelites). He was a manic-depressive, and even his most happy-go-lucky music at times had darker undercurrents. The French critic Claude Rostand wrote that Poulenc “always placed great value on being regarded as light, charming, frivolous, and flip. He loved risqué jokes and a Rabelaisian way of life….But behind this spontaneity, this easy and ironic cutting up, was hidden much inner turmoil.” As Rostand said, “In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the hooligan.”
Poulenc burst onto the Parisian musical scene when, at the age of 18, he wrote Rapsodie nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble, a work that turned him into an overnight sensation in France. His ballet Les Biches, which Diaghilev staged in 1924, cemented his reputation. Poulenc wrote prolifically, giving particular attention to art songs with piano accompaniment, sacred music, and chamber works, especially for wind instruments. Influenced by Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism and Satie’s irreverent wit, Poulenc’s secular music was distinguished by color, tunefulness, glitter, urbanity, and most of all, a sense of fun.
The Neoclassical qualities of simplicity and balance, plus plenty of humor, infuse Poulenc’s sparkling Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, one of his earliest chamber works. Taking his teacher Ravel’s advice, Poulenc modeled the Trio on the works of earlier composers whom he admired. In addition to following a Classical fast-slow-fast format, he noted that “the first movement follows the plan of a Haydn allegro and the final Rondo that of the scherzo from the second movement of Saint-Saëns’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” The Trio begins with a series of sober, dissonant piano chords that neither the bassoon nor the oboe is willing to take quite seriously, after which the three instruments break out into a spirited gambol, with the two winds cavorting over jazzy piano chords. After a middle section highlighted by the oboe’s long lyrical lines, frivolity returns to end the movement. The Andante, which Poulenc described as “sweet and melancholic,” is a lovely, Mozart-like slow movement that showcases Poulenc’s considerable melodic gifts. A brisk Rondo, bright and brimming with panache, brings the Trio to a joyful close.
- Trompette et tambour – marche (Trumpet and drum)
- La Poupée – berceuse (The doll)
- La Toupie – impromptu (The spinning top)
- Petit mari, petite femme – duo (Little husband, little wife)
- 12. Le bal – galop (The ball)
Bizet was a deeply disappointed man. He had hoped that his new opera, Carmen, would be his breakthrough work. But the public reaction to it, while respectable, was not overwhelming. Three months after its premiere, Bizet died of a heart attack at the age of 36, and thus he never was to know that Carmen would become one of the most popular operas of all time.
Bizet already had shown that he was a composer of immense talent. A child prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine, an exception to the Conservatory rule against accepting children, and at 19 he won the school’s coveted Prix de Rome. But success as a composer eluded him. He partly supported himself by transcribing and arranging the works of other composers. He was a brilliant pianist – he amazed Liszt by sight-reading one of Liszt’s most difficult pieces – but he wrote few keyboard works and chose not to pursue a career as a concert pianist. His main focus was on opera, several of which he started but never finished. One work that did find an enthusiastic audience was the orchestral suite L’Arlésienne. Another was Jeux d’enfants, a picturesque set of twelve miniatures for piano four hands that call up a child’s world. After Bizet wrote these evocative pieces, he chose five, rearranged their order, and orchestrated them as the Petite Suite for orchestra. Those are the five we are playing today, arranged in the same order as in the Suite but played in the original four-hand version.
Each of these little character pieces is distinctive in mood and spirit. Together they showcase Bizet’s great gifts for melody and harmony as he captures the joy and charm of children’s play. The set opens with a flourish with Trompette et tambour (Trumpet and drum), a perky march that evokes toy soldiers parading around the playroom. (It’s a short distance from this march to the “Children’s March” in Carmen.) While the soldiers cavort, La Poupée (The doll) is lulled to sleep with a beguiling lullaby. Meanwhile La Toupie (The spinning top) swirls and whirls over a perpetual-motion base, while two children play house in the lyrical and affectionate duo Petit mari, petite femme (Little husband, little wife). The suite ends with a rousing galop, Le bal (The ball), an exuberant finale to a work filled with youthful wonder and delight.
Mendelssohn’s short life was crowded with achievements, beginning with the great Octet that he composed at the impossibly young age of 16. At 20 he conducted a widely heralded revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that precipitated the 19th-century’s rediscovery of Bach’s music. At 26 he was appointed director of the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He founded the Leipzig Conservatory, mentored young musicians, and performed as a brilliant pianist throughout Europe, all the while composing prolifically. Amiable and gracious, he was lionized by everyone from Queen Victoria to the female admirers who, after one concert, grabbed his handkerchief and shredded it to have mementos of the event.
By 1844 the years of whirlwind activity had begun to take their toll. Tired, Felix retired with his family to Frankfurt, where he was able to devote most of the next year to composing. The rewarding results included the superb C Minor Piano Trio, a work that wonderfully demonstrates his inexhaustible melodic gifts, his technical mastery, and the distinctive way he melded Classical form with Romantic spirit.
The Trio is an intense and impassioned work. Mendelssohn sets the tone with the restless rising and falling arpeggios with which the sonata-form first movement opens. The entire movement grows out of this arching figure, which Mendelssohn manipulates rhythmically and contrapuntally in striking ways. As one example, at various points the opening motif is played staccato, or over triplets, or as a brief canon, or at half speed. While there are tranquil stretches, especially in the development section with its focus on the melodious second theme, for the most part the movement surges with explosive energy. Mendelssohn follows this fiery opening with two signature movements: a lyrical Andante that has the lilt and charm of one of his Songs without Words and that features a lovely violin-and-cello duet; and a fleeting, scurrying Scherzo of the kind he invented in the Octet. The intensity of the first movement returns in the Finale. It begins dramatically with the cello’s leap of a ninth (an unusual interval for Mendelssohn); includes the surprise appearance of a Lutheran chorale; and ends with a jubilant major-key coda – a celebratory conclusion that brings the Trio to a thrilling close.
The Trio was the last chamber work published during Mendelssohn’s lifetime. A year later, grief-stricken at the sudden death of his sister Fanny, he died. He was 38.
Live at Deertrees August 9
(For Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano)
Prokofiev came to the United States in 1918 to escape the Russian Revolution, which he feared would lead to the persecution of artists. At around the same time, six conservatory-trained Russian-Jewish musicians who called themselves Zimro arrived in the United States on the last leg of a tour devoted to bringing authentic Jewish folk music to audiences around the world. In November 1919 Zimro made a successful Carnegie Hall debut, in a concert that was heralded as showing the artistic possibilities of a genuine Jewish folk tradition. What happened next depends on who was telling the story.
According to Prokofiev, Zimro – whose members had been his fellow students at the Petersburg Conservatory – “asked me to write an overture for six instruments for them and gave me a notebook of Jewish melodies. At first, I didn’t want to take it because I was accustomed to using my own themes. But finally I kept it and one evening I chose a couple of nice melodies from it and began to improvise on them on the piano.” But according to the group’s clarinetist, Simeon Bellison (who went on to become principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic), after the Carnegie concert it was Prokofiev who approached him and offered to write a “Jewish piece” for them. The next day, said Bellison, Prokofiev visited him and picked two melodies from his collection of folk and traditional Jewish themes.
Whichever version is correct, Prokofiev’s Overture is a wonderful blend of folk and so-called “art” music. A piece with two parts, it opens with a melody in the klezmer tradition, an atmospheric, infectiously rhythmic tune introduced by the cello’s plucked strings and played by the clarinet. (A klezmer was an itinerant musician whose instrument was usually a clarinet or a violin.) The klezmer melody leads into a plaintive second melody, with the cello taking the lead over a rippling piano. The first theme returns in a short development section in which the melody is fragmented, inverted, and contrapuntally enriched. The first section then repeats, with the klezmer theme returning one last time for a brief appearance before the music speeds to a final flourish of chords.
Prokofiev was the pianist for the premiere of Overture on Hebrew Themes in January 1920 in New York. The work became so popular that in 1934 Prokofiev arranged it for a full orchestra.
William Grant Still had a groundbreaking musical career. Born in Mississippi and reared in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was classically trained, studying composition at Oberlin, with George Whitfield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory, and with the avant-garde French composer Edgard Varèse. But he also worked as an arranger for the bandleader Paul Whitman and the blues composer W.C. Handy, played in Broadway pit orchestras, and arranged music for films. His extensive oeuvre – which included five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, and more than 30 choral works – reflects all these influences.
Still’s career was a collection of “firsts,” including the first African American to have a complete score of his work performed by a major orchestra (Still’s blues-inspired Afro-American Symphony, performed by the Rochester Symphony in 1931); the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major opera company (The Troubled Island with a libretto by Langston Hughes, performed by the New York City Opera in 1949); and the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South (the New Orleans Philharmonic, 1955).
Still’s Folk Suite No. 2 shows another of his musical interests: traditional spirituals and folk songs. Still’s wife, the pianist Verna Arvey, wrote the following notes on the Suite’s four songs:
El Zapatero (California). From the days of the Spanish occupation of the state of California comes this little song. It tells the story of a shoemaker who made a pair of shoes to order, but forgot to include the rounded buck-bill toe which his customer had requested. He is scolded for his omission.
Mol’e (Peru). This plaintive song, strongly reminiscent of the present-day music said to be derived from the ancient Inca, has to do with a tree called “the false pepper tree.” From its red berries the Indians today brew a fermented drink.
Mom’zelle Zizi (Louisiana). Quite different in character is this memorable Creole melody, strongly influenced by the music of the Frenchmen who settled in Louisiana. Just as the races blended to produce a new and distinct group of people, so did the music assume the character of the New World without relinquishing any of its Gallic charm.
Peruvian Melody (Incan). In contrast to the previous Peruvian song (Mol’e) this one is a lively tune customarily played on flutes. The typical Andean flute is end-blown and is called a quena, perhaps the best-known and most often played instrument in modern enactments of ancient ceremonials.
It could be dubbed “The Harp War Affair.” It was waged by two rival manufacturers of musical instruments. It pitted two differently designed harps against each other. And it drew both Ravel and Debussy into the fray.
The competition began when the Pleyel Instrument Company designed a new chromatic harp and commissioned Debussy in 1904 to write a piece for its new instrument. The Erard Company, which had patented its own double action pedal harp in 1810 but was still refining its mechanism, responded in 1905 by commissioning Ravel to write a piece that would show off the Erard harp. Ravel, who was about to leave on an extended vacation, wrote to a friend, “I was terribly busy during the few days which preceded my departure, because of a piece for the harp commissioned by the Erard Company. A week of frantic work and three sleepless nights enabled me to finish it, for better or worse.” It turned out to be very much for better. The work that resulted is a tour de force for the harp, a work Mark DeVoto described as “a brilliant virtuoso piece making full use of the technical and timbral resources of the harp, with a lushness of color… [and] a remarkably full orchestral sound.”
From the beginning, the score is marked by a richness of texture and sonority and by a demonstration of the pedal harp’s chromatic range. In the slow Introduction, Ravel introduces themes that will appear in the Allegro. The opening melody is introduced by the winds and then the strings, during which the harp makes its first appearance – the first of many magical moments. The cello introduces the second theme, playing over shimmering winds and strings. The Introduction leads directly into a lively Allegro, which begins with a harp solo. A dramatic development section ends with a virtuosic harp cadenza filled with glissandi, arpeggios, and harmonics that showcase the harp’s range and color possibilities, as well as its ability to play chromatics seamlessly. While the cadenza and the rest of the work demonstrate the glories of Erard’s harp, this is also truly an ensemble piece, with all the instruments contributing to Ravel’s distinctive color palette and orchestration.
Ravel’s work demonstrated the rich possibilities of the pedal harp. But Pleyel’s harp could not handle Ravel’s challenging score. So Erard’s harp won the war. And Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro remains a favorite of harpists.
In 1861, Brahms moved out of his family’s cramped house in Hamburg and into his own rooms in the suburb of Hamm. The setting apparently inspired him, and masterful works flowed from him over the next two years. The first of his important Hamm compositions were a pair of piano quartets, Op. 25 in G Minor and Op. 26 in A Major. With these two quartets, Brahms entered a significant new stage in his development. Yet the G Minor Quartet did not entirely please his friends Clara Schumann and Josef Joachim, who had problems with the first movement. Clara complained about Brahms’s choice of keys (“Too little in G minor and too much in D major”) and about the looseness with which he dealt with sonata form. As Jan Swafford summed up their reaction, “They were not yet accustomed to the dialectic Johannes had begun with tradition.”
Clara’s uneasiness derived largely from the way in which Brahms blurs the expected transitions from section to section in the first movement. Instead of the traditional, expected repeat of the exposition, he writes a short restatement of the first bars of the movement before moving directly into an intense, extended development section. Adding to Clara’s discomfort, Brahms blurs the start of the recapitulation, another change that would have confused his listeners. Along with this characteristically unorthodox treatment of form, though, there is an equally characteristic melodic expressiveness that gives a Brahmsian lushness to this powerful movement.
Brahms originally called the second movement a Scherzo, but Clara apparently suggested that the title Intermezzo would be more appropriate, given the movement’s slower tempos and tuneful grace. In the romantically expressive third movement Brahms combines two very different ideas, as a melodious theme flanks a dotted-rhythm march. While the first movement may have puzzled listeners, the last – a breathless Gypsy-style rondo – “was obviously intended to bring the house down, and it did,” as Brahms’s biographer Ivor Keys noted. Clara, who premiered the Quartet in Hamburg in 1861, wrote in her diary, “The last movement took the audience by storm.” Joachim, who had dedicated his own “Hungarian” Violin Concerto to Brahms, wrote to his friend, “You have beaten me on my own turf.” A year later, the musicians who performed the Quartet with Brahms in Vienna added their own accolade: At the end of a rehearsal, the first violinist leapt up and proclaimed, “This is Beethoven’s heir!”