We start the 2019 chamber music season with three pieces that might be considered “monumental miniatures” for achieving such powerful impact with such small forces. Two are innovative works by premier masters of the Classical Era: Mozart and Beethoven. More than a hundred years later, Paul Hindemith was immersed in the romantic music of Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, and Schoenberg and found himself drawn back to and utilizing the practices and structures of the Classical Era.
In 1782 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made the very bold move of marrying Constaze Weber against his father’s wishes. Leopold was horrified that his brilliant son would marry someone whom he considered so unworthy. Wolfgang and Constaze left Vienna in August 1783 travelling to Salzburg for a three-month visit hoping to win Leopold over. The attempt failed, but there was a positive result of the trip. Wolfgang had the opportunity to reconnect with some old, dear friends including Michael Haydn.
Michael Haydn was the younger brother of “Papa” Joseph and a fine musician in his own right. He held the position of composer and orchestra director for the archiepiscopal household in Salzburg. Mozart highly respected Haydn’s skills as church composer and master of counterpoint. (Leopold considered Haydn to be culturally a notch above a peasant). In August 1783 Haydn had fallen quite ill and had been unable to finish a commission from the Archbishop for a set of six duos for violin and viola. Haydn had completed four but, with the deadline looming, had been unable to continue. Mozart gladly stepped in to complete the final two. These were hand copied out in a single final score, turned in on time, and Michael Haydn was named the composer of all of them.
Mozart eventually asked for his two scores to be returned to publish them under his own name. It was announced that this would happen in 1788, but the pieces did not appear in print until 1792, a year after his death. We now know these duos as K 423 and K 424.
At the time these duos were written, Mozart was immersed in studying and playing the counterpoint of J. S. Bach and exploring Joseph Haydn’s new ideas of developing musical motifs. Between 1782-1785 he composed six string quartets incorporating these new ideas which he dedicated to J. Haydn. His writing for just two instruments is in every way a match in expression, scope, and craftsmanship of the quartets with one critic declaring he had created “string quartets reduced to two voices.”
The opening Allegro of K. 423 is bursting with unbridled energy, full of high spirits and youthful vigor. Whereas the violin and viola share the melodic duties in the first movement, the second allows the violin to take over much of the melody with the viola supplying an accompaniment of flowing chords. The final Rondeau: Allegro has some fun and surprising contrasting material between episodes of the rondo theme: flourishes of bravura fiddling, unexpected harmonic modulations, and dramatic shifts in mood.
In 1917 Paul Hindemith was twenty-one years old. That year he went from being the concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and the second violinist in his teacher Adolf Rebner’s string quartet to serving in the German Army during WWI. He served in a regimental band (bass drum) and, later, in the trenches in Belgium.
Hindemith had a very sympathetic commanding officer in the regimental band who encouraged him to establish a string quartet with other enlisted musicians. It was here that Hindemith formed his philosophy of Gebrauchmusik –music composed for specific purposes. What made his idea unique was that it was not about expressing nationalism or geographic sense of place but, rather, about emotional and spiritual universalities and connection. Hindemith himself describes a moment shortly after beginning his war service in which his quartet was playing Claude Debussy’s string quartet. While the ensemble was playing, they got the news that Debussy had died. Hindemith wrote: “We did not play to the end. It was as if our playing had been robbed of the breath of life. But we realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique and the expression of powerful feelings. Music reached out beyond political boundaries, national hatred, and the horrors of war. On no other occasion have I seen so clearly what direction music must take.”
Two years later Hindemith rejoined the Frankfurt Opera as a violist. He had decided to concentrate more on his composition career. This sonata was one of the first written upon his return from the war as he was shifting between a romantic style and a more modern tonal language. There are two very strong influences in the work. The first is the music of Debussy, clearly still very much in his mind since his wartime epiphany. The second is the viola itself. His great skill as a violinist is evident as he pushes the viola to new possibilities.
The sonata won’t necessarily surprise a lover of romantic music. It shows Hindemith’s admiration for masters like Brahms and Dvorak and his affinity for Debussy. The form of the piece is unusual: a type of free-ranging musical journey. The initial Fantasie is a short introductory movement which drifts harmonically through a number of keys before flowing directly into the second movement, a Theme with variations. The Finale abruptly interrupts the variations. This movement uses the classical sonata device of offering two main contrasting themes; the first is sharp and assertive and the second a gracious lullaby. In a surprising twist, the variation movement abruptly resumes offering up three more. The final variation grows increasingly frantic as it drives to the end. The composer’s progressive exhortations to the performer are as follows: ‘Very lively and excited – always grow and move ahead – Wild – move more!’ There is no doubt Hindemith greatly advanced the bounds of virtuosity on the viola with this work.
The three Piano Trios opus 1 were the first major works a twenty-five year old Ludwig van Beethoven allowed to be published with an assigned catalog number. They were not his first compositions but were the first that he considered representative enough of his unique style to debut before the public. Both Haydn and Mozart had composed trios for this combination. Haydn’s trios were unfailingly elegant but the string player’s roles were largely doubling the keyboard parts. Mozart made the strings significantly more independent in his trios. However, Beethoven gave the three instruments true independence so that, when woven together, they achieved an incredible richness. He also expanded the scope of the form by imitating the Symphony structure and adding either a Scherzo or Minuet movement before the Finale. There is no question that Beethoven turned the piano trio into a more expressive and powerful ensemble
The pieces were premiered in Vienna at the home of Prince Karl Lichnowsky to whom they were dedicated. The audience included artists, connoisseurs, and, notably, Franz Joseph Haydn. Those attending realized immediately that these were extraordinary. Haydn was especially complimentary.
The Trio opus 1 no. 2 begins with a slow Adagio introduction in g minor and offers some unexpected harmonic turns before settling into the home key of G Major at the Allegro. The Allegro follows expected formal norms with two contrasting melodic themes establishing the main body of the movement. The second part development takes some interesting chromatic turns, and Beethoven creates a subtle fake-out before returning to that first thematic material to close the movement.
The luscious slow movement, Largo, is written in the unexpected key of E Major, harmonically quite distant from the home key of G. Long, shapely melodies shift constantly between the very equal voices. Beethoven’s innovation of the “added” 3rd movement is in this case a Scherzo instead of the Minuet. It is a lively dance in a fast ¾ time –definitely too fast to do a minuet. The trio section has a heavy folk dance character. The Finale is a fast gallop, playful and exciting to the last note.