Gold Coast Chamber Players, Family Business

Family Business

For a program by the Gold Coast Chamber Players

Fanny MendelssohnMusical genius can be found in musicians and composers from all kinds of circumstances, even against all odds. But history shows a vivid pattern of musical families, even dynasties. The latest research suggests that musical aptitude and talent is rooted in nature, in our genes to some extent, as well as nurture: how that musical proclivity is encouraged, supported and nourished. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that music “runs” in families: a combination of genes and lifestyle. This marvelous program is inspired by musical families, the Bach’s, the Mozart’s, and the Mendelssohn’s. In addition, Family Business highlights the issue of nature without nurture, where 18th and 19th century women, daughters, sisters and wives, were socially discouraged from pursuing their musical gifts as their male counterparts were free to do. This resonates with contemporary debates on gender in the tech world. It is refreshing to note that Mozart and Mendelssohn both had sisters who were equal prodigies, while the very first computer programmer was a woman: Ada, Countess of Lovelace.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795)
Trio in G major for violin, viola and piano, HW.VII/5 B 31 (c. 1770-1780)

Undoubtedly, the Bach family is most famous music dynasty in history. Rising from a period of Renaissance village guilds and declining with the rise of the middle class, a free market economy and urban growth, the Bach family comprised 8 generations of musicians featuring at least 15 prominent composers culminating in J.S. Bach, one of history’s supreme musical avatars. Johann had 20 children (with 2 wives), and four of his surviving sons became successful and highly regarded composers. The featured son on this program, J.C.F Bach, also sired a composer son, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, the very last composer of the Bach dynasty.

Born the same year as Haydn, J.C.F Bach was trained in a family way by his father, and brothers during a transitional period in the history of musical style. With the death of his father, the Baroque era “ends” and a new period of galant, expressive, pre-classical music begins. Friederich’s music is a clear reflection of this time with an early Classical style leaning towards Haydn and Mozart, yet, in this piece, still strongly influenced by the Baroque Trio Sonata (with the violin and viola duo textures). Bach’s Trio for violin, viola and piano dates from around 1770-1780 and it may well have been intended for harpsichord. Essentially an early Classical “piano trio”, it features a first movement in clear sonata form, an expressive slow movement recalling the Baroque, and jolly march finale in rondo form with passages that grow wistful by turning to a minor key. History has relegated Friederich to near obscurity, eclipsed by his father before him, and Haydn after him. Today, Even his own brothers are better known (C.P.E. and J.C.).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493 (1786)

Like J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is regarded as a nearly god-like exemplar in the Classical canon. He also came from a family of musicians. His father was a composer and pedagogue who penned of one of the most important manuals for violin players of the time. Mozart’s son Franz also became a successful composer. But more intriguing is that Mozart’s older sister Nannerl was a musical prodigy quite on par with her brother. With the Mozart’s, music was indeed a family business with father Leopold serving as teacher, impresario and veritable “tiger dad” for the two kids who were taken on the road and pushed into show business early. Maria Anna (called Marianne and nicknamed “Nannerl”) would eventually bow out of the limelight as either performer or composer. It was considered unsuitable, objectionable and completely out of the mindset of the family and their times for Nannerl to truly make music her “business.” Based on her brother, it is likely she would have been a truly magnificent musician.

We have Wolfy nonetheless, and as we admire his unparalleled musical greatness, we can think of Leopold, Franz and Nannerl and the composite of nature, nurture and family that radiates from Wolfgang’s extraordinary art. Mozart composed his second piano quartet in E-flat in 1786 at the very height of his mature, artistic powers. Written expressly for the piano (vs. the harpsichord of the Bach family), this is a great masterpiece of the high Viennese Classical style, a new ensemble arising around a brand new and particularly expressive keyboard instrument.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Piano Sextet in D major, Op. 110, (1824)

Moving forward a few decades, and from Vienna to Berlin, we encounter the Mendelssohn family. A distinguished upper-middle class family with ample nature and über nurture with the finest resources, luxuries and connections Europe could provide yielded perhaps the greatest musical prodigy of all time, Felix Mendelssohn. Felix was a very well educated and well-rounded musician who began composing serious masterworks by the time he was 14. To really grasp this extraordinary individual phenomenon, you need only listen to a short series of works spanning Felix’s meteoric rise to fame from aged 14 to 18: one of the numerous string symphony, the Piano Sextet (on this program), the String Octet, the Overture to the Midsummer’s Night Dream, and his String Quartet, Op. 13. For the rest of his life, Felix turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, yet another unquenchable musical avatar.

Felix also had a sister, Fanny. In their youth, she was sometimes considered the more gifted musician. Felix and Fanny had a very close relationship throughout their lives including an ongoing exchange of musical scores and critiques forming a crucial dialog in both their individual musical lives. When Fanny died an untimely death due to stroke (which also killed their father, and, in barely six months time, Felix himself), Felix became extraordinarily distraught, composing his final string quartet, one of his most intense works, as a tortuous eulogy to his sister. A fine musician and composer, Fanny was actively discouraged by her family from publishing her compositions or indeed from spending inordinate time on her music lest she neglect her chief concern and devotion as a wife and mother, a homemaker, not an artist.

With awe for what is clearly “all in the family” and especially for what Felix achieved as a representative, we will enjoy the Piano Sextet composed when Felix was merely 15 years old. With an unusual, warm and deep scoring for violin, 2 violas, cello, bass and piano, the sextet is the fine work of young genius amply reflecting his knowledge and love for Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as well as evincing his own mature, musical voice. A full, four-movement work worthy of masters twice his age, it is a rather glorious chamber concerto for piano and strings. The first movement is an ambitiously sprawling sonata form full of development including a cadenza and a substantial coda. The second, slow movement is sweet and noble, suggesting Mozart’s piano concerti as well as possibly his Clarinet Quintet due to the use of string mutes for a particularly evocative atmosphere. The minuet is really a Romantic scherzo with verve and a driving rhythm. The finale is a sparkling gallop, literally, after the French country-dance called the “galop” that became a popular craze in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and London right around the time Felix composed this sextet. Young Felix caps the surprising dark drama of the movement with a startling reprise of the muscular scherzo in a feature of “cyclic” form perhaps after Beethoven, but certainly before Schubert and Franck and, as a harbinger of what Felix himself would further develop in years hence.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
Das Jahr, for solo piano (selections), (1841-1846)

Despite the lack of nurture from her family, Fanny was imbued with nature and it consistently exerted its influence throughout her life. She composed over 460 pieces of music, most unpublished in her lifetime and, of those that were, only covertly under Felix’s name. Because of her gender, Fanny was also denied a standard privilege of cultural refinement that had a great impact on Felix: the European Grand Tour. Felix spent a good few years traveling around Europe studying architecture, speaking and reading foreign languages, visiting the grand cities, painting, composing and making connections. His sojourn exerted a profound influence on his mature compositions. Fanny longed to visit Italy for much of her life and in 1839 (at the age of 34), she finally had her wish as she, her husband (a court painter) and her young son set off on a one-year tour of the Italian peninsula.

While abroad, Fanny maintained a travel journal and began composing a series of pieces for solo piano inspired by new vistas and ultimately named for each month of the year during her grand tour. After returning home, Fanny assembled a cycle of 13 pieces (one for each month, plus an epilog) under the title Das Jahr (The Year). Fanny added poetic epigrams for each piece while her husband Wilhelm painted illustrations. In 1846, in a late act of artistic courage against the norms of the time, Fanny had the work published as part of a new resolve to share her artistry with the world. She wrote a resolute letter to her father proudly declaring her act defying the family’s opprobrium. Sadly, amidst her first incoming favorable reviews, Fanny died shortly thereafter.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr is highly regarded today as a masterful mid-Romantic cycle of character pieces for solo piano that moves well beyond the style of her brother evoking Schumann and Liszt in both expression and technique. Whatever the positive and negative forces of nature and nurture, both the blessings and curses of her family “business”, Fanny’s artistry is evidence and inspiration, a living artifact from a remarkable generation featuring not just one, but two family prodigies.

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