Chamber Music Houston Chamber Music Houston




    DATE: Tuesday, March 01, 2016

    TIME: 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM

    Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music
    Rice University


    Mozart, Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575

    Menuetto: Allegretto

    In April 1789, Mozart set out for Berlin and Potsdam in the company of Prince Lichnowsky of Vienna, at the Prince’s request. The purpose of the trip was at least in part an audience with Frederick Wilhelm II, King of Germany (nephew of Frederick the Great, another cellist), the same cellist-king for whom Haydn had written his Opus 50 quartets two years earlier. After a ten-day stay at court, Mozart left with a goodly sum in gold coin and a commission to write six string quartets and six piano sonatas. He immediately began work during the return trip to Vienna and by the end of the month, had completed the quartet we hear tonight. Two more were completed a year later, however Mozart died before writing the last three and before sending any to the king. These quartets are filled with gorgeous writing for the cello – uniquely so in the canon of classical string quartets – and are thus known as the “cello quartets” by performers and as the “Prussian Quartets” by musicologists.

    K. 575 is for the most part in concertante form, that is, essentially, a duet for the first violin and the cello. This is not to say the inner voices are neglected, as indeed the viola and second violin play important roles, expanding and emphasizing thematic ideas and taking part in the subtle counterpoint woven into all four movements, like a miniature string orchestral accompaniment.

    The first movement, Allegretto, starts with a sunny, pastoral theme in the first violin, quickly passed off to the viola; the cello does not play at all for the first eight bars and does not have a solo for the first 22. Thereafter, and for the remainder of the four movements there are a truly remarkable number of solo passages for the cello, some of these requiring a level of virtuosity that tells us a great deal about King Frederick II’s aspirations.

    The Andante movement is an aria in form and spirit – a lovely song for all four instruments, emphasizing cello and violin.

    The Menuetto provides the cellist with a respite – the two upper and two lower voices parallel each other for most of the section, while the Trio, in contrast, is entirely in the cellist’s hands. The final Allegretto starts out with a simple melody in the cello played with unfurrowed brow. It suddenly breaks out into bravura passages growing contrapuntally richer, making use of a variety of complicated compositional techniques. Mozart clearly intended that this music be carefree and fun, but not simple or easy to play.

    Szymanowski, Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 37

    Lento assai
    Andantino semplice. In modo d'una canzone. Adagio dolcissimo. Lento assai molto espressivo

    Karol Szymanowski lived and worked in a turbulent, transitional period of musical history. German musical traditions were overlapping with French Impressionism and with the new ideas of the 20th century championed by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Szymanowski was born into a family of Polish landowning nobility in the section of Poland that had been annexed by Russia. His family was strongly nationalistic, as were most of the gentry in the region but in their case, arts were of primary importance to the family: all five children were given the best education available in their chosen artistic fields. Karol showed unusual musical ability as a child and began piano lessons at the age of 7. In 1901 he was sent to Warsaw for the best training that Poland had to offer; that being somewhat weak, he went on to Berlin and eventually to Vienna. By 1914 he had returned to Poland and remained there until his family was driven from their land by the Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1917, the year in which the first of his two string quartets was composed.

    Szymanowski was not a prodigious composer and left a listing of only 62 opus numbers. His earliest works were for piano, or piano and voice, but he moved on to orchestral compositions, which by 1911 were winning him acclaim in major European cities. His first quartet reveals a surprising knowledge of the character of the four instruments, each being used equally and to best advantage. (This writer, being a violinist, is amazed at the amount of time the first violin spends in the high register of the instrument.)

    Though his first quartet originally consisted of four movements, portions of this version were lost when the family estate was destroyed in the October Revolution of 1917. Szymanowski had to reconstruct the work from scratch but due to a publishing deadline, he ran out of time to rewrite the fourth and final movement. To balance the three remaining movements, the composer ultimately reversed the original order of the second and third movements.

    Stylistically this quartet summarizes the composer’s evolutionary development through the musical styles of the day, retracing his own tastes and preferences. The first movement shows German Romantic influence and, in both the first and second movements, French-Impressionism is brought to mind.

    The first movement introduction is built around a C major triad, but in its use of chromaticism is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan. The movement then moves on with declaratory conversations amongst the four instruments. From subdued beginnings, vacillating moods are covered in quick succession and relative calm is restored at the end.

    The second movement begins with a surprisingly lyrical melody. According to a friend of the composer, Szymanowski jotted down this theme during the previous summer while seated beneath the shade trees of a beautiful formal garden, one that dated back to 1795. The movement gradually moves toward the eerie or other-worldly through the use of tremolandi, fingered harmonics, portamenti, and sul tasto (playing on the fingerboard).

    In notating the parts for each of the instruments in the last movement, Szymanowski used four different key signatures simultaneously, a technique that was sometimes used by Stravinsky. The result in this case is amazingly tonal initially and because the movement is fugal in nature, the various key signatures facilitate one’s hearing each individual line as the movement becomes increasingly polytonal. After an accelerando, the quartet concludes with a quiet pizzicato cadence in C major.

    Despite the allusions to a variety of musical styles, Szymanowski’s individuality shines through in this work and the quartet makes for enjoyable listening. One can’t help wondering where the fourth movement would have taken us.

    Elgar, Quartet in E Minor, Op. 83

    Allegro moderato
    Piacevole (poco andante)
    Allegro molto

    Growing up, Edward Elgar had no reason to believe he would one day become the first internationally acclaimed English composer in two hundred years since the death of Henry Purcell. Nor could he have imagined he would become the recipient of numerous high honors from a host of nations, honorary academic degrees from prestigious universities in Great Britain, the Continent and America; or that he would be ultimately knighted by his own king and further receive an hereditary baronetcy. He had, after all, been born into a lower-middle class family in the rigid class society of Victorian England. His father was a musician, piano-tuner, and music shop owner; his mother was a farmer’s daughter who, while well read, well informed, a writer of poetry, and possessed of artistic ability, was without “connections”. He was fortunate that Worcester, a prosperous town in England, was host to a variety of music organizations involving both instrumental and choral music, in most of which his family participated. From the age of six, Edward received music lessons in violin, piano, and organ, as well as in rudimentary music theory from local teachers; which continued until he left school (at the head of his class) at the age of 15. By age 11, Elgar had already composed music for a family play and had begun to regularly contribute music to the family’s Sunday music-making.

    Remarkably, he never received a single formal lesson in music composition! He was entirely self-taught, thanks to high intelligence and the extraordinary ability to hear a complex composition by merely reading the score. It is that utter independence from formal music education in the London establishments that allowed him to develop the unique voice that set him apart from his contemporaries. He has recalled: “The first (scores) which came into my hands were the Beethoven Symphonies…and I remember the day I was able to buy the Pastoral Symphony. I stuffed my pockets with bread and cheese and went out into the fields to study it. That is what I always did.” Once it was clear to his family that music was to be his profession, he had unrestricted access and time for browsing in his father’s shop. He read Cherubini’s Counterpoint, a treatise on harmony, Berlioz’s Instrumentation, and most helpful of all, he said, W.A. Mozart’s Succinct Thorough-Bass School. He had very little interest in Baroque composers; his guides were Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, and Wagner.

    For decades he made his living as a violinist in provincial orchestras and as a soloist, performing and teaching, all the while composing, usually on commission, for local musical organizations. His motivation to continue with music past the age of thirty was his wife. She was a published author of romantic fiction, from a social class above his own, who recognized his potential and fiercely encouraged his abilities. His success over the next decades grew by fits and starts; after a multitude of medals, honors, and honorary degrees he was knighted in 1904 at the age of 47.

    Elgar isn’t known for his chamber music; the few works he wrote came late in his career. He had had in mind, since the end of the 1890s, that he wanted to write a string quintet, however it wasn’t until the end of World War I, at the age of 59, that the right circumstances came together. It was worth the wait.

    The Quartet is in three movements: Allegro moderato, Piacevole (poco andante) , and Allegro molto. The opening movement is of a pensive cast in the rolling meter of 12/8. It starts in the key of E minor but the lowered 7th at the very opening, projects an odd modal flavor, to which are added modulations so extensive as to sometimes obliterate the sense of an anchoring key. The string writing is fine, with tremendous flexibility of the thematic material a la Brahms, as it is subtly and constantly distributed and redistributed among the four instruments. The second movement has the extraordinary indication Piacevole, meaning “atonement” in the ecclesiastical sense. Elgar was deeply mortified by the death and destruction to both sides of the war just ended. Might this have been on his mind? It is in 3/8 meter, scored in the key of C major, from which it regularly strays. In song form (ABA), the last strain is played on muted strings. It was a great favorite of his wife’s; Elgar had it played at her funeral.

    The final movement is again in E Minor, fleet, urgent, and virtuosic, displaying total mastery of string writing. There is a haunting quality to this piece. It is utterly original, seemingly unrelated to any quartet that came before. One could wish he had written more.

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