@ Sanders, Concert Calendar
January 7 — 3:00 pm
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Ernst von Dohnányi
Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op. 10
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
String Sextet in A major, Op. 48
One of the composer’s first mature pieces and arguably his best chamber work, Dohnányi’s Serenade in C major shimmers with Hungarian colors and contrapuntal inventiveness. Debussy abandoned the traditional sonata form in his String Quartet in G minor, favoring instead a cyclical form introduced by Franz Liszt that relies on the manipulation of a single, recurring motif. Colors and rhythms lead the way over structure and harmony, creating music that appeals not to the mind but the senses. Dvořák’s String Sextet in A major gained traction in major cities across Europe and America almost immediately after its Berlin premiere at a private gathering hosted by the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim. The expanded instrumentation engenders the piece’s vibrancy, as does the folk idiom apparent in the sextet’s inner movements titled Dumka, referencing a meditative Slavic folk ballad, and Furiant, which is a fiery Czech dance.
All three works on this afternoon’s program reflect age-old compositional struggles with finding distinction within a tradition. For Dohnányi and Dvořák, this meant balancing nationalistic expression with musical innovation. On the other hand, Debussy sought to integrate a French modern voice with a genre that was, at least historically, the standard bearer of Viennese Classicism.
Ernő Dohnányi (1877 – 1960)
Serenade for String Trio in C major, Op 10 (1902)
Dohnányi was established in reputation by 1900 as the next Franz Liszt for his native Hungary. While his close friendship with Joseph Joachim helped him to find footing in Berlin, where he would eventually direct the Hochschule für Musik, Dohnányi longed to revitalize musical life in Hungary, both through advocacy of the classics (Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert), and then later though championing the works of Bartók and Kodály. In the 1940s, like so many others, the composer found himself increasingly alarmed by anti-Jewish legislation handed down by the Nazi regime. While he managed to protect Jewish musicians employed in his orchestra for a time, and he resigned his post at the Budapest Academy in protest of increased anti-Semitic policies, a move to Austria in 1944 nevertheless tarnished his reputation. Dohnányi himself was apolitical, but this was perhaps an impossible position to maintain if one wished to remain free of scrutiny and unsubstantiated accusations.
Dohnányi’s first stay in Vienna, from 1901 to 1905, however, held no such associations, and the Serenade in C major is an excellent example of the composer’s attempts to find a distinctive voice. Already gaining traction as a tremendous concert pianist and advocate of chamber music, Dohnányi’s early compositions had been acclaimed by none other than Johannes Brahms, who had arranged the Viennese premiere of Dohnányi’s Op. 1 Piano Quintet in C minor. While he may not have enjoyed the faint-inducing mania surrounding Franz Liszt, he was, as László Gombos noted, “appreciated not so much by the sensationalist public as by a significantly narrower circle of musically literate listeners.” Vienna certainly hosted many musical cognoscenti, and the Serenade, composed in 1902, deftly negotiates late nineteenth-century conventions and harmonic modernity.
The Marcia opens with striking homophonic fortitude that easily yields to a secondary theme in the cello against the viola’s marcato dotted rhythm. In its second iteration, the dotted rhythm transfers to the violin and the theme is then inverted and played by the viola and cello. In the second movement, the viola acts as the “Serenadesanger” against pizzicato in the violin and cello. Before we are lulled into lyrical reverie, the viola moves quickly to acrobatic thirty-second note arpeggiations underscoring an appassionato violin line. A final a tempo section combines both themes, ending with a modally-inflected melody in the violin that settles on a perfunctory C major chord.
The fugal opening of the Vivace dances with a shorter and more defined motive in amongst the almost unceasing barrage of eighth notes. Here Dohnányi’s contrapuntal ingenuity is on full display, given respite by a brief dolce trio recalling the lieder ohne worte (song without words) tradition of the nineteenth century, before returning to the opening guise of the movement.
A melancholy theme dominates the fourth movement, followed by five variations that display a variety of contrapuntal, harmonic, and expressive tropes on the main idea. The rondo finale has the typical Brahmsian Zigeunermusik flair, but Dohnányi elongates and develops certain sections, and brings back the secondary theme from the first movement to round out the piece. Indeed, all the movements bear a connection to the first, which, in retrospect, helps us understand the first movement as something more than just a ceremonial introit.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893)
2018 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Debussy’s death, and BCMS is including a work by Debussy on five of the remaining programs of the season. While it was the composer’s only string quartet, the Op. 10 showcases many of the characteristics that would come to define his style in the years that followed. Premiered by and dedicated to the Ysayë Quartet at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris, the reactions to Debussy’s quartet were reportedly mixed, given the work’s eschewal of certain structural traditions. The composer Paul Dukas, however, keenly remarked, “Everything in it is clearly and unambiguously designed, despite a great freedom of form.” This is so often Debussy’s gambit. Especially in the more “impressionist” works—a term that Debussy disliked—listeners often privilege timbral expression, melodic ambiguity, and modal chromatic language at the sacrifice of recognizing underlying structural cohesion.
In the case of the quartet, Debussy demonstrates a thematic economy one might just as easily recognize in Haydn. The opening theme heard in the first movement is in fact cyclic, appearing in various ways in all four movements. While perhaps it is a stretch to identify a sonata form in the first movement, the presentation of an expressive pentatonic secondary theme serves as an audible contrast to the gestural character with which the piece opens. In this movement one hears Debussy’s gifts for exploiting timbral possibilities even within the same general palette, a characteristic found in many of his piano preludes.
The viola highlights the cyclic theme in the second movement, here interspersed between pizzicato “strumming” of the first violin and cello, before releasing a more contrapuntal section. The influence on Ravel’s famous quartet, written ten years later, is undeniable. The cyclic theme is then augmented in the first violin, and Debussy weaves together the different textures thus far presented in the movement.
The muted strings that open the Andantino quiet the mood, offering glimpses of pastoral elegance. The viola introduces an expressive middle section with the cyclic theme carried in turn by the cello, then second violin, before building toward a dramatic exposition of the theme in the first violin. Debussy transitions back to the initial muted ethos by way of a unison chant in the violin and viola that presages the medieval conceit found in parts of Pelléas et Melisande (1898).
The trés modéré finale opens with the melancholy of the slow movement rather than the traditional presto shock treatment. Eventually however, peu à peu, Debussy offers a multitude of animated and expressive references to the other movements, varying the rhythm and texture of the theme to provide a final commentary.
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (1878)
Whereas Dohnányi prioritized rehabilitating the classical music scene in his native Hungary, Dvořák, at least in 1878, was enjoying relatively recent visibility outside Bohemia. Through the efforts of Joseph Joachim (and some cooperation from the publisher Simrock), the Sextet in A major had both its first private and public performances in Berlin, by Joachim’s eponymous quartet (joined by two of his students). Joachim would soon take it to London, where along with the String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 51, it was received enthusiastically. During a visit to Prague, Johannes Brahms heard the sextet, describing it as “endlessly beautiful.”
The Allegro moderato opens with a sweet cantabile melody and progresses into a reasonably straightforward sonata form movement. Both the second theme and closing theme are characterized by an ascending fifth, which Dvořák exploits throughout. The movement travels through several chromatic excursions balanced with diatonic sequences and phrase extensions. A short coda rounds out the movement with a brief dose of dancelike energy in preparation for the second movement.
The D minor “Dumka” (named for a type of elegiac folk ballad) marks Dvořák’s first use of the term in chamber music, but certainly not his last, as evidenced by his well-known Op. 90 Dumky Piano Trio. The second movement’s “adagio quasi tempo di marcia” section, with gentle offbeat syncopations and modally-inflected melody, evokes a nationalistic pathos.
Like the Dumka movement, the third movement Furiant also recalls folk music, albeit this time a fiery dance (as the name implies) from Bohemia. While Dvořák chose not to employ the dance’s characteristic alteration between duple and triple meters, the movement is shaped as a scherzo and trio, facilitating the characteristics of the folk dance and respecting conventions of multi-movement writing. As many commentators have noted, the movement bears close resemblance to the first of the composer’s Slavonic Dances, which Dvořák had just completed. The ebullient presto tosses the scalar passages between the varying instruments of the ensemble and a graceful and developmental trio provides the requisite contrast.
Brahms no doubt appreciated the theme and five variations of the final movement, which, at least initially, returns the work to the more somber mood of the second movement. First heard in the viola, the rising fourth of the theme is readily identifiable in all of the variations, but Dvořák cleverly manipulates the articulation, tempo, and instrumentation so that the presentation is never staid or pedantic. Throughout the entire work, but particularly in the finale, Dvořák is daring in his harmonic interpolations, venturing away from standardized closely-related key relationships, recalling the later works of Schubert.
–Rebeccca G. Marchand, Ph.D.