January 18 — 3 p.m.
Venue: Kresge Auditorium
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60
String Quintet in C major, Op. 16
Ida Levin, violin
Yura Lee, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Dimitri Murrath, viola
Ronald Thomas, cello
Mihae Lee, piano
Enjoy with us the compelling pairing in the first of two concerts at MIT of works by the real Brahms and the man known as the Russian Brahms, Sergei Taneyev. The many biographical and musical intersections of these two great Romantics, not to mention the physical resemblance, promise an unforgettable experience.
A journey of 20 years, Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor is subtitled “Werther” after Goethe’s novel in which the sentimental hero kills himself for the unrequited love of his friend’s wife. Depending how you choose to interpret the relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, you may hear the musical sighs of pain, nervous Scherzo and deeply sentimental love song as a heartfelt goodbye. Taneyev’s String Quintet marries emotion and technique, utilizing a second viola to enhance the poignant theme and concluding triple fugue.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60 (1855-75)
It isn’t especially surprising that Brahms worked on his third and last piano quartet over a 20-year period; he often composed at a tortoise’s pace, tinkering, revising, destroying works with which he was dissatisfied. More intriguing is the story behind the quartet’s nickname, “Werther.” In 1855, when a young Brahms was in the throes of his tortured relationship with the Schumanns—devoted to Robert, who was dying in an asylum, and passionately in love with Clara—he began to work on a quartet in C-sharp minor, whose stormy first movement may well have been a reflection of his own emotional turmoil. Dissatisfied with the work, Brahms put it aside. Over the years, though, he would mention it and in the same breath refer to Goethe’s romantic hero Werther, who killed himself over his impossible love for a married woman. Once, he described the quartet to a friend as “an illustration to the last chapter of the man with the blue jacket and the yellow hat [i.e. Werther].” When, some 20 years later, Brahms reworked the score and sent a revised manuscript to his publisher, he included a sardonic comment: “You may place a picture on the title page, namely a head—with a pistol in front of it. This will give you some idea of the music. I shall send you a photograph of myself for the purpose. Blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots would do well.” Clearly, this was a work that had a particularly intense personal meaning for Brahms.
In the final version of the quartet, Brahms transposed the key down to C minor, revised the original first movement and the scherzo, and wrote two new movements. While the hand of Brahms-the-seasoned-composer is evident in what was now the Piano Quartet in C minor, the emotional heat of the original quartet remains undiminished—especially in the first movement, which begins in turmoil and ends in exhaustion. The piano’s opening octaves and the strings’ sighing two-note phrases set a mood of gloom. That mood is tempered somewhat by the lyrical second theme, which is introduced by the piano and which, unusually for a sonata-form movement, is extended by four variations. For the most part, however, throughout the rest of the movement the intensity and storminess are unrelenting.
Passion and agitation continue to prevail in the driving Scherzo, which, except for a brief, calmer moment in the middle, pounds along with offbeat rhythms and an insistent thrust. The Andante, in the key of E major, at last brings some relief. The cello sings out a beguiling, unmistakably Brahmsian melody that is picked up by the other strings and eventually by the piano, in a movement that serves as the Quartet’s island of calm. Melodies continue to flow in the Finale, but an underlying anxiety and restlessness also return, created in large part by the burbling, perpetual-motion piano accompaniment. Among the movement’s striking features are a chorale-like second theme, which toward the end the piano picks up in forte chords; and a dark, extended coda that brings the Quartet to an abrupt, melancholy close.
Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915)
String Quintet in C major, Op. 16 (1904)
Taneyev has a fascinating personality. An intellectual with wide-ranging interests, for relaxation he studied history, science, mathematics, the philosophy of Plato and Spinoza, even Esperanto, a language he used as the text for some of his songs. Along with what Richard Leonard calls his “terrifying erudition” was a lighter side. His unpublished works included comic fugues, toy symphonies, parodies (including “Quartets of Government Officials”) and humorous musical greetings for friends, such as the mock ballet for Tchaikovsky’s fifty-second birthday that included themes from Tchaikovsky’s works. Women were drawn to Taneyev, although he apparently was a celibate; Tolstoy’s wife reportedly was in love with him for years. He had a reputation for honorableness and truthfulness that at times led him to be painfully blunt. Nonetheless, he was widely liked and respected, and his opinions were greatly valued; he was, for instance, the one person whose criticisms Tchaikovsky trusted.
Taneyev’s musical orientation was toward the Europe of Beethoven and Brahms, not the so-called nationalist school of Russian composers. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneyev considered Borodin a dilettante, and Mussorgsky “merely made him laugh” (he later tempered his opinions somewhat). “Like no other Russian composer,” said the Russian musicologist Boris Asafyev, “Taneyev lived and worked immersed in the world of ideas, in the development of abstract concepts.” Taneyev approached music architecturally, first outlining the whole work and then filling in the details. Rimsky-Korsakov described his unusual compositional methods, which started with “a multitude of sketches and studies: he used to write fugues, canon and various contrapuntal interlacings on the individual themes…. and only after gaining thorough experience in its component parts, did he take up the general plan of the composition and the carrying out of this plan.”
Taneyev the fastidious craftsman and architect of large forms is very much in evidence in the C major String Quintet, which, like the Piano Quintet, approaches symphonic proportions. The first movement begins strikingly with a rhythmically offbeat theme (the movement is written in an unusual 3/2 meter) that contains material for much of what is to come, melodically and rhythmically. Two other themes follow, one somewhat melancholy, the other more sprightly, and for much of the movement these themes are interwoven in an intricate harmonic and contrapuntal display. This is no dry academic exercise, though. The music is rich emotionally, with a wealth of moods that range from sober to lighthearted to passionate, and with a stately coda, marked fff at the end, that takes full advantage of the big sound that five strings can produce. Taneyev demonstrates his capacity for warm lyricism in the serene Adagio, while in the third-movement Allegretto he shows a more capricious side. This Allegretto, which brings back material from the first movement, is full of charm, with a delightful recurring scherzando that at the end speeds up to bring the movement to a playful close. Themes from the first movement return again in the spirited Finale, a contrapuntal tour de force that builds in momentum to an impressive five-part fugue. No wonder one Taneyev commentator called the C major Quintet, admiringly, an “orgy of chamber music inventiveness.”
© Barbara Leish
Barbara Leish is a retired creative director, a freelance writer and an avid amateur musician who has been studying and playing for many years and has a particular love of chamber music.