Live at Deertrees July 11
Late Romantic and early 20th century European traditions meet Middle Eastern colors in the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s music. He was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany, and spent the early part of his career as a rising composer and opera conductor in Germany. Everything changed for him when the Nazis came into power. Blocked from work, he traveled in 1933 to Palestine on a tourist visa, changed his name to Paul Ben-Haim to get around British restrictions on working, settled in Tel Aviv, and began a long and distinguished career as a prize-winning composer, conductor, pianist, and teacher in what in 1948 became Israel.
In Germany Ben-Haim’s influences included Mahler and Strauss as well as Debussy and Ravel, whose Spanish-influenced music also was to inspire him. From his earliest days in Palestine, Ben-Haim led a group of émigré composers who were interested in fusing European traditions with the melodies and rhythms of Middle Eastern music. Soon after his arrival, he began a longtime musical relationship with the Yemenite folk singer Bracha Zefira, a promoter of ethnic songs. Ben-Haim worked for many years as her accompanist and arranger, absorbing her melodies. Plunged into a new, Middle Eastern musical world, he aimed to construct a distinctively Israeli national style infused with local musical traditions. His collaboration with Zefira led him to develop what became known as Israeli Mediterranean style, a mixture of Western compositional techniques and Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.
You’ll hear Ben-Haim’s distinctive melding of Middle Eastern and Western elements in the Serenade for Flute and String Trio. It’s an engaging piece, filled with lyrical melodies, bracing rhythms, irregular meters, distinctive sonorities, and playful pizzicatos. The first movement – Con moto moderato, quasi allegretto – opens with the flute playing a sweet modal melody over dissonant chords. Throughout the movement, themes are exchanged and altered rhythmically and metrically, with pizzicatos adding lightness, and with the serenity of the opening measures prevailing at the end. Those patterns are repeated in the following two movements. In the second movement, Tranquillamente improvisando, the viola begins with a slow, haunting melody, which is passed back and forth among the strings while the flute dances lightly around the music. The pace quickens as the flute begins to improvise over the strings’ syncopated pizzicatos, in an increasingly energetic middle section that rises in tension before an abrupt return to the tranquility of the opening. This mixture of soulful Middle-Eastern melodies and puckish outbursts continues in the witty third movement, Andantino comodo e cantabile, where the rhythms are syncopated and complex and the mood light-hearted. The ending, after many good-natured exchanges, is a serene recasting of the movement’s edgier opening melody – a satisfying conclusion to this very appealing Serenade.
(For oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano)
From the time he arrived in Vienna in 1781, Mozart was determined to prove that he could make a handsome living as a composer and performer. As compositions poured out of him, musical engagements poured in. By 1784 he had become a successful performer-impresario, raising money by staging marathon subscription concerts that featured his own compositions and himself as soloist, and that drew the cream of Viennese society. In 1784 alone he gave four subscription concerts, in addition to 18 private concerts in aristocratic salons. Mozart composed one piano concerto after another for these concerts – six in 1784 alone. In addition, for a concert at the Burgtheater in April 1784 he wrote the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452. Mozart was especially happy with the Quintet. “I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed,” he told his father.
The Quintet is scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn – an unusual combination of instruments, and a challenge: how to create a true partnership among instruments that don’t naturally blend. Mozart met the challenge brilliantly, for “the particular charm of this work consists in its feeling for the tonal character of each of the four wind instruments, of which none is disproportionately prominent,” as Alfred Einstein wrote. The opening Largo establishes that this will be a work filled with elegant melodies and ingenious interplay among all five instruments. From the opening measures, short phrases pass gracefully and seamlessly from one instrument to another, with each wind getting a brief solo. Early on, as just one wonderful example, a short descending scale passes, step by step, from bassoon to horn to clarinet to oboe before it is picked up and amplified by the piano. The Largo leads into a cheerful Allegro moderato where Mozart continues his ingenious ability to suit motifs to each instrument. Throughout, changing interactions produce new and varied sonorities.
The winds have beguiling solos in the second movement, an elegant Larghetto. Again there are
intricate, shifting groupings, with the interaction between piano and winds being especially striking: In one beautiful long passage the winds pass an extended solo back and forth over graceful piano arpeggios. Also striking are the surprising harmonic modulations at the end of the middle section. The Quintet ends with a joyful Rondo that overflows with high-spirited themes, good-humored interactions, a surprise cadenza for all five instruments, and an impish piano flourish at the end that brings the work to a rousing close.
Beethoven purportedly was paying tribute to Mozart’s Quintet when he wrote his Quintet in E Flat for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, which was in the same key, used the same combination of instruments, and followed the same design.
(For Piano, Clarinet, Horn, and String Trio)
Dohnányi, Bartók, Kodály – three Hungarian composers who were musical forces in the first half of the 20th century. All three were ardent Hungarian nationalists, but they expressed their nationalism in different ways. Bartók and Kodály were intent on discovering Hungarian folk music and promoting it in their own music. Dohnányi’s musical inspiration was not folk music but Brahms’s late German Romanticism. As a young student at the Academy of Music in Budapest, Dohnányi studied composition with a Brahms devotee, and his early Piano Quintet won Brahms’s praise. But Dohnányi was committed to his Hungarian roots, and for years he put his stamp on the country’s cultural institutions.
Early in his career, Dohnányi established an international reputation as a legendary concert pianist. He spent a decade teaching in Berlin before returning to Budapest after World War I. There, over many years, he wielded musical power as director of the Budapest Academy of Music, conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, music director of Budapest Radio, and the teacher of a long line of acclaimed Hungarian pianists, while continuing to both perform and compose. He also promoted the music of Hungarian composers. After the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 he left the country, eventually settling in the United States, where for ten years he taught music at Florida State University. He became a US citizen in 1955.
The Sextet in C Major was his last chamber music work. From the dramatic sweep of the first movement to the jazzy lightheartedness of the last, Dohnányi takes us on an exhilarating musical journey, filled with late Romanticism’s rich harmonies and sweeping melodic lines. Dohnányi begins the opening Allegro appassionato with an ominous three-note motif, introduced dramatically by the horn. It recurs throughout a movement that alternates between tense, at times dark heights and sections of sweetness and calm, soaring and falling before finally arriving at a jubilant close. After the turbulence of the first movement, the second movement Intermezzo begins quietly, only to be interrupted by a sinister march – the piano’s chordal arpeggios of the opening now turned menacing – before returning to the calm of the opening measures. The third movement, Allegro con sentimento, is a set of variations on a theme introduced by the clarinet, all engagingly lyrical except for a scherzo-like, diaphanous Presto that could have been written by Mendelssohn. There is a brief return of the opening movement’s horn theme before the music swoops without pause into an irresistibly ebullient finale – a boisterous, syncopated romp complete with foot-tapping rhythms and a loopy waltz. Dohnányi’s sense of fun propels this movement – no surprise from the composer who dedicated his Variations on a Nursery Song “to the enjoyment of lovers of humor, and to the annoyance of others.”
Live at Deertrees July 18
(Divertissement for Flute, Violin, and Cello in G Major, Hob. IV:7 (1784))
The decades Haydn spent as Kappelmeister for the Hungarian house of Esterházy were extraordinarily demanding and extraordinarily productive years. Haydn was in charge of all musical activities in the Esterházys’ music-mad court. Every week, he was expected to compose and present a number of concerts and operas, play chamber music upon request, and do whatever else musically was asked of him. Symphonies, string quartets, keyboard sonatas, concertos, piano trios, operas – compositions flowed, seemingly effortlessly. While Haydn was considered little more than a servant, for a long time his isolated life in the remote palace suited him. As he once commented, “I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.”
As Haydn’s work became more and more widely published and performed, his fame grew. But for many years the Esterházys owned everything he wrote. In 1779, though, he was given permission to sell his compositions to publishers. From then on, he was able to profit from the growing demand for music that amateurs could perform at home. In 1784 he wrote six divertimentos, Hob IV: 6-11, for flute (or violin), violin, and cello. They were his first chamber works expressly for the flute, and they had been commissioned by the London publisher William Forster, whose city was awash in amateur flutists.
The second of the set is the Divertissement in G Major on today’s program. It’s a light, deftly written entertainment, full of good cheer and filled with Haydn’s characteristic lyricism and genial wit. Like many composers, Haydn recycled ideas from one composition to another. For the opening Allegro, Haydn borrowed music from another of his compositions, the aria “Se la Mia Stella” (You are my star), from his comic opera Il Mondo della Luna. That gentle aria translates easily into the lively theme of the Allegro, a movement filled with easy interaction among the three instruments as they pass genial themes back and forth. The music moves seamlessly between major and minor keys, with every minor incursion cut short by a sunny response. The playful interplay among the three instruments at times sounds almost conversational. As one expects from Haydn, there are surprising harmonic turns and unexpected modulations. Haydn shows his gift for melodic invention in the songful G Minor Adagio, with its striking ornamentation and rhythm. A surprise soulful ending leads directly into a high-spirited finale – a lighthearted Allegro whose minor-key middle section fails to put a damper on the movement’s wit and playfulness, and where the strings get a chance at virtuosic turns.
(Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7 (1914))
“If I were asked to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály,” Béla Bartók wrote of his compatriot, fellow ethno-musicologist, and close friend. Kodály was a man with a mission: to capture and preserve the authentic folk music of the Hungarian peasantry, and to make that folk heritage the basis of a genuine Hungarian musical style. Bartók shared Kodály’s passion, and around 1905 the two composers began traveling to remote back-country villages, where they recorded and catalogued thousands of Magyar songs. Kodály spent his life working to establish a national musical culture and to make it the basis of music education in Hungary. So great was his success that by the time of his death he was revered throughout Hungary as a national hero, and the system of music education that he developed for school children had international influence.
The Duo for Violin and Cello is an invigorating example of the way in which Kodály melded folk music with formal, classical structure in his own compositions. While the first movement is in sonata-allegro form – exposition, development, recapitulation — the work gets its flavor from features that it shares with Magyar folk music: the pentatonic themes, free-flowing melodies that range from languorous to fierce, independence of the phrases, speech-like patterns, fluid rhythms, and underlying rhythmic ostinatos. After the cello’s opening declamatory statement, the instruments pass melodies back and forth as if in conversation, with the violin starting the give-and-take. When one is in the spotlight, the other fills in with pizzicato or other ornamentation. From the beginning, moods, tempos, and meters shift rapidly. The texture becomes thicker and the music more aggressive in the development section, which ends with a cello cadenza that leads to a restatement of the themes, but this time with the cello going first.
The conversation that begins in the first movement continues in the heartfelt, rhapsodic Adagio, which, like the rest of the Duo, highlights Kodály’s melodic gifts. This intense, sometimes tormented movement opens with an expressive soliloquy from the cello, which is answered with a restless violin melody. The tension builds as the two instruments exchange melodic ideas, in a pattern that seems almost like speech. The exchange becomes at times dramatic, such as when, early on, the cello keeps up a steady, unnerving tremolo under the violin’s passionate outbursts. If the second movement creates a sense of uneasiness, good humor is restored in the earthy, rhythmic finale, a series of Magyar-style dances, some slow and some fast, that bring the Duo to a vigorous and playful conclusion. Better than words could, the Duo shows just what Kodály wanted, musically, for his country.
“Magnificent” may be an overused word, but it fits Dvorák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major. Dvorák was at the peak of his career when he wrote it. He was acknowledged at home and abroad as one of the great composers of his day – a master at evoking his Slavonic musical heritage within the classical traditions of Beethoven, Schubert, and especially his friend Brahms. He was happy in his personal life too. He was contentedly married, his children were flourishing, and after years of financial struggle he could afford to live comfortably. Dvorák had visited his sister-in law and her husband at their chateau in the small village of Vyoská, near Prague, and had fallen in love with the area. Eager for a place that could be a peaceful retreat from his increasingly busy travels abroad, he bought an old farm building that he turned into a summer home for his family. For years he spent long, idyllic summers there. Dvorák wrote many of his famous compositions at Vyoská,, including his Symphonies No. 7 and No. 8, some Slavonic Dances, the opera Rusalka, and this epic Piano Quintet.
Fifteen years earlier, Dvorák had written an unmemorable Piano Quintet in A Major, which he published as Op. 5. Years later he thought of rewriting it, but then decided to start a new one from scratch, in the same key. What he composed in its place is one of the great piano quintets of the Romantic era – a melodically sumptuous, flawlessly structured, sonically grand work that joyfully blends Europe and Bohemia. Dvorák’s brilliant handling of his material begins with the first measures of the opening Allegro, as the cello plays one of Dvorák’s meltingly beautiful melodies over the piano’s gentle arpeggios. Almost immediately, the mood changes with a rousing series of elaborate transformations of this theme. Not until many measures later does the viola introduce a second, minor-key theme. These contrasts – between gentle and vigorous, major and minor, lyrical and muscular – drive the rest of the movement, through its elaborate development and to its jubilant coda.
The Dumka, with its alternating lament and rhythmic folk dance, was a Dvorák specialty, and this one is superb. The opening melancholy melody alternates with two dances, the first a cheerful melody in D Major, the second a lively, rhythmic Vivace. Each time the lament returns it is treated more elaborately, with increasingly rich textures. Melodic invention and rhythmic verve drive the last two movements. The briskness of the effervescent Scherzo is interrupted by a tranquil trio. There’s barely an interruption in the merry Finale, a rhythmic adventure with a fugato in the development, a chorale near the end, and a dazzling, headlong coda.
Live at Deertrees July 25
The preface to the 1994 edition of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano offers an inside look at the sometimes drawn-out birth of a piece of music, told through letters from the composer.
September. 1952, Poulenc to a friend:
“Momentarily I have abandoned the Sonata for Two Pianos for a Sonata for Flute which suddenly took shape at the Austerlitz station last Thursday.”
1953, To his publisher:
“I am just finishing my Sonata for Two Pianos. God knows if I will ever take up the Flute Sonata again because I am going to write a large opera for La Scala based on The Dialogues of the Carmelites.”
1955, To his publisher:
“After the summer I hope to take up again my idea for a Sonata for Flute.”
Early 1956, To his publisher:
“Perhaps this summer I will finish the Sonata for Flute.”
The chief of the music division of the Library of Congress offered Poulenc a commission for a new piece. Poulenc at first declined – he was finishing the orchestration of his opera, he said – but then accepted. In a phone call to his friend the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, Poulenc said: “Jean-Pierre, you know you’ve always wanted me to write a sonata for flute and piano? Well, I’m going to. And the best thing is that the Americans will pay for it! I’ve been commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation to write a chamber piece in memory of Elizabeth Coolidge. I never knew her, so I think of the piece as yours.”
Poulenc mailed the completed manuscript to the Library of Congress, just days before he and Rampal premiered it to great acclaim at the Strasbourg Festival.
The flutist James Galway has called Poulenc “a master of the mood swing” – an apt description of both his personality and his music. Poulenc was both an irreverent, happy-go-lucky hedonist who tried never to appear serious, and a deeply religious Catholic given to bouts of melancholy. The Flute Sonata, like so much else that he wrote, shows sides of his complex personality. The first movement, Allegretto malincolico, opens restlessly with a descending minor-key scale. The mood is lightened by a brief brash outburst and by a sunny major-key middle section. But it is the wistful opening theme that dominates this elegant “malincolico” movement, which ends with a wonderfully ambiguous broken chord that is briefly major before quickly changing to minor. You can almost hear a chanteuse singing the second-movement Cantilena’s tender melody, with its long arching lines over the piano’s chords. Then it’s on to a sassy, breathless Presto giocoso. Toward the end, the lyrical second theme of the first movement makes a brief reappearance before irrepressible merriment brings the Sonata to a giddy close.
For Shostakovich, life as an artist in Soviet Russia was harrowing. He found himself praised one day, condemned the next, and publicly humiliated. Shostakovich’s early rise to fame had been swift. While still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory he made a triumphant public debut with his First Symphony, written when he was eighteen. Success reached a peak in 1934 with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, which was a sensation both in Moscow and abroad. Then in 1936 Stalin attended a performance. Two days later an article in Pravda denounced the opera for pandering to the decadent tastes of the bourgeois West and warned, “This is a game…that may end very badly.” As Shostakovich’s biographer Laurel Fay wrote, “For Shostakovich, who was cast down overnight from the summit as the brightest star among young Soviet composers to the abyss as pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity, things would never again be the same.” Shaken, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from its scheduled premiere and began the work that would redeem him: the Fifth Symphony of 1937. Three years later, as a further sign of renewed official approval, his Piano Quintet was awarded the hundred-thousand-ruble Stalin Prize.
Shostakovich wrote the Quintet for the Beethoven String Quartet. He later told a friend that he wrote the piano part for himself so that when the group took the Quintet on tour, they would have to take him along. The Quintet is a work of beguiling charm, directness, and vitality. It begins dramatically with a grand Prelude and Fugue that looks back to Bach and forward to Shostakovich’s own 24 Preludes and Fugues. In the Prelude a solemn theme, introduced by the piano and picked up by the strings, surrounds a lighter, livelier middle section. The polyphony-rich Fugue starts gently and quietly, one instrument at a time, then slowly builds to a peak of great tension before the music recedes and finally melts away.
Nothing could be further from the grandeur of the Fugue than the boisterous Scherzo. Here the Shostakovich who was known for irony and irrepressible wit puts in an appearance, as the piano romps over earnest strings, then introduces the Trio with what appear to be wrong notes. Tranquility returns with the soulful Intermezzo, a lyrical movement that is striking for its long melodic lines and an underlying poignancy. This movement leads without pause to an upbeat Finale that is rich in distinctive themes, and that has a surprisingly whimsical ending.
The Quintet was a public triumph. As one observer recalled, it “was discussed in trams, [and] people tried to sing in the streets the second defiant theme of the finale.” Today it remains one of Shostakovich’s most popular works.
(For Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello)
By 1890, Brahms had begun telling friends that he was giving up composing – he was simply having too much difficulty developing new ideas. His resolution didn’t last long, though. Like Mozart before him, he was inspired by a clarinetist to write one of his greatest works. Early in 1891 he spent a week at an arts festival in Meiningen. There he met Richard Mühlfeld, the brilliant principal clarinetist of the Meiningen orchestra. Brahms and Mühlfeld became friends, and Mühlfeld entertained Brahms with performances of many works, including the Weber Clarinet Concerto and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Brahms was smitten by Mühlfeld’s exceptionally sweet tone and by the unique sound of the clarinet, with its rich three-octave range, its endless nuances of color and mood, and its huge textural palette. Inspiration began to flow once more, and that summer Brahms composed two pieces for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, op. 114, and what he called “a far greater piece of foolishness,” the magnificent B Minor Clarinet Quintet.
The Clarinet Quintet has been called Brahms’s autumnal masterpiece, the reflective work of an aging composer who is a master of his craft. “Autumnal,” however, while accurately suggesting a rueful sadness, doesn’t fully convey the rich emotional range and the energy of this expansive, tautly constructed work. While the overall mood is one of quiet nostalgia, there are many moments of urgency and passion. From its earliest measures, the first movement sets the stage for much of what will follow. It presents two of the themes that will recur in various guises throughout the four movements. It establishes an ambiguous shifting between major and minor modes that will persist throughout the Quintet. And it introduces the clarinet with a delicious, slow upward sweep that presages the riches to come. The clarinet’s ability to evoke many moods is further demonstrated in the second movement – where a sweet, calm song gives way to a floridly ornamented, Hungarian-style rhapsody – and in the third, with its flowing andantino and rhythmical presto. In the last movement Brahms turns to a favorite form, a theme and five variations, before ending with a moving coda that brings back the Quintet’s opening theme. It’s a deft summing up, with variations that are, in Jan Swafford’s words, “portraits of the clarinet in its nuances of timbre, articulation, and dynamics, ending on a dying series of chords, piercingly lonely.” Other effects add to the sense of something coming to an end. Each movement, for example, ends either piano or pianissimo, and the first movement as well as the last closes on a somber note.
Mühlfeld (whom Brahms had affectionately nicknamed “Fräulein Klarinette”) premiered the Quintet that fall in Berlin, to great acclaim.
Live at Deertrees August 1
By the time Schubert wrote the String Trio in B Flat, D. 471, he was near the end of an unhappy period in his life. Three years earlier, at the age of 16, he had finished his education at the Imperial and Royal City Seminary, returned to live in his family’s overcrowded home, and begun teaching at his father’s school – stressful arrangements for a young man who wanted only to live independently with his friends and spend all his time writing music. He avoided teaching as much as he could, instead spending much of his time at his desk composing and whipping any boy who interrupted him. Asked to describe his method of composing, he said simply, “When I have finished one piece I begin another.”
Despite being shackled to a job he hated, over the next three years he wrote an astonishing amount of music – what one biographer called “an outburst of composition without parallel in the history of music.” His range was tremendous. He wrote hundreds of lieder, including his masterpieces “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig,” plus many string quartets, four symphonies, several masses, and innumerable smaller pieces. He also tried his hand at opera, which he hoped would enable him to support himself. But then and for the rest of his short life he was unable to earn a living as a composer, and many of his greatest works were not heard publicly until long after his death.
Schubert’s Vienna was a Classical mecca, awash in the music of Haydn and Mozart. Schubert’s unique musical personality had already begun to emerge in his masterful songs, but the great instrumental works that helped define Romanticism were still in the future. The String Trio in B Flat, D. 471, written in September 1816, shows that the Vienna of his youth remained a significant influence. The String Trio is a Classical delight. Like several of his other instrumental compositions, it is unfinished: a second movement peters out after 30-some measures. But the movement that remains sparkles. It is written in the satisfying symmetry of sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation. The main themes of the Trio’s exposition are lyrical and light, with a playful moment when forte scales descend during the second theme. In the development, which is based almost entirely on the last few notes of the exposition, Schubert takes the music through colorful key changes and adds a touch of soberness with a brief minor-key episode, before the recapitulation restores the Trio’s melodic charm and good humor.
That fall Schubert finally broke away, moving out of his father’s house and beginning an independent life at the center of a bohemian circle of devoted friends.
(For Violin, Cello, and Piano)
Rachmaninoff’s early life reads like a Chekhov play. His parents were descendants of land-owning aristocrats, and his mother had brought extensive property as a dowry when she married. But his profligate father went through all the family’s money, their several estates were sold off one by one, and finally, when Sergei was nine, they were forced to move to cramped quarters in St. Petersburg. His sister died of diphtheria, his parents separated, and three years later Sergei failed all his exams at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Worried by what she saw as her gifted son’s laziness and indifference, his mother shipped him off to Moscow at the age of twelve to study piano with, and learn some discipline from, Nicolai Zverev, a famously hard-driving teacher. The plan worked. Sergei buckled down, and under Zverev’s rigorous regime he blossomed as both a pianist and a student. He entered the Moscow Conservatory and graduated in just three years, becoming only the third graduate to win the school’s highest honor, the Great Gold Medal in composition.
Rachmaninoff had begun composing soon after he arrived in Moscow, and he confidently turned out works at a steady clip. What is impressive about these early works is how quickly the young student arrived at his distinctive mature sound. It’s there in the Trio élégiaque No.1, which he wrote in a few days during his final year at the Conservatory. (Later that same year he would write one of his most famous pieces, the Prelude in C Sharp Minor.) Why Rachmaninoff wrote an elegy isn’t entirely clear. The work clearly had a connection to Tchaikovsky, to whom Sergei was devoted: Listeners immediately would recognize that the opening theme was a reversal of the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But Tchaikovsky was still very much alive. Perhaps Sergei’s Trio was a nod to the Piano Trio that Tchaikovsky wrote to mourn the death of the pianist Nikolai Rubenstein; its first movement also ends with a funeral march.
The structure of the single-movement Trio élégiaque is simple. It opens with the piano presenting a somber, very Russian melody – marked “Lento lugubre” – and closes with the melody repeated as a mournful funeral march. In between, as the music progresses from section to section, soulful passages alternate with great surges of passion, climaxing with a rise to a fortissimo episode, marked “Appassionato,” just before the funeral march. The themes pass from instrument to instrument, with violin and cello getting chances to embellish the Romantic, heart-on-sleeves melodies. But this is a piano-driven work – not surprising, given Rachmaninoff’s keyboard brilliance. From the beginning, it is the piano’s massive chords and big Romantic washes of color that drive the music
Arranged for piano four hands by Henry Levine
Many European composers, Ravel among them, were inspired by American jazz, but none of them captured its essence as memorably as George Gershwin, the American composer who took classical music into the Jazz Age. Gershwin began his career in Tin Pan Alley, where his genius for melody had him spinning out song after unforgettable song – “Swanee,” “Lady Be Good,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” “Summertime.” Gershwin had bigger dreams, though. In addition to being a gifted musical-theater entertainer, he was a serious student of 20th-century classical music. He studied the compositions of Stravinsky, Berg, and Ives, was friends with Ravel and Schoenberg, and eagerly absorbed their ideas.
Gershwin’s dream was to marry classical and popular music – to “make an honest woman out of jazz.” His first attempt to bring jazz into the concert hall was his most famous: Rhapsody in Blue. The work was a commission from the bandleader Paul Whiteman, who shared Gershwin’s ambition to elevate jazz by giving it a classical respectability, and who wanted a new orchestral work for an upcoming concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The commission came at the last minute, and Gershwin wrote hastily. Whiteman’s own arranger, Ferde Grofé, scored the piece for jazz band. Gershwin was the soloist at the concert, which took place in February 1924 (two weeks after the first New York performance of The Rite of Spring, which “exercised a great influence” on Gershwin, as he told a friend). The hall was packed with musical celebrities, including Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, John Philip Sousa, Alma Gluck, and Rachmaninoff.
From the clarinet’s famous opening glissando, the audience sat rapt, and at the end of the performance they went wild. What they had heard was a brash, melodically rich, tonally daring composition whose highlights included a brilliant opening, a dizzying series of harmonic modulations, propulsive rhythms, and of course the continuous use of flatted blue notes. Gershwin later wrote that when he began to work on the rhapsody, he “heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” It’s that vision, successfully carried out, that makes Rhapsody in Blue an iconic portrait of Jazz Age America in all its exuberance and dance-driven vitality.
It doesn’t take a full orchestra to capture Rhapsody in Blue’s multitude of charms. Over the years it has appeared in many guises, including a performance by 84 pianists at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. As today’s performance shows, four hands are more than enough to convey the pleasures of a composition that has become probably the best-known American concert work of the 20th century
Camille Saint-Saëns was a legend in 19th-century France. For many years he was considered the dean of French composers, admired by Berlioz and Liszt among many other fellow musicians. His music was wildly popular not just in France but in England and the United States too. He wrote in virtually every musical medium, composing hugely popular works such as the Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), the symphonic poem Dance macabre, the opera Samson et Delila, and of course Carnival of the Animals (which he refused to have performed during his lifetime, worried that it would hurt his reputation). A prodigy who began studying the piano at three and was composing songs by the age of five, he was a brilliant organist (Liszt called him “the greatest organist in the world”), an admired pianist and conductor, and an influential teacher whom Fauré and Fauré’s pupil Ravel both revered. After the Franco-Prussian War he helped found the National Society of Music to promote the works of French composers. But music was not his only focus. He was a polymath whose interests included geology, botany, and astronomy, and who wrote academic articles on acoustics. He was one of the first composers to write a score for a motion picture (the 1908 film The Assassination of the Duke of Guise) and one of the first to make a recording of his own work.
A classicist who loved Bach, Haydn, and Mozart and especially admired the restraint of French composers such as Rameau, he was a consummate craftsman whose works are consistently elegant, mellifluous, and richly sonorous. “He who does not feel wholly satisfied with elegant lines, harmonious colors, and a fine series of chords does not understand art,” Saint-Saëns once said. His ardent and spirited Piano Quartet in B-flat Major is a wonderful example of his approach and style.
The majestic first-movement Allegretto showcases Saint-Saëns’ skill in blending instrumental voices as he presents and develops two themes, the first built on “a fine series of chords,” the second a dreamy, lyrical melody. This movement is a warmup for the Andante maestoso ma con moto that follows, a grand fugal extravaganza that reflects Saint-Saëns’ affection for Bach. Offbeat, syncopated rhythms and playful dialogue drive the third-movement Poco allegro piu tosto moderato, a rambunctious, minor-key scherzo with hints of the macabre. Here, as in the first movement, Saint-Saëns ends with a pianissimo before launching the Quartet’s grand finale, a contrapuntally rich Allegro that brings back themes from the first and second movements in a joyful coda. It’s a colorful end to a technically impressive composition that is as deftly written as it is entertaining.
Live at Deertrees August 8
In 1904, during a summer spent in the Hungarian countryside, Bartók heard a young peasant girl singing indigenous folksongs. For the young composer it was a life-changing moment. As he wrote to his sister, “I have a new plan now, to collect the finest examples of Hungarian folksongs and to raise them to the level of works of art with the best possible piano accompaniment.” So began Bartók’s quest to collect, catalog, and classify thousands of folk melodies. With his friend Zoltan Kodály and an Edison phonograph, over the next several years Bartók set out on scores of expeditions to remote villages to record the songs of peasants whose lives were untouched by modern civilization.
Bartók believed that one couldn’t understand Hungarian music without also understanding the music of its neighbors, so he soon spread his efforts to include the villages of populations that bordered Hungary, particularly the Slovaks to the north and the Romanians to the east. As he said years later in an interview, “All peasant music deeply interests me, and my goal is to extract the essence from it.” Over the next several years, Bartók transcribed many of the songs he gathered – an effort he described as “the mounting of a jewel.” The Romanian collections, with their unique harmonies and rhythms, proved to be a particularly rich trove. In 1915 he published piano transcriptions of Romanian Christmas Carols and Romanian Folk Dances, as well as a Sonatina for piano that was based on Romanian material. Two years later he orchestrated the Folk Dances. Many other versions of these dances followed, including the one for viola and piano on today’s program – a testament to the popularity of this marvelous work.
The Folk Dances consist of six colorful miniatures, each with its own character. Bartók recorded two Gypsy fiddlers playing Stick Game, the lively, rhythmically decisive melody that opens the set. It is followed by Sash Dance, a lighter, quicker dance in a different style, a pattern that Bartók will follow throughout the work. The slower third dance, In One Spot, is more exotic, with the viola playing at the top of its register and modal harmonies giving the music an oriental character. Next comes a wistful Horn Dance that, with its augmented seconds, sounds equally exotic. A foot-stamping Polka and a breathless Fast Dance bring the dances to a close.
In addition to their obvious charms, the Romanian Folk Dances are a succinct compendium of the folk elements that Bartók would absorb and make his own, including flexible tempos, irregular rhythms, asymmetrical phrases, dissonant harmonies, and the distinctive tonality that he described in his Autobiography as “emancipation from the exclusive rule of the traditional major-minor system.”
While Beethoven was spending his early years in Vienna demonstrating his mastery of the Classical sonata, concerto, symphony, string trio, and string quartet, he also showed a lighter side, composing occasional works that are witty, lighthearted, and charming from start to finish. The Serenade in D Major is such a composition. Carefree in spirit, relatively uncomplicated in design, it is the kind of graceful and cheery work that the Viennese loved.
Amateur musicians flourished in Beethoven’s Vienna, creating a market for a steady stream of fresh new compositions for communal music-making. One popular genre was the serenade, which started as an amorous song and evolved into a multi-movement instrumental composition written to celebrate an occasion or a person. Mozart’s serenades set the standard, and Beethoven took his lead from them – not surprising, given Mozart’s strong influence on Beethoven, especially when it came to chamber music for strings and for winds.
In addition to his choice of key – the majority of Mozart’s Serenades are in D Major – Beethoven follows Mozart’s format, beginning and ending his Serenade with fast movements and including a minuet with two trios, and a set of variations. The first-movement Entrata (Introduction) opens with a flourish, with the flute playing a sprightly fanfare that becomes the theme for the movement, traded back and forth among the three instruments. Following tradition, Beethoven begins the second movement with a graceful minuet, followed by a first trio that showcases the strings, then a second trio in which the flute takes center stage in a bouncy solo over plucked strings. While the third movement, in D Minor, purports to be darker, its sternness is undercut by the bright D Major trio in the middle and by the playfulness with which the flute ends the movement. Like the rest of the Serenade, the fourth-movement Andante with Variations is very much in the Viennese Classical tradition, its variations decorated in classic 18th-century style. Each instrument gets a chance to ornament the theme — the flute in the first variation, the violin in the second, the viola in the third. Beethoven deviates from convention in the fifth movement, replacing the traditional second minuet with a brief scherzo that includes a contrapuntal trio. An introductory Adagio leads to the Allegro finale, a rhythmic, breezy (disinvolto) rondo capped by a 16-bar Presto that brings the Serenade to its cheerful conclusion. Filled with playful moments, from the flute’s opening imitation of a horn to the frisky presto coda, the Serenade is an effervescent treat from an unexpected source.
Beethoven later allowed an arrangement of the Serenade for flute or violin and piano, made by another composer, to be published under his name as Op. 41.
What would inspire a composer described by friends as “a man of the utmost humility, simplicity, reverence, and industry” to compose a startlingly tempestuous piano quintet that overflows with searing passion? In César Franck’s case, the answer might be: love. Specifically, his passion for a beautiful young student.
Franck was a piano prodigy who after a brief touring career settled in Paris and became a church organist renowned for his organ compositions and improvisations. In 1872 he became professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire, where he also became an informal mentor to composition students who were inspired by his fresh ideas about what French music could be. Franck’s aim was to combine Gallic color and tonality with German Classical structure. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its lush chromatic harmonies, and Liszt’s promotion of cyclical form were his inspirations.
You can hear these ideas played out in the dramatically gripping Piano Quintet, which Franck wrote during a late-life surge of composing. All three movements are in sonata form; but within that Classical framework, the music pushes emotions to the limit. The Quintet is cyclic in nature, with themes from the first movement reappearing later and giving the work a satisfying thematic unity. In each movement, there are a striking number of harmonic modulations. (Franck’s Conservatoire students noted his constant exhortations to “Modulate, modulate!”) Throughout, the music smolders, with the stormy outer movements bursting with emotion and the wistful middle movement filled with longing. Nadia Boulanger noted that she had never seen so many ppp and fff in one chamber piece.
The opening movement sets the tone for the Quintet. A slow introduction presents two contrasting themes: a fierce downward sweep from the strings, which the piano answers with a gentle, flowing melody. These two contrasting themes animate the Allegro that follows. Toward its end, Franck combines the themes in an escalation of tension before the movement comes to an exhausted close. The piano theme recurs in both the “molto sentimento” second movement and the fiery final Allegro, with its atmospheric opening, deft combining of the contrasting themes, and unrelenting passionate intensity.
All that emotion elicited strong responses. Saint-Saëns, who sight-read the piano part at the Quintet’s premiere – and who purportedly was in love with the same woman – became increasingly upset as the music unfolded and stormed off the stage at the end, refusing to shake Franck’s hand or accept Franck’s gift of the manuscript. Franck’s wife hated it, dismissing it with one word: “Ugh!” Debussy, on the other hand, was thrilled. As one critic wryly summed up: “The piano quintet is, by any measure, not quite the sound that anyone would expect to hear from the organ-loft.”