Past Program Notes
Programs Notes by Elizabeth Morrison
These are the archived program notes about ECMS’s concert repertoire from past programs. To warm up your ears with recordings and more, join Elizabeth Morrison for Zoom pre-concert talks at Live&Local, an OLLI Special Interest Group devoted to live classical music in Humboldt County.
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Lucy Fitz Gibbon, soprano
Ryan McCullough, piano
Program Notes for Fitz Gibbon - McCullough Duo
May 13 + 14, 2023
Mainstage Performance by Fitz Gibbon - McCullough Duo, May 13, 2023:
Program for Mainstage Performance
7:30 pm May 13th, 2023
Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Ständchen (1886) 3 minutes
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Sechs Lieder Op. 13 (1843) 15 minutes
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Romance in g, Op. 21 no. 3 (1853) piano, 5 minutes
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Five songs from Wilhelm Meister (1849)15 minutes
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Morgen! (1894) 4 minutes
Adela Maddison (1862-1929)
Cinq mélodies sur des poèms d’Edmond Haraucourt (1904) 15 minutes
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Three Visions (1935) piano, 10 minutes
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913) 9 minutes
Sheila Silver (b. 1946)
Laila’s aria from A Thousand Splendid Suns (2021) 5 minutes
An unusual concert!
Our fifth and final concert of the season brings us the renowned wife-and-husband duo of Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan McCullough in a much-anticipated evening of art songs, plus two pieces for solo piano. They have chosen works from seven composers– a diverse group, but also one with much in common: Richard Strauss, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, William Grant Still, Adela Maddison, Claude Debussy, and Sheila Silver. All but one, Ms Silver, were born in the 19th century. Robert Schumann first, in 1810, followed by his wife Clara Wieck Schumann in 1819. Then we skip ahead 40-plus years to Debussy, Adela Maddison, and Richard Strauss, all born in the 1860s. Next come two Americans, William Grant Still, in 1895, and Sheila Silver, in 1946. Some of the names are familiar. We certainly know the Schumanns, Debussy and Strauss. William Grant Still is perhaps a little less familiar, but hardly unknown. The women, Adela Maddison and Sheila Silver, are probably new. What’s unfamiliar is the repertoire. So, before we go through the program, let’s take a look at the art song concert itself.
An art song is a setting of a poem, almost always for voice and piano; it is more literary than a folk song, more private than an opera aria. In a sense it is a product of the Industrial Revolution. A new middle class had come into being with the means to have music in their homes, but without the wealth needed to maintain court musicians, like the aristocracy. Enter the piano. The ability to play piano, especially for women, became a status symbol showing one had arrived. You might recall Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice gently satirizing Lady Catherine de Bourg, who remarked that, while she had not actually studied piano, “if I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
Art songs, called Lieder, began in Germany, initially in homes or cafes, where people gathered around the piano to sing. They continued to evolve throughout the nineteenth century, and increasingly became a concert genre. The first art songs on the program are German, but French composers wrote many of what are called mélodie; we will hear three from Debussy and five from Adela Maddison; she is English, but these songs are French. Women composers were especially drawn to the art song, perhaps because of its roots in the home. Art songs were and are written in English as well; note for example the partnership between Langston Hughes and Florence Price, both figures in the Chicago Renaissance. Price made settings of several of Hughes’ poems, including “Song to the Dark Virgin,” which were sung by great Black singers like Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson.
Art songs are chamber music, but today we are far less likely to hear them on a chamber music series. What a pity! Barbara Meister, in her An Introduction to the Art Song, wrote that these concerts have “a degree of intimacy seldom equaled in other kinds of music,” and require that the two performers "communicate to the audience the most subtle and evanescent emotions as expressed in the poem and music.” The Art Song Preservation Society of New York, among many others, is working to insure that the tradition remains lively. Our thanks to Lucy and Ryan for devoting their talents to the art song and for bringing us this wonderful, varied concert.
Because the art song repertoire is less familiar to most of us than our usual fare of string and piano music, I have included links to various performances. Lucy Fitz Gibbon has kindly provided translations for the songs she and Ryan McCullough will present (jump to Lucy’s translations here.) If you’re reading these notes before the concert, consider using the links and translations to preview the songs. You are also warmly invited to join Live&Local on May 8, 6-7:30 PM, to hear Lucy and Ryan talk about their program.
Richard Strauss, Ständchen (Serenade) (1886)
The concert opens with Ständchen, or Serenade, by Richard Strauss. Ständchen is the work of a young man; when Strauss set the poem by Adolf Friedrich von Schack he was just twenty-two. It is one of his most popular songs. We know Strauss mainly as a late-Romantic composer of tone poems and operas, but he was a prolific composer of Lieder and often wrote them with the voice of his wife, Paulina de Ahna, in mind. (Not Ständchen, though–he did not meet Paulina until the following year.) It is a true serenade–a song for the evening– where the singer, with an octave call, invites a lover to come out into the radiant moonlight of the garden, where “only love is awake.” The piano part is mostly as gossamer as moonlight itself, but wait until you hear the harmony darken in the third verse. The passion will take your breath away.
This recording is by soprano Kathleen Battle and pianist Warren Jones.
Clara Schumann, Sechs Lieder (1843)
After this beautiful opening, we will be treated to music by the Schumanns, Clara and then Robert. Clara’s songs, published in 1843, were mostly written during the first year of their marriage in 1840. They are love songs to her husband, so we are justified in thinking about the Schumanns’ marriage, which, in addition to being a passionate love match, was a close musical partnership. Clara met Robert when she was nine, and it seems that until she met Brahms, years later, she never looked at another man. The couple had won the right to marry after a contentious court case with her father, Friedrich Wieck. Famously, Wieck demanded how Robert planned to support his daughter, to which Robert retorted that of course Clara was going to support him, just as she had been supporting Friedrich (possibly this was the root of his opposition.) The marriage, when Clara was 21 and Robert 30, brought them two children in the first three years, and also brought a musical flowering to them both.
Neither Robert nor Clara was much of a talker; Clara herself did not speak until she was four. But both were fluent writers, and one way they communicated was through a joint “marriage diary.” It’s at least possible that they also communicated through their songs. Clara’s songs set poems by three different poets: two by Heinrich Heine, three by Emanuel Giebel, and one by Friedrich Rückert. For a newly married woman, they have a surprisingly melancholy cast. The first, “I stood in dark dreams,” shows a lover in tears before a portrait of her lost love. The second, “They loved each other,” is about lovers who can’t, or won’t, confess their love to the other. The third, “Love’s magic,” sounds more promising, but by the end we know that everything since that one magic moment has been but an echo. The fourth, “The moon rises silently,” shows a lover silently looking from the outside at the bright window of the beloved. Clara was young, and as happy as she would ever be, and the fifth and sixth songs express deep, loving feelings. But we can’t help a sigh for the life that lay ahead for this brave, talented woman.
This link will take you to a recording by soprano Anne Wright and pianist Kate Stevens.
Clara Schumann, Romance in g, Op. 21 no. 3, (1853) piano
The three Romances of Clara’s Opus 21, written ten years after her Six Songs, came at a much more difficult time of her life. She was kept from seeing Robert following his suicide attempt the year before and his self-admittance to a mental asylum where he remained until his death in 1856. The marking for the third Romance is Agitato. Another deep sigh.
Here are all three Romances, played by Ilja Scheps.
Robert Schumann, Lieder und Gesang aus Wilhelm Meister (1849)
Clara’s husband, the great early Romantic composer Robert Schumann, is known today mainly for his orchestral and piano music, but he was a prolific composer of Lieder. His output is especially striking when you consider that until the year 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara, he had not composed a single song. Moreover he had always, as he wrote in the musical journal Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, “rated vocal writing below instrumental music and never thought of it as great art.” This from a composer who eventually wrote 246 solo songs, including at least 130 in 1840, which is known as his Liederjahr, or “year of song.”
The five songs we will hear were written in 1849, almost a decade after Clara began her Sechs lieder. They are selections from Schumann’s settings of nine poems from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, by the German poet, novelist, scientist and stateman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Are you wondering, as I was, how poetry comes from a novel? It turns out that three characters in Goethe’s novel write poetry, and it is their poems which Schumann, and many others, set to music. The first song in particular, Kennst du das Land, has been set many times, including settings by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf; it also appears in several operas, including Mark Adamo’s Little Women. The poem comes from a character in the novel named Mignon, and four of our five songs are her poetry. Mignon is a young waif, born in Italy and kidnapped as a child by a troupe of acrobats, from whom Wilhem Meister, the novel’s eponymous hero, buys her freedom. I say “her,” but her pronoun is not clear; the German uses both masculine, feminine, and even neuter pronouns. Today Mignon might be called gender-fluid; she is a mysterious, troubled figure whose early death is a central event in the story. Schumann’s settings follow the arc of Mignon’s story, from yearning for her home, to awareness of her solitude, to what seems to be acceptance of her death. In the middle of Mignon’s four songs Lucy and Ryan will bring us one poem by another character in the novel, a flirtatious actress named Philene. Her charm can be felt in a lovely song about the delights of the night. “Sing not with sad tones of the loneliness of night,” she tells us. “No, it is, o lovely beauties, made for socializing!” Schumann’s setting, with irregular rhythms suggesting a dance, or a spontaneous expression of joy, contrasts beautifully to Mignon's depths of emotion.
This link is to Kennst du das Land, by soprano Edith Mathis and pianist Christoph Eschenbach.
This link is to Philene’s song, Singet nicht in Trauertönen, by soprano Diana Damrau and pianist Helmut Deutch.
Richard Strauss, Morgen!, Op. 27 (1894)
Strauss wrote the set of four songs that make up Opus 27 in 1894, to poems by John Henry Mackay, a German poet of Scottish descent, as a wedding present to his wife, the singer Paulina de Ahna. Like Ständchen, Morgen (Morning) is one of his most popular songs. He wrote it originally for piano and voice, then added violin, and later created a version for orchestra with violin solo.
We will hear the original version, but this link will take you to the orchestral version, with Renée Fleming and the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Adela Maddison, Cinq mélodies sur des poèms d’Edmond Haraucourt (Five songs on poems by Edmond Haraucourt) (1904)
After intermission we leave Germany, the home of Lieder, to hear art songs from England, France and America. Our first composer is Adela Maddison, an Englishwoman whose life spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and who lived in London, Paris, Berlin, and finally again in England. She was a prolific composer of operas, ballet and chamber music and a student and friend of Gabriel Fauré. Most of her work has been lost–unfortunately not an unusual occurrence for women composers. Lucy has noted that she found Maddison’s name in a footnote, and she is obscure indeed; she does not even appear in The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, with its 875 entries just through 1955. The five songs we will hear were written in 1904, during her time in Paris, to poems by the French poet and novelist Edmond Haraucourt. I was able to listen only to a portion of Vespérale, the second song on our program, sung by Lucy and available on Facebook. The link is below. It is a beautiful song about a lover, described as a pilgrim, walking in a violet evening. However there are several YouTube recordings of Maddison’s piano quintet, and the sheet music is available on IMSLP, so perhaps her star is rising.
This link is to the Vespérale recording. In addition, Lucy has written about Maddison and William Grant Still on her website, Lucyfitzgibbon.com, and this link will take you there.
William Grant Still, Three Visions (piano) (1935)
As Lucy wrote in her notes, to list the accomplishments of William Grant Still would take longer than the concert. He was the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra, and the first to have a work performed by one. (Florence Price was not far behind.) We know Still for his large scale works, especially his Symphony #1, the Afro-American, which until 1955 was the most widely-performed symphonic work by an American composer. It is rumored that the Eureka Symphony will play his Symphony No. 2, Song of a New Race, in the 2023-24 season. Ryan has chosen to play one of Still’s most individual pieces. Written for his wife, pianist Verna Arvey, Three Visions employs brilliantly idiomatic writing to convey a transcendental spiritual message. There are three movements, called Dark Horsemen, Summerland, and Radiant Pinnacle. Judith Anne Still, the composer’s daughter, wrote that "the three segments of the suite… tell the story of the human soul after death: the body expires, and the soul goes on to an apocalyptic judgment. If it is seen that the past life has been a good one, the soul may enter ‘heaven,’ or Summerland. After a period of time, the soul may reincarnate to learn additional earthly lessons on the human plane. Some souls reincarnate many times in a constant circular progress toward Godly perfection.” This is fascinating stuff. You will hear the galloping horseman, presumably death, in the first movement, and also perhaps the anguished sounds of the dying soul. “Summerland” is a wonderful name for heaven, and it sounds like a place I wouldn’t mind going. The last movement is full of rhythmic flow, and the ending, a deceptive cadence, leaves you wondering if earthly lessons ever end.
This link is to Summerland, played by the Singapore Wind Symphony.
Claude Debussy, Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)
Yes, like every composer we know, Debussy wrote art songs, melodies, throughout his career, choosing poems by many French poets and writing some himself. These three songs are late, nearly the last he wrote. He and his respected rival Maurice Ravel both set three poems by Mallarmé, and the back story is interesting. Debussy was already associated with Mallarmé; his tone poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by one of Mallarmé’s poems. Ravel also had a predilection for Mallarmé, and in 1913, when a complete edition of his poetry was published, Ravel obtained the rights to set them to music. Debussy is said to have been furious, but apparently he went ahead and set them anyway. The first two poems, Soupir (Sigh) and Placet futile (Futile Petition) were set by both composers; they chose different poems to complete their sets, Debussy choosing Éventail (Fan) and Ravel a poem called Surgi (Arose.) Debussy’s settings are art songs; Ravel’s settings include a string quartet, two flutes and two clarinets, and are dedicated to Stravinsky. The poems are gorgeous; I can understand why Ravel opined in the New York Times that he “considers Mallarmé not only as the greatest French poet, but also as the "only" one, since he has made the French language poetic, which was not intended for poetry.” It may be the first time I have seen a lover’s freckles (taches de rousseur) mentioned in a love poem, or found the poet explaining to a Princess that he is not “your fluffy bichon.” Brava to Lucy for her excellent translations!
Here is Debussy’s setting, with soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist Jos van Immerseel
Sheila Silver, Laila’s aria from A Thousand Splendid Suns (2021)
The final piece on the program is an aria from a very recent opera. A Thousand Splendid Suns, which Silver composed with her long-time collaborator, librettist Stephen Kitsakos, was produced by the Seattle Opera in February of 2023. Sheila Silver is an American composer who, unlike Adela Maddison, actually is in my Norton Anthology of Women Composers. Her compositions have both tonal and atonal elements; she has also found inspiration in non-Western traditions such as Hebraic chant and Sikh prayer mantras. For her opera, she traveled multiple times to India to study Hindustani music. I haven’t seen the opera, but the book tells the story of two Afghani women, both of whom struggle with abuse and gender-based violence. The aria we will hear, though, is a beautiful expression of Laila’s love for Tariq, her lover and father of her child, whom she believes dead for most of the story. We are lucky enough to have a video (here) of Lucy and Ryan performing the aria, along with Brian Bak on violin. The performance will be a thrilling end to a fascinating concert.
Program for Concert + Conversation
3:00 pm May 14, 2023
Lutheran Church of Arcata
Selections from Tseyn Peretz Kinderlieder by Moses Milner
Selections from Resilient Earth by Sheila Silver
Surfing the Thin Places by Alan L. Smith
From Ten Poems of Y. L. Peretz Moses Milner
I. Cradle Song / װיגליד
II. Quiet, Little Cat! / שטיל, קעצעלע
III. A Good Night / אַ גוטע נאַכט
From Resilient Earth Sheila Silver
II. Stars, Sun, Moon
III. Big Ag, Small Farmer
Surfing the Thin Places Alan Louis Smith
I. Surfing the Thin Places
II. Morning Glories
III. Gratitude (There are no words...)
IV. To Tell a Life in a Line of Verse
V. Joy! Welcome-home Joy! (or "What We Like to Hear When We Return Home”)
Program for Concert + Conversation
7:00 pm March 17, 2023
Lutheran Church of Arcata
Featuring Britten Quartet No. 3, Haydn, and Beethoven
Performance followed by Q&A session with the players -- come ask questions!
Program for Mainstage Performance
7:30 pm March 18, 2023
Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka
Franz Josef Haydn
String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, “Sun”, No. 4, Hob.III:34
Allegro di molto
Un poco adagio affettuoso
Menuetto. Allegretto alla zingarese - Trio
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111
Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
Un poco allegretto
Vivace ma non troppo presto
with Tom Stone, viola
This concert brings us our third string quartet of the season, and a return to the traditional string-quartet program. We’ve compared it to a beautifully presented meal, with a sparkling classical quartet for the appetizer, an unusual main course and a delectable dessert. But metaphors, like music, must change, and this concert is going to make you think more of an evening at a sophisticated North Coast watering hole. The first piece, Haydn’s Opus 20 number 4, is the aperitif you order for its promise to go down easily, only to find it far more complex and potent than you anticipated. Terra Memoriam, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, is your surprise order of Sima, Finnish fermented lemonade, a drink you’ve never imagined, much less tasted, which shows what can emerge from a re-imagining of classic ingredients. After intermission the quartet, joined by Tom Stone on viola, will bring you a post-prandial libation of Brahms’ second viola quintet. If a viola quintet is a fortified string quartet, our nightcap is a glass of Madeira, wine fortified with brandy. The metaphor is stretched a bit here, since Brahms was known more as a beer drinker, but he did call for a glass of wine on his deathbed. His last recorded words on earth were, “It tastes good.”
Franz Josef Haydn, String Quartet No. 27, Opus 20 No. 4
The first piece, Opus 20 No. 4 in D major, is one of Haydn’s most popular quartets. The performance is an anniversary of sorts; this very quartet was played on the first ECMS concert, by the Australian String Quartet, back in 1993. It is his 27th quartet, putting it about halfway through his lifetime output of sixty-eight. The year was 1772. Haydn was 40 years old, Kappelmeister to Prince Nicholaus of Esterházy, leading the musicians of a busy court and composing a steady stream of music to amuse the prince. It might have been just one more quartet from his prodigious output, delightful as always, but not groundbreaking. Yet groundbreaking it was. The six quartets that make up Opus 20 were as revolutionary in their way as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was, 33 years later.
Hearing it this way requires an exercise of imagination. Opus 20 put quartet composition on a path it stayed on for centuries; on hearing them we are apt to think, yes, this is exactly what a classical quartet is. But if we were hearing it in 1772, it would have come as a considerable shock. The quartets that preceded it, the Opus 17s, were charming pieces in the popular galant style: music that prized elegance, simplicity, and rather predictable harmonies, along with a clear separation between the violins and the “accompaniment,” the viola and cello. But somehow, between the Opus 17s of 1771 and the Opus 20s the next year, Haydn made an enormous musical leap. It’s not clear why this huge change happened at just this moment. My theory is that it was the birth of Beethoven, 600 miles away in Bonn, two years before–Haydn could not have failed to sense so momentous an event. More likely, there was a change in the air. The galant style, having been in vogue for fifty years, was due for an overhaul. The energy of Romanticism was gathering strength on every side. But whatever the reason, Opus 20 No. 4 departs from the galant in almost every way.
It helps to listen to a quartet from Opus 17 (try No. 6, which is also in D major), to see the ground that is being broken here. Or just think back to the Trio Duende’s Concert+Conversation of January 22, where they played a Haydn piano trio in the galant style. The first difference to notice is the independence of the four parts, and especially the cello. Sophie Shao, cellist of the Duende, defined her role in the trio as supporting and extending the bass line of the piano. Starting in the Opus 20 quartets, and onward through the rest of his oeuvre, Haydn frees the cello from bass-line-only duties. Listen for this in the first movement, about a minute in, to hear the cello in brilliant duet with the first violin. Throughout the quartet, the four voices fulfill Goethe’s 1829 aperçu that “when I listen to a string quartet, it makes me feel as if I am eavesdropping on a conversation between four intelligent people.” Before Opus 20, it had been more like one intelligent person, holding forth to the choir.
The second movement is a set of variations in d minor, a poignant key quite different from the cheerful D major of the other movements. In its beauty, profundity, and even its length, ten minutes where five would have been typical, it looks forward to the romantic period. After the opening statement of the theme, and a variation featuring the second violin and viola, the second variation belongs to the cello–something that would be completely unheard of in a galant quartet. This movement reveals a Haydn we don’t always see: a master creator, the inspirer of Beethoven.
The third movement, previously the place of the minuet, is certainly no courtly dance. From Haydn’s next quartets, the Opus 33s, minuets are mostly replaced by scherzos. This one, marked Allegretto alla zingarese, or “A little fast, in the gypsy style,” has an engrossingly complex rhythmic structure. The time signature shows three beats in a measure, but the felt pulse is in two, with conflicting downbeats in the upper and lower strings. Hard to describe, it is exhilarating to hear. This is one of my favorite movements in all of Haydn. Plus, the trio section is another cello solo!
The dashing fourth movement continues in the zingarese style, with a modal scale and bravura fiddling from all four parts. Haydn, it is said, loved the music of the Roma people, and had standing orders at the Esterházy palace that whenever Roma musicians came into the courtyard, he was to be called immediately. This makes him a precursor of Brahms and Dvorak, as well as Beethoven, and places him early in a line of composers fascinated with ethnic and folk music. When the fourth movement ends, you’ll notice one more way the quartet is groundbreaking. Thirty minutes have flown by before you knew it; courtiers must have been glancing at each other anxiously; how much longer will it go on? As with Beethoven’s almost hour-long Eroica Symphony, audiences were just going to have to adjust. A new era had arrived.
Kaija Saariaho, Terra Memoria
Our next composer, Kaija Saariaho, was born in Finland in 1955, 220 years after Haydn. While she’s hardly as prolific as he (frankly, no one is), she is an established composer with 120 completed works. She has lived in Paris since 1982, and has a long association with a home of the French avant-garde, electronic branch, called IRCAM, Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique. Her early works often included electronics; for example, she wrote a piece for orchestra in 1982 called Verblendungen, or “Blinding,” which involves “a gradual exchange of roles and character between orchestra and tape.” Her only other string quartet, Nymphea, is from this period. Its score has the usual four lines for the instruments, plus a fifth line, for “live electronics.”
A change in focus came around the turn of the century, when she wrote an opera, L’Amour de loin, “Love from Afar,” which was eventually produced and live-broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in 2016. She explains on her website that “the experience of writing for voice has led to some clarification of my language, with a new vein of modally oriented melody accompanied by more regular repeating patterns.” Terra Memoria, her second quartet, from 2006, comes after this change. It is electronics-free, but it’s clear that she is still very engaged with exploring and transforming sound.
At 20 minutes long, Terra Memoria is the approximate length of a galant quartet, but where a Haydn quartet would have four separate movements, Terra Memoria is played straight through. We listeners are asked to find its underlying form for ourselves, without the guardrails we depend on in classical quartets. It’s not a simple task, and help from the composer is always welcome. Two concerts ago, we heard the Verona Quartet play György Ligeti’s Métamorphoses nocturnes, another 20-minute piece played straight through without a break. Ligeti helped us, though, by dividing his piece into 17 sections, and telling us what they were. He even thoughtfully placed the 8th metamorphosis, a recognizable Tempo di Valse, about halfway through the piece, so that that even if we didn’t know quite when we had reached Allegretto, un poco gioviale or Adagio, mesto, we could orient ourselves around the waltz and know where we were.
Saariaho has not helped us out this way, but has instead made a written statement on her web site about her intentions. She writes,
“The piece is dedicated “for those departed.” Some thoughts about this: we continue remembering the people who are no longer with us; the material –their life– is “complete,” nothing will be added to it. Those of us who are left behind are constantly reminded of our experiences together: our feelings continue to change about different aspects of their personality, certain memories keep on haunting us in our dreams. Even after many years, some of these memories change, some remain clear flashes which we can relive.
These thoughts brought me to treat the musical material in a certain manner; some aspects of it go through several distinctive transformations, whereas some remain nearly unchanged, clearly recognizable.
We are alerted to watch out for musical motifs which will keep their shape, such as a falling half-step motif that shows itself early on and reoccurs throughout the piece. We will also watch for passages that are passed, in different form, between instruments or between sections, suggesting the transformation of memory. Hoping for more hints, and thinking of Ligeti’s sections, I searched for hidden movements beneath the fabric of sound and texture. There is no YouTube with a score, but I found a printed score and listened with that in mind. It may be presumptuous for me to suggest movements where the composer, no less, does not, but my sense is that Terra Memoria does have four movements, with different characters and textures. They are separated by grand pauses, moments of silence across the quartet, sometimes also by double bars, but mostly by changes of character. Listening for them helped me enjoy the piece, and to feel that Saariaho is not so far from Haydn after all.
The first section opens in a hushed sound world where the players use the wood of their bows instead of the hairs, play trills between stopped notes and harmonics, and play over the fingerboard. Over the next few minutes the sound level increases from pppp (very very very soft) to mp, medium soft, then to falls back to nothing. A section marked mf, medium loud, follows, rising in intensity and volume to ff, before ending the movement, about six minutes in, with a long silent bar. The second movement, which I’m going to call the slow movement, has quite a different feel. It is characterized by an alternation of short, loud, active passages and even shorter, soft interludes marked “Delicato.” I counted ten of these alternations, giving you plenty of chances to recognize the pattern. It’s not too much of a stretch to connect them to Saariaho’s theme of memory; I thought of the way brief moments of remembered sweetness sometimes float up in the midst of activity. There is another long fade to nothing, and then the third movement, which I’m calling the Scherzo, begins at about halfway through the piece. This six-minute section is where the promised transformations of her material are easiest to hear. There are also some Bartok-ish moments, culminating in a surprising unison as the movement winds down. Unison! The mind at last coming to rest on a memory? This leads, 16 minutes in, to the final movement, which is again about transformation. It is a kind of recapitulation; you will have your own memory of the opening to measure it against. Rhythmic pizzicatos return in the cello, and the viola ends the piece with a final statement of falling half steps.
The score also revealed an abundance of tempo or expression markings, which give another kind of structure. I counted over 80 of them; in a piece with 336 measures, that’s a change in expression every fourth bar. They range from the opening Misterioso to the final Dolcissimo, and include Furioso, Molto calmo con tenerezza, Molto intenso appassionato, Con violenza, and many more. The alternating section in the second movement has an expression marking at every other bar; Molto espressivo, then Delicato, then Molto espressivo, then Delicato again, ten times in a row. These instructions are, of course, entrusted only to the players. But when the Castalian Quartet’s performance brings them to life, we will feel them as the ever-shifting gusts of memory. Be prepared to experience an unusual quartet, the newest we will hear this season, and one of the most memorable.
Johannes Brahms, Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 (1890)
When you hear the first notes of Brahms’ second viola quintet, you will understand why I am not calling it our dessert. When, last September, Tom Stone joined the Telegraph Quartet in the first quintet, I happily compared the addition of a second viola to enriching a cake with whipped cream. If you happen to be reading these notes before the concert, you might take a moment and listen to Opus 88 again. The opening is rich, song-like, and viola-forward. The inner voices nourish our hearts. But in Opus 111 Brahms seems to regard his second viola as just one more brick in a wall of sound for the cello to break through. Two violins, two violas, playing an oscillating figure at full force. There is not the slightest suggestion that they pull back; the cello must rise to meet them and play a bravura solo across the whole range of the instrument. Within the first half minute, watch for a C played across four octaves, starting near the top of the cello’s range and ending on its lowest possible note, the open C string. This is no Viennese Sachertorte. It’s a full-bodied Madeira, thrown out like a challenge, asking us to re-think the world.
After a full minute of this flat-out playing, which may have been intended for a symphony that never took off, the music quiets down, and the two violas take their rightful place as stars. It is never quite that startling again, but the opening makes us think about its origins. It was written by direct order of his friend and great musical colleague, the violinist Josef Joachim, with whom he had reconciled after a painful estrangement. Brahms was 57, feeling his age and thinking about retirement. Joachim, at a dinner in January 1890, had another idea. “What shall we have next?” he said. “A quintet! We have one, a very fine one; let’s have another.” Brahms complied, but when he sent the manuscript off to his publisher, he added a note: “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music—because it is certainly time to leave off.”
At the first rehearsal of what he thought was his final work, the quintet players begged him to rein in the opening forte. Joachim told him that would take “three cellists in one” to be heard. Brahms listened, took the comments under advisement, and–as you see–left it just as it was. It must have worked out; the premiere, in November 1890, was a triumph. The acclaim for his farewell piece was one of the events that led, ironically, to his abandoning his retirement. He wrote to a friend,
Recently I started various things, symphonies and so on, but nothing would come right. Then I thought, I’m really too old, and resolved energetically to write no more. I considered that all my life I had been sufficiently industrious and had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old age and could enjoy it in peace. And that made me so happy, so contented, so delighted–that all at once the writing began to go.
After the extroverted movement, the inner movements are more inward and a bit autumnal; this is someone you can imagine retiring to rest on his laurels. The second movement, marked Adagio, is in d minor. It begins with a slow, melancholy march from the two violas and ends with a lonely viola cadenza. The third movement has the rather strange marking Un poco allegretto, a little sort of fast. It’s in the place of a minuet or scherzo, and is in 3/4 time, but it’s neither a dance nor a joke; it’s a slow, last waltz, in G minor with its middle section in G major, like a memory of happy times. The last movement frames the quintet with another cheerful movement in G major, but Brahms gives us a few bars of minor-key transition at the beginning before breaking into his happy dance, Hungarian- style.
Does this not sound familiar? I was struck how the works by these two geniuses, Haydn and Brahms, reflect each other. Brahms could not have written his late quintet without Haydn’s mid-life innovations; it rises on Haydn’s foundation, from the strong, independent viola and cello lines to the folk-inflected ending. In 1896, approaching the end of his life, Brahms spoke of Haydn with the greatest admiration. “That was a man indeed!” he said. “How miserable we are in comparison to something like that!” The Castalian Quartet’s brilliant programming sets these great works opposite each other; then, instead of placing another middle-European composer between them, they open the repertoire to Kaija Saariaho, a woman from Finland. And we, the lucky audience, get discover the taste of Sima between the cocktail and the final glass.
Program Notes for Trio Duende
January 21 - 22, 2023
Mainstage Performance by Trio Duende, January 21, 2023:
Pēteris Vasks (1946 – ) Castillo Interior for violin and cello, 2013 (10 minutes)
Fred Hersch (1955 – ), Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, 2004 (5 minutes)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Prelude in D, Op. 23, No. 4, 1903 (5 minutes)
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Nocturne in B, Op. 62, No. 1, 1846 (8 minutes)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Intermezzo from The Nutcracker, 1892,
arr. M. Pletnev (1957 – ) 1978 (5 minutes)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Piano Trio #1 in B flat, Opus 99, Slow Movement, 1827 (9 minutes)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Piano Trio No. 1, Opus 8, 1853-4, revised 1889, 37 minutes
Trio Duende’s concert will launch 2023 with music to move and delight. Unlike the season’s first two concerts, where the Telegraph Quartet and the Verona Quartet presented a nourishing meal with a classical appetizer, a challenging main course, and a delectable romantic dessert, this concert will make you think more of a curated tasting menu. The concert begins by deconstructing the piano trio into its component parts. First, we will hear a piece by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks for violin and cello alone. Next will come four pieces for piano alone, by Fred Hersch, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Then the whole trio will come together to play the slow movement from Franz Schubert’s gorgeous Piano Trio in B Flat, Opus 99. After the intermission, all three players will again join in one of the most beautiful trios in the romantic repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ Trio Opus 8 in B Major.
We’re going to look at each of these seven pieces, but first, let’s take a moment to consider the difference between a string quartet and a piano trio. A string quartet is a unit, as indivisible as an atom. The instruments–two violins, a viola and a cello–belong to the same family, and the players combine them to create a unique quartet sound. A piano trio, on the other hand, is a divisible union of three soloists. They, and their instruments, are individuals who bring their brilliance and expressivity to the group. An Italian cellist I know once told me that he did not want to be in a string quartet because it reminded him of a marriage. A quartet spends its life together, and each player’s success depends absolutely on the others. My friend preferred to play in a piano trio because, he said, he was already married. The three brilliant artists that make up Trio Duende–pianist Awadagin Pratt, cellist Sophie Shao, and violinist Tom Stone, the artistic director of this series–thus have the freedom pursue their individual life paths, and still come together to make beautiful music as a trio.
Castillo Interior for violin and cello, by Pēteris Vasks
The first piece on the program, Pēteris Vasks’s Castillo Interior for violin and cello, was written in 2013. We heard this piece in a different form in September 2021, when Awadagin performed a solo-piano version that Vasks had transcribed especially for him. The version we will hear on this concert is the original version; Vasks also transcribed the piece for string trio in 2021. Awadagin will play the solo piano version for us again at the Sunday Concert+Conversation.
Vasks is a Latvian composer who was born in 1946. He trained at the Vilnius Conservatory as a double bass player and played bass in the Latvian National Symphony before turning his attention to composition in the 1970s. His early days as a composer were during the Soviet era; during his creative life, his website explains, “he has developed from a young, angry and avant-garde author who speaks the language of modernist music, into a remarkable artist who illustrates the eternal duel between good and evil with the so-called new principles of simplicity, as well as universally understandable sound expression.” His spiritual relatives include such composers as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.
The piece’s title refers to a book by the 16th century Christian saint and mystic Theresa of Avila called Moradas del Castillo Interior (Dwellings of the Interior Castle.) St. Theresa is describing her inner life, and Vasks’s music also seems to come from a deeply spiritual place. During its ten minutes, we hear sections of slowly evolving string sounds, with dynamics between soft (piano) and very, very soft (pianississimo.) These passages alternate with outbursts of loud, minimalist broken chords. There are four sets of slow-fast alternation, and one final slow section.
The slow sections, marked adagio, might remind you of medieval plainsong; the harmonies are open and almost hymn-like, and the music moves in slow, regular, phrases. There is no key signature written in the music, but we are mostly in d minor until the 4th slow section. As the piece goes on, the harmonies move gradually away from the more somber minor ode, and the piece ends in D major. The registers, too, are constrained; not until the end does the violin go above notes easily accessible by a quietly singing nun. The cello, too, stays in the middle range. Only at the end does the cellist even play on her lowest string, the C string. At this closing moment Vasks asks her to slide down to a low D, highlighting the note after the restraint of the meditative sections.
The allegro sections are highly contrasting; the dynamic ranges from loud to very loud, and the arpeggios move rapidly between keys. But they are not especially dissonant or difficult to follow; there is a characteristic pattern to them which you will easily pick up. They also go by quickly. The longest allegro section is about a minute long, the shortest, just six seconds; the longest adagio section, by contrast, is almost three minutes long, and none is shorter than a minute. The fast sections can be read as interruptions in the steady flow of the contemplative adagio music. Since the title refers explicitly to St. Theresa’s mystical writings, we might be justified in a bit of programmatic thinking. Is the composer showing us meditation interrupted by uncontrollable outbursts of mental chatter? Worldly thoughts? Or even of sin, which St. Theresa worries about a good deal? Whatever your interpretation, Castillo Interior makes masterful use of just two-thirds of a piano trio.
Four Pieces for Solo Piano
Next, pianist Awadagin Pratt brings us four pieces for solo piano: a Nocturne by contemporary jazz pianist Fred Hersch, a Prelude by the Russian romantic Sergei Rachmaninov, another Nocturne by the Polish romantic Frederick Chopin, and the Intermezzo from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, in an arrangement by the Russian pianist and composer Mikhail Pletnev. The four pieces together make a beautiful set which, to my ear, are all rather nocturnal pieces, perfect for a concert on a northern winter night.
This theme is set in motion by the first piece, Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, by the noted contemporary jazz pianist Fred Hersch. It is part of the robust repertoire, literally thousands of pieces of music, written for the left hand. Note that there is almost no music written for the right hand alone. I had never thought about why this should be so, but it’s obvious once you do. A melody is almost always in a higher register than its accompaniment, and the left hand is perfectly set up for this. The pianist can play the melody with the thumb and the accompaniment with the other four fingers, which can move freely away from the thumb. Skill is required, of course, to make a legato melodic line with just the thumb, but it is possible. Now picture doing this with your right hand. Do you play the melody with your pinkie? Can you separate the little finger from the other four to play a brilliant accompaniment? No! It just doesn’t work.
This is the tradition Hersch stepped into when he wrote this piece, part of a set of three “character studies,” in 2004. It is dedicated to his long-time piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, and he notes that it is his first fully notated composition (many of his earlier compositions were transcribed from improvised live performances.) The title “nocturne” tells us that the piece is in a romantic tradition of music inspired by, or invoking, the night. Nocturnes typically have a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment. You might think of a serenade, where singers accompany themselves on guitar, but where serenades are evening pieces–“sera” is Italian for evening–nocturnes, from “notte,” night, invoke a dreamier hour. If a serenade might be played beneath a lover’s window at 9 PM, a nocturne would have to wait until at least 11.
A nocturnal sense of lyrical melody with flowing accompaniment continues in the three pieces that follow. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D, Opus 23 #4, is from a set of ten preludes he wrote in 1903, greatly expanding the baroque form of the prelude. Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in B, written in 1835, is the longest of the four pieces at eight minutes, and is the apotheosis of the nocturne form. The Intermezzo from the Nutcracker, from a suite arranged by Mikhail Pletnev, also shares that character. If it’s not quite what you were expecting, note that it is drawn from a section of the ballet that Tchaikovsky did not include in his own Nutcracker Suite. Pletney’s Suite, which requires great virtuosity from the pianist, includes his personal choices, not Tchaikovsky’s. The Intermezzo, with its expansive melody, comes from Scene 2 of the ballet, Journey Through the Snow.
Piano Trio in B flat major, Opus 99, by Franz Schubert
Next, having heard from the strings and then the piano, we will hear the whole trio come together to play the slow movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, Opus 99. They are dedicating their performance to the honor and memory of Pearl Micheli, the founder and guiding light of this chamber music series, who passed away in December 2022. Pearl was an excellent pianist who loved the piano trio literature. Many of us have precious memories of Pearl seated at the piano, playing trios with her devoted friends.
Schubert wrote two piano trios, this one and a second one in E flat, Opus 100. Both are expansive works composed during the last two years of his short life. The movement we will hear was composed in 1827, and the whole trio was completed in 1828. Unlike many of his last pieces, Schubert did actually hear his trio played at one of his concert evenings, gatherings his friends called Schubertiades, on January 28, 1828, almost exactly195 years ago before our concert. Listening to it, you might feel that the nocturne theme continues, with the string instruments taking up the melodic line once played by a thumb. The lovely melody, played first on the cello and then the violin, could be a lullaby. The mood grows less dreamy in the middle section, but it does not so much darken as jazz up. The sweet lullaby returns at the end.
Piano Trio in B major, Opus 8, by Johannes Brahms
Following the intermission, the trio returns with one of the grandest of Romantic trios, Brahms’ Opus 8 in B major. Despite the early opus number, this version was actually written in 1889, after his so-called second trio, Opus 87 in C major, from 1882, and his third, Opus 101 in C minor, from 1886. Brahms had composed an earlier version of Opus 8 in 1853, and published it with trepidation not long after being hailed as a “young eagle” by Robert Schumann, fearful that Schumann’s praise had given the public high expectations he would not be able to fulfill. In 1889, the mature composer at down to revise his early work, in order to make it, he said, “not as dreary as before.” Not that it ever was!
It is unusual for us to have two versions of any Brahms work, so Opus 8 does allow us to guess how the 56-year-old Brahms may have felt about his 21-year-old self. The best guess is that he found his younger self long-winded. The revised version is about a third shorter than the original, about 36 minutes to the earlier version’s 47. With the exception of the scherzo, which he left just as before, he made substantial changes to all movements. He simplified first themes and wrote new second themes, but if you listen to the first version (here on YouTube) you will not feel especially disoriented. "I didn't provide it with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little,” Brahms claimed.
It always strikes me how individual the movements of this trio are. The first movement begins with a singing theme in bright B major, and I’d like you to note one small detail. The piano plays the theme first. After four bars the cello takes it up, but changes the first two notes from an unsurprising fourth to a heart-lifting sixth, my favorite interval. It makes me happy to be a cellist.
The second movement, a scherzo, is in B minor and has a mysterious rhythmic theme, introduced again by the cello, which is anything but lyrical. It always impresses me how Brahms manages to finess this theme into a pastoral B major melody in the middle section, and then slip us right back into the snare-drum rhythm. He may have kept the 1853 version because Robert Schumann liked it. Or maybe it was Clara, who famously loved Brahms’s scherzos. In any case, it was perfect as it was.
The third movement, at the heart of this expansive work, is intimate, melancholy, and otherworldly. As the Duende players did earlier in the concert, Brahms here deconstructs the piano trio into its component parts. First the piano plays alone, then the strings, then piano; then comes a heartfelt theme for cello and piano, new to this version, then a whispered, attenuated return of the opening music, played by the full trio. You will hold your breath through this extraordinary movement, scarcely knowing where in the universe you are.
Finally, there is an elusive fourth movement. You will think, briefly, that Brahms is still in his “voice in the wilderness” mood, before he somehow breaks into a foot-stomping, Hungarian-inflected passage that might even make you think of Dvorak. And, in a final surprise, the trio, having begun in bright B major, ends in B minor. An early work has become a late one, an endlessly surprising, fascinating masterpiece.
Program Notes for the Verona Quartet Concert
October 29-30, 2022
Mainstage Performance by the Verona String Quartet, October 29, 2022:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet Opus 18, #1 in F Major, 1799 (29 minutes)
György Ligeti (1923-2006) String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes, 1953-54 (22 minutes)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) String Quartet Opus 106 in G Major, Op. 106, 1895 (36 minutes)
For the second concert of the season, the Verona Quartet promises us an evening of great pleasure, like the pleasure we might feel encountering three masterpieces of art in a single room. Not a museum room, mind you–it’s a home, where each piece is treasured both for itself and for its connection with the other two. We are so lucky to be able to sit among friends and hear music played live just for us!
1. Beethoven, Opus 18 #1 in F Major.
The first work of art we will encounter is by Beethoven, the genius who took the string quartet, created by Haydn and made magical by Mozart, and perfected it to a form that still nourishes us today. His first entry into the field is Opus 18, is a set of six quartets which fall into the period called “early Beethoven.” They are in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but could not be mistaken either of these masters. Formally, they follow a familiar pattern: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a sprightly, dance-like movement, and a dazzling finale. But each quartet has a heightened intensity that could only be by Beethoven.
The one we will hear, Opus 18 #1, is not the first one he wrote (that was Opus 18 #3), but it is the one he chose to lead off his debut collection. The moment you experience the first phrase–a short, breathless utterance, half statement, half question–you will understand why he gave this quartet pride of place. The four notes of the opening hardly make it to the status of melody; little melody-fragments like this are often referred to as motifs. Played softly first, then, almost immediately, loudly, it instantly transports us to Beethoven’s world. It is Beethoven’s genius to make sweeping amounts of music out of minimal motifs, and you will hear this one throughout the movement.
There are other Beethoven-y things to listen for. One is silence. Breathless silences abound in the second movement, but they are found in this movement as well. Called “grand pauses” in the score, they heighten the drama by pulling our attention in closer. Another is something called a “subito piano.” This is the effect where the music gets louder and louder, and then suddenly (“subito”) drops away to softness (“piano”). The first one comes along at about a half minute into the piece, and you will hear many. Performers say that the trick of making an effective subito piano is to keep playing louder and louder, careful not to pull back until the last possible moment. Miwako Watanabe, violinist in the Sequoia Quartet, once said if she played Beethoven’s subito pianos properly, she could feel it in her shoulder the next day. All for art, right?
The second movement, marked Adagio (slow), is literally dramatic; that is, it is linked to one of Shakespeare’s plays. We do not often think of Beethoven as a programmatic composer, but he did compose with stories in mind surprisingly often. This one, it turns out, is about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The movement is one of the most gripping nine minutes in music; if you said it was from a late Beethoven quartet, not an early one, no one would bat an eyelash.
We know about the Romeo and Juliet connection from Beethoven himself. When his friend Karl Amenda told him that the movement “pictured for me two lovers parting,” Beethoven is said to have replied, “Good! I was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet.” Beethoven loved Shakespeare, whom he read in German translation; he may even have been contemplating an opera. The movement is made of hushed passages, sudden, operatic outbursts, and long silences, where we, and the quartet, hold our breath. As for the last measure, and Juliet’s long last sigh, just remember to breathe.
The third movement is not a minuet but a scherzo, an Italian word meaning “jest.” Haydn had begun switching out his minuet dance movements for scherzos about 20 years previously, and Beethoven ran with the idea. Minuet movements derive from a decorous court dance; somehow an energetic “jest” movement seems better suited to Beethoven’s personality. A scherzo takes up the same position and a similar role in the quartet, that of offering a few moments of humor between the drama of the second movement and the flash of the finale. This scherzo is the kind of jest that is more play than joke; it is made almost of one long flowing line. It has the ABA structure of a minuet: a beginning section, a contrasting middle section called a “trio,” followed by a repeat of the opening section. You can recognize the trio when you hear some hammering octaves with a bit of Haydn-esque hemiola (remember those from the Telegraph Quartet notes?) The trio then flows back to the beginning without a break, so deftly you will smile.
The last movement, unlike most of Beethoven’s finales, is marked allegro, lively, rather than presto, super fast, but performers like to show their speed chops as the quartet rounds into the home stretch. This finale opens with a flourish from the first violin which you will have the pleasure of hearing from all four players in the course of the movement. The inner voices have the honor of the last flourishes, before the final, satisfying chords.
The second masterpiece of the evening is by György Ligeti. His first string quartet, written in 1953 and 1954, is called Métamorphoses nocturnes. Ligeti is a Hungarian composer. Born in 1923, he studied with Bartók’s friend Kodaly, and immersed himself in Bartók’s work, especially his third and fourth quartets. Bartók’s influence is so clear that the composer György Kurtág called Ligeti’s work “ Bartók’s seventh.”
Let’s start with a few words from Ligeti himself.
The first word of the sub-title Metamorphoses nocturnes refers to the form. It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific “theme” that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms - that is why “metamorphoses” is more appropriate than “variations”. The quartet can be considered as having just one movement or also as a sequence of many short movements that melt into one another without pause or which abruptly cut one another off. The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone. In this First String Quartet there are certainly some characteristics of my later music, but the writing is totally different, “old-fashioned”; there are still distinct melodic, rhythmic and harmonic patterns and bar structure. It is not tonal music, but it is not radically atonal, either. The piece still belongs firmly to the Bartók tradition (remember my situation as a composer in Hungary at the beginning of the fifties), yet despite the Bartók-like tone (especially in the rhythm) and despite some touches of Stravinsky and Alban Berg, I trust that the First String Quartet is still a personal work.
You may not find the Metamorphoses exactly old-fashioned, but it’s possible to enjoy it in the same way as we enjoy Bartók. It’s 20th century music, but it does have tunes, folk moments, and even a waltz. It’s about 20 minutes long and is played without breaks, but it also has sections. Many sections! Seventeen of them! It’s fun to listen to it with the score. Click HERE for the link to a performance on YouTube by the Adritti Quartet.
The titles of the sections are tempo markings, referring to how fast the players need to go. Prestissimo, very fast, is the quickest tempo, Lento, at the end, is the slowest. Subito, suddenly, is an important word: #10 is suddenly very sustained; #13 is suddenly faster. The changes are easy to notice, and as Ligeti says, often abruptly cut off the preceding section. Here are their names:
Presto – Prestissimo
Molto sostenuto – Andante tranquillo
Tempo di Valse, moderato, con eleganza, un poco capriccioso
Subito: molto sostenuto
Allegretto, un poco gioviale
Allargando. Poco più mosso
Subito allegro con moto, string. poco a poco sin al prestissimo
Allegro comodo, gioviale
Sostenuto, accelerando – Ad libitum, senza misura
Of course, in a 20 minute piece with seventeen sections, none of them can be very long, and indeed they are not. The longest sections are the slow ones: #4, Adagio mesto, slow and sad, is two minutes long, #6, molto sostenuto, very sustained, three minutes. So, as they say about the weather, if you don’t like a section, just wait a minute, and you’ll hear something else.
The opening section, marked Allegro grazioso, lively and graceful, is just half a minute long. The “concept” that Ligeti refers to, two major seconds, or whole steps, separated by a half step, appears here, in the first violin in the 7th measure, at the beginning of the second line in the score. It’s a good idea to listen to it a few times and fix it in your mind. This is the fragment or motive that is literally transformed, metamorphosed, throughout the quartet. It’s a little tricky to pick out in some of the sections, but I think you’ll find that by the time you get to the Lento at the end, when the violin plays the “theme” very clearly, you’ll feel a sense of familiarity and completeness.
The Waltz is the 8th section, and it comes just past the half-way point, about 11 minutes in. It’s a good landmark. You only have 30 seconds to enjoy it, but the whole piece is entertaining on many levels; you can enjoy the many special effect like Bartók pizzicatos, the amazing rhythmic complexity, the incredible skill required by the players. You can let your imagination run wild on the aural scenery. And you can appreciate another amazing masterpiece of the 20th century, and a composer who will expand your understanding and love of music.
Dvořák, String Quartet Opus 106 in G Major
The second half of the program gives us Dvořák’s monumental final quartet, Opus 106. It was written fairly quickly, not long after he returned from his sojourn in New York and Iowa, where he had composed his most popular quartet, Opus 96, the “American.” Over the years Opus 106 has been thoroughly, and I would say unjustly, overshadowed by the American, so it is thrilling to have a chance to hear it here.
Dvořák is also, of course, Beethoven’s heir, but he follows a different thread of his genius. Where Ligeti invokes the Beethoven of short, pregnant fragments, Dvořák’s quartet blooms from the Beethoven of expansive melodies, like the slow-movement rhapsodies of his later quartets. He also draws on Beethoven’s programmatic side, especially his nature descriptions, like those in the Pastoral Symphony. Dvořák’s music overflows with nature: brooks, thunderstorms, bird song. Part of the scherzo of the American quartet, it is said, was originally composed by a red-eyed vireo who annoyed Dvořák by waking him up at dawn in Iowa.
The first movement of Opus 106 opens with a violin leap and trill that could also be bird song, and proceeds through ten minutes or so of what you could easily hear as nature sounds, ranging in tone from tenderly melodic to exhilarating. It is a warm, cheerful movement; Dvořák had been terribly homesick in America, and sounds very glad to be back in Prague.
After this celebration of Bohemia, though, the second movement takes us back to the New World. Unlike the American, with its direct quotations of Native American utterances, Opus 106 is a complete absorption into himself of all Dvořák had learned there. Listening to it, I almost forget Beethoven; this is music that Beethoven never even tried to write. It is pure Dvořák, from the deep-voiced opening that seems to come out of the depth of a forest, to the drumbeats in the cello, to the haunting pentatonic melody. It might be my favorite Dvořák movement. It feels like a gift to hear music so open to the sounds of our native land.
When the final deep chord dies away, prepare to be whisked from the forest of the New World to a Bohemian peasant barn. The third movement is marked Molto Vivace, and it’s full of foot stomping rhythm. Wait until you hear the rhythmic accompaniment that Dvořák has devised for the viola and cello. This is Bohemian folk music, though Dvořák has tidied it up à la Brahms.
The last movement starts with a slow introduction, gets going in traditional Finale style, and takes some turns that will surprise you, and I’m not even counting the sudden appearance of Three Blind Mice (listen for it). About halfway through, the viola sneaks in the bird song from the first movement, almost convincing the rest of the quartet to follow. Throughout the movement, Dvořák’s ideas overflow; you’ll hear forest whispers, whirling dances, and more, for an exhilarating conclusion to a fantastic evening.
Program Notes for the Telegraph Quartet
September 10-11, 2022
Mainstage Performance by the Telegraph String Quartet, September 10, 2022:
Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1890) String Quartet Opus 50 #5 in F Major, “The Dream,” 1787 (18 minutes)
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) String Quartet #4, 1951 (23 minutes)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Viola Quintet #1 in F Major, Opus 88, 1882 (28 minutes)
The Telegraph Quartet has designed an exciting program to open our 2022-23 season. Like a well-planned meal, it has a sparkling appetizer, a complex, flavorful main course, and a luscious dessert. The Haydn quartet is the appetizer, by which I mean no disrespect to the father and inventor of the string quartet. Often the appetizer is my favorite part of the meal. Your taste buds are wide awake, and a good chef knows the starter has to absolutely sparkle. In the same way, your ears are fresh and awake for the first piece. Classical quartets do sparkle, and they also set a context, and a high bar, for what will come next.
When you get to the main course, you want something to chew on. We love hearing pieces we know, but it’s also fun to expand our own repertoire of pieces that we love. I am especially interested in women composers, and since they are less familiar, this is a good place to find them. Grazyna Bacewiz is a great composer and it’s thrilling to have her on this program.
After a palette-cleansing intermission, we’re ready for dessert. Quartets from the romantic era, like those by Dvorak and Brahms, are usually longer than classical ones, or modern ones for that matter, so they make a good choice for upholding the whole second half of the program. You may say you’re tired, you’re ready for bed, and you just want a little dessert, but in fact don’t you actually want the whole crème brûlée? Of course you do. In this concert the last piece, a string quartet with a second viola, known as a viola quintet, is a particularly luscious conclusion.
1. Haydn Opus 50 #5 in F Major, “The Dream.”
The opener is Haydn’s 40th quartet, known as the “Dream.” Yes, his 40th, a number made even more impressive when you realize that he was only two-thirds of the way through his lifetime output of 68 quartets. Haydn not only invented the string quartet, he wrote more of them than, well, anyone. Yet somehow each of Haydn’s quartets manages to be memorable. The form of this one is quite standard: an opening movement in a fast tempo, a slow, heartfelt second movement, a dance movement, in this case a minuet, and another fast movement, faster even than the first. But each of the movements has its own unique stamp, setting the quartet apart from its 67 peers.
The first movement is kicked off by the two violinists, playing alone, sketching out a simple little tune. It’s almost folk-like, except that folk music is more sophisticated. They are barely into their little ditty when they are interrupted by two short strange notes, like little knocks, from the viola and the cello. With Haydn, when you hear something strange, you can be sure it’s a feature, not a bug. As the movement unfolds, the strange little knocks get passed around among the instruments like hot potatoes. Every time one of them lands in a player’s lap, it gets tossed into the air with a brilliant running passage. Following the knocks, and hearing how each player responds, is the special joy of this movement.
The second movement is the emotional heart of the work. Though barely four minutes long, it is the one that gives the quartet its nickname of the “Dream.” If you can keep the chord that ends the first movement in your head, the violin’s opening note of the second movement will seem to emerge from its resonance. The feeling is of resting our eyes after an exciting chase scene. Listen to the cello, as it takes us all the way down to its lowest note, its open C string. A few seconds into the movement, and we are dreaming.
I enjoy this movement most by “listening down”–that is, by following the lowest line instead of the highest. Giving myself over to the low voices highlights the beautiful textures and harmonies Haydn creates. It also helps me hear the dissonances–notes that seem to clash with other notes and heighten our alertness. Like the knocks, dissonance is a feature, not a bug. Creating and resolving tension is almost the definition of dreaming, and Haydn is a master creator of this inward experience.
The third movement, like the quartet as a whole, has its own special signature, a quick little turn before each downbeat. It’s like the flourish of a white handkerchief during the dance, over so fast you can barely register it. The form is also a bit out of the ordinary. Minuets usually have an opening section, which is actually called the “minuet,” then a second section, called the “trio,” then a repeat of the minuet. The trio is most often quieter and slower than the minuet. Not here, though. This trio continues the same music, but now loudly and every bit as fast. Of course, as the inventor of the string quartet, Haydn can structure his dance movements however he wants to.
The fourth movement is called Finale and goes by even faster than the first movement. There is an unusual suggestion from Haydn, near the beginning, for the first violin to play an arpeggio, or broken chord pattern, “sopra una corda,” on one string, which might call forth a quick slide. There are few structural surprises, just a delightful Haydn finale and fitting conclusion to a compact, witty quartet.
2. Grażyna Bacewicz String Quartet #4
Having enjoyed our appetizer, it’s time for the main course, Grażyna Bacewicz’s fourth string quartet. It was written in 1951, more than a century and a half after the Dream, in a style called “neoclassical.” Though clearly a 20th century quartet, it is not atonal, and is full of attractive, folk-inflected melodies.
Bacewicz may not be a familiar name, so let’s start with her life. Born in 1909 in the Polish city of Lodz, she began studying violin and piano with her father. After graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory in violin and composition, she traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. In 1936 she became concertmaster of the Polish Radio Symphony, an unusual position for a woman. She performed for most of her life, even during World War II, on both violin and piano, but her talent as a composer gradually overtook her performing career. In 1956 she was seriously injured in a car accident from which she never fully recovered, and she died sadly early, not yet 60 years old, in 1969, still in the midst of a successful composing career. Like many women composers, she was famous in her lifetime, both in Poland and internationally. Her fame did wane after her death in 1969, but she is now coming in for a revival. We are lucky to have a chance to hear what many consider her best string quartet, right here in Humboldt County.
Her quartet has three movements rather than the more usual four, so although it is just five minutes longer than the Dream, each movement feels more substantial. The first movement opens quietly; Bacewicz instructs the players to place their bows on the area of their strings where they are least resonant, so the notes have an elusive quality. Over the next minute or so the volume, and the speed, will increase; a minute and a half in, we are at full throttle. Almost immediately the volume subsides for the first appearance of a hummable tune played by the two violins. You will hear the poignant melody no less than four times, It comes along every two minutes or so, and you can listen for it whenever the music quiets down.
The second movement is marked Andante, just as Haydn’s second movement was; it is about the same length, and has a clear melody that rises and falls over four bars, played in turn by the first violin, the cello, and the viola. You can enjoy this movement in the same way, by listening down, but I like it even better when I listen to the middle voices, the ones between the high violin and the cello, to enjoy the textures and colors as they flow by.
The third movement is the easiest to like. It is lively and folky; it may remind you of how much you like fiddling. The movement is a rondo, a form where a tune comes back repeatedly, interspersed with other material. The rondo theme is a dance called an “oberek,” which is said to be the fastest of the five Polish national dances (the other ones are the krakowiak, kujawiak, mazurka, and polonaise.) Bacewicz wrote a famous oberek for violin and piano; there is a Youtube of Bacewicz herself playing it, with her brother Kjejstrut on piano. (The clip also offers an opportunity to hear “Bacewicz” pronounced in Polish.) The oberek theme comes back five times in the movement, by which time it will be an earworm and may haunt you during intermission. The interludes between obereks are varied, ranging from slow and sweet to a bit squeaky to plucked rather than bowed. The quartet concludes with the fastest oberek yet; like dancers whirling to the very end.
3: Johannes Brahms, Viola Quintet #1 in F Major, Opus 88, written and first performed in 1882.
In the final piece of music, our dessert, Tom Stone, Music Director of the Eureka Chamber Music Series, joins the Telegraph Quartet on viola to play one of Brahms’s two viola quintets. A viola quintet is not, as you might think, a group of five violas; it is a string quartet plus a second viola. I promise it really will feel like a dessert, a rich creamy one at that. Adding a second viola to an ensemble is honestly like adding whipped cream.
Brahms wrote this delicious piece when was 49 years old, about three quarters of the way through his composing career, and finally starting to relax a little. He had already published his three string quartets, after (it is said) throwing away twenty of them as unworthy to stand in the shadow of Beethoven. He now felt free enough to write a purely enjoyable piece of music. He himself loved this quintet; he told his publisher, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me.” It is in three movements: a warm, entrancing first movement, a more complicated second movement, and a short, exhilarating finale. The unusual second movement combines the slow movement and the dance movement of a classical quartet. Where the Haydn quartet had a slow movement followed by a minuet movement, Brahms has written a single central movement which alternates between stately slowness and the dance liveliness. The finale is in the form of a fugue, which might sound academic, but actually reads as a return to the cheerful music of the beginning.
The opening of the first movement sounds like a song. When we think about Brahms we tend to think more about his symphonies, concertos and his piano pieces (the Hungarian Dances were his biggest sellers in his lifetime). The only song we’ve all heard of is the Wiegenlied, AKA Brahms’ Lullaby, which was so famous he came to regret having written it. But he composed over 200 of them, and at his funeral it was suggested he would be remembered mainly as a composer of songs. He was especially fond of the low voice, and the opening of this quintet is pitched low, as if for his favorite contralto.
The song-like simplicity does not last, of course. After a minute or so Brahms, who is famous for harmonic and rhythmic complications, livens up the song with a jaunty dotted rhythm. Two minutes in, he introduces a second song-like theme, played by the first viola, in a very different key, and the cello switches from bowed notes to pizzicato.
The second movement is marked “Grave,” Italian for serious, and “appassionato,” passionate, and its opening is absolutely unique in chamber music. All five voices play close together in pitch, within an octave of middle C. The cello, normally the low voice, has the highest note; the first violin plays just below the cello, while the second violin and the two violas create a bass line which is close to the lowest note on their instruments. This is epitome of middle voice writing. Brahms seems to be saying, listen to what I can make you feel. This solemn opening is the first of the dances in the movement. It is a sarabande, a dance you might know from Baroque suites. Bach’s cello suites, for example, all have sarabandes as their slow movements. Brahms took the material from his A major piano sarabande, but moved the key to C# minor. The sarabande is played three times, with the livelier dance movements between the iterations. The lively dances, however, are not minuets (or even obereks); the first is a gigue, the second a gavotte.
Brahms has one more surprise in this unique movement. As we step quietly through the serious theme for the last time, the first violin unexpectedly unfolds a tracing of beautiful notes, like smoke into the air, expanding to fill the spaces between each note. A few more quiet measures, and the first viola and then the second violin also unspool the sequence. Finally the two violins spin it out together to a breathtaking length. Then they lead us into one of the slowest, saddest endings we will ever hear. All we can do is hold our breath.
The third movement has another surprise. In amazing reversal, the quintet jumps to life in two chords, and the first viola will begin a brilliant fugue. Once started, the movement never slows down. It’s short, about half the length of the first two movements, and we are back in song territory. Listen to the top and bottom voices this time, especially to the first violin and cello, about a minute in, playing a tune that is about as complex as the ditty that opened Haydn’s Dream quartet. This is not necessarily what we come to Brahms for, but it is reassuring to know that if he wanted to give us moments of pure enjoyment, he could.
So concludes a beautifully planned concert, with a nourishing arc and emotional satisfaction from every possible side. Bravo!