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PROGRAM NOTES: Viennese Giants

by Eric Bromberger

Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478

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

Did Mozart invent the piano quartet? He is generally credited with creating the form, but in fact he did not. Other composers–including the fourteen-year-old Beethoven–had previously written quartets for piano and strings, but it was Mozart who first grappled with the central problem of this difficult form–the opposition of such different resources as piano and string trio–and not only solved it but wrote great music in the process. In his piano trios, Mozart sometimes wrote what are essentially piano sonatas with string accompaniment (the piano has the musical interest, while the strings play distinctly subordinate roles), but in the piano quartets he went straight to the difficulties–and the possibilities–of the new form and resolved them by liberating the string voices and making them genuine partners in the musical enterprise. Mozart completed the Piano Quartet in G Minor in Vienna on October 16, 1785, during a particularly rich period for the composer: he was just beginning work on The Marriage of Figaro, and the same year saw the completion of three magnificent piano concertos: Nos. 20-22.

Hearing the beginning of this piano quartet without knowing its composer, one might guess not Mozart, but Beethoven. Mozart seems to have reserved the key of G minor for his most intense music (the Symphonies No. 25 and 40 and the Viola Quintet, K.516, for example), and at the first instant of the Allegro all four instruments spit out the brusque opening theme, a six-note phrase very much like the powerful mottos Beethoven would later use as thematic material. A lyrical second subject is introduced by the piano, and the extended development treats both themes fully. The fierce, Beethoven-like motto recurs throughout, with the concluding cadence growing directly out of it.

Piano alone sings the poised beginning of the Andante, with strings entering after the statement of the first theme group. Now the melody moves easily between instrumental groups, as piano and strings trade phrases and share the development. The concluding Allegro moderato, which moves to G major rather than back to the opening key of G Minor, is a rondo. Once again the piano launches the movement and is quickly joined by the strings. The genial atmosphere of the finale, however, is broken by a lengthy interlude that returns to the stormy manner of the opening movement. At the close, the sunny spirits of the rondo’s opening prevail, and the quartet concludes exuberantly.

String Quartet No. 4, Opus 25

Born October 14, 1871, Vienna
Died March 15, 1942, Larchmont, NY

Alexander Zemlinsky’s career spanned several musical worlds: born and trained in the Vienna of Brahms (who as an old man admired his works), he died– almost forgotten–in a suburb of New York City during World War II. Early in his life, Zemlinsky became close friends with Schoenberg (who married his sister) and with him formed a new-music society in Vienna; Mahler conducted the première of his opera Es war einmal at the Staatsoper. Zemlinsky made his own career largely as a conductor, first in Prague (where he led the première of Schoenberg’s Erwartung) and later at the Kroll Opera in Berlin, where he was an assistant to Otto Klemperer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Zemlinsky fled first to Vienna and then to the US in 1938.

Like many composers at the turn of the century, Zemlinsky found himself trapped between the heritage of Viennese classicism and the new directions Schoenberg and his followers were taking in the first decades of this century. Zemlinsky struggled with this conflict: he could be attracted by the new ideas in music, but his own music remained firmly anchored in tonality. His output is small (only 27 opus numbers), and of these, four are string quartets.

Zemlinsky’s final quartet was written in response to a devastating event: Alban Berg, aged only 50, died on Christmas Day 1935 from overwhelming sepsis, the result of a bee sting. Zemlinsky began to plan a memorial work, and in the fall of 1936 he composed a work for string quartet. But what he wrote is not a quartet in the traditional sense. Rather, the Fourth String Quartet is a suite-like work in six movements, and these are subdivided into three pairs of two movements each; all three of these pairs are in a slowfast sequence. The late 1930s was a turbulent moment in Austrian history, and Zemlinsky could not find a publisher for his new quartet, nor he could find a string quartet interested in playing it. He never heard a note of his Fourth Quartet: he fled to America at the Anschluss in 1938 and died four years later. The Fourth Quartet was not premièred until April 21, 1967, more than thirty years after it was composed.

Its structure may be described briefly. The opening of the Präludium is dark and somber, but gradually the music unfolds and the mood is somewhat lightened by playful violin lines. In sharp contrast, the Burleske is full of energy–spiky pizzicatos and strong unisons drive the music forward; the central episode is lyric and grieving, and the movement closes with an emphatic pizzicato chord. The second pair opens with an Adagietto somewhat in the manner of the opening Präludium, and this gives way to a dancing Intermezzo. This music flows gracefully at first, but soon blazes out, driven along powerful triplet rhythms. The final pair begins with an unusual variation movement, opening with a long cello solo in the manner of a gently-rocking barcarole, and then Zemlinsky creates a series of variations on this melody over shimmering, murmuring accompaniment. The Finale is a double fugue: its first subject is spiky and hard-edged, the second more sinuous. This movement is quite brief–Zemlinsky works these fugues out concisely–and the Fourth Quartet drives to a sonorous, full-throated conclusion.

Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Opus 9

Born December 3, 1883, Vienna
Died September 15, 1945, Mittersill

Listeners should always be wary of works entitled Bagatelles. In French, that title means “trifles,” and a bagatelle is a short piece of seemingly-insignificant music (Beethoven’s Für Elise is one of the most famous examples). But that title need not always refer to simple or insignificant music, as Webern’s extremely concentrated Six Bagatelles make clear. This music dates from 1913, when the thirty year-old Webern had completed his studies with Schoenberg and was attempting to make a career as a conductor. As a composer, Webern had at this point moved beyond tonality, though he had not yet moved to the twelve-tone techniques of his famous teacher.

His Six Bagatelles might best be described as instrumental miniatures of extraordinary compression: the longest is 13 measures long, the shortest only 8. Webern himself said of this music’s unusual focus: “While working on them I had the feeling that once the 12 notes had run out, the piece was finished . . . It sounds grotesque, incomprehensible, and it was immensely difficult.” Yet listeners should not expect abrasive or unpleasant music–these brief pieces all breathe the air of turn-of-the-century romanticism: Webern’s only expressive marking is sehr zart (“Very tender”), and this appears in four of the six pieces. These are evocative pieces, usually very quiet and sometimes eerie in their effects. Webern’s score is littered with performance instructions, specifying where on the bow and string he wants passages played and exactly how he wants them to sound; he uses the full palette of string sound in this work, which lasts a total of barely four minutes: harmonics, pizzicatos, spiccatos, as well as contrasted muted and unmuted lines.

When the Six Bagatelles were published in 1924, Schoenberg offered a typically cryptic introduction to the printed score that does get at the essence of this music: “Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. You can stretch every glance out to a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath–such concentration can only be present in proportion to the absence of self-pity.

“These pieces will only be understood by those who share the faith that music can say things which can only be expressed by music.”

Quintet for Piano and Strings in E Major, Opus 15

Born May 29, 1897, Brno
Died November 29, 1957, Hollywood

Few child composers have been as precocious as Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His cantata Gold, composed when he was ten, amazed Mahler, who pronounced the boy a “genius.” Those impressed by his talents included Richard Strauss and Puccini, who said: “That boy’s talent is so great, he could easily give us half and still have enough left for himself!” Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt had simultaneous premières in Hamburg and Cologne on December 4, 1920, when the composer was all of 23, and in the 1920s Korngold was one of the most admired composers in Europe.

And then his career took an unexpected turn. Invited to Hollywood to help score a film, Korngold found his romantic idiom ideally suited to film music, and when Hitler came to power Korngold moved his family to Hollywood, where he achieved his greatest success with swashbuckling music for Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. As soon as the war was over, Korngold put films behind him to return to “serious” music but could never escape his Hollywood reputation, particularly since he used themes from many of his film scores in his classical works; the most successful of these is the 1945 Violin Concerto, championed by Heifetz.

Korngold wrote his Piano Quintet in 1920-21, shortly after completing Die tote Stadt, and dedicated it to the Austrian sculptor Gustinus Ambrosi (1893-1975); the work was premièred in Hamburg in February 1923 with the composer at the piano. This was a period of tremendous ferment in Europe, both politically and musically and Korngold’s music reflects it at one moment it can sing with a creamy Viennese voluptuousness, and the next it can almost tear at itself with a sort of expressionistic intensity.

Something of the music’s force can be sensed from Korngold’s extremely long and detailed performance marking for each movement. He marks the first movement Mässiges Zeitmass, mit schwungvoll blühenden Ausdruck (“Moderate tempo, with energetically blossoming expression”). The music opens with a soaring unison passage for strings of a distinctly Viennese complexion, and this full-throated expression will characterize much of the work. Much of the writing, full of glissandos and trills, verges on the violent, and as the movement drives to a huge climax, it offers dark interludes along the way.

Korngold gives the Adagio second movement the marking Mit grösster Ruhe, stets auserst gebundend und ausdruckvoll (“With the greatest calm, always extremely legato and expressive”). This movement is a set of variations on Korngold’s song “Mond so gehst du wieder”. Some have detected secretly-coded messages of love from Korngold to his fiancée in this movement, but one need not know this to enjoy the music. Korngold offers nine variations on his fundamental theme, which concludes on a massive and very quiet chord that has all the strings playing harmonics and extends across much of the range of the keyboard.

The finale, a rondo, opens with a powerful introduction marked Gemessen, beinahe pathetisch (“Measured, almost pathetic”), before the music leaps ahead at the Allegro giocoso. Korngold concludes with a fast coda that includes a fleeting recall of the opening theme of the first movement.