Monday, September 01, 2008

The Last Night of Gretna's Summer: A Pre-Concert Talk

Sunday evening, I spoke before the last concert of Gretna Music's 2008 Summer season. It was my first pre-concert talk as a private citizen: the text is included, below. We had a nice, attentive crowd for the talk and a good, responsive crowd for the concert - not to mention great weather! Even the tree-frogs and cicadas seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The performance was wonderful and there were probably very few in the audience who'd consider themselves familiar with the Chausson Piano Quartet, a real discovery even for me.

In fact, before it was listed on the program, I didn't even know it existed. It was Gretna's artistic coordinator and general second-in-command Carl Kane who came up with it. I asked him how he had first heard it and he said, simply, he was tooling around on the internet looking for repertoire that doesn't get performed much, and there it was. So he checked out a recording and suggested it to the performers.

This also surprised me because that meant it wasn't already in their repertoire: they learned it just for this concert. Apparently, they complained about how hard the piece was to play - it is certainly no easy piece and Anna Polonsky, the pianist, said it was harder than it looked (but then, on a different level, one can say the same for Mozart). They played it like it was something they've been playing for years and made a very strong case for it to be performed more often. I was thinking it would be nice if groups looking for works to play might consider it as an alternative the next time they program standards like Schumann, Dvořák or Fauré.

It's in the four usual movements with a whirlwind of a finale that just keeps driving more and more to the end, with its endless reams of right arpeggios sweeping up and down the keyboard. The third was a whistful waltz with some fascinating rhythmic twists that reminded me of music Ravel would write a few years later (especially his Piano Trio, written 17 years later). But there was one moment in the slow movement that just grabbed me: the three stringed instruments are playing the melody in unison - the viola in its characteristic middle register, the cello in its more pungent upper register, the violin in its lower register, each one added a different sonority to the mix - when suddenly they all three part their separate ways, blossoming out to create a few chords to round out the phrase with a rich cadence. Just a superb if subtle touch.

The Schubert was elegant and sounded like well-ordered Mozart. The Mozart had passion where it was needed and sounded like something Schubert might have written (it's certainly not typical of 1780s classicism). The balance between the drama and lyricism of the first movement gave way to a gorgeously played slow movement. But it was in the playful last movement that you discover how much fun it can be to play great music like this. Smiling as they tossed phrases back and forth or complemented each other with responses, they were clearly enjoying themselves. Too bad it was the last concert of the season: it was the kind of music-making you wanted to just keep on going... and going...

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: String Trio in B-flat, D.471 (in one movement)
Mozart: Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478
- - - -
Chausson: Piano Quartet in A Major, Op.30
Members of the Lark Chamber Artists & pianist Anna Polonsky

Looking at tonight’s program – Schubert, Mozart and Chausson – you may notice there are lots of contrasts on either side of intermission: Schubert writing the first piece 30 years after Mozart wrote the 2nd piece, both almost equidistant from the year 1800; and Chausson writing the piece on the 2nd half at the tail-end of the 19th Century... The Classical Era, in the sense of its aesthetic, on the first half; a more Romantic style after ‘half-time.’

A common thread in this program could be the game “What If” – since they each died young, more ore less, or at least certainly before they might have reached their full potential. Schubert died at 31 – Mozart at 35 – and Chausson at 44. Though older but something of a late-bloomer, only 21 years span Chausson’s first piece to his last. Mozart was composing for about 29 years of his life and Schubert a mere 18.

What they all might have accomplished if they’d lived longer is anybody’s guess. There are only 39 opus numbers in Chausson’s published catalogue. The Köchel Catalogue of Mozart works lists his last work, the unfinished Requiem, as K.626. In those 18 years, Schubert wrote enough works that Otto Deutsche’s catalogue ends at 998 – and several additional works like the fragments of an unfinished symphony that came to light years later inserted as D.708-A...

Schubert was 19 when he composed the String Trio that opens the concert. It’s in one movement. There is also a fragment of the start of a second movement so you could officially call it the “Unfinished String Trio” which might help distinguish it from the four-movement and therefore complete string trio – also in the same key, just to keep it confusing – which he wrote exactly one year later. Schubert left a lot of unfinished business – not just ONE unfinished symphony but at least four more. There’s also the famous “Quartetsatz” or “Quartet Movement” which is not a one-movement work for string quartet since there are also fairly extended sketches for a second movement to go along with it. He just didn’t write the rest of it.

WHY this piece (or the Quartetsatz) never received three more movements is not something anyone can really answer. Or why the one he wrote a year later did. It’s possible he didn’t think it that worthwhile and so he didn’t bother. Two years later, he’d complained to a friend, whenever he felt “stuck,” or he was producing “boring stuff” as he called it, he just put it aside and started something else. It would fit Schubert’s nature to do that: friends described him as writing music as easily as a fruit tree produces fruit...

What else was Schubert writing in September, 1816, when he started the trio we’ll hear tonight? Later that month, he would complete his Fifth Symphony – a delightful, Mozart-like work famously “without trumpets or drums,” which an amateur sight-reading orchestra read through in October. This orchestra grew out of the Schubert Family Quartet – brothers Ferdinand and Karl playing violins; Schubert himself, the viola; their father, the cello – gradually including more friends and other amateur musicians. The concertmaster who led the orchestra at this time was a merchant named Hatwig. It was in his house the orchestra gathered periodically to read through standard repertoire. Behind him sat Ferdinand Schubert. Franz Schubert was the principal violist, and one of the flute-playing Doppler brothers was the principal bassoonist. A second violinist was Heinrich Grob, the son of a well-to-do silk merchant who lived in the Schuberts’ neighborhood – Teresa Grob, Heinrich’s sister, by the way, was the soprano soloist in Schubert’s first public performance, his first Mass, written when he was 17. She had a fine, high soprano voice and he wrote a number of songs for her – including something you might be familiar with, a little number called “Gretchen am Spinnrad.”

When these teen-agers fell in love is hard to say, but her father wasn’t terribly interested in a poor musician who’d probably be just another poor Viennese school-teacher, just like his father. During 1816, Schubert wrote out many of his songs for her which she kept in a specially bound album, including a few she copied out herself. She kept this till the day she died – her family and their descendants wouldn’t allow anyone else to even see this collection until well into the 20th Century.

Schubert’s heart wasn’t into following in his father’s footsteps. But in April, 1816, he applied for a fairly reasonable teaching position in a town far to the southern reaches of the Austrian Empire, what is now the Capital of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. By early September he got his rejection letter. That was the month he wrote the string trio we’ll hear this evening.

It was clear without a job like this one, Teresa’s father wasn’t going to let him marry his daughter. Two years later, she married Johann Bergmann, a master baker several years her senior. After all, what promise did a boy like Schubert have?

Two other things happened earlier that summer in 1816. Franz Schubert wrote a little cantata for him and his friends to sing at a celebration for the 50th Anniversary of his teacher’s arrival in Vienna. His name was Antonio Salieri and he’s more famous today not for any music he ever composed but because of the rumors he had poisoned Mozart. All that aside, he was a very important composer in Vienna – actually, more important, technically, than Mozart had been. After this anniversary party, Schubert wrote in his diary:

“It must be fine and enlivening for an artist to see all his pupils gathered around him, each one striving to give of his best for his master’s jubilee, and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common nowadays and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists” (by that, he meant Beethoven) “that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God.”

The work we’re about to hear is a far different work from the Quintet in C Major you might have heard last week with the Audubon Quartet, a masterpiece written in the final months of his life but when he had long been following the path Beethoven had set up in his own final years. Amazing what 12 years can do...

In 1816, however, Beethoven had been in the midst of a dry period – five years earlier he’d written his 7th and 8th Symphonies; the Hammerklavier Sonata would be written the following year. Perhaps his most recent famous piece was “Wellington’s Victory” which was actually a timely response to Current Events. It had been written following the news that Napoleon’s troops in Spain had been defeated by the English General, the Duke of Wellington. In 1815, it was being performed during the celebration of the defeat of Napoleon himself at the Battle of Waterloo. Diplomats and crowned heads from across Europe gathered in Vienna to re-draw the map following two decades of almost constant warfare with Napoleon and the ever-expanding French Empire which he tried to stretch all across the continent, from Spain to Russia, from Egypt to Sweden. 1816 was now the first year someone as old as Franz Schubert would have lived without some war somewhere against Napoleon!

One other event in Schubert’s life, that summer: he was 19 and had some 450 works in the catalogue already when he composed a cantata for another celebration, this one called “Prometheus.” The music is lost and we know nothing about the music but we know that it exists because people wrote about it, including Schubert. Going back to his own journal entry at the time: on June 27th, 1816, he wrote after finishing it, “Today I composed for money for the first time.”

Mozart had been, you might think, luckier. He was recognized as a child prodigy, trundled about Europe by his father, Leopold, the original Stage Father, when he was not even yet in double-digits, amazing everybody with his talents at the keyboard and as a composer. By the ripe-old-age of 19, he had already written the first 220-some works in the Köchel Catalogue. That year, he composed the five violin concertos.

When he was 25, he broke from his father’s grasp and moved to Vienna, famously getting himself quite literally kicked out of a respectable but not very edifying job with the Archbishop of Salzburg. After all these years of not finding even an un-reasonable job as a court musician – no doubt hampered by the fact his whole family came along as part of the deal (the Empress of Austria flatly advised her son, the Archduke of Milan who was considering hiring Mozart, “Do not have anything to do with these people”) – Mozart wanted to be on his own and so he took off for the incredible opportunities of the imperial capital of Vienna, leaving his home-town of Salzburg and its go-nowhere provincialism behind.

That was in 1781. It was not all that easy, trying to make a living in Vienna. For one thing, he was not very good at Reality 101. His father, who looked after everything for him, had more or less seen to that. Rather than feeling sad at losing a son, he was angry because he had lost the income of managing his son’s career. His biggest fear, once he realized Mozart was interested in marrying Constanze Weber, was that another family would take advantage of his talent and make a fortune from it.

In the year Mozart composed the piano quartet on tonight’s program, Leopold Mozart came to Vienna to visit his son. He must have been mightily impressed that his son was doing so well – writing several piano concertos and frequently performing in public during his visit. He had a chance to hear some of the new quartets Mozart had dedicated to Haydn when Haydn himself told the proud father, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

You’d think Leopold was a proud father. In actuality, there was an edginess between them. Leopold was realizing that the gulf between them was widening with each new success. Mozart was still like a little boy trying to please and impress his father. It was obvious to them that if the son had heeded his father’s advice, he would still be the court organist for the Archbishop of Salzburg, churning out serenades and masses as needed. It was now the son’s fault that he had, in fact, surpassed his father’s expectations.

So, after Leopold returned to Salzburg, a very strange thing happened. Mozart older sister, known to history by the nickname Nannerl, gave birth to her first child. She named her son Leopold after their father. And Leopold Sr took the baby into his own house and raised him himself for the first years of the boy’s life, determined to create in him another child prodigy.

By establishing the proper environment for the child, something the mother herself could not manage, Leopold felt the “family genius” would develop in his grandson, who was nicknamed Leopoldl or “Little Leopold” – he might as well have called him “Mini-Me.”

The plan was to be kept a secret from Mozart who only found out by word-of-mouth through family friends about four months later. Early the next year, realizing what was going on (and why), Mozart took on a student of his own, a little more mature at the age of seven, and moved him into his home – which, thinking of Mozart, Constanze and the chaos that seemed to accompany them everywhere, could hardly have been the same kind of environment Leopold had in mind. But yet, Johann Nepomuck Hummel DID go on to become the leading pianist of his generation and a major composer, a “famous pupil of Herr Mozart.” The fact the same thing did NOT happen to Mozart’s nephew, Little Leopold, is more the fault of Leopold Sr’s death when the child was only 2. True, he did grow up to play the piano, a little, but he preferred collecting old weapons and privy seals. He lived into his mid-50s, retiring as a respected auditor in the Imperial Revenue department.

On the 16th of October, 1785, not quite three months after the birth of his nephew, Mozart completed the Piano Quartet in G Minor we’re about to hear.

G Minor is a key that doesn’t appear often in Mozart’s catalogue. There are only two symphonies – out of all 41 – in a minor key, and both of those are in G Minor. In fact, minor keys at all are fairly unusual: the old adage that Major Keys sound happy and Minor Keys sound sad may have something to do with it. To the late-18th Century, minor keys meant something serious (if not always sad), often too dramatic for what was considered “good entertainment.”

The first movement of this piano quartet is more 19th-Century Romanticism than 18th-Century Classicism, complete with a dramatic dialogue between the instruments – Bruce Adolphe, in an amusing presentation with Market Square Concerts a few seasons ago, described it as a murder trial, complete with an accusing lawyer and a demure suspect. The rest of the piece is far removed from that: as if to make up for the intellectual turmoil of its first movement, there’s a gorgeous slow movement (truly “to die for” if not “to kill for”); the last movement is one of the most delightful finales in Mozart’s catalogue.

While most contests to “name your favorite composer” end up with more votes for Mozart, Bach, Beethoven or Schubert than anyone else – and in this year of Presidential Politics, it’s interesting to note that neither Mozart nor Schubert lived long enough to be able to run for President, should such a surreal occurrence have happened.

Ernest Chausson is not likely to appear very high on such lists. Unlike Schubert and Mozart – and most great composers – who were always having problems with money all their lives, Chausson had something more in common with Mendelssohn who was born into a wealthy banker’s family in Germany. They set up Sunday afternoon musicales at their Berlin home where the greatest musical and literary figures gathered to hear the two talented children perform – Fanny who was a brilliant pianist and composer, and her little brother Felix, who composed, played the piano and the violin. Oh, and both kids also conducted the little orchestras their father hired for some of the larger scale musicales.

Ernest Chausson’s father made the family fortune by being a public works contractor in Paris when the city was being almost completely rebuilt into the modern city we know today with its great monuments, wide avenues and beautiful vistas. His tutor stimulated his interest in the arts – in music and in drawing, primarily. At the age of 15, he gained access to some of the best salons of Paris, rubbing shoulders with celebrities in the arts and the social worlds of the City of Light. He met another young composer named Vincent D’Indy and he got to know a lot of great music – curiously, the names that meant most to him were German names: Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. He became acquainted with the music of Bach and with Beethoven symphonies played as piano duets.

The son did not, essentially, NEED to work, but his parents were not keen on the idea of a career in the arts. He was destined for a life as a lawyer – after all, he could play music or fill his sketchbooks with pretty pictures in his spare time, right? Though he showed talent in both areas, he gave in to his father’s wishes and earned a law degree in 1876, earning his doctorate the following year. Later that year, he wrote his first song. He was 22.

By the age of 22, Mozart had written his 31st Symphony, “The Paris Symphony;” Schubert, his “Trout” Quintet.

Two years later, Chausson became a student at the Paris Conservatoire, studying w/Jules Massenet. He had gotten his law degrees and was even sworn in as a member of the Bar, becoming a lawyer on Paris Court of Appeal. But he never actually practiced – he figured he’d given his father what he wanted – a law degree – and from here on out, he was going to follow his own plan.

There are two lines of style in France at this time – a more classical oriented style led by Camille Saint-Saëns (whom one of my college text books had referred to as the “Leader of the Charm School”) and Jules Massenet, known primarily for his operas, like Thaïs; and a more romantic, German-inspired or, depending on your patriotism in the years following the French loss in the Franco-Prussian War, the German-infested style that drew inspiration from Richard Wagner and was led by the Belgian-born Cesar Franck (though he had long lived in Paris, followers of Saint-Saëns pointed out he was, after all, not French).

So it’s rather surprising that a student of Massenet’s would travel to Munich not once but twice to hear the complete Ring in 1879 and again the following year to hear Tristan und Isolde; then going to the very home of Wagner himself for the world premiere of Parsifal in 1882.

After two years of study, though, and losing out on the Prix de Rome, he withdrew from the conservatory and began composing on his own. His Piano Trio in G Minor – published as Op. 3 – is obviously influenced by his teacher Massenet, but the harmonic language starting to go over to the “Dark Side” of French music, the chromatic richness of Cesar Franck – who at this point had premiered his Piano Quintet (dedicated to Saint-Saëns who premiered it but despised it): the Violin Sonata, the Symphonic Variations and the D Minor Symphony were all in the near future. He “monitored” Franck’s classes as a non-paying “listener” rather than an official student.

A few months after attending the premiere of Parsifal, with its sensuous music for the sorceress Kundry, Chausson wrote a symphonic poem about a fairy named Viviane, taking an episode from the legends around King Arthur, in which she has an affair with the wizard Merlin. He dedicated this work to his fiancé – incidentally, they spent their honeymoon at Bayreuth, attending another performance of Parsifal.

He was, however, a slow composer – there are only 39 published works in his catalogue. While he didn’t need to write for money, he spent a lot of time perfecting each piece so as not to be branded a dilettante. His affluence came in handy: he was able to give discreet assistance to younger composers like Debussy who were in need.

He became director of the National Music Society at 31 and now began developing a more intense style, as if his new involvement in the artistic and intellectual life of Paris demanded even more self-doubts requiring even more care. He went from writing charming songs to large-scale works like “The Songs of Love and of the Sea” and “The Legend of St. Cecilia” – plus the opera “King Arthur” which he worked on for 9 years. It may sound like a French version of Tristan, but the work is far removed from Wagner’s philosophical pessimism.

Living in Paris, he began holding his own salon where some of the great names – or not-yet-great names – of the arts gathered and discussed their arts: poets like Mallarmé, composers like Debussy and Albeniz, and performers like Alfred Cortot and Eugene Ysaÿe.

Two more works were written during this time – his only Symphony and a rather strange work that is combination violin sonata, double concerto and string quartet. It’s called, in French, “Concért” in D Major for violin, piano and string quartet – not a piano sextet (usually translated into English as “Concerto”). The quartet essentially acts as the accompaniment to the violin and piano combination though the divisions of labor are really a little more complicated than that.

By the time his father died in 1894, Chausson had discovered Russian writers and with that influence - despite his tranquil personal life - realized a kind of latent pessimism, typical for the end of a century. His most famous work dates from this period, his “Poeme” for violin and orchestra which was inspired by a short story by Turgenev though the subject matter kind of got misplaced along the way.

At this point, now in his early-40s, he made a conscious effort to eliminate “all outside influences” from his musical voice. The first work of this new approach is the work that closes tonight’s program – the Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 30 – which writers have described as “luminous,” “confident” – yet “almost gay” work. To be honest, I’ve not heard a note of this piece [before the concert], so if you’ve not heard it before, we’ll discover it together.

In it - and the few works he wrote in the next two years - he does things musically that Ravel and Koechlin got credit for doing later. Who knows where this influence might have developed given the other works on his desk – a nearly finished string quartet, sketches for a new symphony – when he was riding down a hill on his country estate one late Spring day, lost control of his bicycle and slammed head-first into a stone wall, dying at the age of 44.

According to the Grove Dictionary, near the end of his life he’d begun to apply “the rule which corrects emotion... to achieve that supreme [unflagging effort] that renders the thought loftier, the image clearer,” combining in some context a balance between form and content, structure and emotion, classical and romantic, the sort of quest of artists who begin dealing with more mature issues rather than just purely creative ones. It’s hard to believe that, at the time of his death, Chausson was just beginning to attain his maturity.

Tonight, as we round out the summer, we’ll hear three pieces of music by three great composers, none of whose lives had happy endings, necessarily, but we’re happy to have the works we do have of theirs.

- Dr. Dick

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Picture credits:
top - an anonymous portrait of Franz Schubert as a teen-ager;
middle - a family portrait painted in 1780 by Johann Nepomuck della Croce of The Mozarts with Nannerl (Maria Anna) and Wolfgang at the keyboard, their father Leopold leaning against the piano, with the portrait of Mozart's mother, Anna Maria, who had died a few years before, hung on the wall behind them;
bottom - Ernest Chausson in 1897, the year he composed the Piano Quartet in A Major.

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