About The Music

Dip into our programme notes for pieces presented by Music in the Round. Covering music that is forthcoming and has been recently performed, learn more about the works and also listen to brief extracts. 

About The Music: B

BACEWICZ Grazyna, Trio for Oboe, Violin and Cello 

Adagio – Molto allegro

Bacewicz wrote this Trio when she was in her mid-twenties. It was started during a stay in Paris (where she studied with Nadia Boulanger) and completed in November 1935. The first performance followed in March 1936 at a concert of contemporary chamber music which was also attended by Prokofiev. From a stylistic point of view, its Neoclassical language owes a good deal to Boulanger’s influence, and, by extension, to Boulanger’s friend Stravinsky. At the same time, there is a distinctly Polish colour to the introductory Adagio in which an improvisatory oboe melody unfolds over a drone. The Molto allegro that follows sounds firmly in the Neoclassical mainstream, but there is more individuality and character in the lyrical second theme. The central Andante is dominated by a mood of quiet anxiety, starting with a rather hesitant oboe theme heard over uneasy string undulations. A sense of disquiet pervades the movement, with moments of relief quickly extinguished until, in the very last bars, some kind of consolation is found. The short finale is a complete contrast: quick, witty and elegantly crafted, it brings the Trio to an ebullient conclusion.   

© Nigel Simeone, 2022 

BACH Johann Sebastian, Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor BWV1004

‘On one stave, for a small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.’ This is how Johannes Brahms described Bach’s gigantic Chaconne to his friend Clara Schumann. It is the last movement of Bach’s D minor Partita, composed in about 1720. Probably the greatest single movement ever written for unaccompanied violin, it is an extended set of variations on a short, four-bar idea announced at the start. Bach uses all his ingenuity to create a structure in which unity (the basic theme) and diversity (the astonishingly imaginative variations) are held in perfect balance over a long (256-bar) span. The outer sections are in D minor, while Bach provides tonal variety by modulating to D major for the central section. As Brahms suggested, the result is quite simply one of the marvels of Baroque music.  

Nigel Simeone, 2022 

BACH Johann Sebastian, Prelude & Fugue in E minor BWV900

This prelude and fugue forms part of a quintet of works in a succession of keys C-D-E-F-G. It is unknown whether Bach wrote them for teaching or as part of a larger project similar to The Well Tempered Clavier but there is no manuscript with possible answers. The two-part work starts with a prelude filled with fugue elements. In just eighteen bars, Bach manages to squeeze in three sections, each closing with a string of fast notes. The fugue itself is less complex than you might expect from Bach, which may explain the term ‘fughetta’ – as the diminutive does not apply to the length of the piece. The theme builds up tension with surprising pauses, which are later filled in spiritedly by the counter theme. In its final entrance, the main theme itself is also ornamented, as the introduction to a powerful ending.

BACH Johann Sebastian, Prelude & Fugue in F BWV880

Composing 48 keyboard pieces in all 24 keys was the sort of challenge Bach enjoyed. In each of the two parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier he brought together the musical couple prelude and fugue 24 times; twelve in minor keys and twelve in major. In the preludes, he gave free rein to his imagination, and demonstrated mathematical tours de force in the fugues. In contrast to the iron discipline Bach had to apply to his church compositions, here he could abandon himself without worrying about deadlines. This Prelude and Fugue in F is from the first part of the work and dates from 1722, although it contains some music that was written in the preceding five years. Bach described the target group for this collection of pieces as follows: “For both the education of the industrious musical youngster and the enjoyment of those well-versed in this material”.

BACH Johann Sebastian, Suite in E Minor BWV 996

BACH Johann Sebastian, Suite in E minor BWV 996

Präludium. Presto

There are four suites by Bach which in the 20th century became commonly known as ‘Lute Suites’. They were adapted for classical guitar and popularised in best-selling recordings by Julian Bream and John Williams. But were they even written for the lute? Bach certainly knew Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the great German lutenist who once challenged him to an improvisation duel – Weiss at the lute, Bach at the organ. Bach also included beautiful continuo parts for lute in works like the St Matthew Passion and some of his cantatas. But four suites for solo lute? That seems increasingly unlikely, and modern scholarship demonstrates that Bach almost certainly composed these suites for the lautenwerck, a harpsichord with gut strings. Although none of those instruments has survived, there is evidence that Bach owned two at the time of his death.

Nevertheless, with some modification, they work wonderfully well on both lute and guitar, and the Suite in E minor is the earliest of the suites having been composed by at least 1712. Like so much of Bach’s keyboard music from the time, the six movements are in the French style, with many similarities to the Toccatas he was writing for harpsichord.

© Tom McKinney 2022

BEETHOVEN ‘The Harp’ Quartet (extract for family concert)

This beautiful quartet is known as ‘the harp’ because it opens with three of the four musicians plucking the strings their instruments rather than using the bow. Can you hear the difference?

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.30 in E Op.109

Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

In February 1820, Beethoven’s friend Friedrich Starke asked him for a ‘little piece’ for a piano tutor he was writing, with contributions from leading composers. Beethoven wrote the piece, but then received a commission from the Berlin publisher Schlesinger for a set of three sonatas – and Beethoven conceived the last three sonatas as a trilogy. He quickly decided that his ‘little piece’ would work very well as the first movement of the E major Sonata (and Starke was instead given five of the Bagatelles Op.119). The structure is certainly unconventional for the first movement of a sonata, alternating between fast and slow sections, in different time signatures and with sharply contrasted moods. In a way, this procedure recalls Mozart’s keyboard fantasias, except that the three sections of fast music in this movement could run continuously were they not interrupted by the Adagios, explaining why some Beethoven scholars have described the form as ‘parenthetical’. The second movement, in E minor, is fast and stormy, while the finale is a spacious and exalted set of variations on a theme in triple time that has been likened to a Sarabande – indeed Carl Czerny wrote that ‘the whole movement [is] in the style of Handel and Seb. Bach.’ At the end of June 1820 Beethoven told Schlesinger that the new work was ‘ready’, though in September he was still making revisions, and wrote again to say it was ‘almost ready’. It was completed soon afterwards and published by Schlesinger in 1821, with a dedication to Maximiliane Brentano. In a letter to her dated 6 December 1821, Beethoven wrote to her: ‘A dedication!!! – and not one that is misused as so often’. He recalled his love and admiration for her family, noting that ‘While I am thinking of the excellent qualities of your parents, there are no doubts in my mind that you have been striving to emulate these noble people. … May heaven always bless you in everything you do. Sincerely, and always your friend, Beethoven.’

Nigel Simeone © 2015

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat Op.110

Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
Allegro molto
Adagio ma non troppo – Arioso dolente – Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo

During the first few months of 1821, Beethoven was laid low by illness, and was unable to do any composing for weeks on end. It was not until September that he was able to make a serious start on the Piano Sonata Op.110, and even in November he was grumbling to friends that he was still suffering from constant bouts of illness. However, the work was finished on Christmas Day 1821, and quickly sent to Schlesinger. The firm published it in 1822 and unusually, it appeared without dedication, though Thayer speculated that Beethoven intended to dedicate it to Antonie Brentano.

George Bernard Shaw considered Op.110 the most beautiful of all Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first movement is moderate and elegantly proportioned, leading Charles Rosen to describe it as ‘Haydnesque’. The pithy Scherzo (in F minor) has a slightly folksy roughness – it actually uses a couple of folk tunes – while the Trio is in D flat major and marked by an idea that seems to cascade down the instrument. The reprise of the Scherzo ends in F major and leads straight into the Adagio ma non troppo – initially a recitative that leads to a deeply profoundly expressive Arioso dolente. For many musicians, it is the concluding Fugue (based on a subject built on rising fourths) that places it at or near the summit of Beethoven’s achievements. A sudden interruption of the fugue brings a poignant and tender recollection of the Arioso before the Fugue begins again, the subject now inverted, working towards a climax that is both sublime and majestic. Tovey wrote that ‘this fugue absorbs and transcends the world’, while Stravinsky considered it ‘the climax of this sonata … its great miracle lies in the substance of the counterpoint and it escapes all description.’

© Nigel Simeone

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111

Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

The final sonata in Beethoven’s late trilogy was composed in 1821–2, straight after Op.110, and it was dedicated to his pupil and patron Archduke Rudolph, familiar as the dedicatee of the ‘Archduke’ Trio, and also the person to whom Beethoven inscribed the Missa solemnis, work on which was interrupted to compose the three late piano sonatas. Op.111 is in two movements, the first a turbulent and tempestuous Allegro preceded by a dramatic introduction notable for its extensive use of diminished seventh chords. The driving intensity of the main Allegro finds a moment of repose with the arrival of the second theme, in A flat major. At the end of the movement it is as if all rage has been spent as the music works towards a serene pianissimo conclusion in C major. The second movement is based on a hymn-like theme heard at the start of the movement and treated to an astoundingly diverse series of variations and a coda drenched in trills that seem to take the music to a strange and wonderful expressive world. Alfred Brendel has said of this movement that ‘perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand’.

Nigel Simeone © 2015

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Op.102 No.2

Allegro con brio
Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto
Allegro – Allegro fugato

Beethoven’s last two cello sonatas were composed in 1815 dedicated to the Countess Anna Maria Erdödy. The initial critical response was one of bewilderment, one critic declaring that “these two sonatas are definitely among the strangest and most unusual works … ever written for the pianoforte. Everything about them is completely different from anything else we have heard, even by this composer.” Indeed, the D major Cello Sonata Op.102 No.2 is a work that points forward to some of Beethoven’s final instrumental works – the late piano sonatas and quartets – in significant ways. The Beethoven scholar William Kinderman has suggested that the solemnity and austerity of the slow movement (in D minor) has pre-echoes of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from the Quartet Op.132, while fugal finale is the one of a series of such movements in Beethoven’s late instrumental pieces (followed by the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and the Grosse Fuge among others). The whole sonata, from the brusque opening of its first movement, to the extraordinary culmination of the fugue, is characterized by wild emotional contrasts: the stern, profoundly serious Adagio is flanked by two faster movements that are dominated by a fiery, even angry, dialogue between the two instruments.

Nigel Simeone © 2012

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in E flat Op.127

Maestoso–Allegro teneramente
Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile
Scherzando vivace
Finale. Alla breve

Beethoven had not written a string quartet for well over ten years when the Russian Prince Nicholas Galitzin – a talented amateur cellist – asked Beethoven to write three new quartets. That commission came at the end of 1822, but Beethoven was unable to make any serious progress as he needed to complete the Ninth Symphony first. This he did in February 1824, and after the score of the symphony had been sent to the Philharmonic Society in London (who performed it in March 1825), Beethoven was able to get down to his new commission for Prince Galitzin. The Quartet Op.127 was started in April 1824 and finished by February 1825, swiftly followed by Op.132 in July and Op.130 in November. The first performance of Op.127 was given on 6 March by the Schuppanzigh Quartet and was not a success, partly because Beethoven had only given the parts to Schuppanzigh two weeks before. Still, the composer was angry and for the next performance he asked Joseph Böhm (who was later to teach Joseph Joachim) to lead the quartet. It didn’t fare much better. At a concert on 23 March, where Böhm performed the work twice in the same concert, while there were passionate enthusiasts, others we unconvinced and one critic described the work as ‘an incomprehensible, incoherent, vague, over-extended series of fantasias – chaos, from which flashes of genius emerged from time to time like lightning bolts from a black thunder cloud.’

This may seem a bizarre judgement almost two centuries later, but from the very start, this is music of extraordinary boldness. The quartet opens with six bars of loud, sonorous chords that return twice more in the movement, each time in a different key (in E flat major at the beginning, then in G major, and finally in C major). What follows is in quick triple time, as is the music after each subsequent statement of the stirring chords, but Beethoven takes the music in different directions each time, inserting unexpected silent bars, fragmenting ideas, and producing effects that must have seemed beyond strange in the 1820s, since their sheer daring is still just as palpable now. The French composer Vincent d’Indy (a pupil of César Franck) described the theme on which the variations of the slow movement are based as ‘so radiant in splendour that on reading it one feels … at once transported with joy and bewildered with admiration.’ The Scherzo opens, like the first movement, with loud tonic–dominant–tonic chords, but what follows is a thematic idea in dotted rhythms that is passed from player to player until all four instruments play it together in a fortissimo climax, before the dotted rhythm and the trills which accompany it are further developed, fragmented, and transformed. The central section of the movement is quick and spooky, beginning in the key of E flat minor, growing through a series of long crescendos before leading back to a brilliantly varied reprise of the opening material. About the lilting but idiosyncratic tune that dominates the finale, d’Indy wrote that it ‘would reawake the pastoral impressions of [the Sixth Symphony] did not the development of the dream which ends it, elevating the almost trivial phrase of the beginning to incommensurable heights, remind us that this is … altogether in the poet’s soul.’

Nigel Simeone © 2010

BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 ‘Rasumovsky’

Molto Adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento
Allegretto – Maggiore (Thème russe)
Finale. Presto

“Demanding but dignified” was how the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung described Beethoven’s new quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky when they were first heard in 1807. Composed in 1806, and including Russian melodies from a collection of folk tunes edited by Ivan Prach (published in 1790), these quartets were a major development in the quartet form; but though they were longer and more challenging than any earlier quartets, they were an immediate success. Before the Rasumovsky Quartets were played, Beethoven offered them to Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig – in a job lot with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony and Fidelio – but the deal fell through and the quartets were first published in Vienna by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie and in London by Clementi. While the first of the Rasumovsky Quartets is unusually expansive, the second is more concentrated. From the opening two-chord gesture establishing E minor as the home key, the first movement is tense and full of rhythmic ambiguity. The hymn-like slow movement has a combination of richness and apparent simplicity that blossoms into a kind of ecstatic aria: Beethoven himself is reported to have likened it to “a meditative contemplation of the stars”. The uneasy rhythms of the Scherzo are contrasted by a major-key Trio section in which Beethoven quotes a Russian tune that famously reappeared in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The finale begins with a surprise: a strong emphasis on the note C that is tantalising and unexpected in a movement that moves firmly towards E minor.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in F Op.135

Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [The difficult decision]. Grave, ma non troppo tanto (Muss es sein? [Must it be?]) – Allegro (Es muss sein! [It must be!]) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Beethoven’s final string quartet (only the replacement finale of Op.130 is later) was completed in October 1826. After an awful summer during which his nephew Karl had attempted suicide and been imprisoned, Beethoven was able to escape to the tranquillity of Gneixendorf, a village near Krems about fifty miles from Vienna. He arrived at the end of September and his last masterpiece was finished in the following month, much of it composed outdoors (the locals were amused to observe Beethoven singing and waving his arms as he worked). It is dedicated to his friend and supporter Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, who was originally to have been the dedicatee of the C sharp minor Quartet Op.131. The F major Quartet Op.135 is much the shortest of the late quartets, and there’s a conciseness and simplicity that perhaps point forward to the direction Beethoven might have pursued in his music had he lived longer. Its less serious mood can also be explained by the circumstances in which it was written: at the end of his tether after his nephew’s problems in the summer, the composer could at last be refreshed. Op.135 seems to be imbued with this new sense of well-being, and within a relatively conventional movement structure (unlike several of the other late quartets), Beethoven expresses both humour and the deepest seriousness with amazing brevity. The expressive heart of the work was probably the first part to be composed: the Lento assai, barely fifty bars long, was originally intended for the Op.131 Quartet. The finale has the famous superscription “The difficult decision”, based on a question-and-answer motif: “Must it be? – It must be!” The origins of this are a canon jotted down at the end of July 1826, “half-humorous, half-philosophical” as Barry Cooper puts it, providing the ideal theme for a movement that seems to encapsulate the “difficult decisions” that marked out Beethoven as a timeless genius.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

BEETHOVEN Septet (extract for family concert)

And we end where we began, another ‘scherzo’ or musical joke this time from the monumental Ludwig Van Beethoven! Seven instruments all working together to bounce us out of the concert and into a world filled with music.

BOULANGER Lili, Two Pieces for Violin & Piano

Lili Boulanger was the sister of the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger who taught Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass amongst others. She was a composer for the last 10 years of her tragically short life – she died at 25 – and her music stands in the main line of French music exemplified by Faure, somewhat tinged with the influence of Debussy’s Impressionism. It is generally beautiful, delicately coloured, and touching. These challenging ‘Two Pieces for Violin and Piano’ exemplify these qualities.

The Nocturne begins sparsely, with bare octave figures wound about with a theme built from a repetitive rise-and-fall figure. As the texture becomes thicker the violin becomes more virtuosic and begins to climb. There is no harmonic resolution until the final ppp note in the top register, which is answered by an low octave from the piano.

The Cortege is more lively without being fast. Shifting rhythmic accents, tricky runs and contrasting dynamics make this an exciting piece.

From Boosey.com

BOULANGER Nadia, Three pieces for cello and piano 

Sans vitesse et à l’aise
Vite et nerveusement rythmé 

Nadia Boulanger, teacher, conductor, early music pioneer and trusted adviser to the likes of Stravinsky and Poulenc, was also a gifted composer. Fiercely self-critical, she always claimed her own music was nothing like as significant as that of her brilliant younger sister, Lili, but with the rediscovery of Nadia’s music it has become clear that she was a remarkable talent in her own right. She entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine and subsequently studied composition with Fauré. Most of her music dates from between 1904 and 1918 (the year Lili died), including the Three Pieces for cello and piano, composed in 1914 and first published the following year. The first, in E flat minor, presents a song-like melody on the cello over a hushed piano part marked doux et vague. After a brief climactic central section, the opening music returns for a serene close in E flat major. The second piece, in A minor, treats a deceptively simple tune – almost a folksong – in an ingenious canon between the cello and the piano. The last piece, in C sharp minor, is quick, with a middle section that provides a contrast in both rhythm and texture to the playful but muscular mood of the rest.   

Nigel Simeone © 2022 

BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet (extract for family concert)

This piece sees the string players joined by a clarinet. This woodwind instrument takes us on a lovely journey. What do you think of as you hear the flowing tune; a river winding through a beautiful scene, a song being sung by a wonderful singer… or something else?

BRAHMS Johannes, Serenade No. 1 in D Op. 11, nonet version reconstructed by David Walter

Allegro Molto
Scherzo: Allegro non troppo
Adagio non troppo
Scherzo: Allegro
Rondo: Allegro

Brahms’s D major Serenade is well known as his first orchestral work – but, like the D minor Piano Concerto from the same period, it had a complicated genesis. It was first conceived in 1857 as a Serenade for eight instruments in three or four movements, and a year later it had become a work in six movements, now scored for nine instruments. By 1860, it had been rewritten for full orchestra – the version that survives today (though Brahms even considered developing that into his first symphony, but decided to leave well alone). The nonet version was performed in public on 28 March 1859 at a concert in Hamburg, and a year later the orchestral version was given its premiere in Hannover. Whether Brahms destroyed the chamber version, or whether the material simply vanished is not known, but a skilful reconstruction reveals something of Brahms’s original conception: a work much closer in spirit to the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart than the reworked orchestral version.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

BRITTEN Benjamin, Sinfonietta Op.1

1. Poco presto ed agitato
2. Variations: Andante lento
3. Tarantella: Presto vivace

Britten was already a very prolific composer by the time he gave this work its designation as his official Opus One. Dedicated to his teacher, Frank Bridge, it was written when Britten was 18 years old, and it already demonstrates his extraordinary imagination. The influence of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony is apparent in places, and the instrumental writing in all three movements has a fluency and flamboyance that quickly became hallmarks of the young Britten’s music. The first public performance was given on 31 January 1933 at the Mercury Theatre, London, in one of the Macnaghten-Lemare concerts played by the English Wind Players and the Macnaghten String Quartet, conducted by Iris Lemare. Britten’s music has always been more enthusiastically received abroad, and on 7 August 1933, the Sinfonietta was broadcast on Radio Strasbourg, conducted by the great Hermann Scherchen. The first British broadcast was a month later, by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Clark.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

BRITTEN Benjamin, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 36

Allegro calmo, senza rigore
Chacony: sostenuto 

Britten composed his String Quartet No. 2 in September and October 1945 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. It was given its premiere by the Zorian Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 21 November 1945 in one of a pair of concerts  where music by Purcell was performed alongside two new works by Britten (this quartet and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, first performed the following evening). Though the first movement is, broadly, in sonata form, as Michael Kennedy has pointed out, ‘there seems to be more of the free fantasia about it than adherence to classical precepts.’ The opening presents three ideas, all based on the wide interval of a 10th, and what follows is an almost continuous development of these ideas, until, at last, C major is established in the coda. The second movement is a strange and rather disturbing Scherzo, the strings muted throughout. The Chacony (its title a clear homage to Purcell) is much the longest of the three movements. A grandly-conceived set of variations (interspersed with solo cadenzas), it reaches a triumphant climax with repeated C major chords.  

© Nigel Simeone, 2022 

BYSTRÖM Britta, Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) for horn, piano and violin 

After starting to learn the trumpet at the age of ten, Britta Byström soon started to compose her own music. Most of her output is for orchestra, but her quest for new and surprising sonorities can also be heard in chamber works including a string quartet (Letter in April), and a piano trio (Symphony in Yellow) as well as the present horn trio. Byström’s Kinderszenen borrows its title from Schumann’s famous piano work and its scoring from Brahms’s Horn Trio, but the music is entirely original in colour and substance. Bystöm says that before starting a composition she always has a clear picture in her mind of the musical world she wants to create, and this is apparent from the first notes of Kinderszenen where fragmentary themes on violin and horn are set against repeated notes on the piano, suggesting perhaps that Byström’s childhood scenes are those of a Swedish winter. The form of this single movement and its contrasting episodes seem to evolve naturally: a fast section is notable for its rhythmic energy but fizzles out on a sustained horn note, giving way to a passage of eerie calm with the violin playing pizzicato against piano trills. A brief return to the vigour of the fast music leads to a recollection of the opening before Kinderszenen dissolves into silence. 

Nigel Simeone © 2022 


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