FEBRUARY PROGRAM NOTES
By Andrea Moore
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Duo for Violin & Viola in B-flat, K. 424
The combination of violin and viola never became a codified chamber music genre, but there are some significant contributions to the form, among them a set of six that Joseph Haydn wrote in the 1770s. Mozart wrote two pieces for this combination, and Joseph Haydn’s younger brother, the composer Michael Haydn, is an essential part of their story.
Michael Haydn was employed in Archbishop Colloredo’s service in Salzburg. Among other things, Colloredo is remembered for his repeated clashes with Mozart and his father, Leopold. Mozart family letters describe the Archbishop as rude and insensitive, and Wolfgang eventually petitioned to be released from Colloredo’s service, which resulted in both his and his father’s termination. Given this history, Mozart might not have been surprised to learn that Haydn was in a predicament with Colloredo. Ordered to produce a set of six duos for violin and viola, Haydn fell ill in the midst of the project, and Colloredo threatened to withhold his salary. Mozart quickly stepped in to write the missing duos, which later became K. 423 and 424 in his own catalogue, and delivered them to Colloredo under Haydn’s name.
While many scholars (and other listeners) claim to be able to hear a difference between those duos written by Haydn and those by Mozart, surely hindsight plays some part in that. The Duo opens with a slow introduction, whose chromatic tensions may in fact set the style apart from Haydn’s. The second movement, Andante cantabile, is a lilting and lyrical 3/4, in which the violin plays most of the melodic material over the warm chords in the viola. Mozart’s own proficiency as both a violinist and violist surely informs this piece, which easily balances the two very different voices. The final movement is a grace note-inflected theme and six variations, handed back and forth rapidly between the instruments. Despite the tempo marking of Andante, the variations have a marked forward motion; the sixth variation is marked Allegro, and precedes a short coda.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in C Major for Piano & Cello, Op. 102, No. 1
The middle 1810s were not terribly productive years for Beethoven: no big symphonies, no major string quartets, and only a few significant pieces of chamber music. Preoccupied by his personal life, and by his growing deafness, he turned out what one scholar calls “elegant trivia,” including marches, settings of Scottish airs, and some sets of variations. The two cello sonatas that comprise Op. 102 are among the few works considered to be significant parts of his output, and were both completed in the second half of 1815.
These are the last of the five sonatas Beethoven wrote for cello and piano. The first two are early works, from 1796, and the third from 1807-1808. While the two sonatas of Op. 102 are not part of what’s conventionally been called Beethoven’s “late period,” they are his last in the genre, and along with a few other works from this time, have some qualities that seem to anticipate his later work. Dedicated to the Countess Erdödy upon its publication in 1817, these pieces were also inspired by the cellist Joseph Linke, of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, who spent the summer of 1815 with the Countess.
Beethoven originally labeled this piece a “free sonata” in the autograph score, suggesting it would not be bound by either the conventions of first-movement sonata form, or the overall form of the three-movement sonata. Instead, the piece is in two larger movements, each one opening with a loose, unstructured section that establishes the degree of entwinement between the two instruments. The first movement’s Andante opening is free and flowing, beginning with a rumination on C Major in the cello, which becomes the motivic basis for the entire piece. This fades away to a tender resolution in C Major, quickly interrupted by the Allegro. This shifts abruptly into A Minor, and dispels the spontaneous feel of the Andante through a series of urgent, even martial, dotted rhythms. The Adagio that follows this movement is reminiscent of the opening, with long runs in both instruments and a tight dialogue between them. Following is a short Andante, slightly more structured, which acts as a bridge into the final Allegro vivace. This exuberant and driving finale is twice disrupted by an abrupt shift in mood, a sudden drop in dynamics and a quick exchange between cello drones and a short, rising figure in the piano. At the very end, the cello plays a simple 5-note scale down to C, setting up the final chords.
In addition to its formal experimentation and its intimacy of dialogue, this Sonata also shows the emergence of a more lyrical voice in Beethoven’s music, which would extend through the end of his life.
Ludwig van Beethoven, String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No. 3
By the time Beethoven wrote the three string trios that comprise his Op. 9, in 1797-98, he had already been in Vienna for several years, having left his hometown of Bonn in 1792. Beethoven began touring in early 1796, performing in Prague, Dresden, and other important musical centers; near the end of that year, he is known to have performed in Pressburg. Very little is known about his activities the following year, as there are only a few remaining letters. However, he did publish several works that year, including his Op. 5 Cello Sonatas and his Piano Sonata in E-flat, Op. 7. This period of chamber music writing continued the following year, when the three piano sonatas of Op. 10 were published, as well as the three string trios of Op. 9. The trios are dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne, a Latvian of Irish descent who rose through the ranks of the Russian Imperial Army, and upon moving to Vienna, became one of Beethoven’s early patrons there. The dedication of Op. 9 calls Browne “the foremost patron of his (Beethoven’s) muse,” and Beethoven dedicated other works to Browne and to Browne’s wife, Anna Margaretha.
This Trio marks one of the early examples of an association in his music between C Minor and the dramatic (as in the Fifth Symphony): there is a sense of drama at work here, from the rapid crescendo of the opening bars, to the quick shifts between major and minor that are also part of the exposition. Both the exposition and development sections are marked with repeats, extending the drama, and the movement concludes with a coda that evokes the abrupt dynamics of the beginning. The second movement, Adagio con espressione, is tender and lyrical, with an understated accompaniment that is very affecting, as the instruments take turns spinning out elaborate phrases. The middle section grows more dramatic and intense, before the opening themes return for a subdued ending. The Scherzo is agitated in character, with dramatic dynamics and rapid ascents into the high registers; by contrast, the Trio section in the middle is fairly contained. The Finale, Presto, is a rondo whose first theme, in quite different garb, Beethoven would later all but quote in his first String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 1.
Johannes Brahms, Sonata in G Major for Violin & Piano, Op. 78
Brahms’s contributions to the chamber music repertoire are among the most significant after Beethoven, both in terms of quantity and the kinds of expression Brahms achieved in his smaller-scale works. As with his first symphony, which for reasons of intense self-criticism and professional anxiety he didn’t complete until 1876, Brahms likewise discarded his first attempts at violin sonatas, not completing this one until 1879.
Brahms spent most of his summers in the country. In the summer of 1878, he was completing his Violin Concerto, written for the violinist Joseph Joachim, and it was during this time that he began working on the Sonata that would become Op. 78, which he completed the following year.
There is some evidence that Brahms was moved to create the second movement by his affection for his godson, Felix Schumann (son of Clara and Robert Schumann), who was critically ill, and indeed died the following year at the young age of 25. Musicologist Styra Avins has argued that “The recreational ‘little sonata’ was Brahms’s Op. 78 in G Major. He began it in the previous summer after visiting Felix Schumann in Palermo, where the youth had been sent in the vain hope that his health would improve. Felix had studied the violin seriously before his health failed, using Joachim’s Guarnerius violin. The slow movement of the sonata was written with Felix and his violin in mind, just before the young man’s death.”
In the pastoral first movement, the violin introduces both themes, the first characterized by a dotted rhythm, and the second an extended, flowing melody. The first theme recurs in pizzicato as a transition into the development section. The second movement, Adagio, is the emotional core of the piece. It opens with a choral introduction in the piano, and the B section is evocative of the first movement’s first theme—typical of the kind of tight unity Brahms brought to so much of his music. In a letter to Clara Schumann written right at the time of Felix’s death, Brahms included the first 24 measures of the Adagio on the back of one of the pages, writing, “If you play what is on the reverse side quite slowly, it will tell you, perhaps more clearly than I otherwise could myself, how sincerely I think of you and Felix--even about his violin, which however surely is at rest. I thank you from my heart for your letter; I simply don’t want to or like to inquire, but I always feel a need to hear about Felix.”
The final movement begins with a violin gesture that harkens back to the pitches of the piece’s opening. It also famously includes a setting of Brahms’s own songs, Regenlied, an 1873 setting of a nostalgic poem by Klaus Groth, and Nachklang.