April 9 — 7:30 pm
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2
Entre Nous for Oboe and String Quartet (2017), BCMS commission/World premiere
Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44
Beethoven’s use of infinite harmonic subtleties and counter-intuitive key shifts make the Piano Trio in E-flat one of the greatest contributions to the genre. In his BCMS commission Entre nous for Oboe and String Quartet, David Rakowski, the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition at Brandeis and twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, skillfully layers and juxtaposes the instruments to create a large array of textures and characters. Schumann was the first composer to explore the possibilities of a partnership between string quartet and piano to great success; the expressive and electrifying Piano Quintet in E-flat is one of the few celebrities in the piano quintet canon and the inspiration for a line of great works, including those by Brahms, Franck and Dvorak.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808)
Lewis Lockwood, in comparing the Op. 70, No. 2 piano trio to its more famous counterpart (the No. 1 Ghost Trio of the same opus), notes the change “from the demonic to the human.” Certainly the trio is an excellent example of Beethoven’s inventive spirit used in moderation, with both a dash of Classicism and a glance toward the future. Composed in the Autumn of 1808 and dedicated to his friend, the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy, the work has the earmarks of a confident Beethoven, who had in fact already secured payment from Bretikopf & Härtel in Leipzig to publish both Op. 70 piano trios, along with the Op. 69 Cello Sonata and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
There are several standout features of the trio. The slow 4/4 poco sostenuto introduction to the first movement gives way to a striking descending passage in the piano that briefly presages the chromaticism and harmonic ingenuity of later works. An expressive new theme built on gentle leaping sixths and sevenths begins, but morphs quickly into the 6/8 Allegro ma non troppo, where the first true theme is presented. The sonata form that follows is fairly standard, with a series of modulations in the development section, but it is the end of the movement that merits special notice. After a more conventional coda, Beethoven returns to the slow introductory material—a gambit, as Richard Wigmore observes, used by Haydn in his Symphony No. 103 (“Drumroll”).
Both middle movements are marked Allegretto, something that Lockwood notes is not seen in any other complete Beethoven cycle. The second movement exploits a repartee between C major and C minor (more subtly than the famous second movement of the 1803 Eroica Symphony) by way of double variations—a set for each of the two themes. The lyrical Allegretto ma non troppo is fashioned as a fairly straightforward minuet, although Beethoven includes a few surprises including an unexpected pause in the lulling motion and a delightfully chromatic transition back to the first half of the minuet theme. In the distinctive trio, the piano and strings trade off phrases of a chord progression that has Renaissance grace in the strings and Romantic pathos in the piano. A playful and somewhat surprising modulatory passage tips its hat to E major ever so briefly before settling back into the A-flat major minuet.
The Allegro finale is in E-flat major, but offers a secondary key area of G major (the mediant), a characteristic harmonic plan of several of Beethoven’s middle-period works. The recapitulation is varied in both its presentation of the thematic material and the order in which it is presented—the first theme of the exposition can be heard in a gentle pianissimo in the violin, followed by the piano, just before the exuberant closing of the piece. All three instruments contribute equally to the sprightly humor and vivacity of the finale.
David Rakowski (b. 1958)
Entre nous for Oboe and String Quartet (2016) (BCMS Commission / World Premiere)
The following note was written by the composer
David Rakowski was born and raised in St. Albans, Vermont, where he played trombone in high school and community bands, and keyboard in a mediocre rock band called The Silver Finger. He received his musical training at New England Conservatory, Princeton, and Tanglewood, where he studied with Robert Ceely, John Heiss, Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky, Peter Westergaard, and Luciano Berio. He spent the four years after graduate school not writing his dissertation, holding down dismal part-time word processing jobs and helping to run the Griffin Music Ensemble in Boston. At the end of those four years, he took a running leap into academia with a one-year appointment at Stanford University. Seven years later, he finished his dissertation.
Rakowski’s most widely-performed music is his collection of one hundred highly varied and high-energy piano études; these pieces approach the idea of etude from many different angles, be they technical, conceptual, compositional, or stylistic; many of them may be viewed on YouTube. He is now at work on a set of piano préludes and has finished seventy of a projected one hundred. He has also written six symphonies, nine concertos, three large wind ensemble pieces, a sizable collection of chamber and vocal music, as well as incidental music and music for children.
Rakowski’s awards include the Rome Prize, the Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2006 Barlow Prize, and the 2004-6 Elise L. Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as others. He has also been commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Sequitur, Network for New Music, Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Boston Chamber Music Society, Merkin Hall, and others. He has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for pieces commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the US Marine Band. His music is published by C.F. Peters, is recorded on New World/CRI, Innova, Americus, Albany, Ravello, New Focus, ECM, Blue Griffin, Centaur, Capstone, BMOP/sound and Bridge and others. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
After his year at Stanford, he taught at Columbia University for six years, and then skipped town, while laughing maniacally, to join the faculty of Brandeis University, where he is now the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition. Now a failed trombonist, he lives in Boston exurbia and in Maine with his wife Beth Wiemann and exactly two cats named Sunset and Camden.
Entre nous is cast in a traditional three-movement structure, fast-slow-fast. The first movement begins pizzicato, which speeds up and develops into an antsy fast music where the instruments trade licks like they’re passing around a hot potato. It comes to a suddenly loud close. The second movement is a slow movement designed to highlight oboist Peggy Pearson’s marvelous playing; in it the oboe gets long lines against slow harmony, and, in the middle section, running notes in the strings. The finale is a devilish scherzo that develops entirely out of an opening tutti.
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 (1842)
Although Franz Liszt reportedly found Schumann’s Piano Quintet to be “too Leipzigerisch” for his taste (an insult that would leave Schumann smarting from its sting over a year later), the work is a reconciling of Schumann the inniglich poet and Schumann the romantic virtuoso. Composed at the height of his “chamber music year,” 1842, the work combines aggressive and brilliant passages with lyrical and tender themes.
This combination of energy and pathos is nowhere more evident than the first movement Allegro brillante. The opening material, which is a key component for the work’s overall cohesion, easily moves from its assertive homophony to more expressive and lyrical gestures. There are bits of thematic material that recall Schumann’s lieder, in particular those of his Op. 25 cycle, Myrthen.
The C minor funeral march slow movement (marked simply “In modo d’una Marcia”) owes a debt not only to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but more immediately to Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 composed twenty years earlier. Here the main theme is contrasted by two different episodes. The first appears in C major and offers an espressivo cantilena in the first violin over gentle rolling eighths in the second violin and viola, offset by triplets in the piano. The cantilena theme makes a later appearance in F major, this time with more sweeping accompaniment in the piano. The second episode is an agitato section featuring staccato and highly accented arpeggiations in the piano—the effect of which remains after the main theme returns.
The Scherzo features two trio sections, the first of which is a lilting canon initially heard between the first violin and the viola, before expanding to all the strings, with more arpeggiated accompaniment from the piano. By contrast, the second trio is a frenetic and modulating moto perpetuo, capitalizing upon rhetorical “gypsy” sounds of the nineteenth century with the extroversion of Liszt.
It is the finale where Schumann most aptly demonstrates his cyclic mastery. The initial marcato theme in the piano asserts itself with energy similar to the opening of the quintet. The movement cultivates some brief gentle moments of respite in between virtuosic rumbling in the piano. At the very end of the movement, Schumann writes a double fugue that combines the opening theme from the first movement with the main theme of the fourth. This movement is the culmination of Schumann’s studies of eighteenth-century counterpoint paired with the passionate cry of Romanticism—perhaps a momentary reconciling of Eusebius and Florestan, the composer’s alter egos who seem omnipresent throughout his oeuvre.
Despite Liszt’s criticisms, the quintet received praise from several different corners, and did much to boost Schumann’s musical reputation. It is this work, according to John Daverio, that motivated the composer’s father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, to initiate a peace offering after several years of a tumultuous relationship. While it may have been his son-in-law’s improved professional standing that motivated Wieck, it is not hard to understand his increased enthusiasm for Schumann’s music after hearing the work performed at a soirée by none other than its dedicatee, Clara Schumann.
Notes for Beethoven’s Piano Trio & Schumann’s Piano Quintet:
© 2017 Rebecca Marchand
Rebecca Marchand earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and holds a P.S.C. in performing arts administration from Emerson College. She specializes in American art music of the 20th and 21st centuries, with a focus on the intersection of music, politics and religion. She is serving her second term as President of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society, and directs the Graduate Music History Writing Center at The Boston Conservatory. She is currently working on a book about writing-based pedagogy in music history classes.