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PROGRAM NOTES: Virtuoso Winds

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 50, No. 1

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

During the 1780s, Haydn took a break from writing string quartets–between 1781 and 1787, he wrote only one. This was otherwise a fertile period for the composer (it saw the completion of fifteen symphonies, including the entire set of “Paris” Symphonies), but he was content to let the quartet form rest for awhile. When Haydn returned to it in the summer of 1787 with the six quartets that make up his Opus 50, he was writing with unusual concentration. He had become interested in these years in building his opening sonata-form movements not on the two separate theme-groups of classical form but instead on one principal theme. He would spin secondary material out of some subordinate feature of the theme–a tiny motif or a rhythmic pattern–and the entire sonata-form structure would grow out of that one seminal theme. It makes for a very concentrated–and imaginative–kind of music-making.

The six string quartets of Opus 50 are sometimes known as the “Prussian” Quartets because Haydn dedicated the set to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cello-playing monarch in Berlin (this is the same king for whom Mozart is supposed to have written his “King of Prussia” Quartets). This first quartet of Haydn’s set, in B-flat major, is quite attractive music. The opening of the Allegro can seem deceptively simple: over the cello’s steady pulse of quarters (a pulse that will recur throughout much of the movement), the first violin lays out a simple rising-and-falling shape that Haydn’s stresses should be dolce. It hardly seems noteworthy, but this is the seminal shape of the movement, and instantly Haydn transforms it into a shower of triplets, and when the “second” subject arrives, it too is a variation of this shape, even though it has been transformed into something much more lyric. After an active development– much of it in energetic triplets–the movement closes quietly. The slow movement is in variation form, based on the first violin’s long opening melody. As the variations unfold, the music becomes more ornate, but the central theme remains clear, even in the second variation, which moves into the unusual key of E-flat minor.

Haydn returns to the home key of B-flat major for the minuet; noteworthy here is the writing for cello, as it takes up the first violin’s opening line. The trio seems to pick up the same phrases as the minuet, but now with needle-sharp violin attacks, and Haydn creates a nice effect by syncopating the two violin parts as the trio proceeds. The real glory of this quartet, however, is the finale, which is as good-natured a piece as Haydn ever wrote (and that is saying something). It is quite concentrated: the violin’s agreeable opening melody–eight bars long– seems to promise a rondo, but this movement is in sonata form. There are many wonderful little touches here: the way the two violin parts weave together, the use of the opening phrase as the basis for the development, even a brief cadenza for the first violin at the center of the movement–but the principal impression is of the pleasure of making music, and the quartet speeds to its firm close on fragments of the finale’s opening theme.

Wind Quintet in A Major, Opus 43 FS100

CARL NIELSEN
Born June 9, 1865, Nørre Lyndelse, Denmark
Died October 2, 1931, Copenhagen

Carl Nielsen made his living to the age of forty as a violinist, but he had a particular affection for wind instruments. He learned to play cornet, signal horn, and trombone as a boy, and for several years he was a member of a military band. Later he composed a good deal for wind instruments, including the present quintet and distinguished concertos for flute and for clarinet.

Nielsen began his Wind Quintet in 1921 while at work on his conflicted and brutal Fifth Symphony, which critics have inevitably understood as a reaction to World War I. The need to relax while writing the intense symphony may have been one of the motivations for writing the gentle Wind Quintet. Another was hearing the Copenhagen Wind Quintet perform Mozart–Nielsen became good friends with those players and wished to write for them. This friendship inevitably affected the music he composed, since he wrote for the individual players as well as for their instruments. This was also a period when Nielsen was becoming interested in the sound and unique identity of individual instruments. While at work on his Sixth Symphony several years later, Nielsen made a remark about his use of instruments in the symphony that applies just as accurately to the Wind Quintet: “each instrument is like a person who sleeps, whom I have to wake to life.”

The quintet is in three movements. The genial Allegro ben moderato is built on two contrasted ideas: the bassoon’s lyric opening melody and a chattering second theme, full of leaps and grace notes. The second movement is classical in shape, if not in all its details–it is a minuet-and-trio with an eight-bar coda. Much of this movement is given to smaller instrumental combinations: clarinet and bassoon share the opening of the minuet, while flute, oboe, and clarinet launch the trio.

Most memorable of the movements is the finale, which is longer than the first two movements combined. It opens with an ornate Praeludium (marked Adagio) for which the oboist switches to English horn. The main body of the movement, however, is a theme, eleven variations, and brief finale. The theme is Nielsen’s own–he took this poised and noble chorale tune from his “My Jesus, make my heart to love Thee” from his Hymns and Sacred Songs of 1912-16. The variations are concise, imaginative, and often witty: the fifth is a comic duet for clarinet and bassoon, the seventh is for bassoon solo, the ninth for horn solo, and the final variation is a little march. The movement concludes with a restatement of the choral tune, now re-barred in 4/4 (the original statement was in 3/4), and this finale, marked Andantino festivo, drives the quintet to a firm close.

Nielsen completed the Wind Quintet in April 1922, three months after the première of the Fifth Symphony. Its sunny spirits belie the increasingly serious condition of the composer’s health–a few weeks later he was confined to bed with angina pectoris, and the remaining nine years of his life were clouded by heart trouble. The first performance of the Wind Quintet was given by the Copenhagen Wind Quintet on October 9, 1922.

Six Metamorphoses for Solo Oboe, Opus 49

BENJAMIN BRITTEN
Born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft
Died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh

Britten was one of the best-read of composers. He set texts from the Bible, English writers (Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Crabbe, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Owen), French (Racine, Rimbaud, Hugo, Verlaine), American (Melville and James), continental (Pushkin and Brecht), as well as such classical sources as Virgil, Michelangelo, and the ancient Chinese, to name only a few. His Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, written in 1951, were inspired by one of the greatest of Roman poets. Ovid remains best known today for his Metamorphoses, fifteen books of mythological legends tracing the history of the world from its creation to Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated the year before Ovid was born. A recurrent theme in this massive work is suggested by its title: Ovid was struck by the instability of things and their tendency suddenly to turn into something else.

Britten chose six of Ovid’s mythological tales and set them for solo oboe. He made no attempt to suggest Ovid’s words, and these brief pieces should be regarded as instrumental miniatures that offer character portraits of mythological figures. The idea of transformation is of course a very important concept musically, and the listener may enjoy following the way certain themes are transformed (or metamorphosed) in the course of these brief pieces. In the score Britten prefaces each piece with a line from Ovid.

  1. “PAN who played upon the reed pipe which was Syrinx, his beloved.” This tells of the god Pan and his pursuit of the nymph Syrinx, who fled into a river and prayed to be transformed into a reed. When her prayer was granted, Pan made musical pipes from the reed. The oboe’s music offers an impression of that playing.
  2. “PHAETON who rode upon the chariot of the sun for one day and was hurled into the river Padus by a thunderbolt.” Phaeton was the son of Helios, the sun. He stole his father’s sun-chariot and careened wildly through the sky, scorching Africa before Zeus blasted him with a thunderbolt. The galloping triplets of the beginning echo the pounding hooves. The music grows more dramatic as Phaeton swerves through the sky and finally fades into silence as he falls to his death.
  3. “NIOBE who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain.” Niobe was the queen of Thebes who bragged of her many children and was punished for her pride by the death of all of them. Weeping, she asked Zeus to turn her into a stone on a mountain, and he granted her wish. The flowing triplets mirror Niobe’s grief–Britten marks the music piangendo: “weeping.”
  4. “BACCHUS at whose feasts is heard the noise of gaggling women’s tattling tongues and the shouting out of boys.” This exuberant music, with its pounding dotted rhythms, should remind us that the Romans believed Bacchus a handsome and powerful young man, rather than the fat old reprobate of subsequent legend.
  5. “NARCISSUS who fell in love with his own image and became a flower.” Narcissus was the beautiful youth who pined away while staring at his own image in a pond, and Britten’s languid music mirrors the youth’s indolence. Full of wide melodic skips, it gradually fades into silence.
  6. “ARETHUSA who, flying from the love of Alpheus the river god, was turned into a fountain.” The story is somewhat similar to the opening story of Pan, and the music concludes with another tale of transformation. Arethusa is bathing in a stream when Alpheus appears and tries to seduce her. She flees and is transformed into a fountain. Britten mirrors the sound of the water with trills and arpeggiated ripples of sound.

Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 15

GABRIEL FAURÉ
Born May 13, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris

Fauré wrote the Piano Quartet in C Minor, one of the masterpieces of his early period, between 1876 and 1879, when he was in his early thirties. Despite the work’s success, the composer was dissatisfied with the final movement and rewrote it in 1883, making it–as he said– “new from top to toe.” In its completed form, the quartet is an extraordinary achievement, both for the range of its expression and for Fauré’s imaginative craftsmanship.

The Allegro molto moderato opens with a sturdy theme in the strings, with off-the-beat accompaniment from the piano. The vigor and drive of this opening continue throughout the movement, and its rhythm–heard almost continuously in the piano–unifies the entire movement; the gentle second subject, announced by the viola and marked espressivo, gracefully sets off the energy of the opening episode. In the development Fauré brings back the opening theme, now slowed down and played gently, and the wonder is that a theme which moments before had moved forward martially can be so transformed and made to sing lyrically. In the coda, this opening theme recurs quietly in the viola as the movement draws to its calm conclusion. Fauré reverses the expected order of the interior movements and places the scherzo, marked Allegro vivo, second. The piano’s opening idea rocks along cheerfully above pizzicato accompaniment in the strings; alert listeners will recognize it as a variant of the espressivo second theme of the first movement. The scherzo reaches a cadence, and then in another pleasing surprise Fauré replaces the expected trio section with a graceful chorale for muted strings.

Because of their many similarities, the final two movements should be considered together. The Adagio is built on the brief dotted phrase first heard in the cello: this rising figure will unify the final two movements. The lyric second episode, introduced by the violin, contains the same rhythm, and the opening theme of the finale–Allegro molto– rushes along on this same rising, dotted theme-shape. The energetic finale seems to be in motion throughout. Even when the viola sings the second theme, marked dolce e espressivo, this graceful melody assumes the rising shape that characterizes the final two movements. It is a measure of Fauré’s achievement in this music that so simple a figure can be made to yield such a range of expression.

Given this music’s popularity today, it comes as a surprise to learn that Fauré had a great deal of trouble getting it published. No publisher wanted to take a chance on a little-known composer. The quartet was rejected by two of France’s major publishing firms and was accepted by a third only on the condition that composer surrender all his rights to it. Desperate to have his work published, Fauré could do nothing but accept those terms. He never made a penny on this music.

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