Orchestral Delights

Cartoon by Charles M. Schulz

Cartoon by Charles M. Schulz

The final concert of the MMF 2019 season is next Saturday. Time flies when you’re having fun!

And what fun the concert will be! Fun is such a nothing word when it comes to describing musical masterpieces, but it is a good word here to describe the joys of both huge works on the program. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 can hardly be called fun in terms of its emotional impact or thematic materials, but fun it is in terms of the delight and awe you will experience upon hearing the amazing idiomatic writing for piano and the virtuosic skill demanded of the soloist throughout the three movements.

The Brahms, Symphony, No 2 in D Major, Op. 73 is fun using any definition of the overused word. Surely, it has its romantic, slow, lyrical movement, and some flashes of hot temperament, but the overall description of the work is well captured by the words joy and fun!

So let me get to some background information about each composer followed by some thoughts on the works at hand.

Young Sergei Rachmaninoff

Young Sergei Rachmaninoff

When Rachmaninoff composed the Piano Concerto that you will hear on Thursday evening, he was a romantic energetic youth of 18. But no, this really is not true! The work you will hear is that of a mature, 46 year old. It is a work revised and rewritten between 1917 and 1919, originally composed in 1891. He performed the premiere in 1892, and it was warmly appreciated as an excellent youthful effort. Life proceeded and “Rach” went on to perform and compose. In 1908 he took a look at the piece and stated that is was then time to

“take my 1st Concerto in hand, look it over and decide how much time and work will be required for its new version…”

And here is the important phrase;

“… and whether it is worth doing…”

He decided that No. 1 would not be heard again until

“… it was in decent shape.”

By this time Rachmaninoff had fame as a virtuoso pianist and was a successful conductor as well as a noted composer. His 2nd Concerto was widely performed from 1901 when he composed it. He had suffered through public disdain, long lasting depressions, and received public adulation. He left his homeland after the 1917 Revolution. After his statement re looking the early work over, he once again laid the piece aside and finally returned to it in 1917.

Rachmaninoff with his dog

Rachmaninoff with his dog

A few more background facts about the man seem be in order even though they are readily available on hundreds of reliable sites. Knowing a bit about the composer as a person may well add to your understanding of his musical approach. He was born in Novgorod in 1873. The story of his youth tells of a wealthy family soon heavily in debt due to his father’s gambling and sobriety problems. The family lost their properties and moved to St. Petersburg. His sisters died and his father left the family. “Rach” was recognized early on as extremely musically talented. He was enrolled at the prestigious Conservatory in St. Petersburg starting at the age of 10! Remember that Rimsky-Korsakov and others found young Prokofieff a difficult student? Well, Sergei was certainly that as well. He showed enormous talent, but became lazy and failed his exams. He even cheated and changed his report cards. He hated practicing the piano, and longed to compose. Fortunately, he was able to transfer to Moscow at age 15 where he studied composition with Taneyev. You may remember that last year we heard beautiful chamber music by this pupil and close friend of Tchaikovsky's. The young Rachmaninoff had met Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg and they maintained a warm friendship. Life continued to put obstacles in Rachmaninoff’s path or he did so himself. Fast forward: (You obviously can fill in the many blanks by going to Google or a Library and researching his detailed chronological bio) in 1890 he spent a summer in the country where he composed and returned to school to take his piano exams and theory and composition tests early. Just when things seemed to be going well, he again became disenchanted with his life. He had an opera under his belt, several piano pieces, songs, and the first incarnation of the Concerto that you will hear on Saturday evening was almost finished. The work was a hit; a youthful, ebullient, early success. Artistically life was good, but Rach lived beyond his means so he went on to earn a living as a pianist. Tchaikovsky conducted several of his concerts. He performed Tchaikovsky and Chopin and Grieg. They were all his idols. When Tchaikovsky died, Rach fell into despair. He quit a performance tour, and again was living beyond his means. He composed his Symphony No.1 that was very badly received. Glazunov conducted the first performance in 1897. Perhaps he was drunk, or just not interested, and the debut of the work was a nightmare. Worse was the review by Cui, (one of the famous Russian “Mighty Five” along with Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) who said, the music was:

“…written for the inmates of an asylum in Hell.” 

The desolate composer commented that the criticism did not bother him, but:

“I was deeply depressed that my symphony did not please me at all after the first rehearsal.”

Rachmaninoff conducting

Rachmaninoff conducting

His Symphony No. 1 was never played again during his lifetime. He traveled extensively for several years. Once more, and this time for three years, Rach suffered severe depression. He was offered some conducting jobs that he refused. His engagement to the woman who later did become his wife, was broken. Even a series of visits to the great Tolstoy did not encourage him or help him see life in a better perspective. He supported himself giving piano lessons until he was finally cured by hypnotherapy. After he was stable and finding life bearable, he resumed composing. The Piano Concerto No. 2 was his first success after this long hiatus in his composing career. He married in 1902. In 1905 political unrest and the subsequent Revolution seemed to be of little interest to Rachmaninoff. He was aware of the Nationalistic atmosphere that surrounded him and finally took his family to Italy. This trip began years of travel for him and his family, to Germany, Paris, and the USA. He gave many successful concerts conducting his own works and many classics. As soloist, a particularly famous concert was a performance of his Piano Concerto No. 3 written in 1909 that was conducted by Gustav Mahler. This concert and others where he played the 3rd brought him great popularity. He came home to Russia, but finding antisemitism on the rise, he and his family decided to leave once again. When he finally did return, he found his apartment occupied by Social Revolutionary supporters. On the day the 1917 Revolution began in St. Petersburg, he gave a recital in Moscow, and it is said that he finished the rewriting of Piano Concerto No. 1 while gunshots rang out below his flat. He left the bulk of his belongings and earnings in his estate behind and went to Scandinavia. He was determined to support his family and devoted himself to conducting and giving concerts. For some reason he refused permanent offers such a one from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but finally in 1918 he departed for the States where he lived for most of the rest of his life.  Crowds of fans surrounded the Sherry Netherlands Hotel in NYC where he stayed upon arrival here in the States. He got an apartment in the city where he maintained a Russian life. All things Russian; food, servants, furnishings, speaking mostly Russian. He longed for his homeland and wrote,

“I left behind my desire to compose, losing my country, I lost myself, also.”

He did travel again and built a home in Switzerland, summered in France in 1939 and ultimately settled in Beverly Hills near his friend and admirer, pianist Vladimir Horowitz. He continued to concertize up to the time of his death, but composed only six works after he fled Russia. One is his Symphony No. 3 and the other is a work inspired by the violinist-composer genius, Paganini. Liszt and Brahms also were inspired by the “Devil Violinist”. Rachmaninoff wrote a major work for piano and orchestra based on the theme of the Italian composer’s Caprices for solo violin. It is his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His health failed and he died in California in 1943.

Rachmaninoff at the piano

Rachmaninoff at the piano

But what of this youthful energetic work, rewritten and now focused and commanding? You shall surely judge for yourselves. Be aware of the strong influence of Tchaikovsky and of Grieg. It is derivative, yet highly personal in its rhapsodic expression of emotions. It is a combination of youthful exuberance now influenced by mature experience. It demands virtuosity at the highest possible level. It calls for an emotional, yet controlled interpretation of unleashed romanticism: all this within a clear formal framework.

In the First Movement, hear the show off passage as it opens with a brass salute and a wonderful gesture of piano chords. This opening passage is Rachmaninoff ringing his beloved Russian bells. Many of his works imitate the pealing of the large church bells that toll in his homeland. Listen for the four note cell that is within the first large melodic theme. It is the basis of the second theme. Both themes are warm and effusive. There is a solo cadenza (music for the soloist often harmonically important and a showcase for the skills of the soloist) that again seems to me to be filled with soundings of the large bells. It is a huge section that dominates the movement and in my opinion is the most important statement in the piece. Rachmaninoff radically revised this opening Vivace. Now enjoy the solo horn and yet another rendition of the four note cell from the First Movement as the gentle Cantabile opens. The peaceful music most surely brings Chopin to mind. Remember his Nocturnes, (pieces of the night) that are gems of melody over broken chords? Notice the chromatic passages and the intriguing harmonic texture.

The Third Movement Allegro vivace is in Sonata-Rondo form. It is a movement filled with changing rhythms. It truly examines the virtuosic possibilities of the piano. It is a highly charged, dramatic, actually, melodramatic section. This is Rachmaninoff at his most flamboyant; an impetuous wild romp of technical skill and dramatic flair. The second theme is lighter, still illuminating the piano timbre. Boldly energetic measures of chords in rapid sequence bring the work to a brilliant close. Isn’t Rachmaninoff’s youthful treasure a magnificent mature masterpiece?

 “I shall never write a symphony! You can never know what it is like to hear such a great tramp behind you.”

Portrait of Brahms

Portrait of Brahms

These were Johannes Brahms words as he struggled to compose his first symphony. Beethoven’s shadow weighed heavy on German composers, for that matter on European composers such as Berlioz, Frank, and Saint-Saëns when it came to composing a symphonic work. Schumann managed four symphonies, and Mendelssohn wrote four mature works in the genre (plus 11 or so string symphonies as a youth). It took Brahms until he was 43 to finally produce his first. He struggled for more than fifteen years to get it right. The good news is that once this initial hurdle was behind him, the second came quite easily. It is this Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 73 that you will hear on Saturday evening. Again we find Brahms walking in the countryside, humming melodies that will be the thematic material of his new work. You may recall that he made notes on the window shutters in Baden some years before. Perhaps he did so in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, an Austrian lakeside town in the summer of 1877 as he went about writing the cheerful, bucolic opus. I say bucolic and you may think of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the so called, “Pastoral”. Yes; the mood is joyous and happy, but Brahms is his own man here and comparisons are not really of interest. At least that is my take on the matter. Did Brahms think about his predecessor’s nature inspired work? Probably! By the way here is another bit of trivia to store away for intellectual conversations: Glazunov and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote “Pastoral” Symphonies. When a good friend of Brahms’ received a copy of the score late in that summer, he played through the work Brahms had just finished and wrote, “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach.” Clara Schumann predicted a great reception for the symphony when she read the score that fall. And so indeed the first performance in Vienna on December 30th was a hit. The audience, that snowy winter night, warmed by the melodic reflections of Brahms’ summer vacation, loved the Symphony. The composer was not the Maestro for the premiere, Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic that evening. Brahms conducted the second performance in Leipzig to cheers and cries for encore. His real moment of glory was the reception he received in his home town of Hamburg the following summer. It was heard in NYC that summer as well. For a most interesting history of Brahms Symphonies and their performances in the US, read the article titled, “Playing Brahms in Chicago” by Phillip Huscher. It is readily available online.

Sketch of Brahms conducting

Sketch of Brahms conducting

Now some guideposts to the work itself. Some comparisons and connections to the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 can be made right off the bat. Not connections concerning mood, or romantic approach, rather, thematic material and instrumentation are the links I hear. As I mentioned earlier, the germ of the thematic interest in the First Movement of the Piano Concerto was a grouping of four notes. Here in the First Movement it is a cell of three notes that the cellos and basses play that introduces us to the theme heard many times in varied statements throughout the piece. Variation is a genre Brahms excelled in writing. Listen to his Variations on a Theme by Haydn for a great example of his skill. The second connection, rather a comparison, is the use of the horns. Brahms loved the timbre of the brass and the woodwinds. He was a master of composition for those instruments. The melodic use of the instruments and the textural filling he wrote for them is exquisite. Brahms introduces the second theme with the horns followed up by the woodwinds. Do you hear a famous Lullaby in the mix of the second theme? Do you recognize the timbre of bassoons? There is a marvelous attention getting passage for the instruments. Do wait for it. A restful third theme is presented. There is a fugal sentence or two that will go past us in the development. The marvelous quiet reprise of the first theme goes to a solo horn heard in the coda. The Adagio non troppo is serious, meditative, but never tragic in my opinion, as some sages have declared. A fascinating effect is the presence of the first two themes at the same time. The cellos go down and the bassoons go up creating a slightly disconcerting moment or two. There is a sense of a hymn here as well. The third theme is a light syncopated one played by the woodwinds. The calm is disturbed by a brief uprising. A storm? After all this is pastoral music, it can be expected. Tranquility is restored.

The Third Movement usually is a Scherzo in classical Symphonic form. But not in this work. Here again a connection can be made to Brahms chamber works and piano pieces. It is an Intermezzo that serves as the movement. It is a genre Brahms really made his own, particularly writing for piano. Schubert is another master of the Intermezzo. Remember the definition; it is an independent piece, light in character in-between two sections of a larger work. The oboe gets the first theme with a pizzicato string accompaniment. There is a look back at the Minuet movements of the Classical period; two contrasting sections follow; trios, one in the spirit of a dance, the other stronger, more emphatic. A last presentation of the main theme closes this Allegretto grazioso third movement. It is all charm. It is so ingratiating that the Viennese audience demanded an encore of the movement at the debut performance of the symphony! The Allegro con spirito finale begins with almost regal restraint only to burst with exuberance a few measures later. There is “Haydnesque” fun and humor here. The orchestra, with woodwinds leading the way, proclaims the thematic materials. What started out as a quiet melody transforms to an energetic theme for tutti orchestra. The coda uses the second theme to form a rousing farewell salute as the Symphony ends on a most joyful high.

To close here is a “fun” (again I use the word from my introductory paragraph way above) quote from the usually serious Brahms found in a note to his publisher concerning his Symphony No. 2. He wrote in November 1877, just before the publication and near future premiere of the ebullient work:

“My symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written something so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.”

Have fun listening to the joy in this most cheerful music of Johannes Brahms!

What a “grand finale” of a concert! It will be a concert filled with music of deeply felt passions, light joyous emotions, exquisite melody, and intense orchestral textures and color. As the Ira and George Gershwin song, “I Got Rhythm” asks; “Who could ask for anything more?”


Further Listening:


Week 5 - Rambles on Bach and Brahms


Where to start this Fran’s Corner has been a puzzlement. So many facts, so many musical terms, and so much wonderful music to hear. The concert on August 8th presents two very large, intellectually challenging works. They are two emotionally charged works; each in a very personal way, diverse in musical materials and certainly worlds apart in their emotional appeal. Do not be scared off by these comments. Thinking about a piece particularly before a live performance reveals listening points and a feeling of “Ah, yes, I knew that was coming” that adds so much to the enjoyment of concert listening. The first work is J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, as we refer to the work. It is actually titled, Aria with Diverse Variations, BWV 988, “Goldberg”. We will hear a Transcription for String Trio by the contemporary Russian composer, Dimitry Sitkovetsky (Russian, B.1954, see Wikipedia Biography) of Bach’s work originally composed for harpsichord in 1741. What is so very wonderful is how Sitkovetsky not only transcribed the notes from the keyboard instrument to a music for a string trio, but adhered to the original phrasing and tempos, and captured the spirit and mood of the long Baroque opus.

Dimitry Sitkovetsky

Dimitry Sitkovetsky

There is no way to improve on Adam Neiman’s Program Notes for this Transcription and the basic information about Bach’s construct of his amazing composition. So please read the notes before the concert after you get seated (NOT during the concert!) or at home if you have the program in hand. Adam “covered the waterfront” in his comments. He wrote of the numbers and patterns that are the formal structure of the work. He even told of the popular story that purports to be the inspiration for the piece. It is, as he states, most likely just that, a good story. By the way, it is a fact that young Johann Goldberg gave the first performance of the gigantic harpsichord masterpiece. It is also true that Bach received a golden goblet filled with Louis D’ors for his efforts (French coins with the head of Louis Xlll on them).

So what am I going to ramble on about this time?

Before I go further, I think a definition is called for here. An Aria is an independent composition within a larger work…and yes, we do generally associate the term with a solo vocal piece, but starting back in the 16th century it has also been used meaning a theme or melodic section within an instrumental work. Here it is a term for the main musical thoughts that provide the thread for the entire work. The actual theme for the work is the ground or bass line played predominantly by the cello, rather than the vast range of melodic content and ornamentation that is scored for the violin and viola throughout the 30 variations. The thread is found in the 30 variations in one way or another. Or is it? I am not being cute here. To complicate things further, sometimes finding any whole measures of notes from the original thematic phrases is quite impossible. I wonder, then, does variation sometimes mean new thoughts based on form, or harmonic sequences, or even rhythmic statements to Bach rather than melodic or bass line note content? The meditative Aria returns da capo (It., from the head; i.e. from the start) to complete the epic work. As Adam wrote in his notes, 3 variations are grouped together and the pattern is the same for each. A genre (meaning category) piece such as a dance or fugue, then a piece to show off instrumental or compositional skills, and then a canon (I always just tell you to think of Frère Jacques).

What I want to do now is tell you a bit about the term “transcription” so you have a feel for what the Russian contemporary composer and fine violinist has done to bring us the harpsichord work as a string trio. A transcription is defined as;

“The adaptation of a composition for a medium other than its original one, e.g., of vocal music for instruments or a piano work for orchestra…” (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

Thus, this brilliant exposure to the genius of Bach through the “ears” of Sitkovetsky. By the way just another bit of info to use as trivia in intellectual conversation, the Brahms Quartet No.1 you will hear in the second half of the program was transcribed for orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. The most famous composer who loved transcription was Franz Liszt. He transcribed many works including his own. One dandy one, you might enjoy hearing is the arrangement for piano of the final act vocal ensemble from Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto. Arrangements are also defined “as adaptions of compositions for a different medium”. And just so I “cover” all the bases”, (pun slipped in here) a contemporary “cover is not an arrangement or transcription. It is a new performance of a “pop” work, or recording by someone other than the original artist or composer.

Back to Bach. I am sure you know that a harpsichord has two keyboards or manuals. Some of the variations are for both manuals and some just for one. The texture you hear from the string trio, though surely different from the keyboard instrument, does allow us to discern the separation of sound as well as the overlapping of range that the original produces. Another use of the word, overlapping, is pertinent. The overlapping or crossing of hands is the technique used to cover the wide range of the single keyboard when the “Goldbergs” are performed on a piano. No overlapping needed when there are two keyboards!

Portrait of J.S. Bach holding the  aria  from the  Goldberg Variations

Portrait of J.S. Bach holding the aria from the Goldberg Variations

Next up: not only are all the 32 pieces based on the same 32 measure ground, all but 3 variations are in the same key, G Major. The three not in that key are in G minor. Remember the pieces you have heard in previous concerts that were in G minor? And coming up next is, you guessed it, yet another piece in Mozart’s and Elgar’s favorite key, the Brahms Quartet No.1 in G minor Op. 25. Long before the 19th century romantics, Bach readily appreciated the emotional pull of the G minor tonality. The 15th, and 21st variations are both cannons, and the 23rd variation marked adagio, are slow sections in the minor key and impart somber thoughts. Listen for them: they are gorgeously transferred to the string grouping. Another point of note is that Bach did something highly unusual in the score, he included some tempo directions and some instructions re performance, such as “staccato” and how to play ornamental effects and “slurs”. Not until Schumann’s time were notations of this sort included in a score on a regular basis. Another interesting fact is that the first 8 measures of the Aria were originally heard before Bach. Handel used the theme as did some other earlier composers. Did Bach wish to outdo Handel? Quite possibly! He used the 8 note phrase and expanded it to 32 notes. Just for fun, note that the 14th variation, spells Bach musically. BACH = 2+1+3+8=14.

Another point of interest; there is a break after the 15th variation in G minor. A pause. A big bang chord. Followed by the 16th Variation that is a French Overture and Fugue. An overture implies a new beginning, right? The early French form is known for its opening slow tempo and dotted rhythm, a fast fugal section, and a return to the opening material. The variations that follow continue to pique our interest with mood changes and the intrigue of the sequential pattern. 

Quodlibet  from Bach’s  Goldberg Variations

Quodlibet from Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The great final variation is a Quodlibet. What’s that? It is Latin for “what you please”! It is a free for all. A piece, folk in character, that plays many tunes at once. The Bach family supposedly got together (There were a lot of Bachs! Some became famous composer Bachs!) and often sang a chorale, slow and serious, and then broke up in small groups to sing pop tunes of the time, simultaneously. Some were even quite risqué. Some canons, just silly including the one with the following lyrics.

Cabbages and turnips have driven me away,
Had my Mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay.

Serious Bach, not!  But here it is, in the work; two German fun songs set against the ground theme. Amazing stuff!

One theory concerning the Quodlibet is that after much criticism about his compositional style and its intrinsic beauty, Bach answered the criticism by quoting a Roman treatise that says “best words are suggested by the subject matter” and composed the tour de force Aria and Diverse Variations to refute this criticism. Then he added the Quodlibet to laugh at it all.

Where can I interrupt my musical observations and is it even permissible to note that Hannibal Lecter performs an act of cannibalism and clubs a guard to death listening to the aria? Throughout The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter listens to this music. There are several scholarly articles about this fascination and connection of the music and the man. Often movie scores use classical music to heighten by contrast, the horror of some event. Apocalypse Now, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Clockwork Orange are examples that come to mind. The Aria is also prominently heard in The English Patient. Well I did it. I hope it doesn’t really upset anyone.

The return of the Aria to end the work is also amazing stuff! This time the Aria da Capo sounds like a finale. How can that be? For me, I think it is because the original Bach, the journey so filled with imagination has always seemed to have a long closing Amen. Now with the brilliant use of the strings to illuminate the structure and capture the emotional implications, the piece cries out for a resting place. The whole work is a huge statement of power and the exact restatement of the opening wraps it all up and returns to the simplicity of the original thoughts. The warmth of the trio texture adds to the harmonic content of the Aria and warmly embellishes the melody. The ornamentations, the melodic intricacies, the nine canons all widening their distance for the second entry, (as Adam wrote from unison, then expanding stepwise to the ninth interval) the many dance forms as in the Gigue of the 8th variation, the Fugetta 10th variation, the passion of the 25th variation, and now in the transcription, the constantly mellow tones of the viola as the important middle voice, the singing merriment and the melancholy outpouring of the violin, and the continuous cello support delivering the ground are highlights to enjoy all the brilliance that the works reveals. All form a work complicated and monumental beyond imagination that demands simplicity in the closure. This brilliantly calculated mathematical giant of a composition has often been called a Rubik’s Cube of Invention; yet it all comes back to an outstanding expression of beauty. Bach wrote on the front page of the manuscript that it was “Prepared for the soul’s delight of all music lovers.” Indeed so.

Portrait of a young Brahms

Portrait of a young Brahms

I love the Brahms on the program so much that I am rambling just a bit about it. It is his Piano Quartet, No.1 in G minor, Op. 25. It is youthful Brahms that you will hear. Written between 1857 and 1861 and first performed in that year in Hamburg by his friend and mentor, Clara Schumann. He was 28 years old. Brahms had just moved to Vienna, the center of the German speaking musical world. Beethoven moved to Vienna as a young man in his 20s as well. As I have written before, the shadow of the great Beethoven loomed over Brahms throughout his life. It made him delay composing his symphonic and orchestral works. As a young man he also assiduously avoided writing in chamber forms that Beethoven had mastered. So quite possibly the Brahms’ Piano Quartet was born as the genre. Three strings with piano was not popular at the time. Brahms could venture to compose in the form, not fearful of Beethoven’s shadow. Actually, Beethoven had composed three piano quartets when he was only 15! But he never went back to the chamber grouping again other than to write an arrangement (remember back to transcriptions?) of his Quintet for Piano and Winds for piano quartet.

Brahms’ Music Room…note the bust of Beethoven on the wall

Brahms’ Music Room…note the bust of Beethoven on the wall

Brahms made his Viennese performance debut introducing the work in 1862. It was very well received. Clara had criticized the first movement of the piece saying the thematic materials were too tonally scattered in the sonata form. But she loved the Second Movement. She did think that Brahms’ original marking of it as a Scherzo was not apt as the section is not very fast. She suggested the term Intermezzo; a term applied to a light piece usually placed between heavier sections or pieces: also an independent work, thoughtful or often whimsical. This movement is gentle, definitely not a joking scherzo. Do you know the many Intermezzi for piano that Brahms wrote? Look them up! Gorgeous! Remember that I wrote in an earlier blog about Brahms and his use of cross rhythms? An example would be a triplet of eighth notes played at the same time as only two eighth notes. Well once again Brahms used the device here in this movement. It makes for an unsettled rhythmic effect. Try to hear it!  Also, wait to recognize a prolonged pedal point on middle C for the cello. What does that mean? Just that; a note held for a time as the other voices play on, usually with a dissonant harmony sounded at some point during the hold. It is a great effect! One finds it in Baroque music, particularly organ works. Wagner’s opening of Das Rheingold is a great example of pedal point…some 150 plus measures! Go hear some Duke Ellington, “Satin Doll”, for instance. Anyway catch it if you can: it is pretty wonderful here as used by Brahms. The Third Movement, Andante con moto, is expressive, romantic, and really intimate. The piano introduces the lovely melodic theme. Listen for the exquisite section where the strings play the melodic material while the piano puts forth arpeggios that rock and float beneath. The contrasting Trio, is almost shocking; a march-like interlude. The melodic material returns to close the magical movement. The Finale is the highlight for many; a Rondo all Zingarese. (a Rondo in Gypsy style) It is a merry, highly syncopated succession of Hungarian folk inspired music. Remember that Brahms was close to two Hungarian musicians, Ede Reményi and Joseph Joachim, both violinists and composers. In fact Joachim upon hearing the last movement said, “You have beaten me on my own turf.” The movement is a potpourri of four themes. The first is boisterous. The second theme is all dashing, fierce scales. The third is light and features plucked string passages. Now a serious introspective section and back Brahms goes for a review of the themes. The piano now gets a chance to romp and rip a bit and the movement ends on a high reiterating the main theme.

This is Brahms, young and adventurous, expanding forms and exploring harmonic textures. This is the young composer showing his respect for classical forms while whole heartedly exploring romantic possibilities of expression.  Enjoy!!!!!!

If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations please feel free to contact me at fran@mmfvt.org.

-Fran, from my corner  

Further Listening:


Two Masterpieces, Two Very Different Genres: Sounds Like Romantic Music Is Here to Stay


Robert Schumann was in love with Clara Wieck. But her Father objected to almost everything about the young suitor and endeavored to break up the romance. Sad and desperately in love, Schumann composed the Dichterliebe, for Voice and Piano, Op. 48. It is surely a love declaration for Clara, although it was not dedicated to her; probably in fear of Father Wieck’s reaction. Actually 1840, the year the Lieder (German for song) Cycle was composed has been called Schumann’s Year of Song. He was, as I mentioned in a previous blog, prone to composing in only one genre at a time. Many psychologists feel this trait is a manifestation of manic depression. Schumann suffered from this condition.

Portrait of composer Robert Schumann

Portrait of composer Robert Schumann

A song cycle is a group of songs composed to be sung as a total package. The lyrics are usually set to poems by one poet. There is most often a story line that is told by the words and the music. In the case of the Dichterliebe the protagonist is a disillusioned and soon to be jilted suitor. The poems are by German Heinrich Heine, a contemporary of Schumann’s. The composer took 16 of the poems from a large collection of Heine’s works and formed an emotional song cycle that exposes the raw emotions of a poet as he remembers his lost love. The cycle runs the gamut of emotions. Tenderness, rapturous love, loss, happy memories, bitter memories, anger and finally at the end of it all, the piano concludes the cycle with a long passage conveying some relief from sadness and anger. Adam Neiman states in his program notes for this work;

“The voice and piano are intrinsically intertwined, perhaps portraying the desired union between Robert and Clara.”

In a brief guide to the group of 16 songs, I wish to concentrate on the musical representation of the emotions as heard in the voice, (usually a Baritone or Soprano) and the piano. The piano very often has the last word. It continues after the short poems and comments on the emotions or subject matter. The very first song is a lovely gentle expression of love felt in springtime. The poet tells that he told his lady of his love in May. Already there is a hint of unhappiness to be heard in the piano score as the brief song ends. Harmonically the tone is melancholic and oriented towards a minor setting. The poet is already begging for love. Listen to the “sighing” notes and the lilt of the nightingale in the 2nd song. A sprightly third song makes huge demands on the performer to deliver the song breathlessly and enunciate the alliterative text precisely. The next songs declare in metaphor and hyperbole the beauty of his love. You will “hear” the bitter weeping. You will hear the lily “whisper a song of his beloved”. In the 6th Lieder the Cathedral in Cologne on the Rhine River is evoked. Schumann’s Symphony, No. 3, in E flat Major, “Rhenish”, his last symphony, tells of the Cathedral and the river. The Fourth Movement is marked “Cathedral”. The poet sees his lady as the Virgin Mary in a portrait hanging in the Cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Now come songs of anger and frustration. The poet declares he is not complaining. He is! No less than six times he bitterly denounces the young woman. You will easily hear the anger in the almost shouted verses and the repeated compelling chordal material for the piano. Listen to the Baritone pronounce “asunder” in the last line of the 8th song! The tune sounds happy and there is dancing. You will hear the rapid steps of the dance, as the poet sees his love’s wedding in progress. He imagines he hears “angels wailing” while the music plays. He goes on in the next three poems to see the girl jilted. The 10th song is marked ‘’Langsam’, German for fairly slow. It is a tender song with a repeated gentle broken chord piano figure. As I mentioned earlier the piano often plays on after the words end. Particularly in the 12th song, the piano walks slowly as the poet paces in a garden and continues to make remarks to the “sorrowful, pale-faced man” long after the verses have ended. The keyboard comments are echoes of the vocal sentiments using harmonies that reflect the emotions just expressed. The singer continues to emote in the 13th song. In arched phrases, and in low almost murmurs he utters “I wept in my dreams,” … “I dreamed you lay in your grave”… “I dreamed you had left me:”…”I dreamed you were still kind to me:” The two final songs are the longest in the cycle. The 15th is a remembrance of happier times reflected in nature. Flowers bloom, trees sing, misty shapes dance wondrously. He declares in short phrases that the rapture he sees in his dreams is dispelled by the sun in the morning, “like empty bubbles.” The final song is entitled “The old and evil songs”. The poet remembers the bad and ugly dreams he has had. He calls for a huge coffin, bigger “than the tun of Heidelberg.” The term refers to a comically huge wine cask in the cellar of the city’s castle.  A fun side trip to Google will tell you all about this huge cask. It is a fun non-musical exploration. Next the poet wants a funeral bier larger than the bridge in Mainz. Finally in declamatory gruff phrases he asks for 12 Giants, mightier than St. Christopher in the Cologne Cathedral, to carry the coffin to the sea. A huge coffin “demands a huge grave.”

The tun of Heidelberg

The tun of Heidelberg

All this has been delivered in commanding imperious measures. Now he asks, in a different tone, “Do you know why the coffin must be so huge and heavy?” I want to sink my love and my sorrow in it.” This final walk to the sea is a staccato march that I find totally sarcastic. Does the poet free himself of the anger and sorrow by this final act? It is over except for the lengthy passage for the piano that seems to achieve a degree of peace and forgiveness in its final measures. Perhaps the last word from the piano is an Amen. Is this a tale of a dream or a reality? We shall never know. What we do know is that Clara and Robert married a year or so after the Dichterliebe was composed. Theirs was a true love cut off by the early death of Schumann. He had asked to be committed to an asylum after attempting suicide. He died at the age of 46 in 1856. Clara lived until 1896. She always proclaimed Schumann to have been the love of her life.

In the year before his marriage to Clara, did Schumann see himself as the miserable poet of Heine’s poems? Or was the cycle simply inspired by the poetry and story? He composed the whole cycle in a week. A strange fact is that Schumann was in awe of the poet, Heine. While still studying law Schumann sought him out and was welcomed by Heine. Later in life when the composer sent the poet some settings of his poetry, he never heard back from the older man. Schumann was crushed.

The Dichterliebe is among the most loved of all Lieder Cycles. Schubert, Brahms, Wolf; all composed songs of immense beauty. Schumann’s contribution to the art of Lieder is an amazing collection of lyric and declamatory writing for voice and sympathetic descriptive material for the piano. It is important to mention that diverse interpretations of this work abound. Some singers find the protagonist self-indulgent. Some feel his devastating sadness and longing. Others find the cynicism in the poetry central to the theme, others express compassion for the poet. It is always marvelous to hear the particular interpretation evoked by a strong beautiful voice.

Finally, I urge you to get to know this art form! Song is, as Schumann found it, a great comfort and a great joy.

Portrait of Beethoven walking in the country

Portrait of Beethoven walking in the country

Coming off a failed courtship, Ludwig Van Beethoven, left Vienna for the quiet and countryside of Baden. It was there that he composed the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, “Archduke” dedicated (surprise, surprise) to the Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The composer dedicated a total of ten works to Rudolph. He was one of three noblemen that gave Beethoven a yearly allowance upon an agreement that Beethoven would never move permanently from Vienna. He had contemplated such a move. Rudolph was Beethoven’s friend and his piano student; an accomplished piano student. Spring and mid-summer usually found the composer in Baden happily walking the countryside paths and town streets. Ready for more connections? (Pretty forced this time!) Do you recall I mentioned that Brahms was an inveterate walker as well? I found a fun article from the Manchester Guardian (that is in England, not Vermont!!!) dated as you read below. Although the Archduke Trio was composed mostly in March of 1811, it seems apropos.

Beethoven's bargain with a Baden landlord
Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 4 August 1924 Written in BADEN (NEAR VIENNA)

“July was probably just as unbearably hot in Vienna a hundred years ago as it is in our days.

(How about our Manchester here in Vermont this Sunday in July, 2019 as I write this Corner?)

The house Beethoven rented in Baden

The house Beethoven rented in Baden

The second half of the spring regularly found Beethoven in search of rooms amid the wooded hills west and south of the city. Best of all he liked Mödling and Baden. Baden is fifteen miles distant, about a twenty minutes' journey by express train, about two hours by diligence in 1824. The Emperor Francis and his two brothers, the Archdukes Rudolf and Anton, regularly spent the summer holidays in Baden. Archduke Anton and Rudolf were Beethoven's patrons, and probably it was his stay in Baden which induced Beethoven to visit the spa as early as 1807. Two years later the Imperial family was away, but in October Napoleon was there for Beethoven to admire. He loved to walk amid the curious grey rocks and solitary Scotch firs which border the rivulet Schwechat and among the pine forests towards Helenenthal…

Beethoven had a preference for a special type of house – low, one-story buildings, of "Imperial" yellow color, with simple windows, "Imperial" green window ledges and shutters; on the courtyard side a slender balcony running round the first floor, and the windows of his room overlooking chestnut or lime trees.

The apprentice Schindler describes the search for rooms in 1823 as especially tedious. The rooms to be let did not suit, though they visited a great number of them. There remained one, the house in the Rathausgasse where Beethoven had spent the previous summer. But the locksmith who owned the house refused to take him again. "He quarreled always with the servants," argued the smith. Moreover, the great musician by this time was completely deaf, and in the previous year he used to beat the time with his fist on the table when composing, which irritated the plumber who lived in the next room. After long negotiations the locksmith agreed to take the maestro at the same rent as last year, but on one strange condition, which sent Beethoven into Homeric laughter. Beethoven must renew the wooden window shutters. The year before Beethoven used to write his various calculations and, further, his musical ideas upon the rough wood of the shutters. His admirers had since acquired the wood from the locksmith and so the rooms needed new shutters. In this house, 94, Rathausgasse, the first three parts of the Ninth Symphony were completed, a hundred and one years ago, amid failing health.”

Beethoven composing

Beethoven composing

Picture the slightly younger Beethoven at his desk after walking about town, and putting on the ledgers the themes that came to him as he strolled, perhaps saddened by his broken affair, perhaps already on the rebound and content, cheered by the country air. He wrote a Quartet and the “Archduke” that spring in very short order.

The Trio is in one word, huge. In length approximately forty minutes. In form, four expansive movements. In creativity, pure genius. Sometimes, as I have written before, analysis is not only unnecessary, but intrusive. Just listening, not trying to find every theme, every repeat, every intricate development is often the way to go. That said, here are a few guidelines to the work I feel is the most beautiful of all Beethoven’s Chamber works.

The First Movement, marked Allegro Moderato, opens with a noble, lengthy theme that you will hear repeated and expanded in this Sonata form movement. It is a gracious lyrical melody introduced by the piano, considered quite unconventional for the time. It is then taken up by the violin as the piano ends its statement. The mood darkens, for a brief transition, and merriment follows. I simply wish you to relax and be amazed at the intricate turns the music takes. The second theme enters in a faraway key. Beethoven then lets us hear the exposition a second time. The development is a thorough exploration of the materials. Particularly moving for me is the cello pronouncement of the theme cut into by a pizzicato conversation between the instruments. Scale-like passages and solo comments eventually lead back to the first theme, abbreviated and in yet another guise. Beethoven explores every possible combination of the instruments thus giving us many textural variations to appreciate. In some passages he even gives each hand on the piano a separate voice, treating the one instrument as two. In the recap he gives the second theme an extra turn, but always returns to the grace of the opening phrase even though the melody may be truncated. It is such a comforting song. I look at the movement as a story.  This is not an original thought, but one I strongly believe in. The beginning, the complications, and the happy ending are very very obvious to me in the construction of the Sonata.

The second movement is a Scherzo, not the expected slow movement. Beethoven did this in several later works. The first theme is jocular. A bright trip up scales. Does this make a theme? For sure, add the rhythmic pulse and there it is! The contrasting trio is a creepy chromatic theme. The repeat comes as it should, ABA, followed by an expansion of the form with an extra playing of the B theme and the A theme. Do you hear any forecast of Chopin in the movement, a hint at a waltz, and how about a few fugal measures? Do try to identify these passages. A bright brief tail (remember the word “coda”?) concludes the fast paced Scherzo. Do you remember the definition of the term, Scherzo? It is Italian for joke. This movement may be somewhat strange to you. Beethoven was so serious, often consumed with anger or in a stage of depression He embodied the spirit of the coming age of Romanticism. He was an advocate of political freedom. He was most certainly a breaker of rules in society, and in his music. But now we hear Beethoven in a humorous mood. Not the “Titan” or fist shaking, epitome of the “me, me” Romantic composer. Here is a happy, almost funny person who happens to compose amazing music. But wait, if you think he is happy now, wait until the Finale!

And now the sublime Andante, Cantabile ma però con moto (singing, but with motion). If you are not transported by the piano opening the movement with a sublime chorale like melody, surely the entrance of the strings will move you almost to tears. The cello continues on to sing with the violin and the piano. The melody soars above the piano. There is a constant forward moving pace kept by the piano until the materials become jaunty. There is a splendid change of moods. I know you will recognize the movement’s form is a “theme and variations”. The plan takes a hymn-like theme and explores it with “ever quickening rhythmic patterns” (this is a quote from James Keller’s excellent analysis of the work in Chamber Music, A Listener’s Guide). The Coda reiterates the pensive loving measures. What is this? No bridge, no pause, only a single chord that seemingly interrupts the beauty of the melody and now it is all mirth that we hear. Robust and impudent a lively Rondo announces itself as the Fourth Movement. Sometimes it is all joy, sometimes almost a caricature of heroic music. Beethoven truly laughing, almost a guffaw! The Coda is yet another surprise. It is Haydnesque, spirited and fun. The entire movement is replete with Beethoven’s unique instrumental combinations and textures and his early explorations of harmonic intrigue. The rhythms and tempos are truly off the charts. Smile, as the work gallops to a rousing close.

Sketch of Beethoven with his hearing trumpet

Sketch of Beethoven with his hearing trumpet

It has been mentioned over time in notes written about this work, that the first public performance was a disaster because Beethoven played the piano score but could not hear. Louis Spohr, his friend, composer, conductor, and violinist, wrote that

“....There was scarcely (anything) left of the virtuosity of the art which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forté he pounded on the keys until they jangled and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so the music was unintelligible.”

It was Beethoven’s last public performance.

A bit about the Piano Trio as an ensemble. It was a most popular form in the early 19th Century. Symphonies were even arranged for this small group. This piece was Beethoven’s last of his seven works for Piano Trio. At 41 years old and after 16 years of composing works for three instruments, Beethoven turned away from the form. This final contribution to the genre is a wonderful mixture of “gemütlichkeit” (the German word meaning cordiality or friendliness), and nobility, of serene moods and boisterous humor. There is nothing epic about the piece, no anger, no rudeness, and no sharp breakups of materials. Rather, this is friendly music. It is genuinely content; genial. Prepare to be enchanted by the prolonged beauty of line and brilliant blending of the three instruments. In my opinion, as the Cole Porter song declares, “It’s the top!” 

Beethoven conducting

Beethoven conducting

You do not need me to relate Beethoven’s biographical material. A trip to any of the excellent websites concerning the composer will give you all the information. It is important to understand that Beethoven was crucial in the transition from the Classical Period in art and music to the Romantic era. He was an enormous presence, his intensity and energies devoted proclaiming the individuality of artist in all disciplines were felt throughout Europe. Picture him striking his dedication to Napoleon from the score of the Eroica Symphony in anger because the French leader declared himself “Emperor of the French”. Do you see him conducting his Magnum Opus, Symphony No. 9 and not hearing the audience cheering behind him at the end of the “Ode to Joy”?  And who was the “Immortal Beloved” to whom he wrote a letter? Do you know the account of his death? It is reported by those at his deathbed that he shook his fist as a thunderstorm rolled over Vienna. Did he then really say, “Friends, applaud. The comedy is over.”?  (Where have you heard those words before in a musical setting? That is your homework for next week, my friends.) Or, as is more likely, did he say to a friend who brought him red wine “Pity, pity, too late.” Maybe these few insights into the man that was Beethoven will spur you on to delve deeper into his world. I hope so.

Please listen to both works before the concert if possible. I think a first hearing will enhance the live performance for you. It will give you a feeling for what the music is, and with these notes, a bit of a guided tour of the piece.

There are two links for the Dichterliebe, Op. 48 that I recommend. Both on YouTube. One is one of the Lieder cycle that scrolls the score. It is listed as “Sheet Music Video” with the Baritone, Fritz Wunderich. The other video recording is that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. It has the poems in German and in English. It is a historical treasure.

Again on YouTube, one video of the Beethoven Piano Trio, Op. 97, “Archduke” I like is a trio ensemble made in heaven. Menuhin, Rostropovich and Kempff. There is also one of the scrolling score listed by Schwammerl and also a Heifetz on Tour video. All wonderful.


As I have mentioned before, I would love some feedback. Write to me at fran@mmfvt.org. I would gladly follow up on any questions or thoughts you might have re: the Orchestra concert on August 10th. What is it that might interest you about the Rachmaninoff and the Brahms offerings on the program?

Up next is a long ramble about the amazing transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations you will hear on August 8th. Try to listen to the original of this masterpiece written for harpsichord before you hear the work performed as a String Trio. Glenn Gould is the “Lord of the Rings” for the original of the work. By the way, what is a transcription? Until next week!

But first, enjoy the two masterpieces coming up on the 1st of August!  

- Fran, happy in my Corner

Further Listening:


Week Three - Connections: Mozart, Prokofieff, Jacob and Elgar

IMG_0204 (1).JPG

This week’s Fran’s Corner will look at musical connections. What on earth do I mean? Connecting Mozart with Prokofieff? No way, you think. Connect Elgar with Gordon Jacob, maybe. How about a Mozart and Elgar connection? I can certainly make one there. Are you looking at the order of the program for the 25th of July and seeing the Mozart Quartet No. l, in G minor, K. 478 followed by the Prokofieff's Sonata in D Major for Flute and Piano, Op. 94 and wondering why the Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84 isn’t right after the Mozart? The answer is chronology is not the most important connection when it comes to discussing music. What is important? Let’s see what Prokofieff said. In 1943 while living in the remote countryside to escape the turmoil of war in the city and busy composing the score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Ivan the Terrible, Prokofieff found some spare time and went about composing a Sonata for Flute and Piano. He wrote this about the work. See if you find any words suggesting a connection with Mozart in his comment.

"[The flute] had for a long time attracted me, and it seemed to me that it had been made little use of in musical literature. I wanted this sonata to have classical, clear transparent sonority.”

Prokofieff playing chess

Prokofieff playing chess

Did you hit on the words, sonata, classical, and clear? What is the music of Mozart if not described by these words? The sonata form was amazingly enhanced and developed by the Classical period composer, and certainly his materials were clearly presented. Was Prokofieff possibly inviting his listeners to make the same connection? Or am I hearing this alone? You be the judge when you listen to the Flute Sonata immediately after the Mozart. Surely the musical language is often a world apart. A lyrical Mozartian melodic phrase opens the work couched in rapidly shifting tonalities. The tempo is marked Moderato. The second theme is march-like. The sonata form is true to course in the First Movement and the thematic materials clearly presented and ingeniously developed. The Scherzo with its contrasting Trio is filled with leaps and chromaticism for both the flute and the piano and changes of register (that is the range of an instrument) for the flute. An “ostinato”; persistently repeated rhythmic notes in short phrases is called for from the piano beneath the tuneful flute pronouncements. Perhaps you will hear gypsy music. And now for the amazingly lyrical Andante so surprisingly tender. Do you recognize a somewhat bluesy element in the music and an impressionistic texture to it as well? Just feel it and enjoy the two instruments in concert with each other. They are so different in timbre, yet blend so well. The final Allegro con Brio is just that; spirited, vivacious. It is a joyous intense Rondo. In this form, the opening theme of the movement returns after each new short thematic passage. Think ABACA: runs and scales in the opening theme, leaps in the next, the repeat followed by a lyrical third passage in a lower register for the flute, and a final rush to close that is stupendous. The flute score is extremely difficult. It is a music that fully explores the colors and voice of the flute. The tonguing and articulations are technically very challenging. The piano is a full partner not an accompaniment to the flute. The rhythmic thrust and percussive texture of the piano give enormous vitality to the whole of the work.

Do you know another work by Prokofieff that highlights the flute? How about the Bird in Peter and the Wolf.

(NB: Do go to the website FluteHistory.com: it is a terrific source of information about the flute.) 

I think the work is close in feeling to the general definition of neoclassicism in the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and MusiciansThe lexicon states that neoclassic material

“preserves a degree of tonal centricity as well as characteristics of clarity…and an affinity to traditional forms.”

Prokofieff wrote,

“Of course I have used dissonance in my line but there has been too much dissonance. Bach used it as good salt for his music….”

He continues by saying that others apply pepper and over season.

A young Prokofieff at the piano

A young Prokofieff at the piano

Prokofieff as a young precocious student at St. Petersburg University, was called the “enfant terrible” by Rimsky-Korsakov, his composition teacher. The young composer was all for casting off any vestiges of the past and forging new paths in his own, then considered, radical style. He was rude and opinionated and thoroughly disrespectful of his teachers and mentors. He was taught by Tchaikovsky’s friend Tanayev (remember you heard his chamber work last season?) when he was older, but reacted badly to any criticism offered by the composer and quit working with him. His disposition evidently did not change much as he matured, but he gained an appreciation of the musical past that became quite central to his compositional style. “Accessible” is a keyword to describe Prokofieff’s works. He has been quoted as saying;

“What is wrong with music for the masses?”

Most of you know that Prokofieff suffered under the Stalin Regime as did many other Russian composers and artists. He realized after the Revolution of 1918 that the political climate was not going to be good for the arts and came here to the States thinking he would only stay briefly. He felt he was not appreciated musically in the USA. He said,

“I thought with fury of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music.”

and moved to Paris. He finally returned to live in Russia in 1936. Was he homesick or did he feel his career would flourish in his native country? Life during the Stalin years meant adhering to the party line that demanded music and art had to be free of all Western decadent influences; no impressionism, no formalism; only “social realism” was allowed. One could only compose works to glorify the nationalistic tenets of the USSR honoring the proletariat struggle. Prokofieff was given some special treatment as a well-known composer off and on during the rest of his life; alternating with times when he was forced to write letters apologizing for his compositional errors. He, like many others, thought that the end of WWII might make life easier for artists of his homeland, but those years only brought him more distress as his style continued to be outside the rules of conformity imposed by the Soviet Musicians Union. A statement he defended throughout his career was;

“I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form which contains everything necessary for my structural form.”

Surely this was not a decadent ideal! He became physically weak and was ordered not to compose by his doctors. Personally, he was at odds with Shostakovich at times, who was most certainly beleaguered by the constraints imposed by the regime. He maintained a lasting friendship with Stravinsky, although they did not always appreciate each other’s works. Prokofieff died on the same day as Stalin, March 5th, 1953. His body could not be moved from his home for three days while the nation saluted and publicly mourned the dictator. When he was finally buried, there were no flowers left in Moscow to cover his grave.

Perhaps at another time, I shall write more about this prolific composer and his place among the great 20th Century Musicians; for that matter among musicians of all time.

Elgar in the countryside

Elgar in the countryside

Now let us look at the connection I find between Sir Edward Elgar and Mozart. Elgar gave some lectures at the University of Birmingham analyzing Mozart’s orchestration and formal devices in his Symphony in G minor, No. 40, K. 550. In these lectures, he pointed out the clarity and the formal construction and the instrumental textures that Mozart achieved. Elgar’s admiration for this clarity and understanding of instrumental voicing was huge. Mozart felt that every…

"part of a work must be coherent and consistent from beginning to end.”

…This was indeed Elgar’s belief: Classical restraint within a form and a stalwart defense of absolute music.

Mozart’s was the first quartet that included a piano. It has been a model and inspiration for generations of composers, Elgar included! By the way, this Quartet is in G minor, Mozart’s favorite key. He favored its tonality for emotional impact. Interesting that Elgar did not write his Piano Quintet in that key; rather it is in A minor. Close!

Cartoon from the New Yorker by Mick Stevens

Cartoon from the New Yorker by Mick Stevens

While I am at it, here is a little about the early history of Mozart’s new chamber ensemble. Mozart’s publisher canceled his commission for three chamber pieces as he found this first one much too difficult, and he said, “progressive”. What I read is too “sophisticated”, for the amateur public to perform at home. The bottom line was it would not sell. Providing music for home performance was a primary impetus for composing chamber works in the late 18th Century. Amateur musicians abounded. Music was played at home all over Europe. The fees paid for these works were good. This fact certainly spurred Mozart, so often financially strapped, on to work. Despite the setback, and lack of a paycheck, Mozart went ahead and composed two of the works and they were picked up by another publisher. Although the Quartet was indeed found difficult and badly performed, even by professional musicians, contemporary critics applauded the music itself. As you will also! Most certainly performed here by superb musicians! 

Now back to Elgar who said he regarded himself a “descendant” of Mozart as his own father had been a pupil of a teacher who in turn had been taught by a friend of Mozart’s. Thus, Elgar felt he knew the classicist’s performance traditions. Further, Elgar wrote:

“Mozart is the musician from whom everyone should learn form.”

He goes on to say that having written a symphony…

“in the same key and the same outline in the themes and modulation…..looking back after thirty years I don’t know any discipline from which I learned so much.”

Elgar with one of his favorite dogs

Elgar with one of his favorite dogs

So what of the Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84? I just scrapped everything I had written yesterday about the work! Why? Rambling on about the magnificent work seems insignificant. I want you to feel this piece, not analyze it! I went on about its thematic structure in the First Movement. Yes, there is almost a catalogue of themes, but what is important is the emotional impact of the varied melodic passages, the harmonic intrigues and rhythmic patterns, not the order of them. The form is indeed a marvelously conceived sonata. You will hear the piano open the exposition with dry, impatient, maybe even otherworldly phrases. This “ghostly stuff”, (Elgar’s words, not mine) reflects the composer’s fascination with the strange trees in the Flexham Park near his Sussex cottage. A legend told in the town was that evil Spanish monks’ remains were actually the trees in this woodland. (Spanish settlement in England?) The music seems to be related to plainsong (chant) sung by monks. The strings punctuate the melody with a rhythmic pattern. Listen to the cello cry out. Elgar uses a cyclical approach in the work, so you will hear all the materials once again in the final movement. What I hope is you will be intrigued by the shifting moods, a sombre section, a short outburst of Spanish flavor, and an intense violin duet. Is there Viennese café music? There is certainly a chorale (hymn) heard in the piano score followed by some fugal passages. There is a bit of everything all neatly packaged in a brilliantly conceived sonata. Try to identify each theme in the intricate development. There, I most certainly hear Spanish flavor. The full recapitulation is masterful. BUT please do not over-analyze or dissect the movement. Please do sit back and be swept away by the vigor and emotion of it all. The Andante defies description. It is “heart on one’s sleeve” music. I hear Elgar deeply rooted in Schumann and Brahms. Will you? Remember the word, connections! The viola emotes and the cello converses with it. The violins enter to reiterate the magical melodic phrases. Brahmsian ambivalent harmony, while warm honey-like textures support the emotional melodic lines. Many listeners, including me, hear the Nimrod Variation from Elgar’s earlier beloved work, the Enigma Variations, in this movement. If you are familiar with this piece, I think you will catch the references. If the piece is not known to you as yet, do make a point of getting to know it! The Third Movement arrives looking back at the opening movement. Elgar liked the description, “Noblimente” and this is the perfect word applied to the section. There is some strange almost humorous rhythmic interest that critics called, “galumphing” while a slew of tonal effects pass by. As I wrote above, the plainsong and chorale, the violins’ conversation, and the dance tune return. They lead to a huge Coda ( It., remember the literal meaning is tail) and the bravura close.

Feel it, be moved by it! As Elgar asserted,

“…it runs gigantically and in a large mood.”

…A perfect description!

The work was written in 1918-1919 just after the end of the Great War. Elgar’s biggest and most famous works were behind him. What a pity that Elgar was filled with self-doubt. He felt hindered by his lack of musical education, his middle-class position, his Catholic faith in a Protestant country, inadequate in his marriage to a wealthy, accomplished, well-educated woman. He despaired over the effects of the war and the end of Victorian morality. He had lost many friends in the war. Alice, his adored wife was ill and his music was beginning to be looked upon as old fashioned even by his fellow countrymen. Delius was a new favorite in British music. When Alice died in 1920, Elgar was devastated. His interest in composing died as well. Romanticism, as he expressed, was “out”. Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff were the voices of “modern” romanticism. Mahler and Sibelius attracted admiration for their serious large works. Elgar’s affinity for Mozart’s clarity, Arthur Sullivan’s light approach, Wagner’s chromaticism, and his ardent love of Brahms and Schumann were not in vogue.

Elgar and Harrison recording the  Cello Concerto

Elgar and Harrison recording the Cello Concerto

Having written all this, you may have noticed I have not mentioned one of Elgar’s works, so appreciated today; his Cello Concerto. It was written in 1919 as was the Piano Quintet. The two masterpieces were born out of the same despair and longing, rather mourning, for times past. The Concerto was first recorded by British cellist Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting. She was the first female cellist to perform at Carnegie Hall. But it was the sensational Jaqueline Du Pré’s performance and recording years later that propelled the piece to fame. It spurred a renewed interest in Elgar. We are most assuredly better for this revived assessment of the Victorian composer.

What popular well-known pieces by the Englishman have I not mentioned?  Salut D’Amour, the sweet very old-fashioned song he wrote as an engagement gift to Alice is one. The other? Oh, you surely know it. You walked into your High School and/or College Graduation to the strains of this work. Ah, you remember now; Pomp and Circumstance. It was the first of a set of five marches, that Elgar composed. It was used as part of the Coronation Ode for Edward Vll and words were written to it as a patriotic song, known as “Land of Hope and Glory”. It is sung at the final Proms Concert every year in Royal Albert Hall in London. It was first played at a graduation at Yale University in 1905 when Elgar was awarded an honorary degree. The entire group or Professors and honored guests left the stage to the march music.

There is so much more to be learned about Sir Edgar Elgar. Go to www.elgarfoundation.org, or Boosey & Hawkes, or Elgar in a Nutshell at www.52composers.com to read at length about this composer. You will be glad you did.

Gordon Jacob composing

Gordon Jacob composing

One last connection paragraph about this concert. The English connection to Gordon Jacob is pretty clear. Elgar was considered the English voice of late Romanticism and Jacob carried the musical traditions of Britain forward. He wrote several excellent books about music and was a well respected Professor. He composed over 700 pieces as well as arrangements and orchestrations of other composers’ works, including some of Elgar’s. For further information about Jacob go to www.gordonjacob.net or the home page at Boosey & Hawkes and select Jacob. He is a most interesting musician, not very well-known outside of Britain and his works are delightful. By the way, the piece we will hear is called Four Fancies. Do you know what a Fancy is in musical terms? I won’t tell you. Good old Google, here you come! While you are “Googling”, look up Prokofieff, and Elgar, and of course, Wolfgang!

So my connections are made. I hope you hear them. I hope you find them interesting. It is a program of such varied music; music of three centuries. All indebted to the past but pointing to the future. Here is a thought for the week.

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

….Sir Edward Elgar

Write to me at fran@mmfvt.org with comments or questions. I would love some feedback.  Enjoy the concert on the 25th of July!

-Fran, from my seat in my Corner.

Further Listening:


Where is Classical Music Headed in Week two?

Caption reads: “Some Debussy, Igor”

Caption reads: “Some Debussy, Igor”

I know the French Music is first on the program on July 18th, and I fully understand the early and then Impressionist French Music is in contrast to the Czech works in emotional approach and form. I wrote this Corner’s ramblings out of order as I want to point out advances in harmony and composition and approach to expression and mention some listening signposts along the way before you heard the radically different Debussy. The two composers, Suk and Debussy, are not delving into nationalism or folk idioms as Dvořák does, rather it is their letting go of tradition and taking new paths that I wish to point out in this post.

Josef Suk composing at his piano

Josef Suk composing at his piano

With the romantic lush sound of Schumann and Brahms still lingering in my ears, I turn to the program for our 2nd concert on July 18th. Do you remember college exams that ordered you to compare and contrast a given subject? This Fran’s Corner is a challenge for me to do some of that; to compare and contrast the 19th Century European model of order, form and harmony and the new generation’s departures from this tradition. While Brahms continued to write within the traditional formal frameworks, Dvořák began to move away from the strict dictates of chamber work forms as demonstrated in his famed Dumky Trio, which you will hear on the program. His pupil, Josef Suk, (Czech, 1874-1935) followed closely in his mentor’s footsteps as a young man, but he slowly began to break away from key associations and headed towards some atonal associations. Suk’s early work on the program is Elegie for Piano Trio, Op. 23, Under the Impression of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad written in 1892. The opening measures will give you hints as to Suk’s future path for harmonic settings, yet the short sentimental, melancholy work still belonged in the world of Brahms and Dvořák in regards to exploration of instrumental timbre. In contrast to Suk’s approach to portraying emotion and action, a new musical language was soon to appear with marked departures from explicit descriptions in musical terms. The new impressionistic vague and harmonically blurred colorations of the French composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) were about to change the world of classical music.

But I get ahead of myself, as I often do!

Let me return to Suk. Who was this pupil of Dvořák’s? He was a student at the Prague Conservatory, who studied Chamber music with cellist, Hans Wihan. Suk became a first-rate violinist and with Wihan formed the Bohemian Quartet. The group existed for over forty years. Suk was part of the Quartet as second violinist all that time. He retired in 1933. It is of note that most Czech contemporary chamber works were written for, or premiered by this group. When Suk graduated from the Conservatory he stayed on another year to delve into composition with Dvořák, a newly appointed professor at the school. Then happily for him, he fell in love with and married Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie. Dvořák was a happy father-in-law. Dvořák’s influence on Suk’s early works is highly evident in the use of folk idioms, rhythms, and dense harmonic texture. As the years passed the younger man did away from many of Dvořák’s musical practices. Perhaps he found being in the shadow of his mentor was hampering his career and needed to find a voice of his own.

Painting of Vyšehrad

Painting of Vyšehrad

The Elegie is noteworthy for its melodic beauty, Brahmsian warmth, Dvořák rhythmic energy, and as I wrote above, some dissonant hints of a new harmonic approach to come. He wrote fewer than forty pieces: mostly orchestral works, many based on dramas and epic poems of his fellow Czech, the writer, Julius Zeyer. The Elegie was written in 1892 to commemorate the first anniversary of Zeyer’s death. The piece has an interesting back story. You read the phrase after the title, “under the impression” that refers to this poet and dramatist. Zeyer died suddenly while the two were working on a Cantata based on Czech mythology. His epic poem, Vyšehrad, celebrates ancient times and heroes. It is the name of part of the historic castle fortress that stands high above the river that flows through the city of Prague. Does any of this ring a bell? How about another famous Czech composer, Smetana, and his well-known work, Má Vlast? (Czech., literally, in that time of ardent nationalism, meaning My Homeland; traditionally, My Country) The work is comprised of six symphonic movements or Tone Poems (symphonic works with a program or story rather than pure music). The first movement is titled Vyšehrad. It is the second movement that you surely know! It is Vltava. It means nothing to you, right? That is because you know it by its German name, The Moldau. It is the name of the famous river mentioned above. It is played so often as a separate piece in our concert halls. This wonderful music is the descriptive portrait of the sights and sounds of the Bohemian river. By the way, if any of these references to Slavic mythology and legendary history is of interest to you, go to Google and look up Czech mythology and Zeyer’s dramatic poems about Czech heroes and heroines….and villains!

Image of a harmonium

Image of a harmonium

 The premiere of the Elegie was staged as a living tableau; that is as the music was performed, and the sun lowered over the river, curtains parted behind the musicians and the sunset was viewed by the audience. The original ensemble was scored for violin, cello, string quartet, harp, and harmonium. Are you familiar with this instrument?  It is a small portable pump organ. The thought behind the somewhat odd grouping was to bring the impression of olden days, “…better days…” is what Suk said. Soon after the opening performance, Suk arranged the piece for a String Trio.

Now, what of the piece itself?  It is a melancholy lament in three-part form, quite closely related to a Dumka. This term for a musical form is derived from the Slavic word “duma” meaning thought. A Dumka or the plural Dumky is the diminutive of the ancient word. The definition is; a folk ballad or lament with alternating slow and fast sections. By the way, Suk undoubtedly attended the premiere performance in 1891 of the Dvořák Dumky Trio, a breakthrough composition of Dvořák’s comprised of six Dumky. It was performed by his two teachers; Wihan was the cellist and Dvořák was the violist and a well-known violinist. (I may have mentioned in my previous Fran’s Corner where I went on at length about the viola, that Dvořák loved the instrument and was a fine violist.) I have found no comments as to why Suk was not the violinist at the premiere.

The Elegie is an Adagio. It is nostalgic, often almost too sweet. There are anguished passages expressing tragic loss accompanied by outbursts of anger. Rapidly changing rhythmic patterns demand our attention, and create a sense of agitation. Unresolved harmonies creep into fragmentary instrumental comments. The inner voice of the viola is often assertive. The melodic voice of the violin is exquisite. As with most elegiac works, restful melodic phrases and harmonic resolutions impart acceptance and peace in the closing moments of the brief work. Those of you familiar with Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka, will hear brief quotes from its score. All this in five minutes!

I find it is a thoroughly subjective piece. Of course, as a piece dedicated to someone’s memory, it would be so. Suk was preoccupied with an exaggerated sense of gloom in many works before this one and in most that followed. He lost his father figure, Dvořák, and his beloved wife a few years after the Elegie was written and these tragic events further darkened his approach to life and his musical production. Suk even wrote his own Funeral March! Having written about the grief and preoccupation with death that Suk incorporated in his music, I hasten to add that the piece is not depressing. It rings true in the sense that it is indeed a lament and a look back at better times and an ardent expression of friendship, but the overall mood is not dark, rather it is meditative and filled with longing.

Was Suk leaving traditional 19th-century romantic music behind and attempting to find a new musical language? Perhaps; or perhaps he just was curious and feeling his way. I hear new combinations of sound and instrumental lines that are leaving the Brahms and Dvořák traditions behind and approaching Mahler and Richard Strauss and possibly, though it is a stretch, not far off Impressionism and Debussy wait in the wings. It is the attempt to widen the harmonic possibilities that stir emotion that allow traditional textures to recede and my ears seem to prepare for a new musical world.

Suk pays homage to Brahms  by Eduard Hanslick

Suk pays homage to Brahms by Eduard Hanslick

Suk lived in the era of Impressionism in painting and Symbolism in poetry and writing. But he lived in the wrong country to be thoroughly exposed to the new music, painting, or poetry. Long after he wrote the Elegie, he was either too timid to boldly attempt new compositional methods or simply not very interested in what was being written in France and the European countries. Still, it seems to me that he was on the verge of leaving his comfortable musical surroundings. It is certainly true that the work we will hear is not a farewell to tradition, but perhaps it is a hint, a tentative bridge leading to possibilities still unexplored. The next steps were already being taken by Debussy, Turner, Monet, and the poet Malarmé. The atmosphere of vague and shadowy images and color filled textures as exemplified by Debussy was an artistic reality and the world was listening. Try to hear Suk’s Elegie with ears open to new prolonged dissonant passages, some harsh instrumental conversations, and melodic forays in unsettled tonalities. Do you hear these hints of something new in the work? Or do you just hear tradition with some spice added?

Either way, this particular work affects you, your next listening experience will be at a totally new comfort level.

Hold on tight now. Here comes Debussy!

Debussy playing for friends

Debussy playing for friends

The works of Claude Debussy (1862–1918) are filled with new sounds and new musical ideas. And yet, the String Quartet in G minor, Opus 10, his only work in that genre, is foursquare in the German Classical tradition of a four-movement work, including a First Movement in sonata form. To be sure, the composition is also indebted to César Franck’s “cyclical form.” Throughout the quartet, Debussy constantly repeats and harkens back to themes from the opening movement. The melodic content is vast, often impetuous, at times melancholy, always shifting the melodic lines among the four instruments. BUT ah, the sound is altogether new. Debussy plunges us into a world of aural impressions, of shifting instrumental color, fragments of melodies, constantly changing moods and dynamics, puzzling modal harmonies, and, most certainly, a world of volatile rhythmic changes. And always, the composer finds the perfect use for each instrument; his score demands virtuosic skills from each musician.

Debussy Score.jpg

The First Movement is marked animé e très decidé. (Animated and very assured) it certainly is! Immediately, with only a brief bump or two along the way, we hear the main motif that appears throughout the work. The music is highly detailed, with a strong emphasis on varied pairings of the instruments, filled with rapidly presented thoughts and multiple repetitions. A great deal of careful listening is required to truly appreciate the sheer amount of material that Debussy has provided. But, it is most rewarding to do so.

Assez vif et bien rythmé (fast enough and quite rhythmic) is the description Debussy uses for the Second Movement. The section features the intriguing use of the pizzicato string technique. These pizzicato passages surround multiple statements of thematic material from the end of the First Movement. 

During the Franco-Prussian War, Debussy was a small child in Paris when the City of Light was besieged.  As you listen, is it too farfetched to find an emotional tie-in in the musical fabric of this Quartet to the current terrors and traumas that we face today?          

The Third Movement, one of enormous beauty, is marked andantino, doucement expressif, meaning softly expressive and to be played slightly faster than andante (generally meant as a slow, walking tempo). It sings the now familiar theme from the Quartet’s beginning, meandering in veiled tones and ambiguous tonalities, all the time filling the Debussian world with lush instrumental texture. As a young man, Debussy visited Russia and there is indeed a bit of the melancholy Russian ethos and heart in this beautifully conceived section.

The Fourth Movement -- très modéré (very moderately) -- collects the major themes and presents them again in many guises. It is a perfect denouement, containing a blend of new and old compositional thoughts, and a final exposure to the skilled handling of instrumental techniques by the young composer.


Though ambivalently anchored in traditional German and French forms, and still wrestling with harmonic issues, Debussy set a new benchmark for string quartet composition. The new presentation of instrumental textures, and the range and rapid pace of changing tonal settings paved the way for chamber music composition of the future.

An interesting note: Debussy did not use opus numbers for his compositions. Why, then, is the Quartet listed as “Opus 10”? The majority of music critics believe the number gave stature to both the composer and the work when it was published. It is indeed our loss that he wrote only one string quartet. Nevertheless, this is surely a magnum opus, is it do not?

Most surely, this concert program will add enormously to our appreciation of musical possibilities! Be in touch if you have comments or questions: fran@mmfvt.org. I would love to hear from you before or after the evening.

Further Listening:


Opening Concert 2019 - Rambles on Brahms and Schumann

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The first concert of the 2019 MMF Season is just one week away! It is a particularly exciting opening night as our first ever commissioned work, the premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, will be first out of the proverbial box. I hope you have read my first two rambles and enjoyed Theofanidis’ words about his work and Alexander Fiterstein’s comments from his point of view as the clarinetist for the work. What do you expect now that you have some insights into the work? What do I expect? I expect vigor. I expect rhythmic intensity and varied tempos. I expect intriguing harmonic settings; some dissonance and a great deal of varied instrumental texture. I expect melody; some long lines, some lilting phrases and the timbre of the clarinet voice sounding above and amidst the other instruments. I cannot wait to hear the Quintet. I hope you feel the same way!

What ramblings are on my agenda this week? I wrote that I would expound a bit on the viola as it is highlighted in the Brahms String Quintet we will hear on the program.  So here is something about the Alto voice of the string family. Oh, I know you have read and heard the silly jokes about the sandwiched instrument stuck between the soprano violins and the tenor cellos. Why that usual comment? The instrument is bigger than a violin and thus has a deeper tone and became the voice, the “filler”, that provides thicker tonal texture for chamber ensembles and orchestras. It has been looked upon as a necessary “fill in the blanks” instrument. Because it is bigger, it is somewhat harder to hold than a violin although it is now shaped with an improved indented curve making it more comfortable to play. The larger size also makes the fingering, the same for both the violin and the viola, more difficult. The jokes say violists are musicians who cannot play as quickly and deftly as violinists. Actually, due to the size and the positioning of fingers on the strings, the viola poses more technical problems for the left hand than the smaller higher toned instrument. Construction of the bows was improved, and heavier strings were 19th century developments that made playing the viola somewhat easier.

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After my going on about the clarinet being a transposing instrument in my previous blog, let me tell you that the viola is not a transposing instrument, but the viola does have its own clef! (NB: the trombone uses this clef as well) Surprise, surprise, it is called the Alto clef or C clef. The lowest string is the C an octave below middle C. The viola is tuned in fifths, so G, D and A are the strings above it. It is tuned one fifth lower than the violin, thus having three strings in common with the smaller instrument, and is tuned an octave higher than the cello. Confused yet? To further complicate the subject, but in truth to make reading the score easier, the Treble clef is used when the viola is called upon to play in its higher range. The musician will see a change of the clef sign on the staff of the score to avoid more than five horizontal lines and four spaces being used.

As for the history of the viola, an excellent source for all info concerning the instrument is the Vienna Symphonic Library. I cannot possibly improve upon this well presented and informative site. The history and notation, the sound characteristics, the range of the instrument; all the info is there to be brought up with a tap of a finger.


Here are a few historical notes in case you are not inclined to go to the suggested websites: the viola, (It: general term for string instruments) dates back to before the great craftsmen of string instruments; Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius of the late 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Early on there were violas of different sizes, with different sized and shaped sound holes, some with frets, (small raised metal bars across the fingerboard of a stringed instrument that when pressed produce a desired pitch or note) thus producing different tonal ranges according to size. Around the year 1550 Andrea Amati is credited with fashioning the first violins, violas, and cellos in the forms used today. These instruments do not have frets, whereas guitars and mandolins do. Fingering produces the desired pitches on the violin, viola, cello, and bass. The size of a modern viola varies from 14 to 17 inches. Most professionals play the larger sized instruments. An amusing aside - leave it to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, to have violas designed and used that were two inches bigger than the normal ones! One trivia note on terminology; you might know that a viola held by the arm was called the viola da brachia and you guessed it, the one held vertically by the legs was was called the viola da gamba. For the rest, if you are interested in more history, do go to the Viennese site, Instruments in Depth, or Get-Tuned.com.

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Just a paragraph about the timbre of the viola. Remember, the term, timbre? ( Fr: sound; here the particular tone color or quality of sound that distinguishes one musical sound from another) Adjectives used to describe the timbre of a viola are among many; rich, sonorous, dark, warm, mellow, even intense. This Alto voice is most often responsible for providing the inner harmonic texture in chamber ensemble and orchestral music. The viola has been referred to as “the meat in a harmonic sandwich”; not a pretty picture, but correct in its meaning.

All this boils down to my urging you to make a point of listening for the glorious rich sound of the two violas introducing and carrying the themes in the Brahms Quintet and enhancing the harmonic structure and texture of the score.

So much for pedantic paragraphs.

Brahms walks in Bad Ischl

Brahms walks in Bad Ischl

I am particularly fond of the three pieces Adam Neiman has chosen for the program with the Theofanidis work. They happen to be favorites. I personally have always heard Schumann in the Brahms work. I hear him in the lush texture, in the harmonic instability, that is the rapid and distant changes of keys. Of course Brahms takes these effects further. There is also a very personal picture I carry from my time in the Austrian mountain town of Bad Ischl. This is the town where Brahms spent many Springs and Summers. This is where he composed his two String Quintets. I have always pictured him sauntering thru the town and up into the hills, hands clasped behind him, undoubtedly hearing wonderful melodies evolving in his head. My beloved strong memory of Bad Ischl is of the famed Konditorei Zauner, where my husband and teenage daughters and I indulged in amazing pastry and frozen chocolate drinks while this very Quintet floated out to us from a radio on the service counter. My memory is that it was the last movement that we heard. Did you know the work is often called “Spring”? 

Now for the joy of the music that is the Brahms Quintet in F Major, Op. 88. You may look at the program announcement and see that I am following the order of presentation rather than the chronological dates of the composers.  I am sure Adam Neiman has reasons for the the way he put the concert together. I have my thoughts about it as well. I find much in common with the actual construction of Theofanidis’ Quintet and the Brahms’ work. There are three movements in each piece. The sequence of moods in the works are similar in emotion energy, although certainly different in articulation. Strong rhythmic patterns command attention; many that are syncopated and repeated for long passages. Thematic forays are vigorously presented and developed. Also I personally find the timbre of the clarinet has a true affinity with the viola, although the range of the instruments is quite different. It is just my personal feeling; a connection I find interesting. Perhaps you will hear it as well.


In 1882, exactly forty years after Robert Schumann, Brahms’ friend, mentor and avid promoter, composed his Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44 that we will also hear on the 11th, Brahms wrote the first of two string quintets. At the time quintets were composed following two classic models, Franz Schubert’s that used two cellos and Mozart’s that employed two violas. Brahms chose Mozart’s ensemble. So let us look at his String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88 as it plays out. The opening Movement, l. Allegro Non Troppo, Ma Con Brio, (not to fast, but with spirit) is an elegant outpouring of pastoral music with hints of sadness and wistful yearning. The opening theme is played by different combinations of the instruments with the rich voice of the first viola often singing out above the other strings. Listen to the unsettled complex harmonic wanderings and the rhythmic diversity that fills the movement. Brahms enjoyed using cross rhythms; for example 3 notes evenly spaced against 2. This makes for interesting conflicts of sound and some nervous texture. Try to identify this effect. I find the first theme compelling and comforting in all its guises; simply stated at first, then impetuous, then melancholy and yes, above all gracious. Do you hear some hints of folk tunes and even a bit of Vienna and the waltz creep in the musical tissue?

The Second Movement, ll. Grave Ed Appassionato - Allegretto Vivace -Tempo I - Presto (Grave and passionate, fairly fast and light, and finally very fast) is a fascinating one. It is comprised of two Baroque dance forms, a slow and somewhat stately, Sarabande (Fr., a Baroque dance in triple meter, slow and majestic) and a lighter, spirited Gavotte (Fr., a sprightly Baroque dance in duple meter). Brahms wrote two pieces for piano in these dance forms some forty years earlier, but as he often did when dissatisfied or no longer interested with his work, he burned the manuscripts. What he did not know was that friends and fellow musicians saved their copies of the two solo pieces and many years after Brahms’ death the connection to the chamber work was made. The Second Movement can be regarded as two separate entities. Though the piece has only three defined movements, the sharp contrasts of tempo and mood allow this division. That is, the movement can be seen as a customary slow second movement followed by a lighter faster third movement. The story goes that when Brahms delivered the score to his publisher he remarked that he hoped that because the work only had three movements he would not be paid less than for the customary four movement form. He was paid a good fee. Also of note is that he told the publisher that this was the finest piece he had ever delivered to him.

The final Movement, III. Allegro Energico (It. Fast and energetic) is just as it proclaims! It is the shortest of the three movements; a Brahmsian trademark. The five minutes is all hustle and energy! It strongly evinces Baroque origins as its material is mostly fugal. Brahms treats the section as a sonata form as well, introducing new material and developing it and then repeating the theme all the while continuing the delightful, almost caricature of a fugue. A full fugue never really evolves as the themes are interrupted by unexpected entrances way too early, long before the thematic phrases are partially completed. There is even a look back at the dances of the second movement. Abrupt endings of lines abound. New harmonic settings far from the home key and new rhythmic patterns pop up to delight the ears. It is amazing that the melodic and rhythmic flow continues so seamlessly amidst such apparent confusion. Once again I hear some influence of Hungarian folk music. In the end I think the fugue just gives up. Brahms returns to stable rhythms and to the 19th Century homophonic tradition.  I believe this last movement is Brahms with wry wit enjoying a musical flight of fancy. How fortunate he did not burn this wonderful work!

Just a few points of biographical interest tacked on to fill in the blanks. Brahms was not particularly interested in patriotic nationalism as such. One can certainly hear the Hungarian folk influence and the Viennese pulse in a great deal of his music, but politics and the Bismarck unification of Germany did not really influence his musical production or impact his daily life. What he really loved was food, particularly meals of chicken paprikash at the Hedgehog Restaurant in Vienna. He was very much a part of the busy cultural and social life in the city he called home. He was good friends with Johann Strauss II and dined with young Debussy and Richard Strauss. He was a gregarious being, known for his sharp wit. One famed anecdote is that Brahms went to the doctor who told him to go on a strict diet immediately. Brahms said, “I cannot do that I am dining with Johann Strauss tonight. Please consider I have not come to you until tomorrow.”

Robert Schumann (b. Ger. 1810-d. Ger. 1856)

Robert Schumann (b. Ger. 1810-d. Ger. 1856)

Let us go back in time to Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44. His instrumental setting is the first in a long line of famous works for piano plus string quartet. It was most certainly the inspiration for Brahms’ and Dvořák’s pieces written for the same ensembles. The work was written in 1842, dedicated to his beloved Clara, who was supposed to perform it at the premiere. Unfortunately Clara was ill the week before the concert and Mendelssohn stepped in for his friends and performed the piece; by all accounts brilliantly!

Schumann wrote:

“…my things (music) are really an appalling lack of practicality…”

Whatever does he mean? That they are so emotionally charged? That they have innovative harmonic settings and form? Surely this work is most diligently and thoughtfully constructed. Without practicality? Nonsense! If practicality is defined as the Cambridge English Dictionary states:

“1. Quality of being suitable for a particular occasion or use: 2. The quality of being able to provide effective solutions to problems:…”

then the composer was so wrong, certainly about this work!

Let’s look at the First Movement, Allegro brilliante. It opens with a commanding tutti (It.,all) theme that from the outset leaps upward in commanding fashion. The second theme is a tender melodic discussion between the viola and cello. There is a rhythmically interesting third theme. All is laid out in clear formal fashion. Although you’ll find that the lyrical second theme is missing in the development. The recapitulation is pretty straight forward. There is no Coda. (It.,tail) It is important to note that the piano assumes a heavily weighted role throughout the entire score. In other words it is not a fifth of the ensemble, rather it is the other half of a schoolyard seesaw. It is responsible for a great deal of the almost orchestral full texture. It is the ever-present foundation, the chordal base that runs underneath the strings and supports the melodic conversations and many canonical (think, Frère Jacques) entrances. You will fully appreciate this as you listen to the whole piece. The large leaps characteristic of the first theme are found jumping up throughout the movement.     

The Second Movement is marked, In Modo d’una Marcia, Un poco largamente (It., in the mode of a march, a bit very slow). Its essentially a funeral march; syncopated, dragging music you will hear. The music raises itself out of deep doldrums to utter a melancholy melodic section followed by a brief violent, mad explosion, where the piano plays an incessant pattern of triple figures and broken chords, followed by a brash rude viola statement. There is an interesting textural effect as a Pizzicato (It., plucked) background accompanies the return of the first relentless theme. I have always wondered about the soft strange final chord of this movement. Listen for it!

 The Scherzo, molto vivace (It.,very fast) in 6/8 time starts out racing. Scales are the center of the material. Upwards, dashing, downwards, madcap! They are played by one or several combinations of the five instruments. It is all whirlwind energy! There are two Trio sections. One is melodic for the violin and viola where once again Schumann displays his skill at fugal writing. After a return of the fast section the second Trio follows; this one is quite heavily syncopated and hurried. The returning Scherzo is followed by a brief Coda

Enter the piano to proclaim the excitement of the first theme of the Finale, Allegro ma non troppo (It., fast but not too much). The strings accompany the heavily accented theme with repeated notes. The pace slows and the action seems to come to a momentary stop. There is a softer, gentler section, and a development that “plays” with the second theme. The recap is a full one. The excitement returns as Schumann gives us two impressive fugues in the Coda. The first one is based on the main theme of this last movement. The second fugue that follows is an amazing Double Fugue. It uses the opening elegant theme of the First Movement in combination with the main theme here in this movement as the brilliant Coda.

What is a double fugue? The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines it as:

A fugue in which two subjects are first given full and independent treatment and then treated in contrapuntal combination with each other.”

Meaning what, you ask? It means that two themes are played in opposition to each other with sequential entrances. Does that help explain the term? For example, how about starting off with “Three Blind Mice” and entering after the first two phrases with “Frère Jacques”? Got it? Also you may be wondering why so many fugal passages from Schumann. The answer most probably is that he and Clara studied a great deal of counterpoint and the Art of Fugue by J.S. Bach during the year previous to his composing this opus.

The final word about the Piano Quintet comes from Clara who wrote in her diary that the work was:

“Magnificent, a work filled with energy and freshness.”

Indeed so!

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I do urge you to listen to this Quintet before the concert, if possible. Why? While I know full well that a first exposure to a work is exciting, I think that listening to a work after a quiet introduction at home may give you moments of expectation waiting for recognizable passages and themes you enjoyed during your first hearing. Familiarity brings a sense of comfort when listening to music, does it not? It surely does for me. I hope the overwhelming romantic, emotional content of the materials in this Schumann work, and of course in the Schubert and the Brahms, will bring you great pleasure.

Extra! A few interesting facts and information about Schumann may add to your understanding of the composer.

Did you know Schumann wished to be a first class pianist following in the footsteps of Chopin and Liszt? He ruined his chances of this career by attaching a homemade device made of wire and wood to hold up the fingers on his right hand while practicing in hopes of strengthening them. All he did was permanently damage two fingers on his hand and end his piano career before it got started. He then turned to composition after promising his parents if he failed as a pianist he would become a lawyer.

Schumann, along with his future father-in-law and a close friend founded a Music Magazine, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He was very well respected as a critic of music. A famous article he published was “New Paths” that heralded Brahms as the new young star composer of the century.

It has been pointed out by many psychologists and music sages that Schumann’s mental manic state is reflected in his habit of only focusing on one musical genre at a time. There were years for songs, then years for orchestral pieces, and finally the chamber music years.

Clara Schumann…is she reading a letter from Brahms?

Clara Schumann…is she reading a letter from Brahms?

Most of you know of his love for his wife, Clara, a famed pianist in her own right. You probably know of his friendship with Brahms. And her friendship with Brahms. There were literally hundreds of letters back and forth between Brahms and Clara after Robert’s death. Many destroyed by each of them. Some remain. Romance, yes! Love affair? It is not really known.

Did you ever see the 1947 movie, “Song of Love”? It is the story of Schumann’s marriage. The score is filled with his and Brahms’ music. Here is a quiz for us old folk. Can you guess who was Clara? Katharine Hepburn!!! Paul Henreid was Schumann and Robert Walker was Brahms. There is a clip on You Tube. It can be streamed on Prime Video. Good flick for a hot summer evening.

That is more than enough rambling! I hope you find some of the information helpful and that it adds to your understanding of the terrific program ahead on the 11th of July. See you next week right here in Fran’s Corner. Debussy and Suk are coming up next. Interesting combination!!!!!!

You can reach me at fran@mmfvt.org if you have comments or questions!


*NOTE: Do attend In Conversation with Christopher Theofanidis on Tuesday Evening at Burr and Burton, hosted by GMALL.  It will be most interesting and informative! Details are available online at: greenmtnacademy.org

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Further Listening:


An Ode to the Clarinet and other Rambles from Fran's Corner


Hello! Thanks for your enthusiasm about my first Fran’s Corner of the season. I am back in my corner with some thoughts to share with you. Several readers wrote to me to say how much they enjoyed reading Chris Theofanidis’ comments about his Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet that premieres at our first concert, July 11th. Perhaps he will send me more about his work during the next few weeks.

I want to tell you that I first heard of Chris Theofanidis when I went to the San Francisco Opera for the premiere of his opera, Heart of a Soldier, on Friday, September 10th, 2004. The opera ended two hours before the 11th! I went because it was part of a mini-subscription series and I went somewhat reluctantly. I was looking forward to the classical operas included in the series. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the music and immediately very curious about this American composer. The opera is the true story of Rick Rescorla, the Head of Security at the Morgan Stanley offices at the World Trade Center. He led and rescued thousands from the South Tower and perished on his last descent from the upper floors on 9/11/2001. It is a riveting emotional musical experience that tells of Rick and his best friend, his divorced wife, and a woman whom Rick loves. There are many sub-stories in the opera, each one emotional and gripping; each set to intense vocal narratives and melodic lines. The final scene left the audience hushed and in tears as smoke poured from the stunning skeletal structure of the South Tower. The instrumentation was often spare and brought many hints of Theofanidis’ Texas background in the use of American musical idioms. His use of orchestral color and wandering melody was what I noticed most.

Theofanidis wrote these words about his opera score.

“I write very tonal accessible music…the things that I tend to go around humming are the things I try to bring to my writing.”

Years later, I heard his Muse performed, a commission based on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No. 3.  It is so very different and so wonderfully embracing of the Baroque masterpiece while creating a new intriguing contemporary setting. Please do go to You Tube and listen to some of this music before you hear “our” new work!

As always I ramble freely; going from one subject to another without transition.  Next: This week the great news is that Alex Fiterstein, our Clarinetist for the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, sent me a second chapter with his views of the piece. These paragraphs have heightened my excitement and impatience as I look forward to my first exposure to the work. I know they will do so for you as well. Read these excellent remarks below. I quote them in full. You will see that first he answered a question about what clarinet he is using. I will write about the instrument after you read the whole letter.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein

“Hi Fran,

Just got back from a very busy week in China. Hope this will work well for your blog: Yes, the Quintet is for Bb clarinet. Here’s what I can say about it at this point:

The first movement “The war in heaven” starts with dotted rhythms in unison (and fortissimo!) clarinet and strings announce the beginning of the movement, after a short interlude in the strings the clarinet enters forte in the low register and begins a melody with big leaps that leads to another “announcement” in fortissimo of the clarinet and strings. The Clarinet continues trying to reach higher and higher until the opening dotted rhythm returns, this time marked “Explosive” and continues longer while the viola plays 16th notes and the cello trills wildly. Eventually the clarinet takes over the viola 16th notes in the low register and rises higher. The dotted rhythms continue to become more important and in the forefront as the movement develops. Theofanidis uses the clarinet in its best registers and with a wide dynamic range.

The second movement is titled “Aria for a lost beauty” and starts with the string quartet (without vibrato), the clarinet enters eventually in a quiet voice. Again Theofanidis uses the large dynamic range of the clarinet from pp to FF. The dotted rhythm statement returns in this movement as well...What is the meaning of this rhythm played by the clarinet and strings?

The clarinet ends the movement with a whispering repetitive melody marked “Irrational, Spry”.

The third mov. “Fire and Magic” is driven by rhythm. Triplets in the viola and cello and occasionally in the 2nd violin are driving this movement while the clarinet makes broader, soaring gestures.

Looking forward to the premiere with the great Ariel Quartet and seeing how this piece develops through our rehearsal process.” 

This insightful commentary is an excellent example of an analytical appreciation of the material and the emotional setting of the Quintet. To pursue his threads further, Alex refers to the clarinet voice and the tonal settings of the work. I would like to delve into this subject further.

The parts of a clarinet

The parts of a clarinet

Here is a bit about sound: the musical terms most often used to describe instrumental sound are tone color and timbre. Timbre (from the French for bell, sound of a bell) is most often defined as the “character of a sound as distinguished from its pitch” (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians). To paraphrase several respected sources, it is the auditory response that lets us distinguish one instrument from another, though each may be striking the very same note or pitch and doing so at the same level of loudness. Does that make sense? You would not think a clarinet sounds like a viola, would you? If you are curious and interested in a fuller discussion, and yes, quite a technical explanation of timbre, go to historyofmusic.tripod.com/id6.html or even Wikipedia and the definition given by the Acoustical Society of America.

Fiterstein also speaks of the large dynamic range and the vast tonal range of his instrument in his paragraphs above. This is another conversation entirely. Timbre refers to quality of sound, not pitch, or dynamic differences or for that matter how long a given note lasts when played. I do suggest you familiarize yourselves with the sound of the clarinet before the opening concert. In the Quintet the clarinet timbre is combined with the colors that the string quartet instruments bring to the piece. The individual timbre of each of the four strings (the upper register, violin, the alto voice of the viola and the tenor/baritone cello) combined with the woodwind makes up the texture or amount of richness, thickness, or layers of sound within the work.

Descriptive words for instruments such as reedy, mellow, bright, warm, harsh, sweet, even clear and murky, are used to describe timbre and thus, sound quality. Most instruments can produce sounds of disparate tone quality. Do listen for these differences within the music you hear. It is fascinating to hear a given instrument produce many different “shades” of tone. According to Fiterstein, the clarinet score in Quintet will go from almost strident lines to long melodic phrases.

Cartoon by artist Matthew Diffee

Cartoon by artist Matthew Diffee

One further note about the clarinet to either help or confuse you. Do you know what a transposing instrument is? The clarinet and some other woodwinds as well as some Brass instruments are transposing instruments. What you see is not what you hear! For example, there are several keys associated as the home keys for the family of instruments that are clarinets. What do I mean by that?

There are high, alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets. When the soprano B flat clarinet, that is used so very frequently in classical and in jazz settings and in this case for Theofanidis’ piece, “reads” a written C in a score, it sounds a B flat concert pitch. Each written note is a full note higher than it is sounded. It takes a student of the instrument time to be comfortable with this, but also the system allows easy changing of instruments as the fingering stays the same for each clarinet, whether it be in the key of B flat or E flat. A written C for any of these clarinets will produce the sound of the key of the particular instrument. In other words an E flat clarinet sounds an E flat concert pitch when the musician plays the written note C in the score. And the B flat clarinet, yes, you’ve got it, sounds B flat when the score calls for the note C. This is by no means a full explanation of transposing instruments.

A disassembled clarinet in its case

A disassembled clarinet in its case

As for the structure of a clarinet, it is most often made of African Blackwood. It is made up of five major sections: the mouthpiece with the single reed, the barrel (a tuner for the clarinet), a two part straight cylinder tube with holes and keys, and the bell. Be aware the use of the word “key” here does not refer to a home tonality, but rather to an opening and closing device on the instrument that is part of the sound system for the instrument.

All this is way too complicated to explain thoroughly here. I recommend the web site www.the-clarinets.net for a great overview of instrument’s construction. I do wish to point out here that a clarinet must be held by a finger…in this case…the right hand thumb, leaving only nine fingers to open and cover the many tone holes and the overblowing hole on a contemporary clarinet. Thus there is the necessity for keys that slide to quickly open and close the holes. The addition of copper or silver, or even gold keys to open and close the tone holes, has increased from one or two large keys in the early 1700s for the first clarinets to seventeen of eighteen keys on a contemporary B flat and other clarinets. Again not very easy to grasp, I know.

For more information about the single reed instrument, the mouthpiece and the fact that fingering remains basically the same for all the different keyed clarinets, do go to one of the sites such as musictheoryacademy.com or the-clarinets.net.

I may have thoroughly confused you, or perhaps with some luck, piqued your interest to delve into further confusion, or sadly bored you; but a little “tech behind the scenes” information seemed appropriate. Just wait until I expound on the Viola! That will be next time as the gorgeous Brahms String Quintet in F Major doubles the viola. If you want to be ahead of the game, look up what clef the viola uses to read a score. Do listen to a recording of the Brahms “Spring” Quintet, in F Major, Op. 88 and Schumann’s only Piano Quintet. NB: It is my all-time favorite chamber work. Perhaps a quiet listen to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 would be a Clarinet treat before the first concert. The texture, color, and timbre of five instruments as they form each quintet will certainly be explored in my next Fran’s Corner.

If you have any questions, comments, or requests please send me an email at fran@mmfvt.org.

Enjoy the green Vermont June days! I shall be back about July 4th.

- Fran

Read more about all of our talented artists here.

Further Listening:


Welcome Back to Fran's Corner


It is an unusually cool and windy Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day Weekend as I sit down to write my first 2019 Fran’s Corner. The calendar says it is late spring in Vermont as I try to focus my thoughts on the 45th Season of Manchester Music Festival that begins in just over 6 weeks. Procrastination and some lack of inspiration have led me to reread my very first Fran’s Corner Blog written in early July 2018. The paragraph introducing my corner perch was short and I think it sums up my “raison d’être” as well as any new one I might write now so I will paraphrase it a bit and include it below to reintroduce myself.

“I am excited to share my thoughts about MMF’s coming Concert Season. My hope is to increase your joy in the music you will be hearing each week by highlighting a few works on each program, giving some biographical information about the composers, writing a bit about the cultural and political world in which they lived, and giving some insights into the music itself.”

I ramble, as you may already know, but what is a blog’s thrust if not to expound freely with the hope of informing and entertaining a reader? So off I go on my MMF 2019 journey. Please join me as I travel through several centuries and many styles of chamber music and beyond. Feel free to write to me about what you might want to read in addition to my comments about the highlighted works for each week.

I must immediately share my excitement about the Opening Concert on July 11th. We will hear the premiere of American composer, Christopher Theofanidis’ Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet. It is the first work commissioned by MMF! This commission was made possible by the generosity and underwriting of the James H. and Irene M. Hunter Charitable Trust.

Theofanidis has so graciously written to me with first comments about his work that I shall share below. He will be adding more thoughts for my June Fran’s Corner and again for the week of the Premiere. I am so grateful to have his words about the Quintet, rather than my speculations about the work. Here is what Theofanidis wrote as a brief introduction to his Quintet in his friendly e-mail that I received yesterday:           

Composer Christopher Theofanidis

Composer Christopher Theofanidis

Hi Fran - this is a meaningful project to me for a number of reasons.  One is that it brings me back in touch with Alex Fiterstein, who I knew when I was teaching at Juilliard about 20 years ago.  He was a force then and now, and this piece and it’s writing for clarinet in particular, owes something substantial to the sound-world of his I know.  The fact that it is also a work centered around the string quartet is meaningful to me.  The pieces that have been my ‘deepest dives’ in my output so to speak have involved string quartets.  

There are three movements, and the piece lasts around 20 minutes.  It has something of a psychological arc.  The first movement is titled, The war in heaven, and alternates between a volatile and fast musical language and a music which is slower, more pained.  Their materials come together in dialogue throughout the movement.  Its core centers around an existential psychological battle in a way.

The second movement, Aria for a lost beauty, takes place in the spiritual aftermath of the first- remembering a time of beauty before the crisis, but with a great sense of longing.  There are extended passages in this movement with just the string quartet alone, though the clarinet is still very integral to the ‘voice’ of the aria.

The third movement, Fire and magic, moves on from this opening two movement grouping but has in it a sense of running- maybe away from, maybe toward something which is not entirely known.  


I so look forward to his next installment! And here are a few words from Alexander Fiterstein, the clarinetist performing the Quintet with the Ariel Quartet. He had just recently opened the score and wrote:

“I will not be rehearsing the quartet until close to the premiere. What I can say is that I am a big enthusiast of Chris Theofanidis’ music. I first met him and played his music nearly 20 years ago in New York City. The premiere will be a surprise (as it always is with a brand new work)…I can say that there are some beautiful melodies and the clarinet and strings seem to be in sync throughout the work.”         

Claude Debussy alongside his wife Emma Bardac

Claude Debussy alongside his wife Emma Bardac

As I look at the first program, and indeed all the programs, I note how wonderfully Adam Neiman has crafted the season. I am immediately struck by the diverse instrumental settings that each chamber concert will present. Chamber music is the perfect genre or vehicle for the exploration of instrumental timbre. A small ensemble allows vast opportunities to hear the voice quality of an instrument both as an integral part of a group and as a solo voice.

The first concert on July 11th offers three pieces that showcase different instruments. The melodic woodwind voice of the clarinet, the mellow string warmth of the viola and the wide range of possibilities that the percussion instrument, the piano, offers. YES! The piano is a percussion instrument! If you doubt me, look it up on Google! 

My detailed comments about the Schumann Piano Quintet in Eb Major and the Brahms String Quintet in F Major that features a second viola will be posted the week before the opening concert. Also on the program is a favorite of mine, the melodic, sweet one movement Schubert work, Quartettsatz.

Composer Josef Suk

Composer Josef Suk

The second Thursday brings us an amazing canvas of chamber music choices. In this second concert the violin is prominent and the timbre of the instrument is shown off brilliantly. Each work is often bittersweet in mood, but so different in the expression of that mood; all so different, all magical. Do you know the Czech composer, Josef Suk? He was Dvořák’s son-in-law. His plaintive Elegy for Piano Trio is on the menu followed by his father-in-law’s very famous, Piano Trio No. 4 known familiarly as “Dumky”. (You can look up the meaning of the slavic term or wait until I write a bit about it). Debussy’s only String Quartet is featured in the first half of this concert. It is a sensual, impressionist masterpiece.

The third concert again features the particular qualities of individual instruments. There will be an amazing Flute Sonata by Prokofieff on the program. It is filled with lyrical passages and rhythmical leaping pyrotechnics for the woodwind. This sonata will share the program with Elgar’s haunting and often nostalgic Piano Quintet in A minor. The strings and the piano compete for attention in this work that is so filled with the spirit of Brahms.

Robert and Clara Schumann

Robert and Clara Schumann

Do you acknowledge that the human voice is the original musical instrument? Get ready to do so! Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe, (“A Poet’s Love”) is part of the fourth concert. It is an amazing emotional example of the art of Lieder (German Art song). The work is paired with one of the most famous Piano Trios in chamber literature, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, Op. 97. I shall delve into the intriguing stories behind these famous works the week before the August 1st concert.

Are you getting excited about the wide range of offerings that await you? Well, how about being blown away by an arrangement of the epic J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations? You will hear a meticulous, complete capture of the gigantic composition originally written for harpsichord, scored for string trio. The transcription of the Aria and 30 Variations will take your breath away. Do listen to the gigantic work as the one and only Glenn Gould or Rosalyn Tureck performed it before you come to the concert. I hope I have piqued your interest and I will indeed tell you about Sitkovetsky, the composer who conceived of this transcription. I’ll expound in July about definitions of arrangements, covers and transcriptions.

I have not even mentioned the Orchestra Concert or the Opera evening. In due time, I shall discuss both evenings and the works being performed.

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano

As I just mentioned the Orchestra Concert, here is a question. Are you aware that our own Adam Neiman is performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s youthful, romantic Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor?  Be prepared for gripping emotional material intensely delivered and over the top virtuosic piano displays! The MMF Orchestra will be under the baton of returning Maestro, Ignat Solzhenitsyn. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending opens the concert. Brahms’ Symphony, No. 2 in D Major, Op.73 is the monumental offering after intermission. A most fitting finale for the 2019 MMF season! And what is your most favorite opera aria? Most likely you will hear it performed at the A Night at the Opera evening. The concert will be filled with familiar and beloved arias and scenes performed by acclaimed young opera stars and the wonderful Warren Jones, opera coach, pianist and collaborative artist.

Finally, below I have listed a handful of wonderful YouTube performances of some of the works mentioned above. There will be more included for each week’s concert. Perhaps this will lead you to look up some information. Do not worry if you do not go to Google. I will attempt to fill you in on background information as the season rolls on. Until mid-June, I wish you all some clear warm days and lots of great music to enjoy.

Cartoon of Johannes Brahms at the piano

Cartoon of Johannes Brahms at the piano

Perhaps start today with Williams’ The Lark Ascending over our Green Mountains, (not over “England’s green and pleasant land”) and Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 109. They are both lovely Spring into Summer joys. NB: The Brahms String Quintet in F Major, Op. 88 that is on the opening program is often dubbed “Spring”. Whatever you choose to hear, enjoy!  

-Fran Rosenthal

Further Listening