Program Notes: Concert 4

Foundations

Our program tonight features music by the other two composers of that great Classical Triumvirate mentioned in the first concert and a work by a contemporary musician which derives its inspiration from an anonymous medieval melody and a modernist painter.

From 1717-1723 Johann Sebastian Bach was employed in the court of Prince Leopold of Köthen as the prince’s own music director. For the duration of this service he had a wonderful relationship with his employer. He was freed from the daily duties of a choirmaster (both administrative and musical) and encouraged to write secular instrumental music. Among the works written in these years are his six Brandenburg Concerti, his six Cello Suites, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

It is almost impossible to believe that there was ever a time J.S. Bach’s music was not revered. In the years immediately following his death, the musical world moved on very quickly to new styles and structures. When his music was all but forgotten, Felix Mendelssohn brought it back to the attention of the public with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. At the end of the century, Joseph Joachim rediscovered and began playing the solo violin works. Now these violin pieces are recognized as works of pure genius- large-scale structures with beautiful melodies clearly popping out of complex multi-voiced textures which test the technical and interpretive capacity of the violinist.

The Sonata No. 3 in C Major for solo violin is thought to have been completed sometime before 1720. It is in four movements following the slow-fast-slow-fast order of the typical Baroque church sonata. The first Adagio starts with a single line melody. Second and third voices are added in double and triple stops until becoming powerful, ringing, four-note chords. A dotted rhythm permeates the texture driving the melody throughout.

The second movement Fugue is an enormous arch form. The first musical support column uses a first subject that is a quote of the opening of his own chorale “Komm, heiliger Geist”. The second subject is a slow descending chromatic row. The middle section (the top of the arch) is built by stating the preceding two themes backwards and building on these. The final section is a repeat of the first, completing the arch.

The third movement Largo is largely two balanced melodic voices unfolding with very simple harmonic flow. The last movement is, once again, a work of technical magic that keeps a single melody dancing along supported by two and three part textures.

Stephen Hartke’s ‘The King of the Sun’ for piano quartet was written in 1988. The piece was commissioned by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet and Chamber Music America. His work has been hailed for both its singularity of voice and the inclusive breadth of its inspiration. He studied at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. From 1987 to 2015, he taught at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California where he is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He was recently appointed Professor and Chair of Composition at Oberlin Conservatory.

Hartke offers the following description of his work:

Of the five and one half movements that comprise my piano quartet, ‘The King of the Sun’, it was the second (Dutch interior) that was composed last, and thus, because it was written with the benefit of hindsight regarding the rest of the work, it is in some ways the key to the whole. To begin, it bears the word ‘Phantasmagorically’ as its tempo marking to suggest the constant shifting of musical images that drives the piece. The musical materials derive from a late medieval canon entitled Le ray au soleyl (‘the Sun’s ray’) that was jotted down on some empty staves at the foot of a manuscript page otherwise devoted to a chanson by the Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370-1412), and hence has been generally misattributed to him even though clearly the work of a less accomplished musician (though no less delightful for that). The movement title itself, as is the case with all the other movements, is taken from a painting by Joan Miró. In Miró’s Dutch Interior, he based his composition on a picture postcard of a painting by the 17th-century Dutch genre painter Jan Steen, but his treatment is so delightfully willful and whimsical that the original is barely recognizable. In my Dutch interior, I subject the canon (which might be considered Dutch in provenance by some) to similar distortion, most notably rendering it as a violin solo in which the original’s contrapuntal character is negated by the verticals of the violin multiple-stops which must be used to account for all the notes in the canon’s texture. The underpinning of this solo has nothing to do directly with the violin part, but evokes the spirit of medieval music in its form, an estampie, and in its isorhythmic structure. The canon also appears in the fourth movement, ‘The flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical’, now compressed into the bright, violent chords that open the piece, and then returning at the end in a direct quotation that breaks off abruptly as soon as the first serious contrapuntal ‘error’ is heard.

The remaining movements deal with other issues, among them the recurrent ‘snail music’ heard first at the very beginning of the work and in several other movements thereafter. But, most curiously for a piece entitled The King of the Sun, most of the movements take place indoors or at night, but for the fateful solar encounter of the hapless desert flower. I had no idea in starting out that this would be the outcome, but I welcomed it, for all its being somewhat convoluted and even arcane, because, quite simply, it was fun to do. Thus just as Miró’s painting is both whimsical and serious, I have sought to accomplish the same thing in my music.

Johannes Brahms wrote his Second Cello Sonata opus 99 in the summer 1886 while staying on Lake Thun in Switzerland. He had for many years established a routine of going into retreat in a beautiful place to compose in the summer and concertizing in the winter. Brahms himself performed the piano part of this sonata at its premier. His partner was Robert Hausmann, a close friend and the cellist of the Joachim String Quartet.

The piece was not an immediate favorite with the general public. Years later Arnold Schoenberg was to write, “Young listeners will probably be unaware that at the time of Brahms’ death, this sonata was still very unpopular and was considered indigestible”. We forget how daring Brahms was regarded by contemporaries.

Upon hearing the piece for the first time, the conductor and critic Eduard Hanslick wrote a succinct and wonderfully poetic reaction to it:

“In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting. How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows! It is true that the passion subsides into quiet mourning in the Adagio and fades away, reconciled, in the finale. But the beating pulse of the earlier sections still reverberates, and pathos remains the determining psychological characteristic of the whole.

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