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.
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.
Saint-Saëns wrote this piece for a series of concerts that he gave for the Red Cross in St Petersburg in April 1887. It is dedicated to Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia, and the composer wrote it for himself to play on piano with three other specific players in mind: flautist Paul Taffanel, oboist Georges Gillet and clarinettist Charles Turban. For the sources of the tunes, Saint-Saëns wrote to Julien Tiersot, the leading French expert on traditional music at the time, requesting suitable Danish and Russian themes. Before leaving for Russia, the work was rehearsed in Paris, and Saint-Saëns invited the singer and composer Pauline Viardot to hear the new piece, after which he travelled to Russia with Taffanel, Gillet and Turban.
Following a flamboyant introduction, Saint-Saëns introduces a succession of traditional themes, varies and repeats them, and occasionally mixes them together, all composed with his characteristic inventiveness and skill.
Nigel Simeone © 2012
Préambule. Allegro moderato
Menuet. Tempo di minuetto moderato
Gavotte et Final. Allegro non troppo – Più allegro
Saint-Saëns wrote his Septet for the chamber music society ‘La Trompette’ and dedicated the work to its founder, Émile Lemoine. La Trompette gave the first performance of the ‘Préambule’ at one of its soirées in the rue de Grenelle in January 1880 and the complete work was given its premiere on in December 1880, with Saint-Saëns at the piano.
The dedicatee, Lemoine, noted down the origins of the piece on Saint-Saëns’s autograph manuscript: ‘For a long time, I’d been pestering my friend Saint-Saëns to compose something for our evenings at La Trompette, a serious work which included a trumpet mixed with the string instruments and piano which we normally had. At first he joked about this bizarre combination of instruments, saying that he would first write something for guitar and 13 trombones. In 1879 he gave me a piece for trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass entitled Préambule which was played on 6 January 1880. It no doubt pleased Saint-Saëns because he told me afterwards that “you will have your complete piece and the Préambule will be the first movement”. He kept his word, and the Septet was played for the first time on 28 December 1880.’
The four movements give a clear indication of Saint-Saëns’s classical leanings and his fondness for ancient dance forms, but what gives the work its delightful individuality is the unusual mixture of instruments combined with particularly fertile melodic invention.
© Nigel Simeone
Allegro marciale in G minor (K.450)
Andante in C minor (originally Allegro, C sharp minor; K.247)
Allegro ma non tanto in C major (K.515)
Allegretto in G major (K.538)
Allegro moderato in B minor (K.377)
Allegro molto in G major (K.427)
The Scarlatti sonatas recorded by the great pianist Dinu Lipatti in the late 1940s, during the last few years of his short life, are among the most famous (and admired) of all Scarlatti records. What is much less well known is that in 1938–9, Lipatti also made arrangements of Scarlatti for wind quintet. Lipatti was primarily a pianist, but he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas and these extremely ingenious transcriptions are in the spirit of neoclassical works like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, though much less interventionist.
Even though Lipatti is generally faithful to his original sources, transcribing such idiomatic keyboard music for wind instruments required imagination and skill – and the finished results sound as much of the sound of the early twentieth century as they do the early eighteenth. These transcriptions were first performed during a radio broadcast on Romanian Radio in April 1940 (apparently the only time Lipatti appeared as a conductor). They were played in public in Paris later in the same year by the Quintette à vent de Paris, the ensemble for which Lipatti started to compose his own wind quintet in 1938 which was destined to remain unfinished.
© Nigel Simeone
Schnittke composed Hymnus II, for cello and double bass, in 1974. It is the second of four ‘Hymns’ written between 1974 and 1979 for unusual instrumental combinations (the first is for cello, harp and timpani, the third for cello, bassoon, harpsichord and bells). The music is marked by a kind of meditative stillness (briefly interrupted by a cello outburst), and, at the close, by an eerie, otherworldly quality as these two bass instruments seem to reach ever higher before fading into an uneasy silence.
© Nigel Simeone
The first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913 may have provoked the most famous riot in musical history, but it wasn’t the only one. A few months earlier in Berlin on 16 October 1912, some members of the audience at the premiere of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire were enraged by what they heard. When Albertine Zehme – the actress who had commissioned the work from Schoenberg – appeared on the platform in a Pierrot costume, she was, according to one eyewitness ‘greeted by an ominous murmur from the audience. One could not help admiring her courage, as she went on from poem to poem, disregarding the hissing, booing and insults shouted at her and Schoenberg. There were also fanatical ovations from the younger generation, but the majority were outraged. A well-known virtuoso, his face purple with rage, shouted: “Shoot him. Shoot him,” meaning Schoenberg, not the poor undaunted Pierrot.’
What was it that caused such rage? While Schoenberg’s use of Sprechgesang (speech-song) was not new (both Schoenberg and Humperdinck had used it before), its other-worldly effect in Pierrot lunaire is something that must have been disconcerting. So, too, was the sense of disorientation (and unpredictability) of Schoenberg’s music. To listeners in 1912 it’s easy to see how this might have seemed downright peculiar, but to audiences today, Pierrot lunaire is a work of eerie beauty.
© Nigel Simeone
Alexander Schubert explores the nature of internet culture, using a website to allow the audience to co-compose the work especially for each performance – the audience can link to sound files, youtube videos, change text and instructions, just like a Wikipedia page, creating a work that reflects the memes and internet obsessions at the time of each performance.
Alexander’s own note:
Wiki-Piano.Net is piece for piano and the internet community. It is composed by everyone. At every time. The composition is notated as an editable Wiki internet page and is subject to constant change and fluctuation. When visiting the website wiki-piano.net everybody can see the current state of the piece and make alterations. The website allows the visitor to place media content, comments, audio and picture in the piece as well as traditional score editing. The concert performances of the piece take the current state of the website as the score. Hence no
performance will ever be the same. Through the editing process of the community new versions of the piece will constantly evolve.
Videos of Zubin’s previous performances of Wiki-Piano http://www.alexanderschubert.net/works/Wiki.php
Franz Schubert composed his Impromptu, D935, No.3, in 1827. It is another set of variations, the theme drawn from his own incidental music for the play Rosamunde (1823) which had already reappeared in the A minor String Quartet. With typical ingenuity, Schubert fashions a set of variations that are full of subtle surprises.
(C) Nigel Simeone
Allegro vivace–Trio–Allegro vivace
Andante–variations. Un poco più mosso–Più lento
Andante molto–Allegro–Andante molto–Allegro molto
Schubert wrote no chamber music between 1821 and 1823, but made up for this hiatus in 1824 with three extraordinary masterpieces: the String Quartets in A minor and D minor (Death and the Maiden) and the Octet. He was commissioned to write the Octet by Count Ferdinand Troyer, a clarinettist who was also chief steward to Archduke Rudolf. Troyer asked Schubert to compose a work that could stand alongside Beethoven’s Septet, an immensely popular piece at the time. To Beethoven’s ensemble of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, Schubert added a second violin, giving himself the scope to explore sonorities that had almost orchestral possibilities. There are close similarities between the two works: both are in six movements, with the same key relationships between the movements, with a set of variations at the centre, and with both a Minuet and a Scherzo. But while Beethoven’s Septet was conceived as a kind of large-scale divertimento, Schubert’s Octet is more ambitious in scale and has a much greater (and more serious) expressive range.
Schubert completed the work on 1 March 1824. It was first performed privately at Troyer’s home (in Vienna’s Graben) soon afterwards and the first public performance was given in the Musikverein by an ensemble led by the great violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh on 16 April 1827. When the work was eventually published in 1851 it was shorn of the fourth and fifth movements and but it appeared complete in the Collected Edition in 1889.
The emotional range of the Octet is extraordinary for a work that appears, on the surface at least, to be quite benign. After the expansive but closely argued first movement, the sublime and tender clarinet melody that opens the slow movement has echoes of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (1822). The exuberant Scherzo, full of Schubert’s favourite dotted rhythms, is a complete contrast, though one that contains some surprising excursions into remote keys. The central variations are on a theme from Schubert’s early Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka (1815), the charming duet for Laura and Diego, ‘Gelagert unter’m hellen Dach der Bäume’ (‘Lying under the bright canopy of trees’) and the leisurely set of variations muse on aspects of the theme with unhurried inventiveness. The Minuet is markedly more relaxed than the Scherzo and contains some of the subtlest instrumental colouring in the whole work. The finale begins with stormy tremolos and a mood of foreboding that is seemingly dispelled when the main Allegro arrives, though in the course of this long movement there are more episodes of high drama (including a surprise return of the turbulent introductory music), until the exhilarating close – bringing to an end a work that 20th century composer Hans Gál described as ‘a romantic landscape whose delights are numberless’.
© Nigel Simeone
Theme and Variations: Andante
Silvester Paumgartner was a wealthy amateur cellist who lived in Steyr, Upper Austria, and an enthusiastic supporter of Schubert and his music. After playing Hummel’s Piano Quintet Paumgartner wanted a quintet for the same combination of instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano) from Schubert, who visited in the summer of 1819 (and again in 1823 and 1825). Paumgartner also wanted a work that included reference to Schubert’s song Die Forelle, The Trout, which had been composed in 1817. For Schubert, his visits to Paumgartner in the Upper Austrian countryside were a delight, a chance to make music, enjoy good company and revel in the spectacular scenery.
Willi Kahl, writing in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music wrote that ‘the fundamental tone of the piece is defined by the persistence of a major key throughout’ – underlining that this is among Schubert’s most genial chamber works. The first movement is brilliant but never flashy while the Andante is the expressive core of the work, suggesting, Kahl believed, ‘a moonlit night-song from the Styrian landscape’. The Scherzo is muscular and energetic, with a more easy-going central Trio section. In the first three variations, the theme is heard in its original form (on a different instrument each time) and remains clearly recognisable in the more freely worked fourth and fifth variations. In the last variation, Schubert brings the Quintet back to the original song as the unmistakable figurations of the song’s piano accompaniment are heard for the first time, to utterly enchanting effect. The finale is amiable and untroubled (though not without a couple of surprises), bringing this most affable of works to a properly jubilant close.
© Nigel Simeone
In May 1838, the Viennese firm of Diabelli published Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. Schubert had originally intended to dedicate this trilogy of sonatas to the pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, but by the time they appeared in print Hummel, too, was dead and the publisher dedicated them instead to Robert Schumann, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Schubert’s music. Schumann’s love of Schubert’s music had begun as a very private passion, as he wrote when reviewing the newly-published sonatas: ‘Time was when I spoke of Schubert reluctantly, and then only at night to the trees and the stars.’ In turn, Schumann’s great protégé Brahms wrote to his friend Adolf Schubring about Schubert, in words that could almost be a description of parts of Schubert’s A major Sonata in this concert: ‘Where else is there a genius like his, which soars with such boldness and certainty to the heavens, where we see the very greatest enthroned? He impresses me as a child of the gods who plays with Jove’s thunder and occasionally handles it in an unusual manner. But he plays in a region and a height which others cannot hope to attain.’
Composed in September 1828, two months before Schubert’s premature death, the A major Sonata opens with a noble first subject, soon contrasted with delicate triplets. Some typically adventurous harmonic excursions eventually arrive at the serene second subject. All this material is worked out in a spacious, unhurried sonata-form. The main theme of the slow movement (in F sharp minor) suggests a kind of cradle song, interrupted by a highly charged central passage full of dissonance and drama (pianist Alfred Brendel characterised it as ‘unease and horror’). The Schubert scholar Brian Newbould has written that in the delectable Scherzo, Schubert ‘uses the piano as percussionist and songster by turns’, while the finale combines elements of sonata form and rondo to create a sublime movement anchored by a gentle song-like main theme.
‘There’s nothing here at all: leave well alone and stick to writing songs.’ This was the damning verdict given to Schubert by Ignaz Schuppanzigh after he had led a private performance of Death and the Maiden at the house of composer Franz Lachner in 1826. As the violinist who had led the first performances of many of Beethoven’s quartets, Schuppanzigh knew the possibilities of the form as well as anyone at the time, but Schubert’s daring and originality in this work clearly eluded him.
Composed in March 1824 (and using the earlier song of the same name as the theme of the second movement), this profound and sometimes disturbing string quartet was not performed in public during Schubert’s lifetime, nor was it published (unlike the A minor Quartet, completed just before it, which was not only first performed by Schuappanzigh but also dedicated to him) – Schubert’s plan for the A minor (Rosamunde), D minor (Death and the Maiden) and G major quartets to be issued together as a set of three never came to fruition. Death and Maiden was only published for the first time in 1831, and it soon attracted a much more positive response from musicians that Schuppanzigh’s dismissive reaction. The critic for the Vossische Zeitung (Berlin’s leading newspaper) wrote in 1833 of a work ‘abundant in originality’ while Robert Schumann in his retrospective review of the Leipzig concert season in 1837–8 wrote that ‘only the excellence of such a work as Schubert’s D minor Quartet – like that of many of his others – can in any way console us for the early and grievous death of this first-born of Beethoven; in a few years he achieved and perfected things as no one before him.’ The four-movement structure may look conventional, but as well as the startling dramatic contrasts of the first movement and the extraordinary song variations that constitute the slow movement, the Scherzo, with its tense syncopations is a brilliant reworking and expansion of one of Schubert’s German Dances (D790, No. 6) for solo piano. It’s a startling transformation. The finale is equally remarkable: an unremitting Tarantella – the wild dance that traditionally wards off madness and death – structured as a large rondo, beginning with an austere statement of the main theme that is almost entirely bereft of harmony. The Prestissimo coda of this movement, with some of the most dramatic and exciting harmonic shifts in all Schubert, pushes mercilessly towards a defiant, disturbing close.
Nigel Simeone 2014
‘There’s nothing here at all: leave well alone and stick to writing songs.’ This was the damning verdict given to Schubert by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh after he led a private performance of Death and the Maiden at the house of composer Franz Lachner in 1826. As the leader who had given the first performances of many of Beethoven’s string quartets, Schuppanzigh knew the possibilities of the form as well as anyone at the time, but Schubert’s daring and originality in this work clearly eluded him.
Death and the Maiden was Composed in March 1824 (its title was derived from an earlier song by Schubert of the same name used as the theme of the second movement and this profound and sometimes disturbing string quartet was not performed in public during Schubert’s lifetime. When it was first published in 1831 it soon attracted a much more positive response: the critic for the Vossische Zeitung (Berlin’s leading newspaper) wrote in 1833 of a work ‘abundant in originality’. Robert Schumann declared that ‘only the excellence of such a work as Schubert’s D minor Quartet – like that of many of his others – can in any way console us for his early and grievous death; in a few years he achieved and perfected things as no one before him.’
The four-movement structure may look conventional, but as well as the startling dramatic contrasts of the first movement, and the extraordinary song variations that constitute the slow movement, the Scherzo, with its tense syncopations is a brilliant reworking and expansion of one of Schubert’s German Dances (D790, No. 6) for solo piano. It’s a startling transformation.
The finale is equally remarkable: an unremitting Tarantella – the wild dance that traditionally wards off madness and death – structured as a large rondo, beginning with an austere statement of the main theme that is almost entirely bereft of harmony. The Prestissimo ending contains some of the most dramatic and exciting harmonic shifts in all Schubert, and pushes mercilessly towards a defiant, unsettling close.
© Nigel Simeone 2014
Allegro con brio
Menuetto. Allegro vivace
Schubert’s sheer productivity in 1815, the year in which he turned 18 years of age, is nothing short of astonishing: over 150 songs, two symphonies, piano pieces, religious music and the present string quartet, written between 25 March and 1 April 1815, while Schubert was also working as an assistant teacher in his father’s school. According to a note in his own hand, the first movement was composed ‘in four and a half hours.’ There’s no mistaking the influences on the teenage Schubert in this music, particularly Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets and, above all, Mozart’s Symphony No.40.
But far from being merely derivative or imitative, this quartet is a notable example of Schubert experimenting with quartet structures, and starting to find his way as an original genius. Schubert expert Brian Newbould has noted that ‘Schubert’s way of plucking … principles from the repertoire all around him in his teenage years … is part of a positive, learning, and properly creative purpose.’ Newbould goes on to write that in this quartet, we find ‘things here that represent the first stirrings of inclinations that were to come to fruition in later works.’
© Nigel Simeone
We begin with a chase! In this ‘scherzo’ or musical joke you will hear eight musicians playing a game of musical hide and seek as they pass this cheeky tune around the group.
Hey Presto! We begin with a twitchy chase from Franz Schubert, which he told the string players should be played ‘presto’ meaning ‘very quick or very fast’. How does the sound change when each musician plays on their own? How do you feel when they all play the same tune together? This tense piece kicks off an exciting hour of music…
Schulhoff composed his Hot Sonata (subtitled ‘Jazz Sonata’) in 1930, while he was working on his opera Flammen. In a series of pieces from the 1920s, he was one of the first composers to attempt a serious integration of jazz idioms into concert works, and the Hot Sonata is a particularly impressive example. It was commissioned by the German radio station Funkstunde A.G. in Berlin and the commission specified that the music should meet ‘the particular musical requirements of radio’ – in short, that it should appeal to a large audience. The first performance was given in Berlin on 10 April 1930 by the American saxophonist Billy Barton with Schulhoff himself at the piano, and the Hot Sonata was published in August 1930 by Schott in Mainz.
In an advertisement for the new work, the firm announced that ‘today’s scant number of chamber music works for saxophone is augmented by this valuable composition. The name of Schulhoff guarantees the serious, artistic form of this sonata.’ This was not just publishing hyperbole: by 1930, Schulhoff had written several outstanding chamber works – including two string quartets and two violin sonatas – as well as a ballet (Ogelala), a jazz-inspired piano concerto and a number of piano pieces. The Hot Sonata is in four movements, with only metronome marks to indicate tempo. The first is moderately fast, the saxophone underpinned by a loping piano part which also introduces the deliciously spicy harmonies and syncopated rhythms that characterise the whole work. The short second movement is fast and scherzo-like. The third movement is a kind of blues, the opening saxophone melody marked ‘lamentuoso ma molto grottesco’ and this gives way to an ebullient finale.
© Nigel Simeone
Robert Schumann composed the Davidsbündlertänze in August 1837 in the space of a few days, straight after his secret engagement to Clara Wieck whose ‘motto’ (taken from her Soirées musicales) is heard at the very start of the work. He later wrote to her that the eighteen ‘character pieces’ that comprise the Davidsbündlertänze ‘contain many thoughts of our wedding – they originated in the most splendid state of excitement I can ever recall’. Schumann believed that they were ‘more Clara’s than anything else I have written.’ There could hardly be a composition with a more personal inspiration, but Schumann dedicated the Davidsbündlertänze not to Clara but to Walther von Goethe, the poet’s grandson. Clara never played them in public during Schumann’s lifetime (it was not until 1860 that she played a selection of them) and the first known public performance of the complete work was given by Johannes Brahms, Schumann’s greatest protégé, at a concert in Budapest on 15 March 1869. The title refers to Schumann’s imaginary ‘League of David’: the impetuous Florestan and the more reflective Eusebius. Duality is apparent in the work’s changes of mood (from the exuberance of Florestan to the inward-looking Eusebius) and is underlined by an epigraph printed in the first edition of the score: ‘in each and every age, joy and sorrow are mingled’. Schumann told Clara that the entire work was supposed to represent a ‘Polterabend’ – a feast held on the eve of a wedding, but they had to wait another three years for their real wedding, which took place in September 1840.
© Nigel Simeone
In December 1836, Robert Schumann finished a ‘Sonata for Beethoven’ but revised it in 1838 and gave it the new title Fantasie. It was published in 1839 with a dedication to Franz Liszt. Schumann marks the first movement to be played with ‘imagination and passion’. It is a highly original reinvention of sonata form, with unconventional key relationships and structural innovations, notably the interlude placed at the moment when the recapitulation might be expected to arrive. The second movement depicts Schumann’s imaginary army of Davidsbündler marching against the Philistines. Dominated by obsessive dotted rhythms, this colourful movement ends with a vertiginous coda. The third movement is a complete contrast. It is poetic, restrained, and noble – and surely full of quiet longing for Clara. When Clara first received a copy of the Fantasie she wrote to Schumann that it made her ‘half ill with rapture.’ Just over a year later, on 12 September 1840, they were finally able to marry. Liszt was immensely proud of the dedication, considering the Fantasie to be among the greatest of Schumann’s piano works, but he never performed it in public. Only with the next generation of pianists – many of them pupils of Liszt and Clara Schumann – did the Fantasie take its rightful place as a pinnacle of the Romantic piano repertoire.
© Nigel Simeone
Zart und mit Ausdruck [Tender, with expression]
Lebhaft, leicht [Lively, light]
Rasch und mit Feuer [Quick and passionate]
Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces Op.73 were sketched very quickly – in just two days on 11 and 12 February 1849 – and he wrote them to enchant: on the original manuscript, Schumann calls them “Soirée Pieces” (Soiréestücke). He was eager to hear them tried out: on 18 February, less than a week after finishing the work, a rehearsal was held chez Schumann in Dresden. Clara played the piano and was joined by the clarinetist Kroth from the Court Orchestra. Though intended for clarinet, the pieces were published six months later in alternative versions for violin and cello, and later in arrangements for other instruments – including flute, oboe, viola and double bass. Schumann was fascinated at the time by the possibilities of combining different solo instruments with piano, and worked with extraordinary speed during February 1849: the day after finishing the Fantasy Pieces he started the Adagio and Allegro for horn. As Clara herself put it, “all the instruments are having a turn” – and the very same day that the Fantasy Pieces had their first run-through, Schumann began one of his most astonishing instrumental experiments: the Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra.
The three Fantasy Pieces were intended to appeal to professional players and to talented amateurs. Far from composing showpieces for the clarinet, Schumann uses a musical language that has a feeling of intimacy and tenderness, recalling the style and sound world of some of his most expressive solo piano pieces. One later performance deserves a special mention: a private concert in Rüdesheim in which Brahms and the great clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld played both of Brahms’s late Clarinet Sonatas, ending their recital with Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces. Heinz von Beckerath later recalled that though it took a little while for him to appreciate Brahms’s masterpieces, “the Schumann pieces were delightful”.
Nigel Simeone © 2012
Writing to a Belgian friend in 1839, Schumann wrote that of all his piano pieces, ‘I love Kreisleriana the most’, though he went on to admit that ‘only Germans will understand the title.’ In the same letter, he explained that ‘Kreisler was created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, an eccentric, wild and ingenious musician. There are many things about him you will like.’ The volatile mood-swings of Kreisleriana and the almost improvised feeling of some pieces are brilliantly imaginative musical evocations of the fictitious Kreisler’s personality. By turns passionate, intimate, capricious, dream-like and dramatic, Schumann wrote the pieces for Clara Wieck (whom he was to marry in 1840). Schumann told her that in Kreisleriana ‘you will play the main role, and I wish to dedicate it to you. You will smile so sweetly when you recognize yourself in them.’ Ultimately, the dedication was changed (Clara was afraid that accepting it would risk worsening the strained relations with her father), and the first edition, published in 1838, had an inscription from Schumann ‘to his friend F. Chopin’. Although Chopin’s reaction to the work was lukewarm, the following year he reciprocated by dedicating his Second Ballade to Schumann.
Lebhaft, nicht zu schnell
Lebhaft und sehr markiert
Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck
Lebhaft, sehr markiert
Schumann wrote his Märchenerzählungen (‘Fairy Tales’) for the unusual combination of clarinet, viola and piano in October 1853. Whether he chose these instruments with Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio in mind is uncertain, though it was the only other significant work for that particular ensemble. The pieces are haunting and enigmatic: if these miniatures were intended to depict particular stories, Schumann never said. Soon after finishing Märchenerzälungen he had a catastrophic breakdown and spent the last years of his life in an asylum. The pieces are dedicated to Albert Dietrich, who studied with Schumann and was a friend of Brahms. All three collaborated on the F-A-E Sonata for Joseph Joachim.
© Nigel Simeone 2015
Having written pieces for clarinet and horn early in 1849, Schumann finished what he called his ‘most fruitful year’ with the Three Romances for oboe and piano, completed at Christmas 1849. Like the Fantasy Pieces for clarinet, the Romances were written for domestic performance, described by the American musicologist Stephen Hefling as ‘Poetic Hausmusik’. But in Schumann’s case, there’s a reflective quality that invests these pieces with a depth that goes beyond their modest purpose.
© Nigel Simeone
Andy Scott is a composer and saxophonist who worked on several occasions with composer Richard Rodney Bennett, and Respectfully Yours was written in memory of Bennett, who died in December 2012. For Scott himself, ‘it was appropriate to write a piece that was melodic with jazz-influenced harmony that I think of as a simple “thank you” to Richard Rodney Bennett, for being an inspirational musician and a kind and generous person.’ Originally written for euphonium and piano, Scott subsequently arranged it for saxophone and piano. Over tender, melting piano harmonies, the saxophone weaves a lyrical melody in music that is both reflective and heartfelt.
© Nigel Simeone
Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further.
Caroline Shaw is a musician who moves among roles, genres, and mediums, trying to imagine a world of sound that has never been heard before but has always existed. She is the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, several Grammy awards, an honorary doctorate from Yale, and a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. She has worked with a range of artists including Rosalía, Renée Fleming, and Yo Yo Ma, and she has contributed music to films and tv series including Fleishman is in Trouble, Bombshell, Yellowjackets, Maid, Dark, and Beyonce’s Homecoming. Her favorite color is yellow, and her favorite smell is rosemary.
Plan and Elevation
I have always loved drawing the architecture around me when traveling, and some of my favourite lessons in musical composition have occurred by chance in my drawing practice over the years. While writing a string quartet to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks, I returned to these essential ideas of space and proportion — to the challenges of trying to represent them on paper. The title, Plan & Elevation, refers to two standard ways of representing architecture — essentially an orthographic, or “bird’s eye,” perspective (“plan”), and a side view which features more ornamental detail (“elevation”). This binary is also a gentle metaphor for one’s path in any endeavor — often the actual journey and results are quite different (and perhaps more elevated) than the original plan.
I was fortunate to have been the inaugural music fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2014-15. Plan & Elevation examines different parts of the estate’s beautiful grounds and my personal experience in those particular spaces. Each movement is based on a simple ground bass line which supports a different musical concept or character. “The Ellipse” considers the notion of infinite repetition (I won’t deny a tiny Kierkegaard influence here). One can walk around and around the stone path, beneath the trimmed hornbeams, as I often did as a way to clear my mind while writing.
© Caroline Shaw
Shostakovich began his Third String Quartet in January 1946 but made no progress beyond the second movement until May when he went with his family to spend the summer at a dacha near the Finnish border. According to Beria (head of the Soviet secret police) in a letter to Shostakovich, this retreat was a personal gift from Stalin. It was a productive summer and the quartet was completed on 2 August 1946. The same day Shostakovich wrote to Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet: ‘I have never been so pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. I am probably wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.’ The Beethoven Quartet gave the first performance at the Moscow Conservatory on 16 December 1946. Though there was an ominous silence from official critics, Shostakovich’s reputation was still high among the nation’s leaders: on 28 December he was given the Order of Lenin and each member of the Beethoven Quartet received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. Just a year later the Third Quartet was denounced in the journal Sovetskaya musika as ‘modernist and false music.’
Although Shostakovich had no overt programme in mind, he invested a great deal of private emotion in the work – sufficient, as Fyodor Druzhinin (violist of the Beethoven Quartet) recalled, for the music to move the composer to tears when he attended a rehearsal in the 1960s, twenty years after he had written it. The start of the first movement, in F major, recalls the Haydn-like mood of the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1945) and this is followed by a contrasting idea, played pianissimo. The development includes some turbulent fugal writing, injecting a sense of unease that hovers over the rest of the movement. The Moderato con moto (in E minor) is based on a series of sinister ostinato figures and frequent repetitions while the third movement is a violent scherzo in G sharp minor. The Adagio is an extended passacaglia (ground bass) that gives way to a Moderato in which some kind of resolution is found in the closing bars, ending with three pizzicato F major chords.
Shostakovich composed the Eighth Quartet while staying at a ministerial guest-house in Gohrisch, situated in the mountainous region of former East Germany known as the ‘Saxon Switzerland’, near Dresden. He wrote the work down in just three days, 12–14 July 1960, and the first performance followed soon afterwards, on 2 October 1960 in the Leningrad Glinka Hall, played by the Beethoven Quartet. Dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, it is based almost entirely on Shostakovich’s autobiographical motif D-S-C-H (the notes D, E flat, C and B) and also includes self-quotations from several works, including the First, Fifth and Eighth Symphonies and the Second Piano Trio.
To what extent should this work be considered autobiographical? Shostakovich leaves such a potent trail of clues that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it is. On 19 July 1960, a week after finishing the quartet, he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘I reflected that if I die someday, then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: “Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet”.’
In five linked movements, the quartet begins with the four instruments playing a brooding version the DSCH motif in imitation, starting with the cello. Quotations from the First and Fifth Symphonies are woven into the texture before the mood changes suddenly for the second movement: a violent Allegro molto that quotes from the Jewish theme in the finale of the Second Piano Trio. The third movement restores some feeling of calm before the terrifying eruption of the fourth movement, in which a three-note repeated idea is hammered out over bleak sustained notes. This is followed by the quotation of a song from the Russian Revolution (‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison’) which had been sung at Lenin’s funeral. Apart from the DSCH motif, the last movement has no significant quotations, but the contrapuntal textures move towards a final climax before the music settles uneasily in the work’s home key of C minor.
© Nigel Simeone
Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was his last work, composed in June–July 1975, a few weeks before his death. As in the famous 8th String Quartet, there is a complex network of quotations, including from his own works, and also from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Composer Ivan Sokolov reports on Shostakovich’s phone calls from his hospital bed to the viola player Fyodor Druzhinin to whom he was to dedicate the work: ‘In one conversation, noted down immediately afterwards by Druzhinin, Shostakovich suggested titles for each of the three movements: Novella, Scherzo and Adagio in memory of Beethoven.’ Druzhinin gave the first performance on 25 September 1975, on what would have been the composer’s sixty-ninth birthday, and the work was heard in public for the first time a few days later, in the small hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic on 1 October 1975.
The loosely programmatic titles given by the composer to Druzhinin are helpful. The first movement, ‘Novella’, begins with the open strings of the viola and it is a free-flowing structure in which tension is created by the contrast between the austere open sound of fifths (later fourths) and the use of the twelve-note theme heard in the first entry by the piano. The ‘Scherzo’, marked Allegretto, takes as its starting point music from a much earlier operatic project based on Gogol’s The Gamblers that Shostakovich abandoned in 1942. The character is close to that of a march apart from the eerie and mysterious Trio section. After an introductory viola solo, the finale introduces a quotation from the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, but this long movement also explores Shostakovich’s own works.
Biographer David Fanning has pointed out that the later part of the movement includes ‘note for note quotations, mainly found in the piano left-hand part, from Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto and all fifteen of his symphonies in sequence.’ Fanning concludes from this that ‘there could scarcely be a clearer indication that Shostakovich knew – or at least suspected – that this would be his last work’
© Nigel Simeone
Andante–Allegro molto moderato
Adagio di molto
Allegretto (ma pesante)
In February and March 1909, Sibelius came to London to conduct concerts of his own music and it was during this stay that he composed most of the Voces intimae (Intimate Voices) quartet. He first stayed at the Langham Hotel (across the road from Queen’s Hall) but asked his friend Rosa Newmarch to find cheaper lodgings where he could also work in silence. She found quiet rooms for him in Kensington and having installed him, ‘left the composer to settle down (as I hoped) to write his string quartet, Voces initimae.’ Word travelled in the neighbourhood that a composer was staying, emboldening one elderly lady to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata repeatedly, as a sign of solidarity. Newmarch intervened, there was no more Beethoven, and Sibelius was able to make good progress on the quartet in Kensington.
According to his diary, he began the second movement on 16 February, and sketched the third on 25 February. Work continued throughout March (at the end of which he left London) and the quartet was finished in Berlin on 15 April. The first performance took place a year later, on 25 April 1910, in Helsinki.
Voces intimae is a characteristically bold exploration of musical form: there are five movements (including two scherzos), with a highly expressive slow movement at the centre. There has been speculation about the title and the likeliest explanation is that it has some connection with the fear of death which Sibelius confided to his diary in London. It was clearly a personal reference that will probably remain a mystery, but it is entirely apt for a work that embodies such an intense musical dialogue between the four instruments.
© Nigel Simeone
The Royal Philharmonic Society commissioned Angela Elizabeth Slater as one of its 2021/22 Composers to write this work for Ensemble 360 at Music in the Round’s Sheffield Chamber Music Festival.
The Light Blinds for clarinet quintet explores the drama in extremes of light and darkness, charting a path through the spaces created by the tension of these opposing states. It draws on a short poem that I wrote whilst travelling home from a Music in the Round concert in 2021, following a day exploring the natural landscape around Sheffield.
The first material I wrote for this work was a short solo clarinet fragment, which is heard in the opening of the second section, exploring the line ‘The Light Blinds’. I used this material to shape and construct the rest of the piece, with this short 7/8 material acting as a central organising principle; the entire structure and pitch content emerges from it. This clarinet material is essentially veiled through it being stretched and texturally displaced within the quartet before being revealed in crystalline contrast with the solo clarinet against pulsing harmonics in the quartet. This ‘light blinds’ material becomes increasingly agitated, collapsing in on itself to form and explore the line ‘the dark engulfs’. Here the quartet concentrates on the lowest tessituras of their instruments and is accompanied by the bass clarinet, moving between dramatic and fragile multiphonics and aggressive rumbling material that pulls us further into the depths.
The dark engulfs
and the light blinds
in neither a sight
is seen in clarity
a blur, desperate to find a firm grip
Poem by Angela Elizabeth Slater
Allegro, ma non agitato
Smetana noted down the tragic circumstances in which he composed the Piano Trio in his catalogue of works. He described it as ‘written in memory of my first child, Bedřiška, who enchanted us with her extraordinary musical talent, and yet was snatched away from us by death, aged four-and-a-half years.’ The grieving Smetana wrote this work – his only piano trio – between September and November 1855, and it was first performed in Prague on 3 December with the composer at the piano. Given that the work was written as a memorial, the surprise is that this trio contains no slow movement – and it’s certainly possible (as musicologist Basil Smallman suggested) that Smetana had to modify an earlier scheme that included one owing to pressure of time.
Two features of this trio are noteworthy: one is the powerful motto theme first heard at the very start – an idea that unifies much of what follows – and the other is Smetana’s use of popular Czech dance forms: the second movement is a Polka and the finale is based on the Skočná, a rapid jig-like dance. The reviews of the first performance included some negative comments about the work’s rhapsodic structure, and its use of folk elements that deviated from the abstract ‘purity’ expected in chamber music at the time. Smetana was understandably upset by this, but he was greatly heartened by the positive reaction to the work by a revered colleague: Franz Liszt.
© Nigel Simeone
Allegro vivo appassionato
Allegro moderato à la Polka
In 1874 Smetana fell ill with an infection that led within months to total deafness. For peace and quiet he moved to the village of Jabkenice in Central Bohemia, and it was here that he produced this overtly autobiographical quartet in 1876. Smetana supplied his own commentary on the work. It opens with ‘the call of fate (the main motif, first heard on the viola) into the struggle of life. The love of art in my youth; inclination towards romanticism in music as well as in love and life in general; a warning about my future misfortune – that fateful ringing of the highest tones in my ears which told me of my coming deafness.’
The second movement (à la Polka) brings back, according to Smetana, ‘memories of the merry time of my youth’, while the third ‘reminds me of the beauty of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife. The struggle with unhappy fate, the final achievement of my goal.’ For the fourth movement Smetana wanted to depict: ‘the recognition of a national awareness of our beautiful art, the pleasure derived from it and the happiness of success along the way until a terrible-sounding high tone starts ringing in my ear (in the quartet a high E) … as a warning of my cruel fate.’
The first performance took place in Prague on 29 March 1879. During his last years, Smetana’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. Early in 1884 he was moved to an asylum in Prague where he died a few months later.
© Nigel Simeone 2015
In 1813, Louis Spohr moved to Vienna where he became leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. Haydn’s friend and erstwhile patron Johann Tost gave Spohr an open-ended commission to compose as much chamber music as he liked, and the result was a remarkable group of works including five quartets, two quintets, the Octet and the present Nonet. The Nonet is scored for violin, viola, cello bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn and Tost particularly asked Spohr to bring out the individual colour and character of each instrument. Spohr does just that, and in a tightly controlled structure.
One of the most remarkable features of the Nonet is the close integration of its thematic material: the first four notes of the Allegro dominate the whole of the first movement, and the same motif recurs in the Adagio and, more fleetingly, in the Finale. The Scherzo (in D minor) is permeated by a different rising motif heard right at the start of the movement, and the two Trios provide contrast both in key (D major and B flat) and instrumental textures. The originality of Spohr’s music has been rediscovered in recent years, and his impact on the composers of his own time was immense. The Victorian composer and musicologist Sir George Macfarren wrote that ‘few, if any composers have exercised such influence on their contemporaries.’
© Nigel Simeone
In the 1890s Charles Villiers Stanford was the foremost English composer with an international reputation. But long before 1922 when he composed his Fantasy for Horn Quintet, his fame had been eclipsed by Edward Elgar, whose own success was in no small part down to Stanford – Elgar’s music had been included in a number of high-profile concerts conducted by Stanford. Stanford appears to have been badly affected by his younger colleagues success, and in 1904 they had a particularly spiteful fall-out via their regular correspondence.
As a result, Stanford became increasingly disillusioned with the English music scene. It is not known who the Fantasy for Horn Quintet was composed, or whether it ever received a public performance (though it may have been intended for students at the Royal College of Music). Like those quintets from Schumann and Liszt on which it may have been modled, it has a central theme, heard at the beginning in the cello and horn, which re-occurs as a foundation for other material.
Karlheinz Stockhausen began his series of Klavierstücke in 1952 while he was studying with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. Klavierstück VII was composed in 1954 (a year after he left Paris) and extensively revised in 1955. One of the most remarkable features of the piece is the use of silently depressed keys allowing sympathetic vibrations to be set up. The result is that different sonorities are created by the same pitch – a technique that can be heard throughout the work.
© Nigel Simeone
Composed in 1914, Stravinsky revised these pieces in 1918 when he dedicated them to the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. The first performance was given in Paris in May 1915 by a quartet which included the composer Darius Milhaud playing violin, while the 1918 version had its premiere in London on 13 February 1919. The work comprises three short movements without titles or tempo markings. Though the dimensions of the pieces are slight, Stravinsky managed to baffle (and infuriate) early critics with the unusual sound effects and performance markings in places, and the deliberate absence of any conventional forms or traditional thematic development. Instead, the mood is by turns stange and grotesque. The second piece was inspired by the comedian Little Tich (Harry Relph) whose jerky stage act had impressed Stravinsky during a visit to London in 1914. The result might almost be described as an anti-quartet, and as the critic Paul Griffiths later remarked, these little pieces are ‘determinedly not a “string quartet”. The notion of quartet dialogue has no place here, nor have subtleties of blend: the texture is completely fragmented, with each instrument sounding for itself.’
This spiky, short piece of music was created in Russia at the same time Suk wrote the piece we heard earlier. Stravinsky uses the plucking technique we heard in the Meredith and Beethoven, as well clashing notes and unexpected changes in pulse and speed. Stravinsky keeps us guessing what he’ll do next!
This spikey, short piece of music was created in Russia at the same time Suk wrote the piece we heard earlier. Stravinsky uses the plucking technique we heard in the Meredith and Beethoven, as well clashing notes and unexpected changes in pulse and speed. Stravinsky keeps us guessing what he’ll do next!
On page 10 of the Goya sketchbook generally known as the Witches and Old Women album, there is an image captioned by a single word: ‘Visiones’. An elderly couple dance, apparently suspended mid-air in an awkward embrace: his attention seems elsewhere; she may be picking his pocket. The pen-strokes are few, and the ink and wash technique makes the image seem as though momentarily conjured out of smoke. But without a doubt they are dancing, this strange couple, ready to step off the page, so alive is the penmanship. Peeking out from behind a fold of the lady’s skirt or the man’s cloak is a grinning face, all sunken eyes and wrinkled skin, laughing at – what? The dancers, the viewer, the world?
As I drew together materials for this clarinet trio, Goya’s vision haunted my dreams. It’s not the piece but it drew the piece into its orbit: three odd characters, bound together in dance. There is a kind of beauty there, I think, and elegance, and poise, and some sweet melancholy. But also obsession and violence and no way out. As I shaped the piece, these ideas shaped my thinking.
There are three sections:
#1: Cello and clarinet circle each other in repeated microtonal lyrics, while the piano, completely separate, taps out ecstatic pirouettes in the extreme upper register.
#2: A fragment of the lyric figure becomes something approaching a lullaby; the three instruments combine to create a single expanding harmonic texture, which, increasingly mechanical, gets stuck in irregular loops. The process repeats. Then repeats again.
#3: A distorted memory of what has gone before. The piano is now the melodic lead; the cello a crazed, fragmentary virtuoso, unable to find a ‘pure’ tone; the clarinet restricted to a simple pattern of soft multiphonics. The spinning dance intrudes, then overwhelms.
Josef Suk, a student of Antonín Dvořák and later his son-in-law, was a composer with a distinct artistic voice and strong ties to Czech musical heritage. His composition, the “Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale,” pays homage to the Bohemian patron saint, St. Wenceslas, and was written when a member of the Bohemian String Quartet to supplement the obligatory playing of the Austrian national anthem (after 1914) with a more distinctively Bohemian piece, and prayer for the wellbeing of the Czech people.
The “Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale’” is a single-movement for string quartet, which was later expanded into a version for string orchestra, adding a double bass line, and later still adapted for violin and organ. Suk‘s use of the violin as the leading voice enhances the expressive nature of the piece, allowing for moments of spiritual contemplation. The work commences with a solemn and tender introduction, featuring the initial statement of the hymn melody. Through subtle variations, this simple melody moves from serene introspection to intense and soaring passages as a recurring motif. The piece reaches a climax with the violin in its highest register, conveying a profound yearning. It gradually fades away, into tranquility.
This piece was written at the start of the first world war and is full of the drama and sadness of a scary time. But it ends full of hope with long notes seeming to climb into the air. Look and listen out for all the times the musicians play across the strings to make two or more notes sound at once — a technique called double stopping.
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