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PROGRAM NOTES: Three Great Quintets

by Eric Bromberger

Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 49

Born July 27, 1867, Lérida, Spain
Died March 24, 1916, English Channel

Like his countrymen Albéniz, Falla, and Turina, Enrique Granados set out to create a specifically Spanish classical music, and when we think of Granados, we think first of such evocative works as Goyescas, the Danzas españolas, and his zarzuelas. But Granados also felt the pull of traditional German forms, and early in his career he composed a number of chamber works in those forms: the present Piano Quintet, a Piano Trio, a sonata for violin and piano, and some pieces for cello and piano. And then, even before his thirtieth birthday, Granados set those forms aside–he recognized that his art would take him in an entirely different direction, one that grew out of his Spanish identity and heritage.

Granados had his early training in Barcelona. At age twenty he went off to Paris for two years of study and returned to Spain in 1889, intent on making his career as a pianist and composer. But success did not come quickly, and the young composer–who soon had a wife and children to support–struggled for any kind of recognition. In 1894, at age 27, he composed his two large-scale chamber works, the Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio, and they were premièred on the same program in Madrid on February 15, 1895. The evening went brilliantly, and the excited young composer wrote to his wife back in Barcelona: “Last night I had the greatest success of my life. It was a night of true glory . . . It was the first time that a chamber work by a living Spanish composer was performed in the Salón Romero.” The Quintet was published in Madrid in 1898.

The three-movement Quintet is relatively brief (barely fifteen minutes long), and it features an extroverted part for the piano–doubtless Granados conceived this part for himself (he was superb pianist). The Allegro gets off to a vigorous beginning with a unison marcato statement, and more lyric secondary material arrives quickly. As part of the development Granados treats his opening idea to some fugal extension, and a return of that theme drives the movement to its abrupt concluding chords.

The mood changes completely in the central Allegretto quasi Andantino. Strings are muted here, and the violin’s quiet opening melody breathes a faintly Moorish atmosphere. The warm central episode in A major flows smoothly, and Granados closes out the movement by recalling both his principal themes.

The finale opens with a Largo introduction, but this lasts for about two seconds, and off this movement goes, whipping along its snapped rhythms. This breathless mood is broken by several episodes that have an exotic atmosphere all their own–they have been described as gypsy melodies. At the end, Granados brings back themes from the first movement, and these propel the Quintet to its close on two ringing G-minor chords.

String Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 97

Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague

Dvořák’s three years in America–from 1892 to 1895, as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City–form a distinct chapter in his career. From these years came several of his finest scores, including the New World Symphony, the American Quartet, and the Cello Concerto. Enthusiastic Americans claimed that Dvořák had made use of American materials and that these were examples of “American music.” But Dvořák would have none of that, denouncing “that nonsense about my having made use of original American melodies. I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.” Dvořák felt that all his music was “genuine Bohemian music,” but the American Quartet incorporates a birdcall Dvořák heard in America, the New World Symphony evokes spirituals, and the question of specifically American influences on this most Bohemian of composers remains tantalizing.

Dvořák was fascinated by America. A train buff, he would sneak away from the Conservatory to watch locomotives pounding along the city’s many rail lines. But after his first year in busy Manhattan, he took his family to Spillville, Iowa–a Czech community–for the summer of 1893. There, surrounded by familiar food, language, and customs, the Dvořák family could escape big-city life and relax. If Dvořák had been amazed by New York City, he found different kinds of surprises on the American prairie. Bands of Iroquois Indians came to Spillville, selling medicinal herbs, and in the evening they gave programs of their dances and music. Those impromptu performances in the cool Iowa twilight had an immediate impact on the composer: the beat of Iroquois drums echoes through this quintet, composed that same summer.

The opening of the Allegro non tanto is dominated by the husky sound of the violas–in fact, the prominence of the violas gives this music its characteristically dark sonority. The main theme is delayed slightly, and when it first appears–in the first violin–it grows out of the violas’ introduction; many have felt that the movement’s dancing second theme echoes the sound of Indian drums. This movement, in sonata form, moves to a quiet close on a cadence derived from the main theme.

The drums of the Iroquois, however, pound relentlessly through the Allegro vivo. Dvořák uses one of the rhythms he heard in Iowa as the driving force in this movement: it appears immediately in the second viola and can be heard in various forms throughout the movement. The trio section, soaring and lovely, brings an interlude of calm before the opening material returns.

The Larghetto leaves the sound of Indian drums far behind. It is in theme-and-variation form, and in fact Dvořák had written the movement’s main theme before he left for America. The first viola announces this wistful little tune, and five variations follow. Even before the first variation begins, however, Dvořák takes the tune through a modification that makes the music sound as if it has come directly from a late Beethoven quartet. After the energy of Indian drums, such heartfelt and intense music comes as a surprise.

The concluding Allegro giusto is an energetic rondo that depends heavily (maybe a little too heavily) on dotted rhythms. Dvořák interrupts the busy flow with two different theme groups, both lyric and haunting. The music rushes to its close on one of the most exuberant codas Dvořák ever wrote.

Dvořák was quite correct: he was Bohemian to the core, and so was his music. But this Quintet–and the other scores he composed in America–represent a very special kind of music. It is Bohemian music, but Bohemian music flavored sharply by the sounds Dvořák heard in America.

Piano Quintet in F Minor

Born December 10, 1822, Liège, Belgium
Died November 8, 1890, Paris

Few works in the chamber music literature have produced so violent a reaction at their premières as the Piano Quintet of César Franck. Franck, then 57 and a professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory, had written no chamber music for over 25 years when the Piano Quintet burst to life before an unsuspecting audience in Paris on January 17, 1880. Few in that audience expected music so explosive from a man known as the gentle composer of church music. Franck’s students were wildly enthusiastic, and a later performance is reported to have left the audience stunned into silence, some of them weeping openly. But the acclaim was not universal. Franck had intended to dedicate this music to Camille Saint-Saëns, the pianist at the première, but when he approached Saint-Saëns after the performance to offer him the personally-inscribed manuscript, Saint-Saëns is reported to have made a face, thrown the manuscript on the piano, and walked away. Franck’s own wife hated the Quintet, feeling it too emotional, and refused to attend performances. Even Liszt, one of Franck’s greatest admirers, wondered whether the Quintet was truly chamber music and suggested that it might be better heard in a version for orchestra.

Despite such opposition, Franck’s Quintet has come to be regarded as one of the great piano quintets, along with those of Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, and Shostakovich. Everyone instantly recognizes its power–this is big music, full of bold gestures, color, and sweep. Franck’s first instruction, dramatico, sets the tone for the entire work, and Liszt was quite right to wonder whether this is truly chamber music: Franck asks for massed unison passages, fortississimo dynamic levels, tremolos, and a volume of sound previously unknown in chamber music. Beyond the purely emotional and sonic impact, however, this music is notable for its concentration: the Piano Quintet is one of the finest examples of Franck’s cyclic treatment of themes, an idea he had taken from Liszt–virtually the entire quintet grows out of theme-shapes presented in the first movement.

The opening of the first movement is impressive, as Franck alternates intense passages for strings with quiet, lyrical interludes for piano. Gradually these voices merge and rush ahead at the violent Allegro, which listeners will recognize as a variant of the violin’s figure at the very beginning. This and other theme-shapes will be stretched, varied, and made to yield a variety of moods. At the end of the movement, the music dies away on Franck’s marking estinto: “extinct.”

The slow movement begins with steady piano chords, and over these the first violin plays what seem at first melodic fragments. But these too have evolved from the opening of the first movement, and soon they combine to form the movement’s main theme. Again the music rises to a massive climax, then subsides to end quietly. Out of that quiet, the concluding movement springs to life. Franck specifies con fuoco–with fire–and the very beginning feels unsettled and nervous, with the violins pulsing ahead. The main theme, when it finally arrives, has grown out of material presented in the second movement; now Franck gives it to the four strings, and their repetitions grow in power until the theme is hammered out violently. An extremely dramatic coda drives to the brutally abrupt cadence.

Hearing this music in live performance, one can understand the enthusiasm of Franck’s supporters. But one can also understand the dismay of those in that first audience who felt that chamber music should remain an intimate and restrained form. There are few works in the chamber literature as dramatic and seething as the Piano Quintet of the (externally) very mild-mannered César Franck.