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PROGRAM NOTES: Great Quintets

by Eric Bromberger

Three Rags for String Quartet

Born May 26, 1938, Seattle

William Bolcom has had an eminently successful career as a “serious” composer. He has composed nine symphonies, four operas, and numerous instrumental and vocal works. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1988 for his Twelve New Etudes for Piano. In 2006 his Songs of Innocence and Experience earned three Grammy Awards. Musical America named him “Composer of the Year” in 2007. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1973 until 2008 and served as chairman of the composition faculty for part of that time. Yet Bolcom has always been interested in popular music (if we can make a distinction between “serious” and “popular” music), and his discovery of the music of Scott Joplin in the early 1970s led to a passion for ragtime music.

Ragtime grew out of African-American music at the end of the nineteenth century, when pianists developed a style of music based on a sharply-syncopated melody in the right hand over steady accompaniment in the left. The syncopated (hence, “ragged”) right-hand rhythm earned this style the name “ragtime,” and in the hands of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and others ragtime became a popular feature of American musical life (Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag of 1899 sold a million copies). Charmed by this music, Bolcom recorded a number of Joplin’s rags and began writing ragtime music of his own. His rags, which now number well over twenty, have been collected and recorded, and Bolcom has referred to them as “my mazurkas.” Bolcom composed his Three Rags for String Quartet in 1989, though the first two movements–Poltergeist and Graceful Ghost–had originally been written for piano and were published in 1970 as part of his Three Ghost Rags. The Lark String Quartet gave the official première of the Three Rags for String Quartet at the Grand Canyon in 1994.

Music as attractive as these three pieces requires little introduction. Poltergeist powers its way along an obsessive, perpetual-motion-like energy, while the beautiful Graceful Ghost, written in memory of the composer’s father, has become one of Bolcom’s most popular pieces. Bolcom marks the opening both cantabile and smoothly, and this evocative music sings a wistful song that is enlivened by its sunnier central episode. Incineratorag, composed specifically for string quartet, is in ternary form. Its opening section is full of energy, while the middle episode, introduced by the viola, slows down a bit before the vigorous return of the opening material.

String Quintet in E-flat Major, K.614

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

In the manuscript of the Quintet in E-flat Major Mozart noted the location and date of its completion–Vienna, April 12, 1791–placing this quintet at the beginning of the final creative burst of his brief life. Over the next eight months he would write two operas–Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito–and the Clarinet Concerto, and he would begin the Requiem, left unfinished at his death on December 5. Though he did not know it as he set aside the manuscript on that spring day, this quintet would be his final chamber work.

This is an unusual composition, in many ways representative of the increasingly rarefied musical language of Mozart’s final years. Unlike his earlier viola quintets, the Quintet in E-flat Major does not play groups of different instruments off against each other, nor does it exploit the characteristic “middle” sonority of the viola quintet. Rather, this music is remarkable for the brilliance of the first violin part in its outer movements, where that instrument sails above the other four with a concerto-like virtuosity. And, as we shall see, it incorporates some unusual formal features.

The Allegro di molto opens with a passage for the two violas that sounds exactly like a pair of hunting horns. That effect was clearly intentional, and that fanfare returns throughout the movement, giving the music a somewhat festive air and thrusting it forward on the energy of its trills. These “horn-calls” dominate the opening measures, but quickly the first violin breaks free with a series of runs, difficult string-crossings, and writing high in the instrument’s register (at one point Mozart sends the first violin up to a high D, almost at the upper extreme of its fingerboard). At the end, the horn fanfare and its trills drive this movement to its energetic close.

The real glory of this quintet is the Andante. Its form is simple enough on the surface–a theme with variations–but what is unusual here is what Mozart does in the course of varying his opening melody. That melody, sung initially by the first violin, sounds like an aria, and in fact it has been compared to Belmonte’s aria “Wenn der Freude Thränen fliessen” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart does some astonishing things with this gentle little theme. The development is a series of repetitions, each becoming more complex and more chromatic until strange dissonances come stinging out of this music. The effect, over two centuries later, is still surprising, and it is a movement like this that helps us understand what a Viennese critic meant when he complained that Mozart’s music was “too highly spiced.” Spiced it may be, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful and expressive.

The minuet is more conventional, though the outer sections proceed on canonic phrases, while the trio is a ländler that dances comfortably along its easy swing. The final movement, a rondo marked Allegro, is built entirely on one theme, announced immediately by the first violin. Building an entire movement on one theme was nothing new–Haydn had written many such movements–but what makes this movement remarkable is the concentrated polyphonic writing. Mozart treats his amiable opening theme to some complex fugal development, and–pushed along by more brilliant writing for the first violin–his final piece of chamber music flies to its energetic close.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 44

ROBERT SCHUMANN br> Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1850, Endenich, Germany

Robert Schumann established himself as a composer with his pieces for piano and his songs, but in 1841, the year after his marriage to the young Clara Wieck, Schumann wrote for orchestra, and during the winter of 1842 he began to think about chamber music. Clara was gone on a month-long concert tour to Copenhagen in April of that year, and–left behind in Leipzig–the always-fragile Schumann suffered an anxiety attack in her absence (he took refuge, in his words, in “beer and champagne”). But he also used the spring of that year to study the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. After recognizing what those masters had achieved in their quartets, Schumann felt even more assaulted. His language from that summer betrays his anxiety–so threatened was Schumann that he almost could not say the word “string quartet.” Instead, he said only that he was having “quartetish thoughts” and referred to the music he was planning as “quartet-essays.” Finally he overcame his fears, and in June and July of 1842 Schumann quickly composed three string quartets. While there is much attractive music in those quartets, no one would claim that they are idiomatically written for the medium. Schumann did not play a stringed instrument, and those three quartets–however sound their musical logic–often sit uneasily under the hand. But at this point Schumann, still enthusiastic about chamber music, made a fertile decision: he combined the piano–his own instrument– with the string quartet. In the process he created the first great piano quintet–and his finest piece of chamber music.

After struggling to write the three quartets, Schumann found that the Piano Quintet came easily: he made the initial sketches at the end of September and had the score complete by October 12. The first performance, a private reading with Clara at the piano, took place in November. A second performance was scheduled in the Schumann home on December 8, but Clara was sick, and so Mendelssohn replaced her and sightread the piano part; the members of the Gewandhaus Quartet (whose first violinist Ferdinand David would three years later give the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto) were the other performers. That would have been an evening to sit in on, not just for the distinction of the performers but also to watch two composers at work. At the end of the read-through, Mendelssohn suggested several revisions, including replacing the second trio section of the scherzo, and Schumann followed his advice. Clara, however, was the pianist at the public première at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on January 8, 1843.

The Piano Quintet may be Schumann’s most successful chamber work, but this music sometimes stretches the notion of the equality of all players that is central to chamber music. Schumann’s quintet has a clear star: the piano is the dominant force in this music–there is hardly a measure when it is not playing–and Schumann uses it in different ways, sometimes setting it against the other four instruments, sometimes using all five in unison, rarely allowing the quartet to play by itself. The addition of his own instrument to the string quartet clearly opened possibilities for Schumann that he did not recognize in the quartet.

The first movement, aptly-named Allegro brillante, bursts to life as all five instruments in octaves shout out the opening idea, a theme whose angular outline will shape much of the movement. Piano alone has the singing second subject: Schumann marks this dolce as the piano presents it, then espressivo as viola and cello take it up in turn. This second theme may bring welcome calm, but it is the driving energy of the opening subject that propels the music–much of the development goes to this theme–and the movement builds to nearly symphonic proportions as it drives to its energetic close.

The second movement–In modo d’una Marcia–is much in the manner of a funeral march, though Schumann did not himself call it that. The stumbling tread of the march section–in C minor–is interrupted by two episodes: the first a wistful interlude for first violin, the second–Agitato–driven by pounding triplets in the piano. Schumann combines his various episodes in the final pages of this movement, which closes quietly in serene C major. The propulsive Scherzo molto vivace runs up and down the scale, and again Schumann provides two interludes: the first feels like an instrumental transcription of one of his songs, while the second powers its way along a steady rush of sixteenth-note perpetual motion.

The last movement is the most complex, for it returns not just to the manner of the opening movement but also to its thematic material and then treats that in new ways. This Allegro, ma non troppo begins in a “wrong” key (G minor) and only gradually makes its way to E-flat major, while its second theme, for first violin, arrives in E major. At the climax of this sonata-form structure, Schumann brings matters to a grand pause, then re-introduces the opening subject of the first movement and develops it fugally, ingeniously using the first theme of the finale as a countersubject. The Quintet comes to its triumphant close on this brilliant writing.

Clara Schumann, perhaps not the most unbiased judge of her husband’s work, was nevertheless exactly right in her estimation of this music. In her diary she described it as “Magnificent–a work filled with energy and freshness.” As a measure of his wife’s affection for the Piano Quintet, Schumann dedicated it to her