PROGRAM NOTES: Summer Serenades

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Gemini Variations for Flute, Violin, and Piano Four-Hands, Opus 73

Born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft
Died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

In the spring of 1964 Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears visited Hungary to give concerts and to see a production of Britten’s chamber opera Albert Herring at the Hungarian State Opera. While in Budapest, Britten met a pair of remarkable twelve-year-old twin boys, Zoltán and Gábor Jeney, the sons of the principal flutist in the opera orchestra. The boys were quite talented–both played the piano, and Gábor played the violin and Zoltán the flute. The boys, quite precocious, asked Britten to write a piece for them, and he agreed on one condition–that they would write him a letter in English describing themselves, their training, their play. In a note in the score, Britten said that, having set this condition, he felt quite safe. But the boys promptly wrote him that letter, and Britten held up his end of the bargain and wrote the piece for them. Zoltán and Gábor came to England the following year, rehearsed the music in Britten’s presence, and gave the first performance in the Aldeburgh Parish Church on June 19, 1965.

Britten tailored the piece precisely to the boys’ talents, scoring it for flute, violin, and piano four-hands: the boys would demonstrate their talents by playing on different instruments at different times and in different combinations. For example, they might play a duet for flute and violin, then Gábor would play the piano while Zoltán played flute, or they might both play the piano, and so on. Britten cast the piece as a set of variations for varying instrumentation, and the title Gemini Variations takes note of the fact that the music was written for twins. Britten also saluted the connection to Hungary by choosing as the theme to be varied one of Zoltán Kodály’s Epigrams, a set of songs for voice and piano that Kodály had composed in 1954. Kodály was invited to the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival as the guest of honor and was present when the Jeney twins gave the première of the Gemini Variations.

In the score, Britten indicates precisely which part is to be taken by each boy and carefully instructs when each is to set aside one instrument and go to the piano or leave the piano and take up his “other” instrument and so on– this music was written to spotlight two very talented young performers. But Britten knew that it would be rare to find just this combination of performing talents, so he wrote an alternate version of the Gemini Variations for four performers: a flutist, a violinist, and for two pianists at the same instrument. And to keep the flutist and violinist from having nothing to do in the variations scored just for piano, Britten wrote optional flute and violin passages to accompany some of these piano variations. At this concert, Britten’s alternate version for four performers will be heard.

Britten’s subtitle for the piece, Twelve Variations and Fugue on an Epigram of Kodály, makes its structure quite clear. The theme is stated grandly at the beginning–Britten’s marking is Maestoso: “majestic”–and the variations, all very brief, follow. The variations take a variety of forms: two are titled Specchio (mirror variations, a further play on the title Gemini), one is a canon, one is a march, one is a “fanfare,” there is a cadenza for violin and another for flute, and the instruments are heard in various combinations throughout. The fugue, introduced first by flute and violin and then taken up by piano, is elaborate and drives to a resplendent concluding chord in the piano. In the version for the two boys, they were to sound this chord and then–while that chord is still ringing–they were to pick up their instruments and sound one more chord for flute and violin. In the version for four players, this grand conclusion can be accomplished a little more easily.

Piano Quintet in A Minor, Opus 84
Born June 2, 1857, Broadheath
Died February 23, 1934, Worcester
Approximate Duration: 35 minutes

Elgar wrote little chamber music. He appears to have been more comfortable with the resources of the symphony orchestra and the human voice, and he wrote most often for orchestra and for chorus. In fact, after writing some brief pieces for violin and piano early in his career, Elgar turned away from chamber music almost permanently.

But during the summer of 1918, at the very end of his creative career, the 61-year-old composer suddenly produced three substantial pieces of chamber music. There was no readily apparent reason for him to turn to a type of music he had neglected for so long. But during that summer England was nearing the end of a horrifying war, Elgar was facing the deteriorating health of his wife, and he may well have been confronting his own waning powers as a composer (he wrote only one more major work, the Cello Concerto of 1919). Perhaps all these had an influence on his decision to turn to so personal a form as chamber music. Perhaps none of them did–we can only guess. But in quick succession (he worked on all three simultaneously) he produced a violin sonata, a string quartet, and a piano quintet.

The Piano Quintet is remarkable for the range and sharp contrast of its moods, and nowhere is this more evident than in its opening Moderato. This movement is based on a wealth of ideas, all presented in the first few moments. The very beginning is particularly impressive: the piano quietly announces the movement’s main theme, while in the background the strings sound the three-note figure that will echo like faint drum-taps throughout the movement. A few moments later the upper strings in exotic harmony (English commentators invariably refer to this as “the Spanish theme”) give way to a yearning cello figure, to be quickly followed by an Allegro that sounds as if it should be scored for full orchestra. The movement pitches between these extremes: at moments it can sound confident and full, almost like salon music in its smoothness. And at others, it sounds spare and hard and haunting. The bleak ending, where fragments of the beginning break down and collapse, is especially effective.

The Adagio is one of Elgar’s most successful slow movements. Its glowing beginning, with a ravishing theme for viola, sounds very much like the kind of music Brahms was writing thirty years earlier. Elgar’s development is extended, and an animated middle section leads to a quiet close. The final movement returns to the mood and manner of the first–Elgar even uses some of the same themes, as the slow introduction gives way to a confident Allegro (Elgar marks this con cantabile). This movement is very much in the grand manner: its gestures are dramatic, its themes full of sweep, its sonorities at times almost orchestral. The ending, marked Grandioso, is opulent in its rich sound and confidence. But just before the coda comes an extraordinary moment: the music grows quiet, and Elgar brings back the haunting and quiet music of the first movement, even with the ghostly drum-taps in the background. This note of stinging, quiet beauty in the midst of such splendor and energy is typical of the Quintet’s sharply-ranging moods.

For all the surface confidence, for all its grand gestures, the Quintet is tense music in the best meaning of that term. Throughout, one feels that this is many-faceted music, that those faces are often at odds emotionally with each other, and that from their collision comes some very moving music.

Serenade in D Minor for Winds, Violoncello, and Bass, Opus 44
Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague
Approximate Duration: 25 minutes

This unusual–and attractive–music comes from the moment when Dvořák was just on the verge of fame. That fame had been a long time in coming. Born into a poor family in rural Bohemia, Dvořák had been apprenticed to a butcher, and he narrowly escaped a life behind a meat counter when friends and relatives responded to his desperate protests and helped send the boy to music school. Even then, success came slowly. Dvořák supported himself and his family for years by conducting bands, playing the viola in orchestras, and giving piano lessons. It was not until his mid-thirties–the age at which Mozart and Mendelssohn died–that Dvořák began to find success and finally fame.

In 1878, the year he turned 37, Dvořák composed his first set of Slavonic Dances. Based on the colorful peasant dances of Eastern Europe, the Slavonic Dances explode with color and excitement, and they made Dvořák’s reputation almost overnight. They were quickly performed throughout Europe and even in distant America, and audiences around the world were swept away by their unusual rhythms and distinctive melodies. Earlier in that same year–between January 4 and 18, 1878–Dvořák had composed his Serenade in D Minor, and it too incorporates features of Czech music.

The instrumental serenade is usually remembered as an eighteenth-century entertainment form–Haydn, Mozart, and others had written serenades, divertimenti, and cassations for various ensembles of wind and/or stringed instruments. Usually light in character, these multi-movement works were often composed for social occasions–weddings, graduations, civic ceremonies–and were sometimes written specifically to be performed outside. They usually began with a spirited march, and along the way they might include minuets, variations, movements for a soloist with the orchestra, and so on. Mozart wrote some of his finest works–the “Haffner” Serenade, the “Posthorn” Serenade, and the Gran Partita for Winds–in this form and for just such occasions.

No one knows the occasion for which Dvořák wrote his Serenade in D Minor. In this good-spirited music, Dvořák took the general form of the eighteenth-century wind serenade but made some important changes, reducing the number of movements to just four and scoring it for an unusual combination of instruments: two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, three horns, and–for added resonance and a sustained bass line–a cello and a doublebass. There is also a degree of thematic unity here unusual in a serenade: many of Dvořák’s themes begin with the upward leap of a fourth, and some themes appear in several movements.

Dvořák salutes tradition by beginning with a sturdy march. After this mock-serious opening, he offers some nice variety with a second subject that rocks easily along its dotted rhythms; both themes return to lead the movement to a quiet close. The second movement is the most “Czech” of the four movements, sounding very much like the Slavonic Dances Dvořák would compose later that same year. Though it is titled Minuetto, its agreeable outer sections are in the form of a Czech sousedská, an Eastern European folk-dance, while the trio section–marked Presto–rips along on furiant cross-accents. Critics single out the Andante for special praise. Its serene main melody, full of characteristic turns, unfolds in the solo oboe and clarinet while the three horns provide a liquid, pulsing accompaniment; the movement rises to an animated climax, then falls away to close peacefully. The finale returns to the manner of the first movement: its main theme bears some relation to the march tune that opened that movement, and in fact the march itself reappears in the course of the finale. Dvořák rounds the finale off with an Allegro molto coda, and the Serenade concludes on a series of sunny fanfares in D major.