In 1854 Peter Cornelius, writing in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, coined the expression ‘The 3 B’s’ to honor the profound impact Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz had on classical music. At the end of that century, conductor Hans von Bulow substituted Brahms for Berlioz in this list honoring Brahms’ enormous influence on musicians of his time.
The need to measure, typify, and assort the work of artists continues to run rampant in the music business on all levels. At best, in the classical world, this insures monuments of art are kept in the public awareness and can continue to inspire and move future generations. At worst, it prevents curators of art from straying too far from the familiar. Now, almost 300 years from Bach’s era and 100 years past Brahms’, it is very clear that that ‘B’ list of composers who have defined greatness is too limited.
Tonight’s concert begins with a member of that great classical canon. In 1792 Ludwig van Beethoven had arrived in Vienna having been granted a stipend from the Elector of Bonn to allow him to study with Franz Joseph Haydn. Those studies did not go so well. Mistrustful by nature, Beethoven was disappointed by the quality of Haydn’s instruction and sought out other teachers to drill him in the rigors of counterpoint. Fortunately, by the time his stipend had expired in 1794, Beethoven had established himself as a great piano virtuoso and was starting to give significant public performances which allowed him to remain in Vienna. While his published music so far had been exclusively chamber music, he had avoided venturing into the area of the string quartet, perhaps intimidated by the extraordinary examples Haydn was producing. Nevertheless, in 1798 he accepted a commission from Prince Lobkowitz to compose a set of quartets and completed them in 1801.
The Quartet opus 18, no. 6 was the last of the set. Remarkable formal innovations in this piece include an unusually succinct first movement and an extensive chromatic introduction to the final Allegretto. The slow second movement is refined elegance with bursts of lightness and humor. The Scherzo is a masterful and joyful rhythmic confusion of syncopation.
After completing all six works of opus 18, Beethoven revisited his first effort, making extensive changes. After three years of wrestling with the expressive possibilities of the string quartet, he had finally found his way and wrote “…only now do I know how to write quartets properly”.
It is impossible to talk about where Béla Bartók grew up without consulting historical political maps of Europe. His birthplace, Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary, is now Sinnicolau Mare, Romania. His father was the director of an agricultural school and an avid amateur musician. His mother, Paula Voit, was a teacher who also played the piano. Young Bela showed great talent early on. When his father died in 1888, the family was left in horrible straits. His mother moved the family several times – to Nagyszollos (now Vinogradov, Ukraine), to Pozsony (now Bratislava, Czechoslovakia), to Beszterce (now Bistrita, Romania) – before finally finding secure employment in Pozsony in 1894. Once the family had settled there, Bartók got terrific instruction in piano and harmony for five solid years. After graduating from primary school, he was offered a scholarship to attend the Vienna Conservatory but chose to attend the Budapest Academy of Music instead.
In Budapest the world opened for him. He immersed himself in the study of Wagner and Strauss. He partnered with Kodály studying and collecting Hungarian folk music. This ongoing project included annual expeditions throughout the country utilizing the Edison phonograph. His compositions over the next twenty years include his 1st and 2nd String Quartets, Fourteen Bagatelles, Four Pieces for Orchestra, The Wooden Prince, The Miraculous Mandarin, and his book The Hungarian Folksong.
Bartók’s compositional style was evolving with each new work. His 2nd Violin Sonata was composed between July and November 1922. When later describing the sonic language of the piece he said, “I thought I was approaching a species of twelve-tone music. Yet even in the works of that period the absolute tonal foundation is unmistakable.” The piece is constructed in two movements. The first movement opens with a single low note in the piano which launches the violin into a long melody in the style of a free Romanian improvisation called a hora lunga. The harmonies throughout are not clearly major or minor, and the melody is not driven forward by any clear sense of pulse. The second movement begins without a pause. It starts with a driving repeated piano rhythm sparring with the pizzicato violin. This gives way to a wild dance. The movement closes with a return of the initial improvisational melody as the music reels back and forth between quiet and stormy.
Max Bruch was born in Cologne, Germany in 1838. His first music teacher was his mother who was a well-known soprano and music teacher. He was composing chamber music by age eleven and at fourteen won the Frankfurt Mozart Foundation Prize for a string quartet. This prize money made it possible for him to study composition and theory with Ferdinand Hiller and piano with Carl Reinecke. By 1858 he had established himself as a music teacher and begun a professional life that would keep him moving throughout Europe for the next thirty years. He travelled extensively as a student, composed a number of large scale secular choral works, held a variety of teaching posts in different places, and was the Music Director of several orchestras.
In 1891 he accepted the post of professor at the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin where he conducted a master class in composition. He retired from that post in 1911 and once again devoted himself full time to his own compositions.
Today we know Max Bruch primarily through three pieces; the First Violin Concerto in g minor, his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and his Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. This is hard to comprehend given that between 1870 and 1900 he enjoyed tremendous fame for his epic choral works which were frequently performed and are rarely heard now.
The Octet in B-flat opus posthumous was completed in February 1920 just months before the composer’s death. It is a resetting of a recently composed string quintet with which he had been dissatisfied. In this revised setting, the use of the double bass in lieu of a second cello in the ensemble gives an added richness to the string sonority. It is a work of deeply optimistic romanticism in a post-war world where musical currents had turned to abstraction and chromaticism as modes of expression.
The piece is in three movements. The first movement begins with a slow introduction featuring the viola. This leads to an exuberant allegro theme which gives way to a luscious singing second theme. It ends with a dramatic presto coda. The second movement begins with a simple singing theme becoming more and more passionate before ending quietly in the music of the second theme. The final movement begins with an eruption of energy leading to an electrically charged melody in the first violin. The second more lyrical theme is given to the cello and second viola. This movement ends as did the first with a virtuosic presto explosion.