Quartet in C Major for flute, violin, viola, and cello, K. 285b (ca. 1781-82)
In 1777, the 21-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart traveled with his mother from Salzburg to Paris. Along the way, they made a four-month stop in Mannheim, seat of the Elector Palatine and home of the most famous orchestra in Europe. Mozart became good friends with the principal flutist, Johann Wendling, often having noon and evening meals at Wendling’s home. Wendling arranged for one of his wealthy students, Ferdinand DeJean, a surgeon with the Dutch East India Company, to commission Mozart for “three short concertos and a couple of quartets.”
At first Mozart was enthusiastic about the commission, perhaps because he was short of funds, and DeJean had promised him a hefty sum for the works. But his enthusiasm did not persist, and he had trouble completing the commission. He wrote his father,
It is not surprising that I have not been able to finish them for I never have a single quiet hour here. I can only compose at night, so that I can’t get up early as well; besides, one is not always in the mood for working. I could, to be sure, scribble off things the whole day long. But a composition of this kind goes out into the world and naturally I do not want to have cause to be ashamed of my name on the title page. Moreover, you know that I’ve become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear.
Another reason Mozart had difficulty with this commission is because he was distracted by a new love interest, Aloysia Weber. (He would eventually marry Aloysia’s sister, Constanze.)
The Flute Quartet in C Major, K. 285b, is the third of three quartets Mozart wrote for Ferdinand DeJean. It was most likely completed during Mozart’s first year in Vienna, well after the first two flute quartets, sometime in 1781-82. The quartet is in two movements, the second of which features themes recycled from the sixth movement of his Serenade no. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361 (the so-called “Gran Partita”). Mozart wrote several works for strings together with a “guest” from the wind family—flute, clarinet, oboe, and horn—and each displays a beautiful texture and outstanding part writing. The flute quartet is in a concertante style, where the flute is clearly the first among equals, likely as a nod to his amateur flutist patron. The quartet is a light and charming example of Mozart at his Rococo best, full of engaging tunes, displaying no sign of distaste for or difficulty with writing for the flute.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op. 49, for solo oboe (1951)
Benjamin Britten was one of the central figures of twentieth century music and considered by many the greatest British composer since the time of Henry Purcell. Like the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he produced masterpieces in every genre he turned his attention to: opera, orchestral works, choral works, songs, solo instrumental music, and chamber music. His mother’s ambition for him was to become the “fourth B” after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms—and he largely succeeded in this, although some might pick Bartók or Berg as the rightful occupant of this position.
Britten had a lifelong interest in the music and poetry of the past, to the point of setting the poetry of Michelangelo and arranging and editing the music of Henry Purcell. He also drew on the past in his masterpiece for solo oboe, Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op. 49, written in 1951. Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, was a Roman poet during the reign of Augustus and the lifetime of Jesus. His magnum opus, Metamorphoses, chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, and is the source of many of the Roman myths we know today. Britten drew on six of these myths in creating what many consider the greatest piece ever written for solo oboe. Two of the movements of this suite will be heard in today’s program, “Niobe, who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain," and “Arethusa, who, flying from the love of Alpheus the river god, was turned into a fountain.” Britten marks the music of “Niobe” with the word “piangendo” (“weeping”), and indeed the music is full of despair. In “Arethusa,” one can hear the movement of the water, Arethusa’s panicked flight, and her transformation into a fountain.
Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
Clarinet Quartet (1993)
Krzysztof Penderecki is considered to be Poland’s greatest living composer and one of the most important contemporary composers worldwide. Though he may not have a household name, his music has a certain household fame because it has appeared in so many popular horror movies, including The Exorcist and The Shining. His music has also been used in movies by Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
Penderecki’s career has mostly focused on opera, choral music, and orchestra music, with chamber music being restricted to a small number of highly regarded works. The Clarinet Quartet was written in 1993 during the decade of Penderecki’s most concentrated emphasis on chamber music. The work was commissioned by the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival and premiered at the festival by Sharon Kam (clarinet), Christoph Poppen (violin), Kim Kashkashian (viola), and Boris Pergamenschikow (cello), with Penderecki conducting! It is most unusual for a piece of chamber music to require a conductor. Today, the work is usually performed without conductor, even if the complexity of the work is such that occasionally performers wish they had one! Although commissioned by the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Penderecki emphasized in his writings on this piece that the work originated in his own “heartfelt need” and that it was inspired by the great string quintet of Schubert.
The quartet opens with a lightly scored Notturno featuring a long, beautiful clarinet solo. Unlike the nocturnes of Chopin, this nocturne seems to depict a troubled nightscape. It is followed by an aggressive and rhythmically active Scherzo that moves directly into a brief Serenade in waltz time. This is a very ironic waltz, with many abrupt changes of tempo and mood. The final movement is entitled “Abschied,” the German word for “farewell.” It is as long as the other three movements combined, and is a beautiful, sustained elegy that Penderecki described as a private supper of four friends that has come to an end: “Each of them had something to say during the meal, but they know one another so well that there is no need to say everything to the end."
Franz Krommer (1759-1831)
Oboe Quartet No. 1 in C Major (ca. 1780-1790)
Franz Krommer was one of the most important composers in Vienna near the turn of the 18th century. A very accomplished violinist of Czech origin, he came to Vienna in 1785 in Mozart’s heyday, left Vienna for a position in Hungary in 1790, and returned to Vienna in 1795 at the period of Haydn’s greatest fame and the ascendancy of Beethoven. He served as the Kapellmeister for the Imperial Court of Austria and the Emperor Franz I. (Franz I is also known, most confusingly, as Francis I and Francis II. The reasons for this are complex and relate to the Napoleonic campaigns and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.) The emperor was an enthusiastic quartet player, and one of Krommer’s duties was to accompany the emperor on his various trips so the emperor could relax in the evening playing string quartets. It comes as no surprise that much of Krommer’s output was chamber music. Indeed, Krommer’s quartets were considered at the time to rival those of Haydn and Beethoven.
The Oboe Quartet in C Major, the first of three oboe quartets he wrote, was written sometime between 1780 and 1790. As typical of the time, the oboe very much takes the lead in this work. The first movement is full of very tuneful melody. The second, after opening with a lovely violin melody, turns into a duet with the oboe. The third movement, a rondo, brings the work to a playful close.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Terzetto in C Major, Op. 74, for two violins and viola (1887)
It may surprise you to learn that many of the great composers played the viola. J.S. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Paul Hindemith, and Benjamin Britten were all violists. Mozart preferred playing viola to playing violin. Antonín Dvořák was, at least in his younger years, an accomplished violist, and he played professionally from age 16 to 30. For a time he served as principal violist of the National Theater Orchestra, playing operas by Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. He also played in the premiere of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, the first Czech-language opera to join the mainstream repertoire and a seminal work of Czech nationalist music. Even after “retiring” from the life of a professional violist to spend more time composing, Dvořák occasionally made time to pick up his instrument and saw out a few tunes. It is to this predilection that we owe his Terzetto in C Major, Op. 74, for two violins and viola.
Rarely has a work of chamber music had so charming a genesis as Dvořák’s Terzetto. As was the case with many families in the nineteenth century, the Dvořáks rented the spare rooms of their Prague home out to boarders. One of their boarders was a young chemistry student, Josef Kruis, who was also an enthusiastic amateur violinist. Kruis studied violin with Jan Pelikán, a friend of Dvořák who played in the Prague National Theater Orchestra. Kruis and Pelikán would often play violin duets at their lessons held in the Dvořák home. Dvořák had the idea of writing a piece for them in which he would assist as violist—giving him the excuse to pull out his old instrument for some good old-fashioned chamber music fun. The result was the Terzetto in C Major, a work Dvořák wrote in eight days (!) from January 7 to 14, 1887. Alas, Dvořák had overestimated the abilities of his chemistry student boarder, and the piece proved to be too difficult for the group: the premiere of the work in the Dvořák home was just not very good. So, being the mensch that he was, Dvořák wrote another much easier piece for the trio, entitled Miniatures, later published as Op. 75a. (A few days after finishing Miniatures, he re-worked the material into the Four Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 75b, and it is in that form that the work is best known today.)
Dvořák’s original Terzetto received its “real” premiere on March 30, 1887, played by Karel Ondricek, concertmaster of the National Theater Orchestra, Jan Buchal, a judge and (apparently) a more accomplished amateur violinist than Kruis, and physician Jaroslav St’astny, an amateur violist who (apparently) had more time to practice than Dvorak. In four movements, Dvořák’s Terzetto is a work of surprising depth and complexity, especially considering its provenance. In listening to it, we are reminded that Dvořák was a few short months away from writing one of his greatest works, the Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81. The first movement, marked as an introduction, has a wistful, bittersweet quality not often heard in pieces in the key of C Major. The second movement has a prayer-like quality, especially at its beginning. The third movement is a scherzo movement in Dvořák’s furiant style, rich in cross rhythms; and the finale is a theme with ten variations based on a folk-like theme. The wistful, bittersweet quality of the introduction is to be found in the finale as well, as the music is quite ambivalent about whether it’s in major or minor.