Program Notes By Eric Bromberger
Serenade in G Major, K.525 “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, perhaps the best-known and best-loved of all Mozart’s works, remains one of the most mysterious. It comes from a year–1787–when little is known about Mozart’s life, and no one is sure why Mozart suddenly wrote so gentle and charming a piece of music. The external events from that year are few: in May his father died in Salzburg, and Mozart himself was occupied for most of the remainder of the year with composing Don Giovanni; during that year he may have met and given lessons to a sixteen-year-old visiting from Bonn named Ludwig van Beethoven, but the evidence is uncertain. All that we really know is that Mozart broke off work on the second act of Don Giovanni to write this serenade; the manuscript is dated August 10. Usually this sort of serenade was intended for a social occasion, but there is no record of such an event, and Mozart had written no string serenades since his days in Salzburg. Two centuries later, the origins of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik remain mysterious.
The title Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is Mozart’s own. Nachtmusik translates literally as “night-music,” but the accepted meaning of that term was serenade, which had come to mean a melodic instrumental piece, and Mozart would have understood the title as “A Little Serenade.” He originally scored it for string quintet (quartet plus doublebass), but it can be performed with equal success by string quartet or string orchestra. In its original form, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik had five movements, but the second movement–a minuet–was torn out of the manuscript by unknown hands and has disappeared.
Music that charms so completely requires little description or comment. The opening Allegro is a miniature sonata-form movement built on the graceful and jaunty opening theme and a more fluid second idea announced by the first violins. The development section is quite brief, and Mozart quickly recapitulates his ideas and brings the movement to a close on its opening theme. Throughout, this movement sparkles and dances with an ease rare even in Mozart’s music.
Mozart marked the second movement Romanze, a general term used to indicate expressive and quiet music. In fact, this movement–marked Andante–is a stately rondo with two contrasting episodes. The third movement is the expected minuet-and-trio, with a sturdy minuet and a flowing trio section colored by chromatic writing. The finale is another rondo, though this is an Allegro–its buoyant main idea leaps upward and sails along energetically. Once again, Mozart’s chromatic writing brings darker and more expressive moments in the midst of all the high spirits.
Sonata for Piano Four-Hands (2014)
A note from the composer:
One of the great pleasures of my youth was playing piano four-hands with my friends, so it was with equal pleasure that I received the rather unusual, if not anachronistic, request from Chamber Music Northwest to write a piece for the piano duet team of Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss.
When two people have to share a single instrument, there is a sudden shift in the way one handles its sonority — musical space broadens and the approach to the sound necessarily has to take into account all registers nearly equally. In the case of my sonata, I suppose that one could say that I have gone a rather “symphonic” route. The first movement is rather unsettled in its mood, opening with an opposition of a low, brooding theme contrasted by a high, livelier one. The opposition intensifies, leading to a calmer interlude before the opening conflict is taken up again.
As the title “Buck and Wing” openly acknowledges, the second movement finds its roots in the breathless, non-stop energy of old movie musicals, and the piano duet medium naturally lends itself to the notion of dancers trading off steps with each other.
For the finale, the mood becomes calm again in a four-voice fugue built on quiet, almost bucolic theme. Low, dark chords occasionally recall some of the brooding of the first movement, but in the end the fugue theme wins out in a rhythmically compressed version perhaps evoking the tintinnabulation of bells.
Octet in F Major, D.803
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
The year 1823 was difficult for Schubert. He was ill for much of it, at one point so seriously that he had to be hospitalized. Discouraged and without energy, he wrote little that year, but in the first months of 1824 the 27-year-old composer regained his strength and turned to chamber music. In March would come two of his greatest string quartets (in A minor, and D minor–the Death and the Maiden quartet), but before writing these, he spent February 1824 composing the Octet. This is one of the most amiable works in the chamber music literature, and it is hard not to believe that this good-spirited music reflects Schubert’s relief at the return of his strength.
The Octet was commissioned by Ferdinand, Count Troyer, the chief steward of the household of Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s friend and patron. An amateur clarinetist, Count Troyer suggested that Schubert write something on the order of Beethoven’s Septet, then wildly popular in Vienna. In fact, Schubert modeled his Octet very closely on Beethoven’s Septet. To Beethoven’s instrumentation (clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass), Schubert added a second violin, and he chose the same pattern of movements Beethoven had used: six movements alternating slow and fast tempos. And, again like Beethoven, he gave each of the outer movements a slow introduction.
But the Octet is not a slavish imitation, and many consider it one of Schubert’s finest works–one critic has gone so far as to call the Octet “quintessential Schubert.” The Octet is similar in form to Mozart’s serenades and divertimentos: essentially light music in multiple movements designed to entertain or–simply–to give pleasure. But to classify the Octet as entertainment music is in no way to denigrate it. This is beautifully crafted music, gracefully written for all eight instruments (the clarinet is given a particularly prominent role, perhaps as a nod to Count Troyer). Beyond this, Schubert makes some unusual thematic connections between the movements, which gives the generously-proportioned Octet (it lasts nearly 50 minutes) surprising unity.
The slow introduction contains a rhythmic cell that will recur in several of the movements. Heard first in the strings, this dotted figure will form the basis of the main theme at the Allegro; a gracefully-singing clarinet introduces the second theme, and a striking horn solo leads to the final cadence. Count Troyer must have been delighted with the Adagio, for it opens with a lovely and long-lined clarinet tune over quietly-murmuring strings. Schubert’s development makes surprising key shifts, full of subtle shading. The Allegro vivace, a scherzo, has proven one of the most popular movements in the Octet. Its main theme is full of energy, and Schubert propels it vigorously along the snap of its dotted notes. The sonority of this movement is unusual as well–Schubert sometimes masses all eight instruments in resounding unison passages.
The Andante is in theme-and-variation form (Beethoven’s Septet also contains a variation movement). Here the first violin lays out the theme, which Schubert took from a duet in his opera Die Freunde von Salamanka (1815). Seven ornate variations follow before a brief coda closes the movement. The fifth movement is a minuet, and the outer sections make use of the dotted figure from the first movement. Its trio section is based on what sounds like an Austrian tune, but Schubert treats it lovingly–Schubert scholar John Reed notes that this section “elevates the folk-dance to the level of great music.”
The concluding movement is in some ways the most striking. It opens with what sounds like orchestral music: a tremolo from the low strings leads to exchanges between wind and string choirs, and the careful listener will hear once again the dotted figure from the very beginning. At the Allegro, Schubert leaves quasi-orchestral sonorities behind and returns to true chamber music–the strings introduce the main idea, full of rustic energy, and the music dances happily. At the very end, Schubert brings back the “orchestral” music for a moment before the exhilarating rush of the final coda.
The man who could write music like this was clearly one who had regained both his strength and his good spirits.