Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703, for string quartet (1820)
Premiered March 1, 1867 in Vienna
Despite his short lifetime, Franz Peter Schubert was one of the most prolific composers in history, writing over 600 Lieder, nine symphonies, at least 17 operas, much sacred music, and an enormous body of piano and chamber music. It’s no surprise that a composer as busy as that left behind many incomplete works. What is a surprise is the quality of these unfinished works, among them the Reliquie piano sonata, the famous Unfinished Symphony, and the great Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703, for string quartet.
Schubert wrote his Quartet no. 11 in E Major, D. 353, in 1816. It is a gemütlich work very much in the mold of Haydn and Mozart. His next venture in the string quartet genre, the Quartettsatz D. 703, was written in 1820. Its style could not be more different from its predecessor. Biographer Maurice Brown opined that the Quartettsatz was “...the only movement in Schubert’s instrumental work, prior to the Unfinished Symphony, which prepares us for the greatness which bursts forth in that symphony.” It is a powerful and stormy movement, a worthy companion to Schubert’s greatest pieces.
Schubert completed the turbulent first movement and 41 bars of an andante movement before setting the quartet aside. As with many of Schubert’s incomplete works, it’s unclear why he abandoned it. Perhaps he felt he could not match the quality of the first movement, or perhaps he took up another project and simply forgot about the movement he had completed. What is certain is that the world forgot about the Quartettsatz for nearly 40 years: the work received its premiere in 1867! It is a work that is unlikely to be forgotten again.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra
on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op. 35 (1867)
Premiered in 1898 in Cologne, Germany
Arranged by Laszlo Varga for solo cello, solo viola, violin, clarinet, horn, and piano
The symphonic poem was a genre of program music developed in the nineteenth century. It has its roots in the “descriptive” overtures of Beethoven (“Egmont,” for example) and Mendelssohn (“Hebrides”), but it came to full form at the hands of Franz Liszt. In the 1840s and 1850s, Liszt wrote a series of single-movement orchestral works, all strongly linked to literary sources, that proved to be popular with audiences. Other composers followed his lead, among them Smetana, Dvořák, Franck, and Saint-Saëns—but none was so successful as Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Strauss’ ten tone poems, staples of today’s orchestral repertoire, are considered the high point of program music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Miguel de Cervantes’ great picaresque novel Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of a Spanish nobleman, Don Quixote, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity. He decides to become a knight and enlists a farmer, Sancho Panza, to be his squire. The novel unfolds as a series of separate but connected adventures.
The episodic structure of Cervantes’ novel appealed greatly to Strauss. When he wrote his Don Quixote in 1897, he subtitled it Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra on a Theme of Knightly Character. After an introduction and the presentation of the “theme of knightly character,” Strauss launches a series of variations, each of which corresponds to a different episode from the novel:
I. Don Quixote and Sancho ride off to do battle with a field of windmills.
II. Don Quixote mistakes a flock of sheep for the army of the great emperor Alifanfarón.
III. Don Quixote expounds upon the codes of chivalry.
IV. Don Quixote attacks pilgrim carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, mistaking them for villains abducting a maiden.
V. Don Quixote dreams about his love, Dulcinea.
VI. Sancho presents a peasant girl to his master, hoping to satisfy his fantasies of Dulcinea, but Quixote offends her.
VII. Tricksters blindfold Quixote and Sancho, tie them to horses, and turn a bellows on them to convince them they are flying.
VIII. Quixote and Sancho inadvertently go over a waterfall. They drip and pray together.
IX. Quixote mistakes two monks for robed sorcerers and attacks them.
X. Hoping to save Don Quixote from his own madness, a well-intentioned neighbor from his hometown presents himself as a “white knight,” defeats Don Quixote in a jousting match, and, as a condition of his victory, demands that he return home and desist from adventuring for a year.
XI. Quixote’s sanity is restored and he dies peacefully in his own bed.
Strauss cast a solo cello in the “role” of Don Quixote and a solo viola as Sancho Panza. The solo cello “role” in Strauss’ tone poem has attracted some of the greatest cellists in history, among them Laszlo Varga, who served as the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic for eleven years. Varga arranged Don Quixote for solo cello, solo viola, violin, clarinet, horn, and piano. It is this version you will hear in today’s concert.
John Harbison (b. 1938)
Twilight Music for piano, violin, and horn (1985)
John Harbison is one of the most prolific and prominent American composers of today. He has written symphonies, operas, concertos, choral works, solo vocal works, and much chamber music. He was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his cantata The Flight into Egypt. Twilight Music for piano, violin, and horn was written in 1985. The composer wrote of this work:
"…the horn and the violin have little in common. Any merging must be tromp-l’oreille and they share material mainly to show how differently they project it. In this piece the two meet casually at the beginning, and part rather formally at the end. In between they follow the piano into a Presto, which dissolves into the twilight half-tones that named the piece. The third section, an Antiphon, is the crux – the origin of the piece’s intervallic character. It is the kind of music I am drawn to, where the surface seems simplest and most familiar, where the piece seems to make no effort, but some purposeful, independent musical argument is at work."
The final section’s image of separation grows directly out of the nature of the instruments. This piece was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for performance by David Jolley, James Buswell, and Richard Goode. Such virtuosity as possessed by these artists allowed me to write with reckless subtlety for instruments which I heard meeting best under cover of dusk.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Piano Quintet no. 2 in C minor, Op. 115 (1921)
Premiered May 21, 1921 by the Société Nationale de Musique
Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French musical culture centered around three great institutions: the Paris Conservatoire, the Paris Opéra, and the Paris Opéra-Comique. The Conservatoire existed primarily to train musicians to compose and perform opera, and the two opera theaters existed to present the fruits of all this labor to the public. Instrumental concerts as we know them today were quite a rarity in Paris. The few concerts that were produced had programs filled with opera overtures, transcriptions, and paraphrases—in other words, “lite” fare. The government subsidized opera generously, but generally chose not to subsidize concert performances, for these were felt to compete with the national theaters. So what was a talented French composer to do if his interests lay outside the realm of opera, perhaps in the realms of vocal and instrumental chamber music? How could he bring his works before the public? There were two ways of achieving this: embracing the high-society salon culture of Paris or establishing a grassroots performance society. The vast majority of French chamber music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the product of one or both of these pathways.
Gabriel Fauré was one of the few great French composers not educated at the Paris Conservatoire. Fauré was a student at the Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse, later called the Ecole Niedermeyer, in Paris. His parents enrolled him there to prepare him for a profession as an organist and choirmaster. His studies focused on plainsong and Renaissance polyphony—studies that later had a profound influence on his style. Luckily for posterity, Fauré encountered Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) at the Ecole Niedermeyer. Saint-Saëns taught Fauré piano and composition and introduced him to the works of Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner. The two became lifelong friends. (In fact, their musical friendship spanned sixty years, one of the longest and most significant friendships in the history of music.) Since he had not been a student at the Conservatoire, Fauré’s career options were limited, and he had no automatic pathway for the performance of his work. Fauré became a regular visitor at Saint-Saëns’
salon, and Saint-Saëns further introduced him into the salon of Pauline Viardot. Through these two salons, Fauré met the other great musicians of the day, including Franck, d’Indy, Lalo, Duparc, and Chabrier. Fauré, together with Saint-Saëns and some of these friends, formed the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871. Created under the banner “Ars Gallica,” the Société intended to promote a revitalization of French concert music. Many of Fauré’s works received their first performances at meetings of the Société.
Through a series of scandals that rocked the musical world of Paris, Fauré was appointed director of the Conservatoire in 1905. One of his first tasks as director was cleaning house: Fauré earned the nickname “Robespierre” for his ruthless dedication to eliminating conservative professors and reforming the Conservatoire. His new career completely consumed his life, and no doubt the stress he faced contributed to his declining health. He suffered from emphysema and sclerosis, his eyesight started to fail and, worst of all, he started having hearing problems that worsened every year. After serving as director for fifteen years, Fauré was “invited to resign” in 1920. His retirement from the conservatory was a great gift to posterity, for it allowed him time to compose some of his greatest masterpieces, including the Piano Trio (1922-23), the String Quartet (1923-24), and the work on today’s program, the Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 115 (1919-21).
Premiered by the Société Nationale de Musique on May 21, 1921, the work was an immediate success. Fauré’s son Philippe wrote of the premiere:
"As the work continued, passionate feelings were roused, mixed perhaps with remorse at having underestimated the old man who had such a gift to offer. As the last chord sounded, the audience was on its feet. There were shouts, and hands pointing to the box in which Fauré was sitting (he had heard nothing of the whole occasion). He came to the front row all alone, nodding his head… and looking so frail, thin, and unsteady in his heavy winter coat. He was very pale."
A searching work of great profundity, the quintet is one of Fauré’s most energetic and ambitious works despite the composer’s frail health, and each movement creates in the listener a sense of suspended time. The first movement opens with one of Fauré’s finest melodies, first played by the viola then taken up by the other strings. We are reminded that Fauré’s first musical studies concentrated on Renaissance polyphony and plainchant. Like Renaissance polyphony, this music seems to hover in mid-air, never touching down, never clearly establishing a key, and ultimately suggesting an enormous lyrical arch—Wagner’s “unending melody” as re-imagined by the French. The second movement is a mercurial, mischievous scherzo that again refuses to touch down on earth. In the third movement, the heart of the work, we feel a melancholy intensity, almost the intensity of prayer or resignation. The light-textured finale uses playful cross-rhythms to create a feeling of youthful high spirits. At the premiere of the work, Fauré’s student Charles Koechlin remarked that “it was with pleased surprise that people found such vigorous and youthful music in a veteran composer.” But critic Francis Pott writes that “the finale might suggest not so much youthful ardour regained as youthfulness in others, observed with gently wistful amusement from the vantage point of sprightly old age.”