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.

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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.

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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!

-Fran

*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: