PROGRAM NOTES: MUSIC TRANSFIGURED
by Eric Bromberger
Sonata for Piano and Violin in G Major, K.379
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Mozart was called to Vienna in March 1781 along with the rest of Archbishop Colloredo’s party to attend the festivities surrounding the accession of Emperor Joseph II. Relations between the composer and the Archbishop had been strained for some time, and after several stormy scenes in Vienna Mozart was finally given his release “with a kick on my arse . . . by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop” Before his release, however, Mozart had been required to compose music for a party the archbishop gave in Vienna on April 8. In a letter to his father that day, he described the Sonata in G Major as “a sonata with violin accompaniment for myself, which I composed last night between eleven and twelve (but in order to be able to finish it, I only wrote out the [violin part] and retained my own part in my head).” The way the rest of us stay up an extra hour to pay the bills, Mozart stayed up and dashed off this masterful music.
The Sonata in G Major has an unusual form: it is in only two movements, but the Allegro is preceded by a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a distinct movement of its own. Given the fact that Mozart wrote the keyboard part for himself, it comes as no surprise that that instrument plays so important a role, even if Mozart played the entire part from memory at the Archbishop’s party. The introduction itself is full of florid writing–rolled chords, turns, grace notes–but the mood changes sharply at the Allegro, which moves into G minor. The keyboard again takes the lead, but this time the theme, motto-like in its shortness, is full of snap, of Beethovenian drive. The second subject of this sonata-form movement is canonic, with fragments tossed between the two instruments. Following a dramatic development, the movement draws to a close on its opening theme.
After the fury of the Allegro, the final movement returns to the serene G major of the introduction. This a themeand- variation movement, with a graceful opening melody marked Andantino cantabile followed five variations. At the close of the fifth variation Mozart repeats the theme verbatim and closes with a brief coda. Each variation is in two parts, with the second section generally the more dramatic. Throughout this movement–by turns gentle and brilliant–the keyboard retains its prominence, as if Mozart were keeping himself firmly at center stage, protesting the Archbishop’s strictures on him even as he served them.
Verklärte Nacht, Opus 4
Born September 13, 1874, Vienna
Died July 13, 1951, Los Angeles
Verklärte Nacht was one of Schoenberg’s first successes, and it remains his most popular work. He wrote this thirty-minute piece for string sextet (string quartet plus extra viola and cello) in the final months of 1899, when he was 25, but could not get it performed. When he submitted it for performance to the Tonkünstlerverein (Vienna’s chamber music society), the judges rejected it because the score contained a chord they could not find in their harmony textbooks. Referring to its unusual tonalities, one of the judges made a now-famous crack, saying that Verklärte Nacht sounded “as if someone had taken the score of Tristan when the ink was still wet and smudged it over.”
Verklärte Nacht was finally performed in 1903 in Vienna by the Rosé Quartet. The leader of that quartet, Arnold Rosé, was Mahler’s brother-in-law, and Mahler met Schoenberg at rehearsals for Verklärte Nacht and became his champion, though he confessed that some of Schoenberg’s music was beyond him. The first performance brought howls from conservatives, but this music made its way quickly into the repertory. In 1917, Schoenberg arranged Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra, and he revised this version in 1943; at this concert, the music is heard in its original form.
Verklärte Nacht–the title translates Transfigured Night–is based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), a German lyric poet. The subject of Dehmel’s poem may have been as difficult for early Viennese audiences as Schoenberg’s music. It can be summarized briefly: a man and a woman walk together through dark woods, with only the moon shining down through the black branches above their heads. The woman confesses that she is pregnant, but by another man–her search for happiness led her to seek fulfillment in physical pleasure. Now she finds that nature has taken vengeance on her. The man speaks, and–instead of denouncing her–accepts her and the child as his own: their love for each other will surround and protect them. The man and woman embrace, then continue their walk through the dark woods. But the night has now been transfigured, or transformed, by their love. The first line of Dehmel’s poem–“Two people walk through bleak, cold woods”–is transformed in the last line: “Two people walk through exalted, shining night.”
Musically, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht can be understood as a tone poem depicting the events of Dehmel’s poem, and it falls into five sections: Introduction, Woman’s Confession, Man’s Forgiveness, Love Duet, and Apotheosis. Verklärte Nacht may look forward to the music of the twentieth century, but its roots are firmly in the nineteenth: the influences are Brahms (in the lush, dramatic sound), Wagner (in the evolving harmonies), and Richard Strauss (whose tone poems served as models). The music is dark and dramatic, and Schoenberg drives it to several intense climaxes. Particularly interesting are the harmonies: this music begins in dark D minor and evolves through troubled and uncertain tonalities to the bright D major of the Man’s Forgiveness and the concluding walk through the transfigured night.
String Quintet in C Major, D.956
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, universally acknowledged as one of the finest creations in all chamber music, dates from the miraculous final year of that composer’s brief life, 1828. That year saw the revision of the “Great” Symphony in C Major and the composition of the three final piano sonatas, the songs of the Schwanengesang collection, this quintet, and the song “Der Hirt auf Dem Felsen,” completed in the weeks just prior to Schubert’s death on November 19. The date of the Quintet is difficult to pin down, but it was probably composed at the end of the summer–on October 2 Schubert wrote to one of his publishers that he had “finally turned out a Quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 violoncellos.”
Many have been quick to hear premonitions of death in this quintet, as if this music–Schubert’s last instrumental work–must represent a summing-up of his life. But it is dangerous to read intimations of mortality into music written shortly before any composer’s death, and there is little basis for such a conclusion here–although he was ill during the summer, Schubert did not know that he was fatally ill. Rather than being death-haunted, the Quintet in C Major is music of great richness, music that suffuses a golden glow. Some of this is due to its unusual sonority: the additional cello brings weight to the instrumental texture and allows one cello to become a full partner in the thematic material, a freedom Schubert fully exploits. Of unusual length (over 50 minutes long), the Quintet also shows great harmonic freedom–some have commented that this music seems to change keys every two bars.
The opening Allegro ma non troppo is built on three theme groups: the quiet violin theme heard at the very beginning, an extended duet for the two cellos, and a little march figure for all five instruments. The cello duet is unbelievably beautiful, so beautiful that many musicians (certainly many cellists!) have said that they would like nothing on their tombstone except the music for this passage. But it is the march tune that dominates the development section; the recapitulation is a fairly literal repeat of the opening section, and the movement closes with a brief coda.
Longest of the four movements, the Adagio is in ABA form. The opening is remarkable. The three middle voices–second violin, viola, and first cello–sing a gentle melody that stretches easily over 28 bars; the second cello accompanies them with pizzicato notes, while high above the first violin decorates the melody with quiet interjections of its own. The middle section, in F minor, feels agitated and dark; a trill leads back to the opening material, but now the two outer voices accompany the melody with runs and swirls that have suddenly grown complex.
The third movement is a scherzo-and-trio, marked Presto. The bounding scherzo, with its hunting horn calls, is fairly straightforward, but the trio is quite unusual, in some surprising ways the emotional center of the entire Quintet. One normally expects a trio section to be gentle in mood, sometimes even a thematic extension of the scherzo. But this trio, marked Andante sostenuto and in the unexpected key of D-flat major, is spare, grave, haunting. Schubert sets it in 4/4 instead of the expected 3/4, and its lean lines and harmonic surprises give it a grieving quality quite different from the scherzo. The lament concludes, and the music plunges back into sunlight as the scherzo resumes.
Many have heard Hungarian folk music in the opening of the Allegretto, with its evocation of wild gypsy fiddling. The second theme is one of those graceful little tunes that only Schubert could write; both themes figure throughout the movement, until finally another cello duet leads to a fiery coda ingeniously employing both main themes.
The Quintet in C Major is one of the glories of the chamber music repertory and one of Schubert’s finest works. Yet he never heard a note of it. It lay in manuscript for years and was not performed until 1850, twenty-two years after his death.