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: