The Age of Anxiety: Program Notes

PRELUDE AND FUGUE IN F MAJOR, HESS 30 and 31 - Beethoven

Written in 1795 for Albrechtsberger, Hess 30 and 31 demonstrate real mastery over counterpoint.

As in the case of Hess 29, Beethoven combined a "Nachahmungssatz" with a fugue, arranging it for string quartet, with possibly the intention of publication. That it was not published may have been because contrapuntal writing of this sort was highly unfashionable at the time, and no publisher would want to run the risk of losing money.

Unfashionable as this music may have been, at least one person would have been very interested in these fruits of Beethoven's contrapuntal studies: Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803).

Even during the lifetimes of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and G.F. Handel (1685-1759), counterpoint had been generally in decline; in the second half of the 18th century there were only a few composers who had a decent mastery over it. In the emerging, new style, polyphonic writing was replaced by homophony, which has much greater transparancy. Thus music reflected the growing believe in reason.

Nevertheless, all over Europe there were tiny, isolated groups and individuals who would continue to study and play the works of Bach and Handel, just for themselves. In Vienna there was one such group around Baron van Swieten. They were not at all impressed by the modern music of their day, and were secretely hoping for a revival of the baroque style.

Perhaps that van Swieten introduced Mozart to the works of Handel and Bach with this secret agenda in mind, when Mozart lived in Vienna during the 1780's. This confrontation with serious counterpoint had a profound effect on Mozart, and resulted in such works as the Fugue in C minor, KV.426 (see Hess 35 on this site!), the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, KV.551, and the Requiem, KV.626.

When the young Beethoven moved to Vienna in the early 1790's, it was his abilty to play Bach's Wohltemperiertes Klavier, more than anything else, that made van Swieten take an interest in him. We can assume that van Swieten was hoping to influence the style of the young master in the same way as he had done in Mozart's case. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to think that Beethoven started his studies with Albrechtsberger on the instigation, at least partly, of van Swieten.

In Beethoven's Preludes and Fugues Hess 29, 30 and 31, van Swieten had the beginning of his revival of the baroque style. However, Beethoven's own agenda was very different from van Swieten's. Rather than being interested in counterpoint for the sake of counterpoint, Beethoven wanted to use it by way of dramatic contrast to harmonic writing. Polyphony and homophony was, in his approach, yet another polarity, like the major and minor modes, and loud versus soft music.

Only some twenty years later Beethoven would take an interest in counterpoint for its own sake, and that signalled the beginning of his Third Period. But even then Beethoven's handling of counterpoint would be rather different from that by a Bach or a Handel. This makes the Preludes and Fugues Hess 29-31 very different from anything else within Beethoven's oeuvre. 


PIANO SONATA
III. ANDANTE - ALLEGRETTO  -Lutoslawski

One of Witold Lutosławski's earliest works, Piano Sonata was written in 1934, while he was a student of the Warsaw Conservatory. It was never published in Lutosławski's lifetime, the composer treating it more as a reflection of his composing abilities during his studies than a mature composition.

Sonata makes clear references to French impressionistic music of the early 20th century (Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel), and these are particularly audible in the characteristic formation of the melodic and harmonic line which is based mostly on spread chords. This twenty-minute-plus work is divided into three traditional fast-slow-fast movements: I. Allegro, II. Adagio ma non troppo, III. Andante-Allegretto-Andantino.

Lutosławski wrote his Sonata with himself as the pianist in mind, and it reflects on his pianistic proficiency. It was first publicly performed - to favourable reviews - at the Conservatory students' concert in 1935.

This is how Piotr Rytel commented on Sonata:

"This work reveals a highly likeable creative talent, founded on a noble base. What is particularly striking in 'Sonata' is the penchant for contemplation, sincerity of expression and - what is most characteristic - total lack of interest in effects of an external nature, especially the apparent avoidance of any mass, basically common sounds" ("Gazeta Warszawska", 16th February 1935).

Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne published Piano Sonata ten years after Lutosławski's death.


DISTANCE DE FÉE FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO -Takemitsu

Steady impressionist chords in parallel voicings on the piano, and a beautifully singing violin melody introduce the composition "Distance de fée" created in 1951, one of the best pieces of Takemitsu's early period. The spirit of Debussy and Messiaen are fully felt in this work of approximately 7 and 1/2 minutes duration. Messiaen's octatonic scale is used in the tonal language. The opening lyrical theme is repeated several times, and finds a new pathway upon each return - this is a version of variation as well as rondo form, two of Takemitsu's favorite compositional procedures. This piece, like many others by Takemitsu, was inspired by poetry, in this case, a poem of the same title by Shuzo Takiguchi (1903-1979). This work describes, with lightly mythological imagery, an elusive, transparent creature living in "air's labyrinth ... it lives in the spring breeze That barely resembled the balance of a small bird" (trans. Noriko Ohtake).

SÉRÉNADE "SPITZWEG" FOR 2 VIOLINS AND VIOLA
OP. 25 -Toch

As a man who described himself in 1960 as “the world’s most forgotten composer of the 20th century,” Ernst Toch still lived a most remarkable life. Born in a suburb of Vienna to the family of a modest leather merchant, Toch studied philosophy, medicine and music. He was a highly accomplished pianist who toured Europe to great acclaim, and he became a professor of both composition and piano in Mannheim after serving in the Austrian army in Italy for several years during World War I. Following the ascent of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Toch first moved from Germany to Paris and then to London, before settling in the United States in 1935. He moved from New York to Los Angeles one year later in order to pursue a film score career, but found greater success as a professor of both music and philosophy at the University of Southern California. His chamber music works always enjoyed great favor among the outstanding instrumental studio musicians of Los Angeles, and Toch could count André Previn as one of his many successful composition students. The Serenade, Op. 25, dates from 1916, the year Toch married and settled in Mannheim after his military service. The piece is named for Carl Spitzweg, a German romantic painter of the 19th-century Biedermeier style. Cast in a single movement of 13 minutes duration, the Serenade is a richly tonal and accessible piece that creates a lovely atmosphere and features Toch’s great understanding of string textures and chromatic modulations. 

PIANO QUINTET IN E FLAT MAJOR, OP. 44 -Schumann

Today the piano quintet — keyboard with string quartet — seems almost as standardized as the piano trio, but it was not always such. In fact the piano quintet as genre was a late development in the realm of chamber music, and thus we must remind ourselves that when Schumann wrote his quintet in 1842, no other composer of significance had yet attempted such a thing. The piece is strikingly assured for all that, and it formed an important foundation for the future: Without it we might not have the quintets of Brahms, Dvorák, Fauré or Shostakovich. 

Schumann's quintet came along as part of a maturing process, in a period when the composer was attempting to spread his musical wings from the orgy of solo piano music with which his composing career had begun. For most of his career, in fact, Schumann tended to fixate on a single genre and work it until its possibilities seemed virtually exhausted: After the piano music of the 1830s came the "year of song," 1840, when he penned more than 100 miniature masterpieces in a few months. Then in 1841, on the urging of his new wife, Clara, he tackled the symphonic muse, completing three symphonies and part of a piano concerto in a feverish rush of creativity. Yet another important genre remained to be mastered: that of chamber music.

The early spring of 1842 found the composer in a depressed state. While Clara was on an extended concert tour —she was one of Europe's leading solo pianists —the emotionally fragile Robert brooded alone in Leipzig, assuaging his gloom with a careful study of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. He cheered up immediately when Clara returned in late April, and in only a few weeks he had completed the three vibrant string quartets, Op. 41, which demonstrated an understanding of the four-part writing fundamental to Classical string quartet style. He then embarked upon a wholly new genre, adding piano to the string quartet of old — a texture that permitted him to synthesize his mastery of Romantic keyboard style with a newly acquired symphonic approach to texture ("Robert's compositions are all orchestral in feeling," Clara had once said) and with the melodic mastery that the song-year of 1840 had engendered. 

The result was an auspicious synthesis. The Quintet had its first performance that October at the Schumann's home, with Clara on piano joined by the Gewandhaus Quartet. They repeated the work in a public performance the following January. The first movement (Allegro brillante), notable for its headstrong, nervous energy, also reveals a wealth of song-like melodies— such as the cello's lyrical second theme. "In the manner of a march," writes the composer over the second movement; as marches go it is a morose one, however, sad enough for a funeral. The galloping Scherzo:Molto vivace seems partly to have inspired the scherzo of Brahms's Piano Quintet — a work that in fact looks back at Schumann's model in a number of respects. The final Allegro, ma non troppo is a modulatory structure that ends with a nod to the contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach, whose music Schumann had revered and studied throughout his life.