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PROGRAM NOTES: 1824-1942: Richard, Robert & Ludwig

by Eric Bromberger

Sextet for Strings from Capriccio, Opus 85

Born June 11, 1864, Munich
Died September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Richard Strauss composed Capriccio, his final opera, in 1942 at the age of 78. Far from the expressionistic horror of Salome and Elektra and even from the romantic opulence of Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio is instead a civilized exploration of the question of which is more important in opera: the words or the music. A composer who had already written fourteen operas might well have thought about this issue in some detail, and Strauss makes clear the essentially philosophic nature of Capriccio by subtitling it “Conversation-Piece for Music.” He then focuses the issue by having a composer (Flamand) and a poet (Olivier) compete for the hand of the widowed Countess Madeleine–each must advance his artistic claims while simultaneously pursuing her romantically.

Capriccio begins with a string sextet played from the pit by the orchestra’s principal players. In the opera, this music is simultaneously the overture and Flamand’s latest composition (and most recent love-offering to the Countess–he watches her reactions as it is being performed). Even as it proceeds, Flamand and Olivier begin the debate about the primacy of words or music– their conversation is of course eliminated when the Sextet is performed separately. This is very elegant music, flowing and smooth. It is also music of unusual rhythmic suppleness, with phrases extending across barlines and rhythms often subdivided into quintuplets–it is the sort of music that requires superb players and a great deal of effort to make it sound as effortless as it should. The relaxed atmosphere of the opening gives way to a brief (and somewhat melodramatic) outburst before the opening material returns to lead the Sextet to its polished close.

So–what does Countess Madeleine finally decide? Music or words? Flamand or Olivier? Her decision is a surprise. To find out what it is, go see this very pleasing opera.

Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 47

Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, Eisenach, Germany

Robert Schumann’s marriage on September 12, 1840, to the young piano virtuosa Clara Wieck–a match that had been bitterly opposed by her father–brought joy to the young couple, and it also marked the beginning of the most productive three years of the composer’s career. From the first year of their marriage came a great outpouring of song, from 1841 came symphonic works, and in 1842 Schumann turned to chamber music. He quickly wrote three string quartets that summer, then the Piano Quintet in October. Working at white heat and assailed by “constant fearful sleepless nights,” Schumann pressed on to complete the Piano Quartet at the end of November.

The Quartet has always been overshadowed by the Quintet, one of Schumann’s greatest chamber works, but this is a strong work in its own right. It is one of the finest of all piano quartets–a form that presents composers with numerous problems of voicing, texture, and the balance between piano and strings–and its slow movement is one of the glories of chamber music. The Quartet opens with a slow introduction, marked Sostenuto assai (“Very sustained”); this quiet music will return twice during the course of the movement. The main section of the movement, Allegro ma non tanto, leaps out brightly on four sharp chords, and Schumann gives some idea of his conception of this music in his marking sempre con molto sentimento. The second subject is a big singing tune for cello (marked espressivo), and Schumann develops both themes across the span of this sonata-form movement. The very brief Scherzo: Molto vivace hurries along its steady pulse; Schumann offers two trio sections, both related thematically to the scherzo itself.

The third movement is appropriately marked Andante cantabile, for this music does indeed sing. It is in ABA form, and the cello’s lyric main subject dominates the opening section. But the really impressive part of this movement comes in the middle section, which moves into the unexpected key of G-flat major. In the childlike simplicity of its melodic line and the intensity of its expression, this music sounds very much like the slow movements of Beethoven’s late string quartets. The cello does not play during the ornate return of the opening material, for Schumann asks here that the cellist retune the C-string down to B for the closing measures of the movement; this section outlines very slowly the themeshape of the final movement, marked Vivace. Full of fugal entries based on this three-note shape, the finale gives the impression of never-ending energy–even its lyric episodes seem touched with vitality.

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 127

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

When Russian prince Nikolas Golitsyn wrote to Beethoven in the fall of 1822 to commission three string quartets, his request met a sympathetic response: the composer had been thinking about writing string quartets for some time and promised to have the first done within a month or two. After seven years of intermittent activity he had resumed sustained composing in 1820 with a set of three piano sonatas, but other projects now intervened, and despite the prince’s frequent inquiries Beethoven had to complete the Missa Solemnis, Diabelli Variations, and Ninth Symphony before he could begin work on the first of the three quartets in the summer of 1824. This quartet–in E-flat major–was not complete until February 1825. Performed immediately by the string quartet of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the music was a failure at its première on March 6, 1825. Furious, Beethoven quickly had it rehearsed and performed by a quartet led by Joseph Böhm. The composer attended their rehearsals and supervised their interpretation (though deaf, he could follow their performance by watching the movement of their bows). The second performance was successful, and this quartet was performed publicly at least ten more times in 1825–an extraordinary number of performances for a new work–and always to great acclaim.

That fact is important because it undercuts the notion that Beethoven’s late quartets were far ahead of their time. Certain features of the late quartets did defy quick comprehension, but this was not true of the Quartet in E-flat Major. At first glance, this is the most traditional of Beethoven’s late quartets. It has a relatively straightforward structure: a sonata-form first movement, a variation-form slow movement, a scherzo in ABA form, and a dance-finale. But to reduce this music to such simplicity is to miss the extraordinary originality beneath its appealing and gentle surface.

In the first movement, Beethoven seems to set out intentionally to blur the outlines of traditional sonata form, which depends on the opposition of material. Contrast certainly seems to be implied at the beginning, which opens with a firm chordal Maestoso, but this Maestoso quickly melts into the flowing and simple main theme, marked Allegro (Beethoven further specifies that he wants this melody performed teneramente–“tenderly”–and sempre piano e dolce). The powerful Maestoso returns twice more, each time in a different key, and then drops out of the movement altogether; Beethoven builds the movement almost exclusively out of the opening melody and an equally-gentle second subject. Here is a sonataform movement that does not drive to a powerful climax but instead remains understated throughout: the movement evaporates on a wisp of the opening Allegro theme.

Two softly-pulsing measures lead to the main theme of the Adagio, a gently-rocking and serene melody introduced by the first violin and repeated by the cello. There follow six melodic variations, each growing organically out of the previous one until the music achieves a kind of rhapsodic calm–and the original theme has been left far behind. Four sharp pizzicato chords introduce the scherzo, and these four chords then vanish, never to re-appear. The fugue-like opening section, built on a dotted figure and its inversion, leads to a brief–and utterly different–trio section. In E-flat minor, this trio whips past in a blistering blur: Beethoven’s phrase markings here stretch over twenty measures at a time. Beethoven brings back the opening section, then offers a surprise at the ending by including a quick reminiscence of the trio just before the cadence.

The last movement has proven the most difficult for commentators, perhaps because of its apparent simplicity. Marked only Finale (there is no tempo indication), it opens with a four-measure introduction that launches off in the wrong direction before the true main theme appears in the first violin. Of rustic simplicity, this melody has been compared to a country-dance, and the second theme–a jaunty march-tune decorated with grace notes– preserves that atmosphere. The tunes may be innocent, but Beethoven’s treatment of them in this sonata-form movement is quite sophisticated, particularly in matters of modulation and harmony. The ending is particularly striking. At the coda Beethoven rebars the music in 6/8, moves to C major, and speeds ahead on violin trills, chains of triplets, and shimmering textures. The very end, back in E-flat major, is calm, resounding–and perfect. 'FEST