Tonight’s program features a grouping of pieces that we have been meaning to get to for a while and just really want to play. The Mozart Sonata has never appeared on our series, and it has been twenty-one years since the Britten Phantasy was last performed here. The Brahms Quartet was last heard during the summer of 2007, so it’s due.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata K. 526 was written in August of 1787 immediately after completion of the string serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) and while he was working on his opera Don Giovanni (K. 527). We don’t know if it was written for a specific artist to play or if he had intended to play it himself. He was an accomplished violinist! In total Mozart wrote thirty-six sonatas for violin and piano. Sixteen of these were written when he was a child, between the ages of six and ten. After a 12-year break, Mozart returned to the form and wrote 20 more violin sonatas between 1778 and 1788. (4 were left incomplete at his death and later finished by composer/pianist Maximilian Stadler)
In the early Classical Era violin, sonatas were published for amateur players and identified as “keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment”. The violin’s role was often doubling material in the keyboard writing. It was not indispensable. From the very beginning, Mozart’s sonatas, although still labelled as a “piano sonatas with…” balanced the importance of the two instruments and made their roles much more independent. The sonata K. 526 is his next to last and the violin and piano are now fully equal partners.
The first movement, Molto Allegro, is in a very lively 6/8 meter. Already in the second measure of the very first theme, Mozart slyly uses the device of hemiola (going from rhythmic patterns of two groups of three to three groups of two) to disorient his listeners. Alternating running passages and a swinging dance melody keep the music hurtling forward throughout the movement. The second movement is marked Andante, not the expected slow Largo or Adagio. It begins with the piano playing a simple rocking melody in octaves before being joined by the violin playing a fragment of an obligato melody. The instruments are often paired in unisons or octaves with a stark effect. The overall scope of the movement is surprisingly large with a lot of time spent extensively developing the first melodic material. Some of the devices used are fragmented bursts of materials, chromaticism, constant flowing accompaniment shared by both instruments, and shifting between major and minor keys.
The final movement, Presto, blasts out of the gate and never lets up. The writing is virtuosic and intensely high-spirited. It is one of the longest final chamber music movements Mozart ever wrote. Some scholars believe that this finale was based on the finale of a sonata by the recently deceased Carl Friedrich Abel and meant as a memorial tribute.
Benjamin Britten also showed great talent as a young child. He made his first attempts at composition when he was 5 years old. Formal lesson on the piano began at age 7 and he took up the viola at age 10. His very stern father refused to allow a gramophone or radio in the house so the only music in the household was produced onsite live.
By his late teens Britten was turning out, in his words, “reams of music”. All of this work helped him hone his craft. By age 21, when the Phantasy was written, he had a masterful knowledge of musical structure and the technical ability to fashion sound to arouse profound emotional reactions.
This piece was written in the fall of 1932. The first performance was in the summer of 1933 and was a great success. Critical response was wonderful, and Britten was identified as an important new voice in England’s contemporary music world.
Britten’s compositional mastery is on full display in the Phantasy. The piece is inspired by the revived interest in Elizabethan music, specifically the Fantasy, that had gripped many early 20th century British composers. It also uses a highly individuated version of an Arch Form (exposition -development- recapitulation) with surprise extended slow sections inserted into the fast “development” part.
The piece literally begins in silence. There are six pulses of notated rest before the cello begins the march theme almost inaudibly. All three strings take up the march before finally being joined by the oboe playing a broad melodic theme. Themes from this Andante section are fragmented and altered in the Allegro giusto. This keeps building in intensity until it all just stops. The three strings play a very romantic extended episode accelerating into the wild a Con fuoco. Fast heaving string gestures then transform into a quiet undulating accompaniment for a second slow episode, a passionate cadenza-like oboe ramble. Gradually elements of the opening march are brought back into the mix leading to the return of the Andante all marcia which happen in reverse, the mirror image of how it all started.
Johannes Brahms’ father, Johann Jakob, had pursued music as a career in defiance of his family and had ended up in Hamburg finding work as a street musician. Eventually he became a bass player in the Hamburg City Orchestra. He is assumed to have given Johannes, his second child, his first lessons in music. By age seven he was studying piano with Otto Cossel, a highly regarded teacher. He progressed very quickly. When Brahms showed interest and talent in composition, Cossel arranged for him to have lessons in counterpoint. With money tight at home, Brahms was able to help bring in income by composing and arranging music for his father’s small party orchestra and by recommending his father as a musician. In 1848, Hungarian insurgents arrived in Hamburg escaping Russian suppression. They brought with them a music that became a craze in Germany. Brahms had his first exposure to the gypsy czardas and the alla zingarese style that were to influence him throughout his artistic life. This was also when he first met the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi who schooled him in the style and taught him how to exploit rubato in ensemble playing.
In 1853 the twenty year old Johannes Brahms teamed with Remenyi and began a concert tour of northern Germany as his accompanist. After performing in Hanover, the two arrived in Gottingen where Brahms met the great violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim who was to remain a lifelong friend and colleague. The tour continued to Weimar where Brahms met Franz Liszt. There he and Remenyi parted ways. After taking a brief hiking vacation in the Rhineland and armed with a letter of introduction from Joachim, Brahms travelled on to Dusseldorf where he first met Robert and Clara Schumann.
When Robert Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 and was institutionalized, Brahms relocated to Dussledorf to be nearby to help the family any way he could. He provided financial support, dealt with business affairs, and visited Robert in his confinement. Brahms grew to deeply, but platonically, love Clara Schumann and they remained closely connected until her death.
The Piano Quartet opus 25 was written in 1861 and given its premier in November of that year with Clara Schumann at the piano. In 1862 Brahms made his first trip to Vienna where, carrying an introduction from Clara and some other friends, he was able to mount solo recitals which garnered very favorable attention. Among the works he presented was this quartet.
The piece is dedicated to Baron Reinhard von Dalwigk. It is an epic forty-five minutes long, a major innovation at the time. It is also the first time Brahms used the gypsy style in one of his compositions. The first movement has an extended exposition with three distinct themes. The music is overall dark and brooding. The placement of a Scherzo or Minuet movement second in a four-movement chamber music work was also new. Normally a slow movement would go here. The choice to label it Intermezzo reflects the more subdued nature of the music. The third movement Andante con moto is again intensely lyrical with a middle section that is actually a march but in ¾ time- very unusual. The Finale is pure gypsy, full of wild energy and gushy rubato. The end of the movement couldn’t be more exciting.