@ Sanders, Concert Calendar
April 8 — 7:30 pm
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370
Sonata for Cello and Piano, L. 135
Daniel Strong Godfrey
Ad Concordiam: Quintet Variations for Oboe, Strings and Piano (BCMS commission)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66
Mozart makes many technical and lyrical demands of the oboist in the Oboe Quartet in F major. From the extended cantabile lines in the Adagio to upper register passages in the Rondo Allegro, the oboe is prominently featured both in soloistic passages and while in conversation with the strings. Although the piano makes the opening statement in Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in F minor, the cello quickly takes over with a wrenching phrase that foreshadows the movement’s lonesome mood. The Finale is exuberant, the two instruments engaging with rhythm, color, and articulation, but a sense of frenetic, mounting dread encroaches on the piece, perhaps paralleling the composer’s knowledge of his own impending death. The title of BCMS’s 2018 commission, Daniel Strong Godfrey’s Ad Concordiam, has “overlapping meanings, as does its translation from the Latin: toward (in search of, in tribute to, aspiring to) harmony (or agreement, or unity, or…Concord.” Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor winks with charm and agility. Impassioned, but never heavy, the rise-and-fall of the opening movement’s main theme forms waves, allowing each part to sparkle to the surface before submerging into the warm underlying texture.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370 (1781)
In early 1781, a twenty-five-year-old Mozart had just received critical acclaim for the premiere of Idomeneo in Munich, and was feeling optimistic about new projects. He was keen to write a work for oboist Friedrich Ramm, who had been at Mannheim and was one of the few oboists who could handle the range that Mozart exploited in this quartet. Replacing the model “oboe sonata with continuo” of the 1770s, the oboe quartet was seen as the new and updated genre to showcase the chamber music capabilities of the modern oboe, which could now reach the high F, which was almost a fourth above the range of the Baroque oboe heard in Bach. The wide leaps and fast passage work echo Mozart’s oboe concerto, written for a different oboist in 1777, but the range of the quartet would have been daunting and limiting for most oboists at the time. This likely explains why the piece was not published until 1801.
The sonata form Allegro opens with a sprightly and balanced theme followed by motivic gestures reminiscent of Mannheim orchestral works. The violin then takes up the main theme against a graceful descending countermelody in the oboe, as the viola fills in the harmonies. Gently imitative descending fourths, beginning in the violin, then transferred to the other instruments, mark the development section. In the reprise, Mozart gives most of it over to the oboe, with rapid passage work and a very brief moment of glory for that very high F, three measures before the end.
Though a thoroughly modern quartet in its range, Mozart calls upon Baroque conceits in the Adagio, with the sustained notes of the oboe against soulful strings invoking the pathos of something like Handel’s Largo from Xerxes. This movement displays the versatility of an instrument that can handle both virtuosity and nuanced expressivity, arguably both necessary in most of Mozart’s works. The movement is brief, offering a moment of inward reflection and repose between the two more vivacious bookends.
The final rondo movement is graceful and transparent, yet filled with whirly curlicues of sound. Fun rhythmic moments from the violin and viola offer syncopated offbeats against the cadenza-like torrent of sixteenth notes from the oboe. And, as if to remind us of both the capacity of the instrument and its esteemed player, Mozart ends the piece, quite literally, on the high note.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, L. 135 (1915)
Tonight’s performance of the Cello Sonata is a continuation of BCMS’s season-long celebration of Debussy’s chamber music, which has included all three of the sonatas (intended to be part of a set of six) that Debussy composed near the end of his life.
In 1915, Debussy wrote to Stravinsky that the Cello Sonata and the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (played on BCMS’s February 18th concert) were in the “old French style.” This characterization might come as a surprise to listeners given that the Cello Sonata is far more modernist than the others. Both the Cello Sonata and the Violin Sonata (played on BCMS’s March 10th and March 11th concerts) share a modally-inflected tonal language, but the former’s focus on extended techniques of the cello seems to obscure the underpinnings of a French Baroque hommage.
That said, even the names of the movements refer to older eighteenth-century traditions. Debussy had in fact just completed an edition of Rameau’s Les fêtes de Polymnie, which, in the tradition of many French operas of the time, begins with a prologue. It was indeed Rameau and Couperin in whom Debussy saw the greatness of the French tradition, and he was heavily invested in translating that heritage into a modern musical language that would be distinctively French.
In her insightful study of Debussy’s chamber music, scholar Marianne Wheeldon observes that the composer seemed to intentionally favor the cyclic processes of César Franck (1822–1890), although Wheeldon notes that the thematic recall is at a “bare minimum” for Debussy. In addition to this more recent approach to form, Debussy channels the ornamentation of Couperin, challenging the purpose of melody in relation to ornamentation in a similar way.
In a move that seems intentionally subversive, Debussy molds most of the Prologue out of the opening modally-inflected theme in D minor. But instead of this obvious material, Debussy chooses to recall a brief two measures in a single statement, in the final movement. This inaudible cohesion is part of what makes the work so enigmatic relative to the other two sonatas.
The Sérénade, which is a fascinating journey through extended techniques for the cello that includes pizzicato, portamento, and flautendo articulations, also recalls the time-honored trope of a guitarist wooing his objet d’amour. In 1916, cellist Louis Rosoor allegedly attached a program to the entire sonata, connecting each movement with the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot. Debussy reportedly disavowed this program, and indeed, there is little to suggest anything much outside of Debussy’s interest in the serenade as a genre.
The Finale, played attacca, calls on the cello to be léger et nerveux (“light and nervous”). The movement is more cantabile relative to the other movements, and features the meandering melodies more characteristic to Debussy’s earlier works, with jagged and virtuosic interruptions.
While it is tempting to ascribe to Debussy’s late works an innate modernist flair borne out of his battle with cancer and experiences with the war, the Cello Sonata speaks more to the composer’s desire to connect to and extend the French musical traditions of which he was proud.
Daniel Strong Godfrey (b. 1949)
Ad Concordiam (2018)
Quintet Variations for Oboe, Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano
(BCMS Commission / World Premiere)
Composer Daniel Strong Godfrey has earned awards and commissions from the J. S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, among many others. His works have been performed by renowned soloists, chamber ensembles and orchestras throughout the U.S. and abroad; and been recorded on the Albany, CRI, GM, Innova, Klavier, Koch, UK Light and Mark labels. His music is available through publishers Carl Fischer and G. Schirmer. He is founder and co-director of the Seal Bay Festival of American Chamber Music (on the Maine coast) and is co-author of Music Since 1945, published by Schirmer Books.
Godfrey received his graduate degrees in composition from Yale University and the University of Iowa. He is professor and chair in the Department of Music at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design. Prior to his appointment at Northeastern in August 2015, Godfrey was professor of music composition, theory and history at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music, where he also served at various times as director of the School of Music, composer-in-residence and chair of theory and composition. He has also held guest faculty appointments in composition at the Eastman School of Music and the Indiana University School of Music.
Godfrey has this to say about his newly commissioned quintet:
As a title for my quintet, Ad Concordiam has overlapping meanings, as does its translation from the Latin: toward (in search of, in tribute to, aspiring to) harmony (or agreement, or unity, or…Concord). Having recently moved just next door to Concord, Massachusetts, and having frequented it often since attending high school nearby, I have always found it to be a central locus of my values and my sense of place. When it comes to values, Concord represents historically the ideals that motivated the formation of our union and that established, through the transcendentalists, a new standard for intellectual and moral integrity. I can’t claim that Ad Concordiam is “about” concord—or Concord—in light of the above, but only that this sense of place and these values, which recently seem under threat in our world, have been very much on my mind during its composition.
The quintet is in four parts, mostly defined by tempo, played without pause from beginning to end. The contemplative melodic fragments introduced by the oboe at the outset appear throughout the work, but combined, recombined, and expanded into longer themes. Hence the subtitle “Quintet Variations.”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66 (1845)
In the first half of 1845, Mendelssohn, who had spent much of the last several years running ragged between Berlin and Leipzig, decided to quiet his life a bit with his family in Frankfurt. He declined high-profile conducting invitations from the U.S. and elsewhere, instead focusing his efforts on editing some of Bach’s organ works, studying Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and writing the Op. 66 trio.
The Allegro energico e fuoco opens with ominous C minor arpeggiations in the piano, building in dynamics and drama as it ascends toward an elegant theme in the violin. Mendelssohn extends the mileage of both his primary C minor theme and his secondary cantabile melody through an even-handed treatment of both themes in all three instruments. The last iteration of the cantabile theme in the strings seems to have given itself over to C minor, and the fiery arpeggiations return as if to seal its fate.
The quiet chords that introduce the E-flat major Andante espressivo anticipate a beautiful lied ohne worte from the strings. Here is Mendelssohn at his most romantic, weaving together lyrical lines in the violin and cello in gentle inner movement reverie.
The G minor scherzo, although marked pianissimo, initiates a furious scampering pace, taking on the character of a rustic, but frenetic, dance. The brief trio does not contrast strongly in character, only in key, and the moto perpetuo in the piano keeps the energy such that one might miss the transition altogether. Mendelssohn keeps the dynamic level fairly soft throughout, saving energy for the finale.
Many commentators have noted the relationship of the finale to Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. Brahms no doubt took note of Mendelssohn’s free chorale that is first heard in the piano as the second episode in the rondo. It begins with the incipit of Luther’s “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” but then extends to freely composed material. Mendelssohn transforms this thematic material in between statements of the rondo theme. Ultimately, it is this chorale melody that seems to drive the movement, returning in a resounding C major finale in both piano and strings. Mendelssohn scholar Larry Todd muses that Mendelssohn wished to “inject a manifest element of religiosity into the absolute realm of chamber music,” calling upon the “connotations of collective Protestant worship without using a literal chorale,” a device he would employ in his oratorio Elijah the following year. At least at the most basic level, the chorale emblematizes Mendelssohn’s advocacy of and joy in Bach’s music, which would have an indelible impact on German nineteenth century repertoire in both vocal and instrumental genres.
© 2018 Rebecca G. Marchand
Rebecca Marchand earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A founding member of the Haydn Society of North America, Marchand also served as the president of the New England chapter of the American Musicological Society from 2012 to 2016. She is a professor of core studies in music history at the Boston Conservatory. She has held previous teaching and lecturing positions at Boston University, Longy School of Music, and Providence College. Marchand is also an author of digital learning content for W. W. Norton music textbook publications.