Like Beethoven, Brahms loved to visit beautiful, rustic settings, and “vacation” with fresh inspiration and the joy of composing. Soon after mourning his mother’s death, Brahms found himself walking through the Black Forest near the spas of Baden Baden in the springtime. There, nature, nostalgia and elegiac reflections gave birth to his miraculous trio for violin, horn and piano which he finished and premiered by that winter of 1865. Rather than the more modern “French” horn with valves enabling a more automatic intonation across a chromatic range, Brahms specifically called for the more ancient valveless “natural horn,” which he called the “Waldhorn” (forest horn). It is also called the “hand horn” because without values, the player must use his hand in the bell, “stopping” it in different ways to achieve certain pitches and tones. Brahms may have chosen the instrument for its special color and its rustic associations. Read the rest of this entry »
In Mozart’s Music of Friends, you explore social interplay as a metaphor for interaction among the players within a chamber ensemble. What led you to this topic?
During my undergrad at Juilliard, I was playing viola in a quartet, and our coach used the most wonderful interpretations and imagery. Say, one violin begins by singing a sweet melody, when the other violin enters in a love duet. The viola keeps trying to “butt in” and take the conversation in a more serious direction, but the cello just can’t be bothered by the whole exchange.
I’ve always been struck how intuitive such anthropomorphic language is to many performers — but that it’s not usually something a musical scholar would write. This book gave me a way to bring the scholarly and performance perspectives together. By examining the historical and theoretical underpinnings of performers’ experiences of this repertoire, I’ve united two parts of my musical life.
At the age of 72, Saint-Saëns composed the Fantaisie for harp and violin in 1907 while enjoying some leisure time in the city of Bridger, on the Italian Riviera. He dedicated the duo to a pair of sisters, harpist Clara Eissler and violinist Marianne Eissler. It would become the second of three major pieces Saint-Saëns composed for harp including a previous Fantaisie, for solo harp (1893), and, eventually, the Morceau de Concert for harp and orchestra (1918). The Fantaisie, Op. 124 for harp and violin is a virtuoso piece for both players and the use of harp rather than the more typical piano lends a special, delicate if not magical sonority to this duo for two string players. As the title suggests, the work is a single movement of relaxed and spontaneous form comprising a number of distinct sections. The music is characteristic of Saint-Saëns as the traditional French composer: well crafted, clear, balanced and charming. The opening material recurs towards the end for a light touch of symmetry. Perhaps inspired by the ambiance of the Italian Mediterranean, a particular section of the Fantaisie switches to the minor mode featuring a basso ostinato pattern in the harp with variations from the violin in the manner of an old Italian Baroque dance form.
Zoltán Kodály was a towering force of music in his native country of Hungary. Composer, ethnomusicologist, teacher and administrator, he helped reinvigorate his nation’s musical culture and, particularly through his promotion of community choirs, provided a mechanism of education and enculturation that reached far beyond Hungarian borders. As both he and his compatriot colleague Béla Bartók were deeply involved in extensive research of Hungarian folksong, both composers contributed to the evolution of a modern national art music rooted in authentic folk materials but alloyed with the principles and aesthetics of the ongoing classical tradition. While Kodály’s music output is dominated by vocal and stage music, he left a compelling cache of chamber works including two string quartets, the epic sonata for solo cello and the stunning Duo for violin and cello, Op. 7. Todd Sullivan offers a revealing summary of the work: Read the rest of this entry »
Various approaches emerged throughout the 19th century for enabling the harp to sound all the chromatic pitches, the sharps and flats of every key signature. One design that eventually prevailed provided pedals for the harpist to raise or lower the pitch of a string so that, in effect, each string provided three different chromatic tones (known as the double-action pedal harp). Around the turn of the century, the Pleyel company offered a different potential solution: a much bigger harp with no pedals but many more strings, one dedicated to each of the desired chromatic tones. To promote the new instrument, Pleyel turned to Debussy and commissioned a piece to showcase its capabilities. Though the intractable Pleyel harp soon vanished, Debussy’s resulting Danse sacrée et Danse profane of 1904 remains eternal, one of the finest chamber works featuring the harp so beautifully suited to Debussy’s ineffable style. Read the rest of this entry »
Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1043 (1717-1723)
The so-called “Double Violin Concerto” was definitely composed by J.S. Bach sometime between 1717 and 1723 when he was employed at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. Written for two violins and string orchestra, it is a contrapuntal tour-de-force with canonic imitations abounding throughout both the orchestral parts and the intimate dialog between the two virtuosic soloists. A three-movement layout of fast-slow-fast is derived from the Italian concerti of Antonio Vivaldi whose music Bach greatly admired. With the prevailing key of D minor, the outer, fast movements project a serious if not stormy demeanor driven with a resolute force of power that only grows through the layered grandeur of the additive musical textures. The middle movement supplies the necessary contrast of pace, mood and texture as fast becomes slow, minor becomes major, and the bristling imitative counterpoint settles into soft, swelling waves of homophony to accompany a beautiful love song between the solo violins. The finale restores the gravity of the opening with a return to D minor, the steady forward momentum enhanced with even more tightly entwined contrapuntal complexity. Here, the twin violins very closely follow one another in less of a duet than a conjoined plea of urgent poignancy. This grand music represents an impressive fusion of Vivaldi’s dramatic, singing style with Bach’s masterful counterpoint, a true blend of Italian and German Baroque sensibilities.
Mendelssohn composed his glorious Octet for strings in 1825 when he was merely 16 years old. Today, it is regarded as a first-rate masterwork on par with those of the finest mature composers of any age granting Mendelssohn the reputation of the greatest prodigy in Western musical history. What is more, Mendelssohn had no specific models from distinguished predecessors as a basis: his Octet is the first of its kind and has arguably never been surpassed. Conrad Wilson summarizes, “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.” Recent research by Nicolas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet reveals that a more mature Mendelssohn somewhat substantially edited the score before its final publication in 1832. Mendelssohn dedicated the Octet to his violin teacher Eduard Rietz and the first violin part is virtuosic throughout. Read the rest of this entry »
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ is instantly familiar through it iconic use in horror films, Disney’s Fantasia, and now, possibly even cell phone ringtones. It comprises a pair of pieces in the same manner as a “prelude” and fugue with the term “Toccata” here indicating a particularly virtuosic prelude and the term “fugue” indicating an ancient form of contrapuntal imitation where a single melody sung by several “voices” in a staggered simultaneity creates a rich web of polyphony. The multiplicity of voices is managed by miraculous slight of hand, and, in the case of the organ, of foot as the deep base parts come from the pedals, not the keyboard. A modern double-action harp also uses pedals, but here used to adjust the tone of the strings (up or down a half-step) to achieve a full chromatic range. As such, the notes are all really in the fingers combined with pedals at the right time. Bach’s music will undoubtedly take on a slightly new and different character in the harp: at least one arrangement highlights a rather vivid Spanish element as the figurations in both toccata and fugue display a curious kinship with Flamenco guitar. Bridget Kibbey has created her own, new arrangement with the goal of fully exploiting her instrument’s capability for color and contrast pursuing the timbre and dynamics of a pipe organ for which the piece was originally composed. Read the rest of this entry »
Joseph Jongen was a musical leading light in early 20th century Belgium. While he is remembered today primarily for his organ music (Sonata eroïca and Symphonie concertante), Jongen was a composer, teacher, organist and pianist who produced a sizeable collection of beautiful chamber works that appear to be unjustly neglected. Awarded numerous prizes for piano, organ and composition, Jongen was an active chamber musician founding the Belgian Piano Quartet with whom he performed throughout Europe. Between his first string quartet of 1892 (when Jongen was 19) and the String Trio of 1948 (when he was 75) lay some forty or more chamber works including, around the middle of the timeline, his two pieces for harp, flute and cello, Op. 80. Jongen wrote them in 1925 for the Quintette Instrumental de
Paris. Read the rest of this entry »
With his epic cycles of symphonies and string quartets alone, Shostakovich must be reckoned as one of truly great 20th century composers. But there is much more in his extraordinary oeuvre spanning all genres, especially chamber music. Shostakovich composed his mature, second piano trio in 1944 at the age of 38 and it is a stunning and potent masterwork firmly in the repertoire. Likely less well known is his compelling first piano trio, Op. 8, a “student” work Shostakovich wrote in 1923 at the tender age of 16. Such was his precocity that he had already been a student at the Petrograd Conservatory for three years. A bout of tuberculosis sent the young Shostakovich to sanatorium to convalesce where, according to a letter from his sister Mariya, he got a suntan and fell in love. The object of his affections was girl named Tatyana Glivenko to whom Shostakovich eventually dedicated the piano trio, quite possibly the chief inspiration for this piece that he completed upon returning from his hiatus. One can imagine his amorous intent from the original title Poème. Read the rest of this entry »