Program Notes By Eric Bromberger

Quartet in F Major for Oboe and Strings, K.370

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

The 24-year-old Mozart spent the second half of 1780 working on his opera Idomeneo and then traveled to Munich in January of the following year for rehearsals and the première.  He composed the Oboe Quartet in Munich while he was rehearsing the opera.  Mozart wrote beautifully for woodwinds, and his music for winds–which includes numerous serenades, divertimentos, and other works–was much admired by the young Beethoven.  Mozart, however, wrote very little for the solo oboe.  There are distinguished concertos for flute, for clarinet, and for bassoon, but the one oboe concerto is a disputed work, better known in Mozart’s later arrangement of it for flute.

Oboists, however, can take consolation in the Oboe Quartet, a brief but splendid work that gives a first-class oboist the opportunity to shine.  Mozart wrote it for Friedrich Ramm, the virtuoso solo oboist of the Electoral Orchestra in Munich.  Ramm was admired for the purity of his sound, and he must have been a most distinguished player, for the Quartet demands a fluid technique and the ability to make wide melodic skips gracefully, as well as to draw out a cantabile line to great length.

Many have observed that the Oboe Quartet seems to be half-concerto and half-chamber music.  Mozart gives the oboist ample opportunity for virtuoso display while the strings merely accompany it, but there are also numerous passages of true ensemble playing where the melodic line moves easily between oboist and strings.  The Allegro opens with a jaunty theme for oboe that will dominate the movement.  The graceful development of this sonata-form movement leads to a quiet close.  Strings have the opening idea of the grieving D-minor Adagio, with the oboe making its quiet entrance high above them.  Mozart gives the oboe long and sustained melodic lines in this movement and–near the close–even offers the oboist the opportunity for a brief cadenza.  The finale is a rondo marked Allegro.  The dancing rondo theme is first heard in the oboe, but this is quickly picked up by the violin.  Near the end of the movement is a passage remarkable for Mozart’s use of polyrhythms: two meters occurring simultaneously.  The strings are in 6/8 throughout, but for a thirteen-measure stretch Mozart sets the oboe in 4/4 against them.  The passage makes a brilliant effect, with the strings proceeding evenly and the oboist scurrying to get all the notes in.  The very end brings a wonderful touch: the bustle of the rondo gives way to steady eighth-notes, and the oboe rises gracefully to the concluding high F.


Trio in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, and French Horn, Opus 40

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

Brahms liked to get away from Vienna during the hot summers, and he spent the summer of 1864 in the little town of Lichtenthal in the Black Forest near Baden-Baden.  Lichtenthal was home to a flourishing artists colony during the summer, and there Brahms, surrounded by congenial friends, could indulge his passion for long walks through the woods.  He returned the following summer, but this time he had a special reason to seek the solitude of the forests: his mother had died on January 31st of that year and he was still coming to terms with the loss.  He composed the Horn Trio that summer, and the music was intended at least in part as a memorial to his mother–the beautiful slow movement contains a quotation from the Rhenish folksong In den Weiden steht ein Haus (“In the Willows Stands a House”), an evocation of happy childhood memories.

The lovely and peaceful forest setting seems to have had a profound effect on the Horn Trio.  Brahms said that the opening theme came to him during a walk along “wooded heights among fir trees,” and many have noted the calm, almost pastoral nature of this music.  The Horn Trio is not so much elegiac, though, as reflective and commemorative: Brahms observes the death of his mother not by wearing his heart on his sleeve but by writing gentle and beautiful music.

The opening movement is remarkable for not being in sonata form.  Aware that sonata form brings a type of musical drama alien to the spirit of this trio, Brahms instead cast it in rondo form: the opening Andante episode occurs three times, separated by a slightly-quicker section marked Poco più animato.  The calm beginning, the section that came to Brahms on his walk through the woods, has drawn special praise–American composer Daniel Gregory Mason called it “a sort of symbol of all that is most romantic in music.”  Brahms specifies that he wants this opening section played dolce, espressivo, and it alternates with the violin’s surging, rising line of the Poco più animato before the movement comes to a quiet close.  By contrast, the boisterous Scherzo flies along on resounding triplets.  Its brief trio section, in the unusual key of A-flat minor, features a long duet for violin and horn.

Brahms gave the third movement the unusual marking Adagio mesto (“slow, sad”), and the piano’s rolled chords at the very beginning set the mood for this somber and grieving music.  Again, violin and horn trade expressive melodic lines, and the music rises to a climax marked passionata, where violin and horn soar high above the piano accompaniment before the music drifts into silence.

The concluding Allegro con brio has struck many as the most “horn-like” of the movements, for it is built on a brilliant 6/8 meter that inevitably evokes the calls of hunting-horns; Brahms has prepared the way for this movement by quietly inserting (at a very slow tempo) the shape of its main theme into the slow movement.  The finale seems never to slow down, never to lose its energy, and the Horn Trio rushes to its close in a blaze of color and excitement.

Brahms originally wrote the trio for the waldhorn or natural-horn.  This was the precursor of the modern valved French horn, and the player had to use his lips or stop the bell with his hand to generate each different pitch.  It was an extremely difficult instrument to play accurately, and virtually every performance today uses the valved horn.  Recognizing that the unusual combination of piano, violin, and horn might result in few performances, Brahms made arrangements of the trio that substituted either viola or cello for the horn.  But these versions are almost never played.  The music may suit their range but not their temperament, for the trio takes much of its character from the rich and noble sonority of the French horn.


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 a brief coda brings the movement to its close.

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.