1. Letter Perfect B’s: Beethoven, Brahms, Beach & Bonis
Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937)
Soir-Matin, Op. 76, for piano trio (1907)
Mélanie Bonis was a highly prolific French composer at a time when women were often forcibly discouraged from professional aspirations in music. Born into a lower-middle-class Parisian family, she taught herself the piano and began to compose by the age of 16, all without familial encouragement. Fortunately, one of her parents’ friends happened to be professor of cornet at the Paris Conservatoire. He prevailed on Bonis’ parents to offer her a musical education and arranged an introduction to César Franck. Franck took Bonis on as a piano and composition student and managed to gain her admittance into the Conservatoire. (Claude Debussy was among her fellow students.) To combat the prevailing belief that women could compose nothing of value, she took up the male pseudonym Mel Bonis. All of her works were published under this ruse.
While at the Conservatoire, Bonis met a young student singer named Amédée Landély Hettich. The two quickly developed a passionate relationship and planned to marry. Bonis’ parents were horrified at this development, refused permission for the two to marry, removed Bonis from the Conservatoire, and arranged a marriage for her to Albert Domange, a respectable businessman 25 years her senior. Bonis accepted her fate and seemed to play the role of Mme. Domange without complaint, raising his five boys from previous marriages and giving him three children of her own.
After about ten years of marriage, she met Hettich again. By this time, he had married, but he encouraged her to compose and introduced her to the publisher Alphonse Leduc. Her works began to be published and played in the salons. Bonis’ working relationship with Hettich soon became impassioned, and Bonis became pregnant with his child. While traveling to Switzerland on a supposed health cure, she secretly gave birth to a fourth child, Madeleine, whom she would never be able to recognize legally, and whom she could only see grow up from afar.
Bonis channeled all of this turmoil into composition, writing nearly three hundred works: piano solos and duets, works for choir, chamber music, and eleven orchestral pieces. The piano trio Soir-Matin (“Evening and morning”) was written in 1907 and premiered by the Chaigneau Trio, a prominent trio of French sisters. It is in two movements, the first evoking a calm, mostly peaceful evening, the second evoking the restlessness of awakening in the morning. The work is full of chromaticism and unusual modulations that push at the edges of traditional harmony. Saint-Saëns, upon hearing the work, said "I never thought a woman could write something such as this. She knows all the clever tricks of the composer's trade!”
The story of Bonis and her illegitimate daughter does not end well. After World War I, Bonis was able to take her daughter Madeleine into her home as an orphan victim of the war. She introduced her as her goddaughter. Unfortunately, a romance sprang up between Madeleine (the illegitimate daughter) and Édouard, Bonis’ youngest son by Albert Domange. The only argument Bonis could bring against this union was the truth—and it devastated Madeleine.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808)
Joseph Haydn is usually credited with “inventing” the piano trio, that wonderful and versatile combination of piano, violin, and cello. His trios, more than 40 in number, span his entire compositional lifetime. All of his trios are conceived as “accompanied sonatas,” sonatas for the keyboard (harpsichord in the early trios, piano in the later ones) with the accompaniment of the violin and cello. In the early trios, the violin and cello parts are relatively minor. But in Haydn’s mature trios, the violin and cello start to escape the gravitational pull of the piano and become more independent. We can see the same progression taken further by Mozart in his trios: his great trios, all written relatively late in his career, show a balanced independence of parts. Ludwig van Beethoven took this progression even further, completely liberating the violin and cello from the accompanying role and expanding the piano trio form in size, seriousness, and difficulty—just as the piano itself was undergoing tremendous advances in engineering. He established the piano trio as one of the central genres of chamber music.
Likely the most important musical relationship in the young Beethoven’s compositional life was his brief period of study with Haydn. Beethoven had been encouraged to move from Bonn to Vienna by his first patron, Count Waldstein, who told him that in Vienna he would receive “the spirit of Mozart through Haydn’s hands.” Haydn, the leading composer of the day, accepted the young Beethoven as a student and did his best to be helpful and encouraging, recognizing Beethoven’s great talent. While studying with Haydn, Beethoven wrote his first three piano trios—it was no accident that this was the very genre pioneered by Haydn—and published them as his Opus 1. Thinking to help the young composer by “lending” him his own fame, Haydn suggested the title page of the publication could read “Ludwig van Beethoven, student of Joseph Haydn.” Beethoven, a man of tremendously suspicious and difficult nature, took this suggestion as an attempt to steal credit for his creativity. He saw in Haydn nothing but an obstacle to his career in Vienna, despite much evidence to the contrary. Their relationship soured, and Beethoven went so far as to claim he had learned nothing from Haydn—a claim seriously belied by his music. All the while, Haydn continued his support of the younger composer, introducing him to patrons and publishers. Beethoven revised his opinion of Haydn in 1808 when he saw the composer for the last time, now a frail old man and no longer a threat to his career, at a performance of Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation.
Haydn’s influence pervades Beethoven’s music, even as Beethoven developed his own musical language, and we can see it particularly well in the Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2. This trio, written shortly after Beethoven’s last meeting with Haydn in 1808, is the companion piece to the much more famous “Ghost” Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1. It is one of the most instantly engaging of Beethoven’s works, and it is modeled in part on Haydn’s great “Drumroll” Symphony No. 103. It may well have been conceived (consciously or not) as an homage to his sometime mentor. Haydn’s symphony, one of his famous “London” symphonies, is written in E-flat Major in 6/8 time—as is Beethoven’s trio. Haydn’s symphony has a slow introduction whose material is very tightly integrated into the body of the first movement—so closely integrated that it reappears, in its original tempo, in the coda of the movement—as also happens in Beethoven’s trio. Haydn’s not-so-slow “slow movement” is a set of double variations on two alternating, related themes—a form Haydn pioneered and used frequently. Haydn’s movement begins in C minor and ends in C Major. Beethoven’s not-so-slow “slow movement” is a set of double variations on two alternating, related Haydn-esque themes that begins in C Major and ends in C minor. Beethoven’s third-movement minuet quotes the beginning of the famous Largo of Haydn’s Symphony no. 88, even as the trio of the minuet looks forward to Schubert. And Beethoven’s finale, full of exuberance and rhythmic wit, recalls the spirit of Haydn quite strongly, albeit in Beethoven’s own musical language.
The two trios of Op. 70 were dedicated to Countess Marie von Erdödy, a prominent Hungarian aristocrat and one of Beethoven’s most important patrons, and premiered at her Vienna home in December, 1808. Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s most significant student, maintained that Beethoven based part of his finale on Croatian melodies that were popular in Hungary at the time—a likely nod to the Countess.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, op. 67 (1908)
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach is considered to be the first truly successful female American composer in the field of classical music, even though the repressive Victorian mores of the time prevented her from fully developing her career. Beach was an unusually musical child with perfect pitch and a great aptitude for the piano. She became an outstanding virtuoso pianist, and her performances were invariably well-received. Her first compositions were published at the age of sixteen. Although many professional musicians suggested to her family that Beach study composition in Europe—the traditional training path for American composers at that time—this was never a real possibility for a young single woman in conservative Boston. Instead, she taught herself composition by studying the works of the masters.
Amy Cheney married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston surgeon older than her father, when she was eighteen. As a wife in society, she could no longer perform as frequently as she liked, and her performances were mostly restricted to charity appearances. However, her husband encouraged her to turn her musical talents more fully to composition and to publish her works under the name “Mrs. H.H. A. Beach.” Ironically, it is due to the repressive nature of Victorian society that she turned so strongly to composition. She came to accept and even appreciate her lot, saying that "my compositions gave me a larger field [than my performances]. From Boston, I could reach out to the world." When her husband died in 1910, she went to Europe as simply “Amy Beach,” revived her performing career, and tirelessly promoted her compositions and the works of other women composers.
The Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, is one of Beach’s most expansive and successful chamber works. Written in 1908, it was premiered on February 27 in Boston by the Hoffman Quartet with Beach at the piano. Critics found it “truly modern” and “distinctly rhapsodic...in the fashion of our times.” In fact, it owes much to the model of Brahms’ great piano quintet, and Beach goes so far as to adapt the second theme of Brahms’ finale as the main theme for her first movement. The work opens with a searching slow introduction that leads directly to a somber sonata-allegro form that features the adapted Brahms theme. The warm and expressive slow movement in D-flat Major includes much impassioned Lisztian writing for the piano. The finale begins in the mood of a virtuoso scherzo, but soon leads to a serious second theme and a brief fugato. In a surprise move, Beach brings back the material of the slow introduction to the first movement and develops her serious second theme further. The scherzo mood only returns at the very end in a brief and brilliant coda to this masterpiece of American chamber music.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
String Quintet in G Major, op. 111 (1890)
In December 1782, Mozart wrote a letter to his father describing some new piano concertos he had written:
These concertos are a happy medium between too heavy and too light. They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being insipid. There are parts here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, albeit without knowing why.
The combination of sophistication and accessibility that Mozart describes is a hard one to beat. It is also very hard to achieve: only the greatest composers—composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—are able to simultaneously challenge and charm an audience. Their music maintains the highest levels of craftsmanship and yet remains unhampered in its melodic and harmonic invention, spontaneity, and excitement. Of all the composers of the late nineteenth century, Johannes Brahms comes closest to the ideal that Mozart espoused. Listen to his music for the first time and you will be moved; listen to it for the hundredth time and you will find depths you did not know existed.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Brahms' chamber music; and it is especially apparent in the String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111. Brahms often retreated from Vienna to the countryside to compose. This quintet was written in the spring and summer of 1890 in the town of Bad Ischl, high in the Alps east of Salzburg, but its first sketches date from a vacation Brahms took in Italy in early 1890. Like Mendelssohn’s famous “Italian” symphony, an “Italian” exuberance and zest for life pours forth from the very first notes. Interestingly, Brahms initially envisioned this work as his fifth symphony. When he re-imagined the material as a string quintet, he created a problem of balance for the performers: the heroic opening theme, played by the cello, has to cut through an overlay of loud, thick, fluttering tremolo chords played by the four upper strings. Brahms’ friend Joachim begged Brahms to thin the texture, but to no avail—Brahms left it an issue for performers to resolve.
As critic James Keller points out, the scoring of the opening does convey “a sense of unbounded joy, a rapturous mood that will define this overwhelmingly positive work.” Upon reading the work, Brahms’ friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg wrote him that “it was like feeling spring breezes…. He who can invent all this must be in a happy frame of mind. It is the work of a man of thirty!” Another friend of Brahms, Max Kalbeck, thought the music evoked images of the Prater, the large public amusement park of Vienna. “You’ve hit it!” Brahms replied. “Among all the pretty girls!”
The poignant, serene slow movement is followed by a waltz that has the combination of sweet and sad so characteristic of Brahms and Schubert (a composer Brahms revered). The final movement begins in the “wrong” key (B Major) but leads energetically and emphatically to the home key, G Major. In a brief coda, Brahms launches into an animated Hungarian gypsy dance.
After such an ebullient work, full of youthful energy, it’s surprising to learn that Brahms thought of this quintet as his farewell to composition. Barely a month after the premiere of the quintet in November 1890, he sent off the work to his publisher with a message, "With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop." For a while, he stuck to his guns, fearing that his creative juices had dried up. But then something extraordinary happened: Brahms heard Richard Mühlfeld play the clarinet, and a world of new possibilities opened to him. Brahms listened to Mühlfeld for hours on end, entranced, and dubbed his new friend “Fräulein Klarinette.” He recognized in this instrument “another incarnation of the kind of dark, soulful voice that had always seduced him,” according to biographer Jan Swafford. And in the face of this realization, Brahms’ resolve crumbled and his creative juices were again at full force, leading to the autumnal masterpieces of his late years: the clarinet trio, the two clarinet sonatas, and the sublime clarinet quintet.