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PROGRAM NOTES: Beethoven's Time Machine

by Eric Bromberger

Piano Quintet in C Minor, Opus 1

Born July 27, 1877, Pressburg, Hungary
Died February 9, 1960, New York City

It is hard to believe that this accomplished music was written by a seventeen-year-old boy. But Ernst von Dohnányi was a prodigy of many talents: he became a composer, a virtuoso pianist, and a conductor (his grandson is Christoph von Dohnányi, former music director of the Cleveland Orchestra). Dohnányi truly was one of those figures whose careers span different eras. Born when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Liszt and Wagner were still alive, Dohnányi as a boy met Brahms, who encouraged his composition and helped guide his career. Concert tours throughout Europe and the United States established his reputation as a pianist, and later he became a conductor, leading the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra from 1919 until 1944. Following World War II, Dohnányi settled in the United States, where he taught for years at Florida State University. He died in the year John Kennedy was elected president.

Dohnányi’s music has always hovered right on the edge of genuine popularity. He has had passionate advocates among performers and critics, and at least one work–Variations on a Nursery Tune–has made it into the standard repertory. But the majority of his output–which includes three operas, two symphonies, four concertos, and a vast amount of piano and chamber music–remains little-known.

Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet in C Minor was published as his Opus 1, though he had written many works before it. The quintet’s first performance took place in Vienna in 1895. That première was in fact arranged by Brahms himself, then only two years from death, and it should come as no surprise that the Piano Quintet shows the strong influence of the older composer, particularly in its romantic richness and a harmonic language quite similar to Brahms’ own.

The quintet is dominated by the stirring opening theme of the first movement, heard immediately in the piano. This very Brahmsian melody–with its characteristic drop of a fourth–will recur in many forms throughout the quintet. Strings present the lyric second theme group, also of Brahmsian spaciousness; Dohnányi marks it dolce. A long development leads to the close on a triumphant restatement of the opening idea, now in C major.

The scherzo is in ABA form: its outer sections hurry along busily, while the trio is Schubert-like in its songfulness. The Adagio, quasi andante takes some of its somber character from the dark color of the lower strings, which often dominate textures here–the viola announces the long opening idea of this ternary-form movement. A more animated middle section in D-flat major soars into the violins’ high registers before the return of the opening material and the quiet close. The finale brings back the mood and manner of the opening movement: the main theme here is closely related to the quintet’s beginning. Much of the writing is for unison strings, and Dohnányi quickly alternates meters, with the music leaping between 5/4 and 6/4 almost by measure. A variation of the opening idea becomes the basis for a brief fugato, and the first movement’s opening theme comes back in all its glory to bring the quintet to a dramatic conclusion.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Brahms had every reason to feel flattered by this work. But Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet in C Minor is remarkable music in its own right and a stunning achievement by a young man still several years short of his twentieth birthday.

Piano Quintet in C Minor, Opus 1

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

Beethoven composed the Quartet in B-flat Major between July and December of 1825, and the music had its première in Vienna on March 21, 1826, almost exactly a year to the day before the composer’s death. This massive quartet, consisting of six movements that span a total of nearly 50 minutes, concluded with a complex and extremely difficult fugue that left the first audience stunned. Beethoven, by this time totally deaf, did not attend the première, but when told that the fourth and fifth movements had been so enthusiastically applauded that they had to be repeated, he erupted with anger at the audience: “Yes, these delicacies! Why not the Fugue? Cattle! Asses!”

But it was not just the audience at the première that found the concluding fugue difficult. With some trepidation, Beethoven’s publisher asked the crusty old composer to write a substitute finale and to publish the fugue separately. To everyone’s astonishment, Beethoven agreed to that request and wrote a new finale–a good-natured rondo–in the fall of 1826. Since that time, critics have debated which ending makes better sense artistically, and this is one of those debates that will probably continue forever. For generations, the Quartet in B-flat Major was performed with the substitute rondo as the finale, but recently that practice appears to have evolved, and quartets today are increasingly following Beethoven’s original intention and concluding the Quartet in B-flat Major with the Grosse Fuge. The present performance offers the quartet in its original form.

In either version, this music presents problems of unity, for its six movements are quite different from each other. The issue is intensified when the Grosse Fuge is used as the finale, for this movement is so individual, so fierce, that it does seem an independent statement. In its original form, the quartet consists of two huge outer movements that frame four shorter movements (two scherzos and two slow movements). The music encompasses a huge range of emotion, from the frankly playful to some of the most deeply-felt music Beethoven ever wrote. The unifying principle of this quartet may simply be its disunity, its amazing range of expression and mood.

The first movement, cast in the highly-modified sonata form Beethoven used in his final years, is built on two contrasting tempos: a reverent Adagio and a quick Allegro that flies along on a steady rush of sixteenth-notes. These tempos alternate, sometimes in sections only one measure long–there is some extraordinarily beautiful music here, full of soaring themes and unexpected shifts of key. By contrast, the Presto–flickering and shadowy–flits past in less than two minutes; in ABA form, it offers a long center section and a sudden close on the return of the opening material. The solemn opening of the Andante is a false direction, for it quickly gives way to a rather elegant movement in sonata form, full of poised, flowing, and calm music. Beethoven titled the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca, which means “Dance in the German Style.” In 3/8 meter, it is based on the rocking, haunting little tune that opens the movement.

The Cavatina has become one of the most famous movements in all Beethoven’s quartets. Everyone is struck by the intensity of its feeling, though few agree as to what it expresses–some feel it tragic, others view it as serene; Beethoven himself confessed that even thinking about this movement moved him to tears. Near the end comes an extraordinary passage that Beethoven marks Beklemmt (“Oppressive”): the music seems to stumble and then makes its way to the close over halting and uncertain rhythms.

This performance concludes with the Grosse Fuge Beethoven had intended as the original finale. Let it be said right from the start: the Grosse Fuge is a brilliant piece of music and a very tough one, and it should come as no surprise that it has excited quite different responses. Though he was no particular admirer of Beethoven, Stravinsky near the end of his long life came to know and respect the late quartets, and his admiration for the Grosse Fuge led him to call it an “absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” At the other extreme, the iconoclastic American critic B.H. Haggin was adamant that the Grosse Fuge should be considered “inaccessible–except for a quiet and lovely episode–by some music lovers who have listened to it repeatedly.”

The Grosse Fuge is in fact not one fugue, but three different fugal sections, each in a contrasting tempo–Beethoven described it as a “Grand Fugue, freely treated in some places, fugally elaborated in others.” The brief Overtura suggests the shape of the fugue subject in three different permutations (all of which will reappear and be treated differently) and then proceeds directly into the first fugue, an extremely abrasive Allegro in B-flat major that demands a great deal from both performers and audiences. Much of the complexity here is rhythmic: not only does the fugue subject leap across a span of several octaves, but its progress is often obscured by its overlapping triple, duple, and dotted rhythms. The lyric, flowing central section, a Meno mosso e moderato in G-flat major, is fugal in character rather than taking the form of a strict fugue. It gives way to the Allegro molto e con brio, which is derived from the second appearance of the fugue subject in the Overtura; here it bristles with trills and sudden pauses. Near the close, Beethoven recalls fragments of the different sections, then offers a full-throated restatement of the fugue theme before the rush to the cadence.

Individual listeners may draw their own conclusions about the use of the Grosse Fuge as a fitting close to this quartet, but there can be no doubt that the Quartet in B-flat Major–by turns beautiful, aggressive, charming, and violent–remains as astonishing a piece of music for us today as it was to that first audience in 1826.