Program Notes: Concert 2

Tonight’s program continues our summer-long look at the influences of popular and folk music and culture on composers.

Noted music scholar Alfred Einstein declared our first piece to be “one of the miracles among Mozart’s works.”   The Sonata in e minor, K. 304 is one of 35 sonatas for piano and violin (including some left unfinished) composed by Mozart.  He produced his earliest such sonatas at just six years old.  When he was 22, his father decided that he should tour Europe in the hopes of securing an important court position.  The trip, which lasted 16 months, was a failure on every front; he overspent, he found no employment, and his mother died in Paris after a brief illness in July 1778.

Mozart composed this sonata in Paris around the time of his mother’s death.  The music has a wistful quality and a great depth of feeling, setting it apart from the other six violin works he produced during the trip.  The opening Allegro movement starts with a somber melody presented in unison by the violin and piano. This melody dominates the movement.  The jolly second theme introduced by the piano curiously does little to counter the predominantly somber mood.  The second movement is marked Tempo di Menuetto. We would expect a light-hearted dance movement.  Instead, the opening melody has a grave quality that is passed between the two instruments until Mozart shifts into E major, transforming the music into an expression of calm and hope.

Jessie Montgomery, a composer, violinist, and music educator based in New York City, provides the following comments on her works that we are performing tonight, Source Code and Strum:

The first sketches of Source Code began as transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era in the United States. I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings. Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres. The spiritual is a significant part of the DNA of black folk music, and subsequently most (arguably all) American pop music forms that have developed to the present day. This one-movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play.

Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition. The voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.

Dvořák wrote his Piano Quintet No. 2 in the late summer and fall of 1887, but it actually began as a project to revise his earlier Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 5, from 1872. Dvořák had destroyed that score after its premiere but, 15 years later, borrowed a friend’s copy to reconstruct it. Still not satisfied, he started over and produced the Quintet No. 2 in A Major. The piece was an instant hit with critics and the public.  It was performed frequently on major European stages in its first year and eventually became one of Dvořák’s most frequently performed works. The music is all about contrast: major and minor, loud and soft, arches and angles, folksiness and elegance.  It is structured with the traditional arrangement of four movements: fast, slow, dance, fast finale.  For the second movement Dvořák chooses to write a Dumka, a type of Slavic folk ballad that alternates slow and fast.  The viola (his instrument) is heavily featured.