Live at Deertrees July 13 and Available On Demand July 14 – July 20
Beethoven’s first published works were the three Opus 1 Trios for piano, violin, and cello, published in 1795. He waited another thirteen years before returning to the genre with his two Opus 70 Piano Trios. In the interim he was producing a body of work that, beginning with the “Eroica” Symphony in 1803, was setting new standards in genre after genre. The two Opus 70 Trios were part of this groundbreaking flood of compositions. Written at the height of Beethoven’s “heroic” middle period, they are transformative works that “raise the genre to a level from which the later piano trio literature could move forward,” says Lewis Lockwood.
Among other things, as Lockwood observes, the D Major Trio demonstrates Beethoven’s new ways of thinking about ensemble sonorities. In earlier Classical trios the piano dominated; here the strings engage with the piano in rich contrapuntal interplay. The string parts are more difficult, the cello more prominent and wide-ranging, the piano more expansive, and the overall range and depth greater. Beyond the radical rethinking of instrumental roles, the Ghost Trio is structurally daring. Not only is it in three movements instead of the usual four, but Beethoven upends the conventional pattern in which strong outer movements flank a quiet slow movement. Here it is the middle Largo – an unsettling movement almost twice as long as the other two movements combined – that is the immense and weighty focal point of the work.
Beethoven sets the stage with a short, high-energy opening movement in which two relatively simple ideas introduced in the first few measures – a vigorous ascending four-note motif played in unison by the three instruments, and a lyrical second theme introduced by the cello – become the basis for a whirlwind of dynamic and dramatic contrasts. The jarring F-natural on which the opening rising motif ends signals that the Trio will be harmonically adventurous too. This movement serves as an introduction to the spectral Largo that follows. Carl Czerny gave the Trio its nickname when he described it as “ghastly awful, like an apparition from the lower world. During it, we may not unsuitably think of the first appearance of the Ghost in Hamlet.” The Largo is altogether strange – suspenseful, atmospheric, and obsessive, with spare textures, eerie tremolos, and a ghostly ending. Then comes relief as an ebullient and good-natured Presto rescues the Trio from gloom, bringing to a sunny close a work that points the way for the great Romantic trios to come.
(For piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass)
Schubert wrote the “Trout” Quintet during a happy time in his life, before he had begun to suffer from the syphilis that would kill him at the age of 31. In the summer of 1819 the singer Johann Michael Vogl invited Schubert to vacation with him in Steyr, his picturesque hometown in Upper Austria. Schubert was enchanted by the town and the surrounding countryside.
During his stay Schubert met the wealthy music patron Sylvester Paumgartner, an enthusiastic amateur cellist who hosted musical evenings in his home. Paumgartner loved Schubert’s popular song “Die Forelle” (The Trout), a charming story of a fish that darts and splashes to escape a cunning angler. Paumbartner asked Schubert to write a piano quintet in which one of the movements would be variations on the song. Schubert agreed, began the quintet in Steyr, and finished it when he returned to Vienna in the fall. Thus was born one of chamber music’s best-loved works. The carefree weeks spent in Steyr, Schubert’s delight in the romantic landscape, the playful song about the nimble fish – all combined to inspire Schubert’s melodious and effervescent “Trout” Quintet.
There are many reasons for the Quintet’s enduring popularity. Like the song itself, the Quintet flows joyfully along, its texture enriched by the unusual instrumental combination. Each of the five movements overflows with melodic invention and harmonic color. An unusual feature of three of the movements – the Allegro vivace, the Andante, and the Finale – is that the second half of each is the same as the first, except in a different key. Among the many highlights of the Quintet are the high-spirited interplay among piano and strings from the very beginning of the opening Allegro vivace; the three wonderful contrasting themes of the songlike Andante; the unusual modulations of the rhythmic Scherzo; and the rambunctious Finale that brings the Quintet to its good-natured close. The heart of the piece, of course, is the delectable fourth movement, with its set of six variations on “The Trout.” Each of the instruments gets a chance to shine, in variations that range from subdued to brilliant to tempestuous to lyrical. Teasingly, Schubert saves for the last variation the leaping arpeggios found in the original song, which paint a picture of the trout darting around in the sparkling water.
Like so much of Schubert’s music, the “Trout” Quintet disappeared during his lifetime. After his death his brother found the manuscript and in 1829 sold it to a publisher. It has remained a popular and beloved work ever since.
July 21st – July 27th On Demand
The key of C Minor may have played a role in Beethoven’s contentious relationship with Haydn. Shortly after his arrival in Vienna in 1792, Beethoven gave a performance of the three piano trios that would later be published as his Opus 1. Haydn admired the first two trios, but he advised Beethoven not to publish the third, in C Minor, because he thought the public would not understand it. Beethoven decided that Haydn was jealous. Not only did he ignore the advice, but over the next several years he wrote some of his most dramatic and fiery music in the key of C Minor, including the “Pathétique” Sonata, the Third Piano Concerto, and the Fifth Symphony. As Denis Matthews notes, “It seems that the key of C Minor unleashed a creative demon.”
It’s intriguing to find in this relatively early String Trio the elements that would eventually push Beethoven’s music past Mozart’s and Haydn’s Classicism. Beethoven’s unmistakable personality comes through clearly in this taut and dramatic work, which is filled with nervous energy and tension as well as wry humor. The drama starts at the very beginning of the sonata-form Allegro con spirito, as all three instruments play a dark, descending four-note motif in unison. These four notes recur throughout the movement, interrupted regularly by explosive chords. Throughout the richly textured development and a long, vigorous coda, the three instruments are equal partners. Beethoven maintains intensity in several ways: through a constant alternation between major and minor modes, through a steady recurrence of heavily accented notes, and through restless figurations.
In contrast to this first movement, vigorous and bursting with impatience, the second movement, in the key of C Major, is a lyrical Adagio. One notable device that Beethoven uses here is to thicken the texture with double stops, effectively adding a fourth voice. With the Scherzo, Beethoven returns to the C Minor key and the vigorous intensity of the opening movement. The movement’s trio, in C Major, provides some relief, and the ending is a surprise, as the Scherzo fades to a whisper. Rapidly repeated triplets drive the restless Finale, which features a playful middle section and a final surprise: The C Minor Trio ends on a quiet C Major chord.
By the time he was finishing this Trio, Beethoven had begun working on the six Opus 18 String Quartets, his first foray into quartet writing. The Opus 9 String Trios were his last compositions for three stringed instruments.
To Wagner, Brahms was a traditionalist whose music belonged to the past. To Schoenberg, he was a progressive whose innovations influenced Schoenberg’s own musical ideas. In a way, both were right. Brahms’s reputation as a traditionalist and a conservative came from his championing the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and from his use of traditional Classical structures in his own music. What he did within those structures, however, was another story. While he understood traditional sonata form, he was innovative in his treatment of it. As Jan Swafford notes, “A Brahmsian movement is often made of succinct melodic ideas that begin to transform as soon as we hear them, and continue to evolve and recombine throughout, accompanied by the sort of abrupt key changes that used to be confined to the development section.” This is the technique that an admiring Schoenberg named “developing variation,” and that Brahms uses in the A Major Piano Quartet.
The first movement of this lyrical and expansive Quartet gives a good sense of how the technique works. Instead of traditional thematic development, Brahms develops a wealth of motives incrementally and in complex relationships. Brahms opens with a striking two-part thematic statement: The piano begins a gentle, irregular motive, in triplets, which the cello answers with a flowing phrase in eighth notes. The strings repeat the triplet motive, immediately after which these two ideas begin evolving harmonically and melodically. Meanwhile, the two contrasting meters – triplets against eighth notes – play out against each other throughout the sonata-form movement.
The beautiful second movement shows Brahms’s affection for Schumann. Tranquil, at times ardent, and melodically rich throughout, the Adagio is striking for its long, arching piano themes, the muted sonorities of the strings, and especially the strange, somewhat ominous arpeggios that twice interrupt the melodic flow before closing the movement. Brahms next presents a Scherzo that is surprisingly light and amiable, although the minor-key trio, which opens with a fiery canon, is made of sterner stuff. The vivacious Finale is marked by exuberant, Hungarian-style themes that sweep the music to a joyful conclusion. It is marked, too, by a continuation of rhythmic irregularities. At the start of the movement, for instance, Brahms seems to be having a good time disguising where the beat falls. This playing with meter is another element that increasingly will become a distinguishing feature of Brahms’s musical style.
Live at Deertrees July 20 & Available On Demand July 28 – August 3
For Mozart, 1788 was a bad year financially but a good year musically. In June that year Mozart wrote to the merchant and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg, “If you would be so kind, so friendly, as to lend me the sum of one or two thousand gulden for a period of one or two years, at suitable interest, you would be doing me a most radical service.” Mozart was feeling great financial pressure. His income had dropped, he owed money, and none of his money-raising schemes were working. He failed to attract subscribers for the publication of three String Quintets; plans for a series of summer concerts didn’t pan out; he was pawning valuables; and to support his family he was teaching, which he hated.
His troubles didn’t slow down the pace of his composing, though. Over that summer and fall Mozart wrote his last three symphonies, his last violin sonata, the piano sonata K. 545, and his last three piano trios. While the symphonies are grand works for the concert hall, the Piano Trio in G Major – the last of the three – is a warm and affable piece that you could imagine playing with friends during a convivial musical evening at home. Mozart was a brilliant pianist, so it’s not surprising that the piano sings throughout this Trio (in fact some have suggested that the work originally was meant to be a piano sonata). But in Mozart’s hands the piano trio was also becoming a more balanced conversation among all three instruments, and that evolution too is evident here.
You can hear the interplay throughout the opening Allegro, as the strings echo the opening theme introduced by the piano, and then all three instruments continue to converse back and forth. The development introduces a darker note, but for the most part the Allegro is filled with conviviality. The Andante is a lovely theme and variations, built around a gentle melody. Not until the fourth variation is the theme itself altered. With the minor-key fifth variation the mood become solemn and darker, but good cheer is restored in the rhythmic last variation. Playfulness and good-natured charm infuse the concluding Allegretto, a sunny rondo filled with dance rhythms, colorful instrumental exchanges, and a final joyful outburst. As one commentator has said admiringly of this feel-good work, “Mozart gives the impression of having put every note in precisely the right place.”
Jean Françaix’s jaunty Trio à cordes is bursting with charm and humor – not a surprise for a composer for whom there was no border between “serious” and “entertaining.” Music could be both, as he demonstrated again and again throughout a long and prolific career devoted to producing what he called “Music for Pleasure.” The music of this quintessentially Gallic composer summons up early 20th-century Paris and all the composers Françaix admired, from Chabrier’s elegance, to Poulenc’s irreverence, to Ravel’s formal mastery, to Stravinsky’s neoclassicism.
Françaix’s gifts were evident early. He began writing music at six, and within a few years he was studying with Nadia Boulanger, who soon wrote to his mother, “I don’t see why we should waste our time teaching him harmony. He already knows harmony. I don’t know how he knows, but he knows; He was born knowing harmony. Let’s try counterpoint.” By his early twenties, he was solidly established as a brilliant pianist and a composer whose works were much in demand. Throughout his life he wrote effortlessly and composed steadily, producing more than 200 works, including ballets, operas, and many concerto and chamber compositions for virtually every instrument in the orchestra. Through all the avant-garde trends of the 20th century, he stayed true to his own vision, remaining a neoclassicist whose tonal works are distinguished by rhythmic verve, melodic elegance, fastidious craftsmanship, and an ever-present sense of fun.
All of these traits are in evidence in his early String Trio, a witty, graceful, and utterly delightful work. The perpetual-motion Allegretto vivo sets the tone: it is brief and playful, with muted strings scurrying around snatches of melody, and with occasional pizzicati adding to the chatter. The rhythmic drive continues in a boisterous, harmonically rich Scherzo. Here the wit is more satiric, especially in the lurching trio, which suggests the movements of a drunken boulevardier. The third-movement Andante is an island of calm that shows Françaix’s gift for cantabile melody, as violin, cello, and viola take turns playing a tender song. With the concluding Rondo the Trio returns to its rambunctious ways. The music bounces, swoops, and skitters to a pizzicato beat before ending with a final humorous surprise. Lighthearted doesn’t mean lightweight, though: Like all Françaix’s works, the Trio à cordes is tightly and intricately constructed. As he once said, “I am always told that my works are easy. Whoever says that has probably not played them.”
With the Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Beethoven arrived at another pinnacle. For several years, starting with the massive “Eroica” Symphony, he had been composing tempestuous, conflict-ridden works in what has been called his heroic period. Just as revolutionary, however, were several compositions that were distinguished by spaciousness, serenity, and lyric breadth. Among this group was the great Piano Trio that he dedicated to one of his most important patrons, Archduke Rudolph.
Like the Archduke to whom it is dedicated, the B-Flat Major Trio is a noble work, dramatic in scope and in the richness of its harmonies. The Trio’s first movement – a gracious, easy-paced Allegro moderato – begins with one of Beethoven’s most beguiling melodies, a broad, flowing legato theme that is first introduced by the piano alone, then repeated with the cello and violin joining in. Beethoven quickly establishes that the cello will range widely, that modulations will be surprising, and that textures and sonorities will be lush. Among the many delights of the complex movement are the ingenious way Beethoven develops his opening theme, phrase by phrase; the extended pizzicatos in the development section; the quiet trills that, after some teasing, lead back to the recapitulation; and a brief but imposing coda.
After tranquility comes impishness. The Scherzo begins humorously with a rising scale, then continues on its lighthearted way to an extended trio with two themes, the first a mysterious fugato, the second a flashy Viennese-like waltz. Unusually, Beethoven repeats the sections before ending with the Scherzo proper and a coda that brings back the fugato. Serenity returns with the Andante cantabile, whose chorale-like theme is followed by a set of exquisitely ornamented variations. Then, as he so enjoys doing, Beethoven jolts the listener again with another abrupt change of mood. Donald Francis Tovey has a wonderful description of the last movement: “When the finale of the B-Flat Trio shocks us with unseemly conviviality before the slow movement has finished dying away, Beethoven has no apologies to offer. The outrageous jocularity continues unabashed, until not only the proportions, but the actual mysterious quality, of the finale develop a sublimity of their own. It is a marvelous study in Bacchanalian indolence.” Over the course of four movements, Beethoven the alchemist has melded transcendent beauty with bravura wit to create musical gold. Not surprisingly, Beethoven himself thought the “Archduke” was one of his finest creations.
Available On Demand August 4 – August 10
If you were to write a movie script telling the Chevalier de Saint-George’s story, it probably would be rejected as being too implausible. How could the son of a slave, born in Guadeloupe, grow up to be a legendary figure in late 18th century France – a champion fencer, a gifted composer and conductor, a virtuoso violinist who played piano and violin duets with Marie Antoinette, the heroic commander of an all-black regiment during the French Revolution, and a charming and popular courtier known for his grace as a dancer?
He was born Joseph Bologne. His father, George, was a wealthy French plantation owner in Guadeloupe; his mother was a slave and George’s mistress. When Joseph was eight his father took him to France and enrolled him in an elite boarding school, where his extraordinary athletic and musical talents emerged. At 18 he became an officer in Louis XV’s court and assumed the title of Chevalier. From then on, he excelled on dual paths. He took part in fencing exhibitions throughout his life, and many considered him the finest fencer in Europe. His musical life thrived too: He was a greatly admired violinist, composer, and conductor, directing several of Paris’s leading orchestras and, among other things, conducting the premieres of Haydn’s six “Paris” symphonies. His violin concerts filled the salons, and his concertos and symphonies won raves. But although he was one of the most accomplished men of his age, and although he traveled in the highest social circles, life wasn’t always easy for him. After he was proposed for the directorship of the Paris Opera, singers and musicians objected, petitioning the queen that their “honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Saint-George withdrew his application.
Saint-George composed 14 violin concertos, 2 symphonies, and many sonatas, string quartets, songs, and operas. The B-Flat Major Sonata on today’s program is from a set of six sonatas for two violins that were published posthumously in 1800. Like the Chevalier himself, this two-movement Sonata, while brief, is elegant, technically assured, virtuosic, and full of life. Musical lines pass effortlessly between the two violins in the nimble, harmonious opening movement, which takes a surprising minor turn in the development. The Aria con Variatione begins quietly with a graceful song and ends with a bang, with a virtuosic third variation that is as dazzling as it is fun.
- 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 Jeaux 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.
Beethoven was a master recycler of his own works. This delightful early Piano Quartet began life as a Wind Quintet. When the Quintet was published as Op. 16, Beethoven included this Quartet arrangement for Piano and Strings (also designated Opus 16), probably in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible – Vienna was filled with amateur musicians eager to buy copies of Beethoven’s music. The piano part is the same in both versions; Beethoven simply redistributed the wind parts among the strings. In either version, it’s a delectable work in which Beethoven’s ingenuity comes face to face with Mozart’s Classical style. Beethoven was riding a wave of public acclaim when he wrote it. He had taken Vienna’s salons by storm as a brilliant improviser and keyboard virtuoso; he had demonstrated his mastery of Viennese Classical form; and he had launched a major career as a composer. While Mozart remained a fundamental influence (the wind version most likely is modeled on Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452), Beethoven increasingly was asserting his own strong musical personality. There are distinctive Beethoven touches in the Quartet – in the way, for instance, that he focuses on thematic development, and especially in the prominent role assigned to the piano.
The appeal of the Opus 16 Quartet lies in its freshness, affability, and wit. The first movement charms with its genial themes, its engaging dialogue between piano and strings, a briefly stormy development section that ends, playfully, with a return in an incorrect key, and a graceful coda. The Andante cantabile is striking for the beautiful melody with which the piano opens the movement, and for the increasingly elaborate embellishments and rich instrumental textures as the movement progresses. High spirits reign in the good-natured last movement, a rondo in which, as in the other movements, the piano glitters. Beethoven’s pupil and friend Carl Czerny summed up the work’s appeal nicely when he wrote that it “possesses in its melodies and effects, a charm which will never grow old.”
Beethoven demonstrated both his keyboard virtuosity and his impish sense of humor at the premiere of the Quintet version. According to Ferdinand Ries, who was there, in the finale “Beethoven suddenly started improvising, taking the Rondo subject as his theme and entertaining himself and those listening for quite some time.” The audience loved it. His fellow musicians reportedly were not amused.
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). He was also a brilliant organist (Liszt called him “the greatest organist in the world”), and an influential teacher whom Fauré and Fauré’s pupil Ravel both revered. 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 Theatre July 27 & Available On Demand August 11 – August 17
The works on today’s program span generations and styles. From the Baroque era comes Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Sonata for Two Cellos, an engaging work written for an instrument that was relatively new in France early in the 18th century. In Italy the cello already had replaced the viola da gamba, a similar instrument but with a smaller range and sound. In Germany Bach was exploring what the cello could do as a solo instrument in his six Cello Suites. But France lagged behind, and Barrière’s first instrument was the viol. Once he discovered the cello, though, he began his rise to fame as a performer and a composer.
In 1731 Barrière left his home in Bordeaux for Paris, where he joined the Academie Royale de Musique as a cellist and caught the attention of Louis XV. At that time composers had to have the king’s permission to publish their works. Louis was so impressed with Barrière’s virtuosity that he granted him that royal privilege for an extended period of time. Barrière went on to publish four books of sonatas for the cello – 24 compositions that offered a rare source of works for solo cello. Meanwhile he continued to win acclaim as a cello virtuoso, including a triumphant concert tour in Italy in 1738. Back in Paris, his appearances again drew raves, one critic praising his “grand precision.” But after 1741 he dropped from sight, perhaps because of ill health. He died at the age of 40.
In his cello sonatas Barrière plumbed the instrument’s range and richness. The Sonata for Two Cellos in G Major is a vibrant illustration of why he was famed as a composer as well as a cello virtuoso. In it, two instruments of equal importance engage in a sometimes lush, sometimes virtuosic conversation. They sing together in the Andante – where they complement each other as they pass the melody back and forth – and in the songful, soulful, ornamented Adagio. If the first two movements are a showpiece for melodic riches, the third is a different kind of showpiece: a gambol that demands great virtuosity as the two cellos playfully race one another up and down the strings before bringing the Sonata to a close with a sonorous chord. It’s a fine demonstration of what the cello is capable of and why Barrière’s compositions were such an important resource for players of this newly popular instrument.
One of the many upsides of the attention newly being paid to women composers is that Amy Beach finally is starting to get the attention she deserves. Although her compositions and recitals made her a musical celebrity in turn-of-the-20th-century America, after her death she largely disappeared from the musical radar.
Beach had to fight against sexism her entire life. A brilliant pianist, at 18 she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, who asked her to focus on composing rather than performing. Because women weren’t thought to be capable of learning composition, she taught herself harmony and counterpoint, and her work soon brought her widespread recognition. But always there was an edge to the applause. When the Boston Handel and Haydn society presented her Mass in E-Flat in 1892, one critic found it “difficult to associate with a woman’s hand.” When the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her acclaimed “Gaelic” Symphony in 1896, another critic praised it as “manly.” And in public she was always “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.” After her husband died in 1910, she went to Europe, where she resumed her career as a widely admired pianist and composer. She returned to the U.S. in 1914 and remained here until her death, composing prolifically, concertizing, and championing the work of American women composers.
Beach’s distinctive voice informs her masterful Piano Quintet in F-Sharp Minor. As Brahms did in his F Minor Piano Quintet, Beach begins with an atmospheric Adagio, with hushed unison strings playing against the piano’s restless arpeggios and octave scales. What follows in the moody and passionate Allegro moderato is an emotional journey built around two main themes, the first a yearning motive presented by the strings, the second a more lyrical theme presented by the piano. Beach shows her gift for high drama in the development and recapitulation, and what one critic called her “lush, late-Romantic chromatic harmony” here and throughout the Quintet.
The poetic Adagio expressivo is an emotionally intense movement that encompasses both passion and tranquility. It’s an island of calm before Beach plunges into a turbulent Allegro agitato that features, among other highlights, stunning mood shifts, eerie tremolos, a fugal passage, the return of the opening Adagio, a fiery Presto, and a formidable piano part throughout. It’s a thrilling end to a work that has the grand sweep and emotional depth of the great piano quintets of the Romantic era.
Beethoven was at a crossroads when he wrote his Viola String Quintet in C Major. After he moved from Bonn to Vienna in 1792, he spent the next several years proving that he could match Haydn and Mozart as a master of each major genre of the Viennese Classical style. By the time he wrote the Op. 29 Quintet he had already composed, and won applause for, his early sonatas, trios, and quartets. Now, in 1801, he was restless and ready to set off on what he called his “new path” – the revolution that would take music from the Classical to the Romantic era. The Quintet was written at this decisive juncture in Beethoven’s musical journey.
The C Major Quintet looks in two directions: back to the Classical past, and ahead to things to come. Like much of Beethoven’s early work, it shows Mozart’s influence. Mozart’s great series of viola quintets undoubtedly pointed the way for Beethoven, who, like Mozart, takes full advantage of the richer harmonic and textural possibilities that the second viola allows. The first two movements in particular are gracious examples of the Classical style. The expansive Allegro that opens the Quintet is Mozartian in its gracefulness, effortless flow, and harmonic breadth. There is playfulness too, such as when the violin adds chirps over the main theme in the recapitulation. Even in this amiable first movement, though, Beethoven pushes boundaries: Instead of sticking to the conventional tonic-dominant relationships of Classical composition, he consistently moves to keys that, unorthodoxly, are a third away.
Gracefulness and charm also characterize the second movement, a beguiling Adagio rich in lyrical phrases, harmonic color, and impressive contrapuntal writing. Then, in the energetic and playful Scherzo, Beethoven tries another new idea: The movement grows entirely out of a brief three-note motif in the opening measure, presaging a conciseness that will occur more frequently in Beethoven’s later works. The inventiveness continues in the Presto, which Beethoven launches with suggestions of thunder and lightning that earned the Quintet the nickname “Storm.” Among the surprises are the stop-and-start character of the opening motif; an unusual number of themes in the exposition and development; and a sudden change to Andante toward the close of the development, when Beethoven introduces an amusingly simple, minuet-like little tune. A satisfyingly stormy coda brings to a close a masterful work that marks an important step in Beethoven’s creative development.