I decided that I wanted to play the violin at the age of five, when I heard a little boy play “Happy Birthday” on the violin at a friend’s birthday party. I actually wanted to play every instrument (including accordion, piano, guitar, flute, harp and especially cello), but violin was the one that stuck.
A few years later, at the age of fifteen, I was introduced to the Baroque violin by one of my teachers, Alice Blankenship, who took me to an early music course in the medieval town of Urbino, Italy. During my very first performance on Baroque violin, my e-string broke half way through the cantata, introducing me early on to the joys and trials of playing on gut strings. After one year, I had saved up enough money to buy my own Baroque violin (and a new set of strings). I also stocked up on treatises and wrote my high school senior research project on the Bach Ciaccona and in defense of Historically Informed Performance, which was then (and still is) a somewhat controversial topic among conservatory-aged music students as well as their teachers.
I completed my Bachelor of Music degree at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, where my Baroque violin lived under the bed for four years as I concentrated on my modern violin playing. Not long after graduating, my then-boyfriend, now husband won a job in the Malmö Symphony and we moved to Sweden together in the fall of 2012. I had just attended the Vancouver Early Music Festival summer course, where I fully realized that early music is where I find my most natural and inspired expression as a musician. Two of my close friends, baroque cellist Eva Lymenstull and fortepianist Shin Hwang had just moved to Holland to study in the Hague and I was lucky enough to travel to Holland many times in order to play chamber music with them and receive coaching from the wonderful mentors I’d met in Vancouver, including Jaap ter Linden, Jacques Ogg and Wilbert Hazelzet. Simultaneously, I began studying independently with Peter Spissky and Arek Golinski in Copenhagen, both of whom would become dear colleagues and great musical influences.
I now live a happy freelance life as part of the nurturing and inspiring early music community here in Malmö-Copenhagen, performing and touring around Europe with many early music ensembles including Concerto Copenhagen, Barokksolistene and Camerata Øresund. I am always seeking out new possibilities for chamber music collaboration, performing in various configurations whenever the opportunity arises. With the help of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts I have also been able to develop my interest in Scandinavian folk music and dance. For the past two years I’ve been learning to play the gamba and it’s one of the things I enjoy most in my free time. I also keep one hand on the modern violin, so to speak, and look forward every summer to the Oregon Bach Festival in my home town of Eugene, where along with lots of Bach I also get to play some Brahms and Mahler!
Canadian-American violinist Alison Luthmers Teyssier was first introduced to the Baroque violin at the age of fifteen by one of her teachers, Alice Blankenship, who took her to Italy for a two-week course in the beautiful medieval hill town of Urbino. After completing her Bachelor of Music degree at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, she moved to Sweden and went on to pursue that long-standing love of early music, studying independently with Peter Spissky and Arek Golinski in Copenhagen. She now performs on both Baroque and modern violin, appearing throughout Europe with groups such as Concerto Copenhagen (Denmark), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (UK), Barokksolistene (Norway), Arte dei Suonatori (Poland), Camerata Øresund (Denmark) and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (Sweden). She has performed in festivals such as Trigonale (Austria), Midsommer Barok (Denmark), Utrecht Fringe Festival (Netherlands), Spitalfields Music (UK), and the Oregon Bach Festival (USA). Courses attended include Urbino Musica Antica and Vancouver Early Music, where she studied with Enrico Gatti and Marc Destrubé respectively. On modern violin, she has participated in festivals such as Aspen Music Festival and Music Academy of the West.
Alison is a founding member of the period instrument Arborea Trio with cellist Eva Lymenstull and fortepianist Shin Hwang. She also formed the duo Le Mistral with her husband, clarinetist Johnny Teyssier, which plays their own arrangements of both classical works and folk music. In 2014 she received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for her study of early music and folk music in Scandinavia.
Alison lives in Malmö, Sweden. She enjoys cooking, writing, yoga and learning as many different types of dance as possible. She is also learning the gamba and dreams of playing consort in every spare moment.
20 January, 2016
Nothing from January 21, 2019 to February 20, 2019.
Nothing from January 1, 2018 to December 31, 2018.
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Robert Schumann: Piano Trio Op. 80 No. 2 in F Major
Schumann wrote his two trios Op. 80 in rapid succession in the summer and autumn of 1847, during a break from work on his first and only opera, Genoveva. It was a productive year for Schumann, who was in generally good health despite a series of tragic events–the deaths of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn as well as the loss of Robert and Clara’s 16-month-old son, Emil. After a 5-year hiatus from writing chamber music, Robert may have been inspired to take up the genre again by Clara’s G Minor Piano Trio from the previous year. Mendelssohn was probably another influence; Schumann considered his D Minor Trio “the master-trio of the age.”
An intense period of contrapuntal studies undertaken by both Robert and Clara in 1845 no doubt influenced the intricate part-writing of the trios. In a diary entry from the late 1840’s, he conceded that while he used to write mostly “in the heat of inspiration…only from the year 1845 onwards, when I started to work out everything in my head, did a completely new manner of composing begin to develop.” Schumann believed in creating a strong thematic unity in his works, citing Beethoven’s treatment of symphonic form as his ideal, “where in rapid succession the ideas appear [ever] changing and yet are linked through an inner spiritual bond.” Indeed, recurring motifs in each movement join together a broad spectrum of emotion and character.
Compared with the D minor Trio, Schumann himself said that the F Major “makes a friendlier and more immediate impression.” After a spirited opening, the first movement melts into a quiet second subject–a rhythmic variant of the opening theme but with an entirely new character. A sweeping melody before the contrapuntal development is a quote from Schumann’s song “Dein Bildnis wunderselig” from the Eichendorff Liederkreis Op. 39. The heartfelt second movement is constantly shifting keys, fluctuating between light and shadow, stillness and motion, touching on both the ethereal and the impassioned. A constant dialogue between the three instruments characterizes the lilting third movement, whereas the piano assumes prominence in the flowing finale.
Beethoven: Trio in D Major, Op. 70 no. 1, “Ghost”
Beethoven began working on his piano trios Op. 70 while in Heiligenstadt in the summer of 1808, directly after finishing his Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral.” Hints of a pastoral character can be found in the jovial outer movements of the Trio in D, but it’s the weightier middle movement which gives the piece it’s famous nickname. Beethoven’s most well-known pupil, Carl Czerny, wrote in 1842 that the second movement of the trio reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Indeed, evidence from Beethoven’s notebook suggests that he was thinking of writing an opera of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the word “Macbett” appears near sketches for the second movement of the trio, which he may have considered using for the witches’ scene.
The trio was written at the height of what is known as Beethoven’s “Middle Period,” during which the composer began stretching the conventional boundaries of traditional sonata form and experimenting with organicism and thematic unification, principals which would guide later composers such as Schumann.
The first movement begins with an explosive outburst which gives way to a lyrical exchange between the violin and cello. Much of the material for the entire movement comes from this opening statement, balancing lyricism with exuberance and playfulness. The second movement begins with an eerie three-note setting-of-the-scene by the violin and cello in octaves, answered by fragments of a melody in the piano. Extreme changes in dynamic, meandering tonalities which refuse to resolve and theatrical tremolo passages give the Largo its ghostly atmosphere. An optimistic finale brings the trio to a boisterous conclusion.
Beethoven: Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 102 no. 2 in D Major
1815, the year when Beethoven composed his final Cello Sonata Op. 102 in D Major, could be considered highpoint of Beethoven’s success in Viennese society. His works were being well-received by large audiences, he had the commendation of important royal dignitaries and was also making quite a bit of money. However, his output of important works had fallen off markedly since 1812–perhaps he was exhausted from his extremely productive middle period, and he was also struggling with increasing deafness. His final appearance as a pianist took place in 1814, with performances of the “Archduke” trio. The two cello sonatas Op. 102 are the last works Beethoven wrote for piano and a solo instrument, and ushered in the esoteric and otherworldly style of his “Late Period.”
The first movement begins with a thundering statement by the piano followed by a hesitant lyrical passage in the cello. The movement goes on to explore the extremes of both instruments, both in range and emotional spectrum. In the previous four cello sonatas, Beethoven had shied away from writing a full-fledged slow movement, which makes the second movement, marked Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto, even more remarkable. It begins with a chorale-like introduction and moves into a dark and deeply reflective melody shared by the cello and piano. The sun comes out briefly in a transcendent D Major middle section, but the mood soon returns to profoundly sombre. From a place of extreme intimacy and quietly shifting tonalities, a playful transition takes us directly into the final Fugue. The first instance of Beethoven using a fugue as the basis for an entire movement rather than just incorporating fugal material, the final movement foreshadows his extensive exploration of the fugue in later works. The music is dissonant and strangely unsettling despite its active character, with unexpected and rapidly changing harmonies throughout. Baffling early critics and modern audiences alike, the culminating movement of the cello sonatas gives a glimpse of the visionary path Beethoven would take in his final years.
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
In response to a radio broadcast of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1955, Hermann Hesse wrote the following in his diary: “Chaos in place of Cosmos, confusion in place of order, scattered clouds of aural sensation in place of clarity and shape, fortuitous proportions and a renunciation of architecture in place of structure and controlled development. Yet this too was masterly. Even beautiful, moving, sublime, wonderfully gifted!…And all the more beautiful and irresistible by virtue of its being precisely the music of our time: an expression of our experience, our view of life, our strengths and weaknesses.” Hesse sensed the tensions that pervade the Concerto for Orchestra, resulting from the many contradictions between classical art and folk music, tonality and atonality, traditional form and freer methods of composition. The music is driven by both the synthesis of these disparate elements and their coexistence as contrasting forces.
Bartók left his native Hungary for the United States in 1940, fearing Nazi takeover after the annexation of Austria. For three years, he worked at Columbia University researching the folk music of Asia Minor. During this time, he wrote almost nothing new, and being too ill to perform–he had leukemia, which would kill him in 1945–his funds began to dry up. Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony at the time, showed up at his door with a check for one thousand dollars and a commission for a major orchestral work, both as a financial gesture and an offering of moral support. Bartók was moved by Koussevitsky’s kindness, and the Concerto for Orchestra was written in the relatively short period from August through October 1943; it had its New York premiere with the Boston Symphony in January 1945. Met with enthusiasm from audience members and critics alike, the Concerto for Orchestra turned out to be the greatest public success of Bartók’s career. It was also the last work completed in Bartók’s hand, and the last of his works he would hear performed.
The idea of writing a “Concerto” for orchestra along the lines of Bach’s Brandenberg Concerti was first suggested by Bartók’s publisher, Ralph Hawkes, in 1942. Bartok was not the first to write a concerto grosso of orchestral proportions; Hindemith and Kodály also wrote concertos for orchestra with different sections of the orchestra being displayed in turn. Bartók explained the nomenclature “Concerto” as the work’s “tendency to treat the single instruments or instrument groups in a ‘concertant’ or soloistic manner,” citing the brass fugato in the first movement and the string ‘perpetuum mobile’ in the last movement as examples. Bartók’s concerto is unique in that it displays all members of the orchestra equally, giving rise to an extreme variety of characters and tone colors.
In the program for the Boston Symphony premiere, Bartók wrote the following: “The general mood of the work represents–apart from the jesting second movement–a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” Many elements of the work draw on processes used in earlier works, such as the unusual five-part “arch” form which he developed in the fourth and fifth string quartets, and the idiosyncratic use of tonality. The piece is fundamentally tonal in that it has discernible pitch centers and uses functional harmony, but it also makes use of chromaticism resulting not from typical processes of Western music, but rather from superimposing different modes or scales. Many of these scales are derived from folk and gypsy scales of Eastern Europe–Bartók’s years spent as an ethnomusicologist collecting folk music served him well in this respect.
Bartók’s use of folk music is notable in that he rarely quotes folk tunes directly, but rather uses elements of a particular style in his compositional process. For instance, the Hungarian verbunkos style, which is prevalent in the Concerto, originated in the mid-18th century as an accompaniment to military recruitment ceremonies and incorporated high and low musical styles and music from different regions, especially gypsy music. Bartók uses verbunkos rhythms, the gypsy scale and the characteristic alternation between slow and fast tempi in order to imbue his music with the folk influence.
The first movement begins with a tremulous introduction which foreshadows the “night music” of the third movement. A rising line in the cellos and basses then spirals down through interlocking fourths (this use of the interval of a fourth continues to have importance throughout the piece). The trumpets present a Hungarian-like melody in pianissimo, and then an ostinato figure in the low strings and winds drives relentlessly forward into the boisterous Allegro vivace. The violins develop the ostinato figure into an assertive theme, which continues to evolve as it’s passed around the orchestra. The trombone calls out a new idea, which will be used later in the movement in a brass fanfare. A contrasting second theme is comprised of open fifths in the first violins and cellos with an improvisatory oboe solo. The melody is similar to Arab melodies which Bartók collected in North Africa. The development culminates with a proud brass fanfare followed by a return of the second theme. The assertive theme from the Allegro vivace returns, and the brass bring the movement to a brilliant close.
Bartok originally called the second movement “Presenting the Couples” and later changed the title to “Game of the Couples.” It is written in what Bartók called “chain” form–essentially a set of unrelated sections that are linked together, with a sort of trio in the middle. The movement opens with a rhythmic side drum which, according to Bartók scholar David Cooper, “acts as a master of ceremonies, initiating and terminating the proceedings.” The wind instruments enter in twos, each with a different character. The influence of a Serbo-Croatian melody in which two “sopels” or folk oboes play roughly in minor sevenths can be heard throughout. A central five part brass chorale imitates an organ in the trio section, and then all the pairs from the beginning reconvene and intermingle.
The third movement, subtitled Elegia, is the weightiest of the five. In the opening “night music,” the wind instruments imitate the nighttime sounds of the natural world. The winds then settle into an rolling eighth note passage. The Hungarian-like melody from the opening of the first movement comes back in the violins, this time in an impassioned resetting with cascading scales in the low strings and winds and a typical verbunkos rhythm in the trumpet. The orchestra becomes hushed and a new melody is presented in the violas, resembling a Transylvanian funeral song. The night music returns at the end, dying away into an eerie piccolo solo.
The fourth movement, titled “Interrupted Serenade,” is often considered the most contentious because of its political overtones. Bartok uses two folk-like melodies, the first in Slovak peasant-style with a Balkan rhythm that alternates 5/8 and 2/4 meter, and the second modeled after Szigmond Vincze’s 1926 fairy tale opera The Bride of Hamburg, which was well known all over Hungary. The “interruption” is a humorous march which alludes to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. There are two accounts of the meaning of the movement, both supposedly coming from Bartók himself. In the first, Hungarian conductor Dorán quotes Bartók as saying “The melody goes on its own way when it’s suddenly interrupted by a brutal band-music, which is derided, ridiculed by the orchestra. After the band has gone away, the melody resumes its waltz–only a little more sadly than before.” Another Hungarian conductor, Sándor, gives an account in which the opening music depicts a young lover bringing a serenade to his beloved, the lover representing the idealism of a nation. Then, a drunken mob comes by, interrupting the idealist and leaving a trail of violence and destruction in its wake, perhaps a symbol of the horrendous effects of an authoritarian regime. The bass trombone and second trombone imitate a drunk throwing up with two vulgar slides.
The Finale mirrors the first movement in that it is in also in sonata form and also contains a fugato section. It opens with a horn call based on Transylvanian shepherd melodies (traditionally played by women and girls on Alpine horns) which Bartók collected in Romania. The music then shifts to a moto perpetuo which almost literally quotes a Romanian dance called a hora nemtseasca. The orchestra imitates the sounds of a Romanian gypsy band, which would have been comprised of a solo fiddle, a type of two-stringed guitar and plucked bass. At the culmination of all this chaos, the orchestra breaks out a motif influenced by another Romanian dance called the Maruntel–one of Bartók’s favorites–which is characterized by two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note. Things mellow briefly, then gain momentum again in a jovial D-flat major section. The trumpets announce a new horn call, reminiscent of Slovakian swineherds and cowherds. All of a sudden a completely new texture breaks though, similar in acoustical organization to Javanese gamelan music, with which Bartók was familiar. The melody and fundamental notes are played by the harps, and harmonics in the first violins imitate gongs over a shimmery texture of pianississimo tremolo in the second violins. This unusual section is followed by an extensive fugue based on the swineherd horn call, combining what David Cooper calls “high-art contrapuntal techniques with the slightly tipsy performance style of a village band.” The moto perpetuo returns, leading to a fully developed joyful rendering of the Romanian Maruntel from the opening. The orchestra settles briefly into quiet, and then the opening horn call sneaks back in the bassoons and is passed through the winds over swirling eighth notes in the strings. The brass bring the orchestra to a climax with the second horn call, and the movement culminates with a brilliant orchestral flourish.
After a few performances, Bartók decided the ending was too abrupt and composed an “alternative ending” in March 1945, which is generally used today. The orchestra will be performing this ending in today’s concert.
Respighi: Pines of Rome
It is somewhat unusual that a composer writing in 1924 would choose the genre of the “tone poem,” a true product of the 19th century, as a vehicle for some of his most exemplary work. This is just what the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi did in writing his trilogy of symphonic poems about the city of Rome: Fontane da Roma (Fountains of Rome), Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) and Feste Romane (Roman Festivals). Given the political use of tone poems in the 19th Century–Sibelius’s Finlandia, to name just one example–it is natural to ascribe political overtones to Respighi’s works. In fact, he was greatly admired by the Fascist authorities of the time, including Mussolini himself. There are parts of Pines that evoke what biographers Janet and John G.C. Waterhouse describe as “something of the atavistic pageantry that became associated with fascist propaganda.” However, it is more likely that Respighi, who bore no strong outward political affiliations, was more taken with the possibility of using the many sonorities of the orchestra to evoke the images that were such an important part of his inspiration.
The highly programmatic aspect of Respighi’s work stems from a tradition begun by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique almost a century earlier. The most striking quality of Pines is its visual effect, through which the listener is able to “see” and experience the details of Roman life which Respighi captures with his use of tone color, rhythmic figuration and chant-like writing, inspired by a life-long interest in ancient music.
In order to create these different moods and colors, Respighi calls for a particularly large orchestra, which includes six buccine, ancient Roman brass instruments that were used for ceremonial purposes. Evidently, the word buccine was used in the score only for poetic effect, as the actual instrument is not capable of playing all the notes in the part. Instead, it is common to use either flugelhorns and euphoniums or tenor tubas, or else trumpets and trombones, as is the case for this performance. It is generally up to the discretion of the conductor whether these parts should be off-stage, on-stage but separate from the rest of the brass, or somewhere in the hall, such as in the balcony. The score also calls for offstage trumpet, organ, piano, celesta and a specific gramophone recording of a nightingale call in the third movement–the Brunswick Panatrope recording of “il canto dell’usignolo” which can be played on a phonograph. This is the first instance of a real bird call being used in an orchestral piece.
Respighi is so specific with the images he wishes to portray that he actually provides descriptions for each movement of the work. The first movement, “Pini di Villa Borghese,” is described as follows: “Children are at play in the pine groves of the Villa Borghese; they dance round in circles, they play at soldiers, marching and fighting, they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening, they come and go in swarms.” Trills in the winds and strings, glissandi in the harp and quick 32nd note passages in the piano and celesta add brilliance to the sing-song motifs in the high brass. The flutes evoke imitations of bird calls while the triangle and glockenspiel brighten the texture.
Respighi calls for a sudden change of scene for the second movement, “Pini Presso una Catacomba.” “We see the shades of the pine-trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depth rises the sound of mournful psalm-singing, floating through the air like a solemn hymn, and gradually and mysteriously dispersing.” Respighi’s early music influences are especially evident in the second movement. Open fourths and fifths set the mood, and a plainchant melody is heard in the low horn. The off-stage trumpet comes in with a hopeful melody in the distance. The horn plainchant melody comes back, interspersed with a pulsating rhythmic motif in open fifths marked come una salmodia (like a chant). The piano plays a single low E marked come campana (a bell). The piece grows to a climax and the organ comes in, evoking the subterranean feel of the catacombs while the brass chant above.
The third movement is titled “I Pini Del Gianicolo.” It is set at night, near a temple devoted to the Roman god Janus on the Janiculum Hill. Respighi writes: “A quiver runs through the air: the pine-trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of a full moon. A nightingale is singing.”
The movement opens with a rippling piano part, and then a soaring clarinet comes in over the Debussy-like transparent texture in the strings. The melody is then taken over by the flute and the strings. As the movement progresses, the texture expands until different lines weave between many instruments and flowing sixteenth notes are passed between the harp, celesta and piano. The movement closes with the nightingale song and the melody in the clarinet once again.
About the fourth movement Respighi writes: “Misty dawn on the Appian Way: solitary pine-trees guarding the magic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories: trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly-risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way mounting in triumph to the Capitol.” The opening alternating tritones create an ominous mood enhanced by soft dissonances in the strings. The main theme is hinted at by the clarinet and bass clarinet, but instead an English horn lament rises out of the texture. The organ comes in with a pedal marked triple piano. Then, the main theme is introduced by the low horn and bass clarinet, marked come da lontano (as if from afar). The horn and bass clarinet are answered by the trombones and buccine as the orchestra builds to a triumphant passing of fanfares between the brass over a constant marching rhythm in the piano and percussion. The organ expands into a series of huge chords meant to make the ground tremble under the footsteps of the marching army and the orchestra rises to a victorious close.
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D Major
Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is most renowned for his film music, which was often dismissed as stylistically outdated at the time it was written, but has recently come to a well-deserved resurgence of popularity. Film music plays an important role in the Violin Concerto in D Major, written in 1945. From 1934 until 1938, Korngold traveled back and forth between Hollywood and Vienna to work on film scores. In 1938, following the German annexation of Austria, he cancelled his Vienna Opera premiere of his opera, Die Kathrin, moved permanently to Los Angeles, and decided to give up writing concert music until Hitler was defeated, concentrating solely on film music in order to support his family. After the war, he gave up studio work entirely, and theViolin Concerto marked his return to concert music.
The famed violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who founded the Israel Philharmonic, had been an occasional guest at Korngold’s house for years. There was a standing joke between the two: every time Huberman came over for dinner, he would say to Korngold “So, Erich, where’s my violin concerto?” This went on for some 30 years, until Korngold surprised Huberman one day by sitting down at the piano and playing the opening melody of the Violin Concerto. Huberman was enthusiastic, and urged him to finish the piece. After completing the first two movements, Korngold had a friend come over to play through them. The violinist supposedly made such a mess of the piece that Korngold gave up hope for the concerto, abandoning the ideas he had for the third movement, which he thought would be too difficult. It was Jascha Heifetz who restored Korngold’s faith in the piece, insisting he make the third movement even harder and eventually premiering the concerto in 1947 with the Saint Louis Symphony. Ironically, Huberman never played the concerto; by the time it was completed, he was worn out from the founding of his orchestra, and his playing had become quite shaky. Although no ill feelings existed between the two, Huberman and Korngold never met again.
The piece draws material from four film scores: Anthony Adverse, for which Korngold received an Academy Award, Another Dawn (both from 1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and Juarez (1939). Korngold makes use of the full symphony orchestra for his lush, sweeping textures, writing for full winds and brass as well as a colorful percussion section. The opening melody comes from the score for Another Dawn. The soaring theme spans two octaves in just five notes, and the sense of rhythmic freedom is actually precisely notated. There is a transition of quicker music, and then a second melody–this one from the score for Juarez. After the development section, a cadenza begins with broken chords rising to a recitative-like peak. As in a traditional sonata form recapitulation, the themes from the beginning return, and the violin crescendos to a flashy conclusion.
The second movement, titled “Romance,” draws its principal theme from the film Anthony Adverse. The singing violin part travels through moments of sweetness as well as more troubled harmonies, and makes use of the full scope of the instrument’s high and low registers. The jovial third movement, a rondo, begins with a jig-like romp, and then transitions into a lyrical second theme based on the title music from The Prince and the Pauper. Despite the carefree mood, the movement is far from carefree for the violinist, who engages in all kinds of technical acrobatics. The French horns present the main theme one more time, and the whole orchestra rises to fortissimo for the final chords.
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70
Tchaikovsky wrote his string sextet Souvenir de Florence for the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society in response to being awarded honorary membership. He did the first sketches in the summer of 1887 and evidently found the work very trying. In a letter to his brother, Modest, Tchaikovsky wrote that he was “writing under great strain, the difficulty being not necessarily a lack of ideas, but the new format. Six independent voices are needed, moreover, they have to be homogenous. This is very difficult.” He put the piece away until a trip to Florence in early 1890, where he wrote the melody of the Adagio (he never specifically connected the piece to the city of Florence other than in this respect). Once the rough copy was completed, the composer wrote “it is some Sextet. What a great Fugue there is at the end–a real delight. I am tremendously pleased with myself.” However, when he heard the piece performed at his apartment in November of 1890, he was unhappy with it and decided to “radically alter the string sextet, which turned out to be astonishingly bad in all respects,” as he put it in another letter. He made major changes to the third and fourth movements and the piece was finally published in June of 1892.
What Tchaikovsky found particularly challenging about writing the sextet was setting it apart from his orchestral writing by making all the voices equally important. In his words, “I definitely do not want to write just any old tune and then arrange it for six instruments, I want a sextet–that is, six independent voices, so that it can never be anything but a sextet.” Ironically, the piece was later arranged for string orchestra and is often performed that way. There are certainly hints of the iconic Serenade for Strings, written only a few years earlier in 1880. However, the variety of textures and characters, ranging from the carefree and lyrical to dark and stormy, comes across with beautiful clarity in the original Sextet setting.
In describing the piece, Tchaikovsky wrote “the first movement needs to be played with great fire and passion. The second: cantabile. The third: scherzo. The fourth: brightly and enthusiastically.” The first movement opens with a thick orchestral texture beneath a first violin melody. A contemplative second theme unfolds into a dialogue between first violin and cello, with a gentle rocking accompaniment in the middle voices. A rather chromatic coda builds in intensity with a stringendo that drives the tempo faster and faster right to the Prestissimo at the end.
The opening of the second movement is a clear reference to the Serenade for Strings, with it’s lush, full chords. The first violin takes up the melody with a light pizzicato accompaniment. The cello then takes over as the violin embellishes above. The melody continues to be passed around the ensemble as the texture thickens. Then, a breathless middle section appears out of nowhere, which Tchaikovsky said “should be played with an improbable pppp; this should be just discernible, like summer lightning.” The opening theme returns, but with sixteenth notes in the accompaniment instead of triplets. The violin and cello switch roles this time, with the cello embellishing as the violin takes over the melody.
The third movement begins with a melancholy folk-like melody in the viola. The music becomes more insistent and serious in character, until the intensity is relieved with dovetailed pizzicatos and gives way to a balletic scherzando-like second theme. Tchaikovsky combines the two themes, until the rhythmic motif from the middle section subsides, giving way to the serious music once again.
The fourth movement, marked Allegro vivace, opens with a tune resembling a Russian folk dance. The theme is reworked every which way, until it returns in the form of a double fugue, with the instruments entering in pairs of violins, violas and cellos, some of the most intricate and complex part-writing of the piece. The ensemble converges back to an orchestral texture for the exciting conclusion.
Mendelssohn: Octet Op. 20 in E-flat Major
Written in the summer of 1825 when Mendelssohn was only 16 years old, the Octet essentially established a new genre of chamber music, while exemplifying some of Mendelssohn’s finest writing. The piece was probably written for one of the informal Sunday morning musical gatherings that took place at Mendelssohn’s home, which brought together touring performers and distinguished musicians from Berlin. Mendelssohn dedicated the piece to his violin teacher, Eduard Ritz, as a birthday present. It is likely that Ritz played the first violin part and Mendelssohn played viola at the first performance. Once published, the score was quickly disseminated throughout Europe, making it one of the few compositions to have widespread recognition during the composer’s life.
The Octet is unusual in that very few chamber works were written during the classical and romantic periods for more than six string instruments alone. There were several influences that inspired Mendelssohn to write for the instrumentation he chose. He had written a series of Sinfonien for string orchestra between 1821-24 for performances at a family residence in Berlin; with each Sinfonie, he divided the instruments into more and more separate parts, thereby thickening the texture. The Octet can be seen as a culmination of this trend.
Another important influence was the composer Louis Spohr, who had completed the first of his four “Double Quartets” in 1823. However, as Spohr himself put it, “an octet for stringed instruments by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy belongs to a completely different artistic genre, in which the two quartets do not concertize as separate entities and alternate antiphonally, but in which all eight instruments play together.” Mendelssohn certainly takes advantage of such a large group of instruments with his brilliantly intricate counterpoint, joining the instruments into every conceivable combination. At the same time, he emphasizes its orchestral character by adding a note at the beginning of each individual part: “This Octet must be played in all parts in the style of a symphony; the pianos and fortes must be executed with great precision and shaped more distinctly and individually than is otherwise customary in pieces of this genre.”
The opening of the first movement is orchestral in texture, with rippling sixteenth notes and syncopated chords beneath a first violin melody. The music soon breaks into individual lines using many different pairings of instruments. Although the standard sonata form is very concise and logical, it is unique in the reworking of material in the exposition. There is not much to do with the material in the development section, which is more concerned with texture and dynamics, as well as exploring minor keys. The movement quiets to a static piano with a mournful melody moving between the different instruments. Syncopated eighth notes drive the energy forward to a passage in unison sixteenth notes, leading into the heraldic recapitulation.
The second movement, marked Andante, begins with sparse open fifths in the violas. The four lower instruments are answered by a quartet of violins in D-flat major–a key one half step higher than the opening key of C minor. Mendelssohn goes on to explore adventurous harmonies and fluid chromaticism that still keep the classical key relationships of the movement intact. In addition to tense harmonies, the drama is created through the alternation of fortissimo and pianissimo passages and the use of a driving triplet rhythm which alternates and combines with a lyrical triplet figure. Both triplet lines come to rest for a moment during an achingly beautiful passage of overlapping descending scales which then split into contrary motion with suspensions on each bar.
The Scherzo third movement was so wildly popular in its day that Mendelssohn later orchestrated it as an alternative to the Minuet and Trio in his Symphony no. 1. That Mendelssohn himself was fond of the movement is evidenced by the fact that, unlike in the other movements, he executed very few changes to the score during printing. The impetus behind the movement was a stanza of Goethe’s Faust — “Walpurgis-night’s Dream, or the Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania,” which Mendelssohn wanted to set to music, a foreshadowing of the Shakespearian influence which would lead to his Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream a year later. The translated poem reads as follows:
Flight of clouds and a veil of mist
Are lighted from above.
A breeze in the leaves, a wind in the reeds
And all is blown away
Mendelssohn told his sister Fanny, as quoted in her biography of him, that “the entire piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo, with shivering tremulandos and the gentle lightning flashes of trills. Everything is new and strange, yet so appealing and familiar–one feels so close to the world of spirits, swept up into the air. Indeed, one feels half inclined to snatch up a broomstick so as to follow the airy legion. At the end, the first violin soars upward, as light as a feather–and all is blown away.” The shimmering effect is enhanced by quick as well as sustained trills, pizzicatos and impossibly quick thirty-second notes.
The fourth movement is the most daring in terms of form–a mixture of rondo and fugato, certainly influenced by the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It is practically impossible to make the opening cello theme of rapid eighth notes sound dignified–the register is too low–thereby setting a comical mood that continues to the end. The opening theme is passed off to each instrument, and then a Beethoven-like theme in fortissimo octaves comes crashing in. The music becomes increasingly busy, with a counter-theme that borrows the exact notes from “And He shall reign for ever and ever” from Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps as a homage to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the Scherzo theme comes back for just an instant, combined with the opening subject of the Finale and the Beethoven-like theme. Despite moments of lyrical repose in certain parts of the ensemble, the perpetuum mobile established at the beginning remains strong throughout, driving to a joyful close.