Friday, October 27, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, October 29, 2017, 2:00 p.m.
Jennifer Haas – violin
William Polk – violin
Burchard Tang – viola
John Koen – cello
Michael Shahan – bass
Samuel Caviezel – clarinet
Mark Gigliotti – bassoon
Kiyoko Takauti – piano
Bernhard Henrik Crusell
Quartet in C minor
The son of a bookbinder, Crusell was born in Finland when it was part of Sweden. His musical talent gained him an apprenticeship in a military band at age thirteen. When the band was transferred to Stockholm, Crusell settled in the Swedish capital and made his home there for the rest of his life, becoming first clarinetist in the court orchestra and a soloist with a European reputation. He made a number of trips abroad for study and to arrange for the publication of his works.
Crusell lived in the era in which the clarinet came into its own. Many of the finest works for the instrument were composed during his career, but they were for the most part written by non-clarinetist composers such as Mozart, Weber, and Spohr for performers they knew. By contrast, Crusell wrote primarily for his own instrument. Most of the other music by clarinetist composers of the period has been forgotten, but Crusell’s attractive and well-crafted works, notably three quartets and three concertos, are becoming well known again.
Three chords signal the beginning of the Quartet, but the clarinet quickly establishes itself as the principal melodic voice, sometimes in dialogue with the violin. The opening mood is pathetic, though perhaps not as dramatic as one would expect from the performance direction molto agitato—“very agitated.” More optimistic material briefly appears later, but the movement closes on a somber note. The Menuetto is likewise serious. The Pastorale lives up to its name, its relaxed character providing a contrast to the rest of the work. The Rondo starts out seriously, but a more cheerful theme enters later in the movement, and at the end this theme returns to dispel the gloom and conclude the Quartet on a carefree note.
Dvořák first tasted fame and financial success in the late 1870s as a composer for the amateur market, which provided his bread and butter for several years. In December 1879 and January 1880, he wrote a set of eight waltzes for piano that in a matter of months found their way into print as his op. 54. He arranged the first and fourth of the set for strings, but set them aside, and the arrangements were not published until after his death. The waltzes make an effective pairing; the first is slow and sentimental, while the second is livelier and rustic in tone.
The career of Jean Françaix spanned a full 75 years. His first piano piece was published when he was ten, and he composed prolifically until his death at 85, creating a large catalog including operas, ballets, film scores, the oratorio The Apocalypse According to St. John, concertos, and chamber music. The one time his production slowed down was during the German occupation of France; this Divertissement of 1942, performable with string orchestra as well as in this chamber version, is the most important work he composed during that traumatic period. Françaix withheld it from the public for a quarter century. As it turned out, in those years the world had changed so greatly that the work was first performed in 1968 at the Schwetzingen Festival in Germany, and it was published by the German firm of Schott, Françaix’s regular publisher in the last decades of his career.
The Divertissement shows no trace of its origin. As the title would imply, it has an air of witty and intelligent conversation thoughout. Three of the movements are lively and cheerful; the second movement is a trifle pensive, but like the others, short and to the point.
Quartet in E-flat major
1842 was Schumann’s great year for chamber music: between that June and November he composed his three string quartets, op. 41; the great quintet for piano and strings, op. 44; and this piano quartet. The quintet has tended to overshadow the other four works, as it is not only a fine piece in its own terms but it defined an important new genre of chamber music. This piano quartet, though, is musically just as worthwhile and also just as important historically. Mozart had established the piano quartet as an ensemble with his two great quartets of the 1780s (one of which we will hear later this season), but in the fifty years following, it had become a secondary genre. Many piano quartets had been composed and published, but they were by lesser composers or by younger composers on their way to better things—Mendelssohn, for instance, wrote three as a teenager but none in his later years. Schumann’s piano quartet is the first real masterpiece of the genre since Mozart’s, and it helped reawaken the interest of composers in the combination. As Mozart’s piano quartets have three movements, Schumann’s is also the first great piano quartet to follow the four-movement pattern common in large nineteenth-century instrumental works. The piano quartets of such composers as Brahms, Dvořák, and Fauré followed Schumann’s lead in this regard. Schumann, in turn, seems to have had Beethoven very much in mind in the overall style of his own work.
While the piano quintet is notable for its spontaneous flow of ideas, in this quartet Schumann takes a more studied approach, building his themes out of short motifs as Beethoven does and thereby achieving more inner cohesion. The slow Sostenuto (Sustained) introduction to the first movement is just long enough to present the four-note germ of the theme that opens the main section. The four-note idea sets the fast part of the movement in motion and recurs frequently thereafter; eventually Schumann introduces a contrasting idea with a strong offbeat. The Sostenuto opening returns before the development section of the movement (as does the slow introduction to the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata for piano, op. 13), but the movement runs its normal course thereafter.
The second movement is the scherzo, the fast inner movement of the structure. It is an agitated movement in perpetual motion, much of it in bare octaves. There are two contrasting episodes, but the perpetual-motion music soon reasserts itself in both.
The broad melody in the cello that opens the third movement belongs to a type Beethoven favored. After a contrasting episode, the melody returns in the viola, while Schumann directs the cellist to retune the bottom string on the instrument from C to B-flat. When this is done, the cello has the melody once more, but then settles on a sustained low B-flat (impossible without the retuning). The other instruments in turn play a motif consisting of three notes separated by wide leaps; the movement ends in an unsettled fashion.
Those three notes prove to be the main motif of the last movement of the quartet. After a triumphant initial combined statement, the viola, piano, and violin in turn come in with rapid passagework in imitation. (There are several possible models for this sort of opening among Beethoven’s finales.) The cello now introduces a flowing melody that provides the main element of contrast to the opening material of the movement. Schumann expertly works out these ideas in the course of the movement, bringing the quartet to a rousing conclusion.