PROGRAM NOTES: Viennese Masters
by Eric Bromberger
Serenade in D Major for Flute, Violin, and Viola, Opus 25
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Beethoven was very impressed by Mozart’s superb music for winds, and as a young man he often wrote for wind ensembles. As a teenager in Bonn he had composed music for the Elector’s woodwind octet (which sometimes serenaded that official at mealtime), and in Vienna he wrote works for various wind ensembles. One of these, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, compliments the older composer by borrowing both the form and key of one of his finest works.
Mozart had written a number of serenades, divertimentos, and cassations for wind ensembles. This music, usually light in character, was intended for use in outdoor settings, sometimes as background music for social occasions. Beethoven wrote very little “light” music, but his Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola, Opus 25 is such a work, and he appears to have borrowed the title and general character of this music from Mozart’s lighter wind music. Beethoven’s combination of flute, violin, and viola is an unlikely one, but it has the virtue that it can be undertaken by a trio of strolling musicians (assuming their music stands can stroll along with them) and so might be suitable for an outdoor occasion.
The Serenade, composed about 1801 (or just after the First Symphony) is a suite of six brief movements of appropriately uncomplected character. The Entrata opens with a mock-military fanfare from the flute, and Beethoven plays combinations of instruments off each other here. The second movement is a minuet with two trios–the first dominated by violin, the second by flute–while the energetic and brief Allegro molto is in ABA form with a brief coda. Longest by far of the Serenade’s movements is the fourth, Andante con variazioni. Here the doublestopped violin plays the theme with viola accompaniment, and there follow three busy variations and a coda. The Allegro scherzando e vivace is just that–joking and fast: the dotted galloping rhythm of the opening section leads to a smooth but somber center in D minor. The final movement opens with a slow introduction that quickly gives way to the Allegro vivace e disinvolto (“Very fast and free and easy”), full of rhythmic interest and vitality. Beethoven brings matters to sparkling close with a very quick sixteen-bar coda.
String Quartet in A Minor, D.804 “Rosamunde”
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
The year 1823 was devastating for Schubert. He had become ill the previous fall (every indication is that he had contracted syphilis), and by May he had to be hospitalized. Much weakened, and with his head shaved as part of the hospital treatment, he required the rest of the year simply to regain strength to function, and early in 1824 he turned to chamber music. His friend Franz von Schober described him in February: “Schubert now keeps a fortnight’s fast and confinement. He looks much better and is very bright, very comically hungry and writes quartets and German dances and variations without number.” But–despite Schober’s hopes–Schubert had not made a triumphant return to life and strength. Instead, he entered the new year with the bittersweet knowledge that although he may have survived that first round of illness, he would never be fully well again.
Schober was right, though, that his friend returned to composing with chamber music. Schubert first wrote the Octet, and then in February and March 1824 he composed two extraordinary quartets: the Quartet in A Minor heard on this program and the Quartet in D Minor, nicknamed Death and the Maiden. The Quartet in A Minor was first performed on March 14 by a quartet led by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of Beethoven’s close friends. It is nearly impossible to define the quality that makes this quartet–and much of Schubert’s late music–so moving. His lyricism has now been transformed by a new emotional maturity, and a quality of wistfulness, almost sadness, seems to touch even the music’s happiest moments. Schubert’s biographer Brian Newbould draws attention to the fact that this quartet takes some of its themes from Schubert’s own songs, and the texts of those songs furnish a clue to the quartet’s emotional content. This music is also full of harmonic surprises (keys change suddenly, almost like shifts of light) and is marked by a complex and assured development of themes. The Quartet in A Minor may lack the dramatic, hard-edged impact of Death and the Maiden, but many consider it Schubert’s finest quartet.
From its first instant, the Allegro ma non troppo shows the hand of a master. The accompaniment–a sinuous, winding second violin line over pulsing viola and cello–is static, and Newbould points out that this is precisely the form of the accompaniment of Schubert’s great song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), which begins with the words Meine Ruh’ ist hin: “My peace is gone, My Heart is sore, I shall find it never and nevermore.” Over this, the first violin’s long-lined main melody seems to float endlessly, beginning to develop and change harmonically even before it has been fully stated. The remarkable thing about this “lyric” theme is that it can be developed so effectively as an “instrumental” theme: its long flow of melody is finally interrupted by a fierce trill motto in the lower strings that will figure importantly in the development. A second theme, shared by the two violins, is similar in character to the opening idea, and this movement–which arcs over a very long span–finally concludes with the trill motto.
Listeners will recognize the theme of the Andante as a Schubert favorite, though this one is not from a song: he had already used this poised melody in his incidental music to Rosamunde and would later use it in one of the piano Impromptus. This song-like main idea remains simple throughout (it develops by repetition), but the accompaniment grows more and more complex, and soon there are swirling voices and off-the-beat accents beneath the gentle melody.
The Menuetto opens with a three-note figure from the cello’s deep register, and that dark, expectant sound gives this movement its distinct character. Newbould notes that Schubert took the theme of the trio section from his 1819 song “Die Götter Griechenlands,” where it sets Schiller’s nostalgic lament Schöne Welt, wo bist du?: “Beautiful world, where are you?” The minuet returns, and this movement dances solemnly to its close.
The A-major tonality of the finale may come as a surprise, given the gravity of the first three movements, but it does make an effective conclusion. This Allegro moderato is a rondo in which all three themes have a dancing character, though at moments one feels the wistfulness of the earlier movements creeping into the music’s otherwise carefree progress. Full of energy, this movement is also marked by Schubert’s careful attention to detail: in the parts, he notes with unusual care the phrasing, accents, and dynamic shadings and contrasts that give this music its rich variety.
Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major, Opus 18
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
We so automatically identify Brahms with Vienna that it is easy to forget that he did not move there until he was nearly 30. By that time he had already written a great deal of music, and some of the best of these early works were composed while he was a court musician in Detmold. About 100 miles southwest of Hamburg, Detmold was a cultured court, much devoted to music, and for three seasons (1857-59) Brahms served as a court musician there. These years were quite productive for him musically. With a chorus, orchestra, and good solo performers at his disposal, Brahms could have his music performed immediately and could test his ideas. From these years came his two serenades for orchestra, the first two piano quartets, several choral works, and the completion of his First Piano Concerto.
It was during his final year at Detmold that Brahms began his Sextet in B-flat Major, completing it in 1860. Brahms is sometimes credited with “inventing” the string sextet (two violins, two violas, two cellos), but that is not true–Boccherini and others had written for this combination of instruments earlier. But Brahms’ two examples are the first great works in the form, and they remain–with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht–the core of the slim repertory for this ensemble. Many have noted that Brahms’ Sextet in B-flat Major shares some of the same sunny spirits as his Serenade No. 1 in D Major, premièred in Detmold in the same year he completed the sextet. It is worth noting that Brahms–reluctant to write for orchestra–had originally scored that serenade for winds and a string quartet. Perhaps writing for so generously-proportioned a chamber ensemble encouraged Brahms now to write for an unusually large string ensemble. Perhaps he did not feel ready to take on the formidable challenge of the string quartet. In any case, Brahms added two more instruments to the string quartet and then took full advantage of the larger sonority and wider opportunities they made available.
Perhaps because it is an early work, critics have been quick to detect influences on the Sextet in B-flat Major. Brahms’ admirable biographer Karl Geiringer hears the influence of Schubert in the first movement, of Beethoven in the scherzo, and of Haydn in the finale. But the Sextet already shows Brahms’ unmistakable voice, particularly in its rich sonorities and in the way a wealth of musical ideas grows out of each theme. And in contrast to the clenched intensity of some of Brahms’ later chamber music, the Sextet is (generally) full of sunlight.
From the first instant of this music Brahms fully exploits the richness of the lower sonorities a sextet makes available–there are important thematic roles here for first viola and first cello–as well as playing off combinations of instruments impossible in a string quartet. The gentle, rocking main subject of the Allegro ma non troppo, heard immediately in the first cello, is only the first in a number of thematic ideas in this sonata-form movement, but its relaxed and flowing ease sets a tone that will run throughout the Sextet–this is music that proceeds along a mellow songfulness rather than through the collision of unrelated ideas. Brahms’ performance markings tell the tale here: the first theme is marked espressivo, the second subject–for upper strings–is marked dolce and pianissimo, while the third–a winding idea for cello–is marked poco forte espressivo animato. The development treats the first two thematically, but the third is developed rhythmically: Brahms derives a series of rhythmic patterns from this theme that help bind the movement together, and the theme reappears in its melodic shape only in the recapitulation. The lengthy movement closes with a nice touch: the brief coda, played pizzicato, moves gracefully to the two concluding chords.
The second movement, in somber D minor, is a theme and six variations. The first viola immediately lays out the firmly-drawn theme, and the first three variations seem barely able to suppress a sort of volcanic fury that seethes beneath the surface of this music. Even in chamber music Brahms favored a heavy sonority, and at several points in these variations all six instruments are triple-stopped, creating huge chords played simultaneously on eighteen strings. A ray of sunlight falls across the music at the fourth variation, which moves to D major, while the sonorous fifth–also in D major–is almost entirely the province of the first viola, accompanied by the violins’ wispy octaves. The dark sixth variation serves as the coda. Here the cello, playing with an almost choked sonority, returns to the D-minor darkness of the opening and leads the movement to its quiet close.
After these two massive movements, the pleasing Scherzo zips past in barely three minutes. The scherzo section itself is playful but feels a little subdued in comparison to the slashing, full-throated trio, which suddenly races ahead (Brahms’ marking is Animato). This rises to a sonorous climax before the return of the opening scherzo; Brahms closes with a mighty coda derived from the trio. The concluding Poco Allegretto e grazioso is a rondo based on the first cello’s amiable opening theme. Significant interludes intrude on the progress of the movement, which makes use of the same kind of rhythmic underpinning that bound the first movement together so imaginatively. The rondo theme itself undergoes variation as this movement proceeds, and Brahms rounds matters off with a coda so powerful that it feels virtually symphonic.