@ Sanders, Concert Calendar
May 13 — 7:30 pm
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major, K. 452
La Bonne Chanson, Op. 61
Octet in F major for Winds and Strings, D. 803
Charles Blandy, tenor
Peggy Pearson, oboe
Rane Moore, clarinet
Adrian Morejon, bassoon
Jason Snider, French horn
Yura Lee & David Bowlin, violins
Marcus Thompson, viola
Raman Ramakrishnan, cello
Thomas Van Dyck, double bass
Max Levinson, piano
Mozart wrote of the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major upon its premiere: “I consider it the best work I have ever written…” It marks Mozart’s first exploration of the potential of winds as central voices rather than accompaniment; the shared cadenza in the Rondo finale clearly emphasizes the balance that the composer hoped to achieve among instruments. Poems by Paul Verlaine inspired Fauré’s song cycle La bonne chanson; the human emotions of longing, doubt, and love sung by the tenor are mimicked by harmonic metaphors, tempo fluctuations, and timbre changes. Schubert wrote the Octet in F major for Winds and Strings in 1824 on commission from Count Ferdinand von Troyer, an accomplished amateur clarinetist and, more importantly, a source of income for the financially unstable composer. The six-movement structure gives the instruments ample time to dance, slowly sway, brood, then celebrate for one last time in the Finale.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major, K. 452 (1784)
Mozart moved back to Vienna in late November 1783, just a few months before the premiere of the K. 452 quintet at the Burgtheater on April 1, 1784. It was joined on the program by a symphony (likely the Linz Symphony, K. 425), a new concerto, and an improvisation. Mozart was enjoying a fair amount of success in Vienna at the time, and according to several reports, wrote to his father Leopold that this piece was “the best thing I have written in my life.” Had Mozart’s life not been cut short only nine years later, we wonder how many other “best things” would have blossomed from the composer’s pen.
The work also comes with a bit of a mystery surrounding its autograph score. At one point, the autograph contained several bars at the close of the final movement penned and composed by someone other than Mozart. The original leaf was eventually found and restored to the Urtext, but the resulting speculation as to who the mystery person was has produced plentiful musicological fodder.
The work opens with a slow introduction that contrasts gentle melodic fragments against bold chords before offering a fairly standard sonata form movement in E-flat. The development section, however, employs the main theme in an audible way as a modulatory vehicle, lending more thematic emphasis to the development than might otherwise be there. Mozart varies the role of the instruments; sometimes the piano provides an antecedent phrase answered by the winds, and sometimes the conversation overlaps and transforms the scalar figures from one instrument to the next. This treatment explores both the cohesion and individuality of the timbres.
The slow second movement, marked Larghetto (although the tempo marking is missing from the autograph), offers a transparent texture that can seem almost languid, depending on the performance. Listeners may hear glimmers of the Andante from his so-called ‘Elvira Madigan’ piano concerto (No. 21) that he would compose the following year. Brief forays into unrelated keys create fleeting moments of tension before a varied reprise of the theme enters in the piano.
The final five-part rondo (ABACA) offers an A section of classically balanced phrases in E-flat major. The first episode is in the dominant key but maintains the general character of the movement. The second episode, by contrast, ends with a quasi-cadenza of sorts that calls upon all five instruments before a brief return to the A theme, followed by a playful coda featuring offbeat variations of the theme in right hand of the piano.
Gabriel Fauré (1862–1918)
La bonne chanson, Op. 61 (1894/arr. for voice, piano and strings in 1898)
At the time of its public premiere at the Sociéte Nationale de Musique in 1895, Fauré’s original setting (for voice and piano) of nine of the twenty-one poems of Paul Verlaine’s eponymous cycle from 1870, reportedly “shocked Saint-Saëns” and “daunted young Debussy.” It will likely come as no surprise, however, by Fauré’s death in 1924, none other than Aaron Copland wrote, “Fauré’s originality was never one of the obtrusive sort.” As with most music, the score itself intersects with reception and context. It is certainly harmonically and rhythmically adventurous for Fauré at the time, who was in the 1890s experiencing a renewed sense of purpose after dealing with intense depression (set off primarily by a broken engagement). The cycle is dedicated to Fauré’s lover at the time, Emma Bardac, but she later married Claude Debussy. Fauré created his own narrative from the poems he selected, which is, for the most part, a joyous celebration of a wedded couple. In addition to organizing the poem to suit his narrative purpose, Fauré united the song cycle with at least five recurring motifs and/or themes. The first of these can be heard in the descending line that opens the cycle in “Une Sainte en son auréole” (“A Saint in her halo”) and repeats in various guises throughout the song in the accompaniment, recurring in the closing measures of the song. That motif returns in the Andante moderato section of the final song when the narrator addresses his beloved directly: “oh you, whom this fantasy and this thought adorn.” Of the more recognizable themes is the quotation of the composer’s “Lydia” (Op.4, No. 2), heard first in the viola in the third song “La lune blanche” (“The White Moon”) in two brief measures of 3/4.
Rhythm and tempo play an important role in the cycle. It is rare that any song stays in one meter or tempo for too long, and in the case of No. 6 “Avant que tu ne t’en ailes” (“Before you disappear”), Fauré sets each of the first two couplets of the poem with a triple meter Quasi adagio for the first line, and an Allegro moderato duple for the second, expressing the subtle urgency and anxiety of wanting to hold on to the final moments before dawn fully breaks. Fauré also uses key changes that correspond with these metric changes in this sixth song, moving from a quiet D-flat major to a variety of not-always-closely related keys for the allegro sections.
In general, the cycle is full of surprising key changes and while each song has a main key area, the cycle as a whole is not necessarily unified by a harmonic scheme. Notably, the third song is in the relatively uncommon key of F-sharp major, followed by “J’allais par des chemins perfides” (“I was walking along treacherous paths”) in F-sharp minor, and after that the only other song in a minor key, “J’ai presque peur, en vérité” (“I almost fear, in truth be said”) in E minor. These keys, distanced from each other by only a whole step, are carefully chosen by Fauré to show a close relationship between fear of losing love and the hope that sustains it.
Fauré ends the cycle with an abbreviated version of the last poem of Verlaine’s set: “L’hiver a cessé” (“Winter is over”). Removing a stanza that refers specifically to Paris in the original, Fauré amplifies the more symbolic idea of the seasons employed in the poem. And, as the text eventually embraces all the seasons, Fauré weaves in all five of his themes into this last piece.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Octet for Winds and Strings in F major, D. 803 (1824)
While Schubert wrote to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser in 1824 that he was writing chamber music in preparation to write “a full-scale symphony,” the Octet should be considered in the guise of a divertimento or serenade before giving too much over to more symphonic ideas. Commissioned by Count Troyer, an amateur clarinetist who would premiere the piece, the Octet was modeled on Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20. Schubert adds a second violin, but the instrumentation is otherwise identical: clarinet, bassoon, horn, and strings. The works compare and contrast in other ways; the order of the scherzo and minuet are reversed in the Schubert, there are similarities in the use of the clarinet to begin the slow movements, and both works make use of slow introductions to fast movements that open and close both pieces. However, as John Reed notes, the Octet is still “quintessential Schubert,” bearing “eloquent testimony to Schubert’s universality [and] his facility within a wide range of styles.”
Perhaps more important than the superficial comparisons to Beethoven’s work is the recurrent dotted rhythm that appears throughout the Octet. This implies a close consideration of Beethoven’s cyclic procedures as a whole (most famously in the Fifth Symphony) as a way to unify a work—especially one as diverse in affect and style as the Octet. That dotted figure pervades the first movement, most striking in its use as a leaping sixth that glues the movement together. Schubert demonstrates incredible motivic economy, choosing to exploit instead the octet’s texture, articulations, and dynamics.
By contrast, there are moments in the Adagio when it is easy to forget that the work is scored for eight instruments. The clarinet and first violin are matched as vehicles of expression here, although this occurs at several different places in the work. The movement ends with an initially quiet coda built from the main theme in the clarinet supported by long notes in the horn.
A dotted rhythmic figure again takes over in the Allegro vivace, lending a galloping feel to the scherzo, followed by a contrasting and graceful trio whose first half is given over to the strings. The second half of the trio integrates the entire octet.
As with the Beethoven Septet, Schubert provides a fourth movement theme and variations. In the Octet, the theme is from an aria found in Schubert’s 1815 opera Die Freunde von Salamanka. What follows are a set of seven mostly straightforward variations, providing even phrasing and treatment of the bipartite theme. In most cases Schubert relies upon rhythmic and textural variation. In the sixth variation, however, signaled by the cyclic dotted rhythm in the first violin’s leaping octave, Schubert extends the section into a minor moment of drama that resolves into a ritardando link to the final variation. Here the whimsy of the earliest variations returns, accompanied by a thirty-second note workout for the violins. The winds have the clearest evocation of the theme, but the più lento closing provides a battery of repeated thirty-second notes from the strings and occasionally the horn that undercuts the lyricism of the theme itself with a nervous energy that finally resolves at the last moment.
The Menuetto returns the work to a more Classical conceit, but still maintains the dotted rhythm that is now so clearly the main aural thread of the entire work. The Trio here provides less of an emotional contrast than in the scherzo, but channels a Viennese waltz, wherein the bassoon and first violin are partners, but the latter is occasionally “handed off” to the clarinet. After the return to the Minuet, Schubert adds a short coda announced by the horn that returns the focus to the dotted rhythm.
The tremolando that opens the final movement comes as a bit of a surprise in a piece that has up to this point been fairly cheerful in disposition. While not quite sturm und drang, the tremolando provides enough of a chill in the slow introduction to make us question if there is a hidden program here. Schubert seems to leave the mystery behind, however, returning to a frolicking F major in homophonic declamation before gently easing into a more contrapuntal texture. The middle section is a folk dance, but the movement bears witness to Schubert’s “facility within a wide range of styles.” With whimsical cadential figures that slip into developmental passages and full stops that give way to lyrical themes with jagged underlying textures, this final movement certainly displays the most emotional and textural diversity. Schubert wraps up the dynamic energy of the entire movement in a final accelerando to close out the work.
© 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.