Program Notes By Eric Bromberger
Born August 25, 1918, Lawrence, MA
Died October 14, 1990, NYC
Leonard Bernstein entered Harvard University in the fall of 1935. He had just turned 17, he was immensely talented, and he was immensely sure of himself. Inevitably sparks flew up, and one such incident came in a composition class taught by the composer Walter Piston, then only 43. Those present recall that Piston had assigned his students to write a fugue, and when they brought in their efforts, Piston declared Bernstein’s fugue subject “inappropriate.” The young man erupted, and when Piston’s next assignment was to write any sort of piece the students chose, Bernstein composed a piano trio and used the “inappropriate” theme as the basis for a fugue in the first movement.
That Piano Trio, composed in 1937, is one of Bernstein’s earliest surviving works. His first published work–his first “official” work–was the Clarinet Sonata of 1942, but this trio gives us a glimpse of Bernstein at a very early moment in his career. No one would claim that this music, the product of a 19-year-old student, is a masterpiece, or even that it is unmistakably the work of Leonard Bernstein, but already some of the features of Bernstein’s mature music–the rhythmic energy, the confidence, the melodic sense–are evident.
The brief trio is in three movements. The first movement opens with a slow introduction that outlines the shape of the movement’s main theme. The music eases ahead on a pizzicato transition, then plunges into the Allegro vivace, which is based on the “inappropriate” fugue theme. Bernstein’s fugal writing here is fast and energetic, and after all this busy motion, the movement draws to a poised conclusion.
Bernstein marks the second movement Tempo di marcia, but in fact this is a scherzo rather than a march. Sectional in construction, it offers a number of themes that might be described as “popular” in character, and that too would be a trademark of Bernstein’s mature music; the very ending is charming. The finale gets off to a slow beginning, as if the music is uncertain which way to proceed. That direction becomes clear at the aptly-titled Allegro vivo et molto ritmico, and this youthful music races home in a great rush of energy.
A masterpiece? No. But this accomplished music, written by a 19-year-old to satisfy a classroom requirement, offers some hint of Bernstein’s vast talent–and of what was to come.
Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City
For years, Stravinsky resisted writing for violin and piano, complaining that he “had taken no pleasure in the blend of strings struck in the piano with strings set in vibration with the bow.” But after writing his Violin Concerto for the Russian-American violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976), Stravinsky became more interested in music for the violin-piano duo. When he and Dushkin went on recital tours together through Europe in the early 1930s, Stravinsky wrote the Duo Concertant (1932) for the two of them to play; he also made arrangements for violin and piano at that time of several of his orchestral works.
Stravinsky later claimed that a book on Petrarch by Charles-Albert Cingria strongly influenced the Duo Concertant; he believed this music “a lyrical composition, a work of musical versification” influenced by “the pastoral poets of antiquity and their scholarly art and technique.” While it is true that three of the five movements have Greek titles, the listener might do best to take this music on its own terms rather than searching too closely for its relation to ancient poetry. Of particular interest in this sonata-like work are the many ways Stravinsky solves the problems he recognized in combining two instruments of such different sonorities.
The first movement’s title, Cantilène, suggests a long arc of melody, but Stravinsky fractures any sense of melodic line here–instead, this music is jagged, almost pointilistic. The next two movements are each called Eclogue, a title that denotes a pastoral poem, often in the form of a dialogue between two shepherds. The first falls into several sections, beginning with a bagpipe-like drone in the violin; the second is gracefully lyric, built on winding, sinuous themes. The extended Gigue is, as its title suggests, a dance movement; it makes use of lefthanded pizzicatos and includes several contrasting sections. Stravinsky called the final movement Dithyramb, which is historically a frenzied dance or hymn in praise of Dionysus. Such a title hardly seems apt for music of such formal–almost severe–beauty. Perhaps Stravinsky saw in the graceful lyricism that brings the Duo to its close an emotional release equivalent to dithyrambic frenzy.
Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Opus 10
ERNST VON DOHNÁNYI
Born July 27, 1877, Pressburg, Hungary
Died February 9, 1960, New York City
Music for string trio–violin, viola, and cello–is rare. Taking one violin away from the string quartet presents the composer with a number of problems, especially with harmony, and it is no surprise that composers have shied away from the complex challenges of such a combination of instruments. Late in his brief life Mozart wrote one great string trio, Beethoven wrote five as a young man but never came back to the form, Schubert experimented with two brief trios. In the twentieth century, Hindemith wrote two and Schoenberg one, but the form remains rare.
Dohnányi’s Serenade for Violin, Viola, and Cello dates from 1902, when the 25-year-old composer was touring the world as a virtuoso pianist. Dohnányi did not play a string instrument, which makes the beautifully idiomatic writing for strings in his Serenade all the more remarkable. He balances the three instruments carefully, emphasizes their lyric possibilities, and achieves harmonic interest in a variety of ways, often using the pizzicato cello as a foundation for the two higher voices.
Dohnányi called this five-movement work a Serenade. That term originally was used solely for vocal music, but by Mozart’s time it had come to refer to lighter instrumental music intended for enjoyment or diversion, and it is in this sense that Dohnányi employs the term. Such a title should not keep us from taking this music seriously. Good-spirited and carefully crafted, the Serenade has become one of Dohnányi’s most popular works.
The brief opening movement is a stirring march, propelled along its way by the dotted figures that give the main theme its energy. The trio section belongs to the cello before a very
brief reprise of the opening march. A lovely viola cantilena opens the Romanza, and here the soaring violin dominates the middle section; the return of the opening material–with violin and viola singing above pizzicato cello accompaniment–is especially effective. The Scherzo is a fugue with the three voices making swirling entrances and the music pressing forward constantly. A lyric trio section gives way to the return of the fugue, which now uses the trio theme as a countermelody.
Longest of the five movements, the Andante con moto is a set of variations. The wistful main theme is heard immediately, followed by five brief variations, all within the subdued character of the theme. The buoyant Finale is a rondo, based on its energetic opening theme. Near the close, themes from the opening Marcia are briefly reprised before the single concluding chord.
Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Opus 76
Born December 9, 1882, Seville
Died January 14, 1949, Madrid
Trained at first in Seville and Madrid, Turina moved to Paris in 1905, when he was 23, to study with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. He remained in Paris for nine years, returning to Spain just as World War I began. In Madrid, Turina conducted and composed, and in 1930 he was named Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory. Though he was interested in Spanish subjects and Spanish music, Turina composed much of his music in the classical forms developed by German composers: sonatas, trios, and quartets.
Turina’s Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Opus 76 dates from 1931, soon after his appointment to the faculty of the Madrid Conservatory. Though Turina uses no actual folktunes in this music, it nevertheless has a particularly “Spanish” atmosphere: the Trio is full of the rhythms and melodic shapes characteristic of Spanish music. The first movement opens with a quiet–and very brief–Lento introduction before the Allegro molto moderato surges to life with the exciting main theme. Turina writes a playful second subject for the violin, and this dynamic opening section gives way to a reflective central episode introduced by the cello; the opening material returns to drive the movement to the piano’s powerful concluding chord. The Molto vivace is in ABA form. The piano has the musical interest at the beginning while muted strings race along quietly as accompaniment; at the center of this movement, the strings have a lyric duet before the opening material returns. The finale is episodic in structure: it is essentially a series of dances, and along the way there are many changes of speed and mood. The most lively and colorful of the movements, it provides a fitting conclusion to the Trio.
Le merle noir
December 10, 1908, Avignon, France
Died April 28, 1992, Paris
Every year, the Paris Conservatory holds its concours, a term-ending examination for its instrumental students, and for these exams the Conservatory invites leading French composers to write brief pieces for students. The general stipulation is that the piece should include both a slow section, in which students can demonstrate their tone, and a fast section that will let them show off their agility and virtuosity. Curiously, what seems like a mere academic exercise has produced some very distinguished pieces, music that has transcended its origin to enter the repertory. These pieces include Fauré’s Fantasy for Flute, Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet, Jolivet’s Concertino for Trumpet, Pierre Sancan’s Sonatina, and many others.
For the 1951 concours, Olivier Messiaen was invited to write the test-piece for the Conservatory’s flute-players, and he responded with Le merle noir (“The Blackbird”). This work signaled a new direction in his music. For years Messiaen had been fascinated by birdsong and had gone into the fields and woods and carefully transcribed the songs of individual birds. Le merle noir, based on the song of the blackbird, represents the first appearance of birdsong in Messiaen’s own music, and over the next few years such literal quotations from birdsong would figure centrally in his music. First came Réveil des oiseaux (1953), a concerto for piano and small orchestra; then Oiseaux exotiques (1956) for orchestra; and Catalogue des oiseaux (1958), an extended piano piece based on the songs of thirteen different birds; birdsong would remain an important feature of Messiaen’s music across the long span of his career.
Le merle noir has no specified meter (the barlines are present simply to indicate phrasing), and it is freely structured: Messiaen alternates florid, cadenza-like passages for the flute alone with ensemble passages that develop with the two instruments in tight canon. Throughout, Messiaen insures that the flutist must demonstrate many aspects of that instrument’s technique, including the ability to sustain a singing sound, wide skips, rapid articulation, and fluttertonguing (this is, after all, an examination piece). The closing section, marked Vif (“Lively”) and based on the blackbird’s song, rushes Le merle noir to its animated close.
Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet
Born January 7, 1899, Paris
Died January 30, 1963, Paris
Poulenc wrote the Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet in 1932 but was dissatisfied and withdrew it. He revised the work in 1939, and in this final version it was first performed on December 9, 1940. Poulenc described his sextet as “chamber music of the most straightforward kind: an homage to the wind instruments I have loved from the moment I began composing.” Full of superb writing for woodwinds as well as clever thematic interrelationships between movements and some surprising harmonies, the Sextet is bubbling and refreshing, like cold champagne on a hot summer day.
The Allegro vivace–which Poulenc specifies should be “Very quick and passionate”–is in ternary form. The opening section offers brightly-chattering winds, and a bassoon solo leads to the slow middle section, which Poulenc asks to have played at half the opening tempo. After the piano’s lovely opening melody, this center section is filled with Poulenc’s precise instructions for the players–“intense,” “very gentle,” “expressive”–before the return of the opening material.
The second movement is also in ternary form, but now the outer sections are slow, the inner part fast. The oboe has the haunting first theme (“very gentle and expressive”), but the tempo doubles in the lively middle section. Again, Poulenc’s instructions to the players are quite specific–he wants this music to sound “very merry,” but he also cautions “dry” and “gentle” as the music makes its way back to the opening section.
The finale–a rondo marked Prestissimo–sails along on the sound of busy winds and staccato piano. The rondo theme is interrupted by lyric episodes, and at the coda the tempo suddenly becomes very slow and an oboe melody (“very sweet and melancholy”) leads to the noble close.