October 27 — 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Violin Sonata in A major, K. 526
Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four Hands, D. 940
Piano Quartet in D minor
Harumi Rhodes, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Randall Hodgkinson, piano
Raman Ramakrishnan, cello
Mihae Lee, piano
Falling in the Köchel Catalog between the famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A major was his last substantial work for that instrumentation. Schubert’s Fantasie that follows was among the most important piano works of his vast output, dedicated in 1828 to his (unrequited) love and likely premiered by Schubert himself and Franz Lachner. Composed at the age of 16, Walton’s Piano Quartet is the sole representation of his early work. The “misaligned” thematic material and unique approach to expanded tonal harmonies creates the dramatic effect of harmonic motion and tension.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Violin Sonata in A major, K.526 (1787)
The year 1787 began joyfully for Mozart. Early in January he traveled to Prague, where it seemed the entire city was talking about nothing but The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart basked in adulation. Soon, though, he wrote to a friend, “Although I meet with all possible courtesies and honors here…I long most ardently to be back in Vienna.” He returned home with a commission for a new opera, to be produced in Prague in the fall. Although the next several months had their share of stress—the death of his father, money woes, his problems finding audiences for his challenging compositions – between March and August Mozart produced a range of works that for sheer variety alone were remarkable, with piece after piece breaking new ground or setting ever-higher standards. In the space of those few months Mozart composed several of his most enduring works, including the Rondo in A minor for piano; two great string quintets; the buoyant serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525; the Violin Sonata in A major, K. 526; and the opera Don Giovanni; K. 527. These last three, with their consecutive Köchel numbers, are a testament to Mozart’s ability to work with greatly different forms almost simultaneously.
The Violin Sonata in A major is Mozart’s last great work for the violin, and it marks the culmination of the evolving role of that instrument in Mozart’s sonatas. Whereas his earliest works were closer to a tradition in which the violin was merely an accompaniment for the piano, here the two instruments are equal partners. Conceived on a grand scale, the high-spirited sonata is melodically inspired, rhythmically energetic, and marked by contrapuntal inventiveness. The sonata-form first movement begins with disarming simplicity: the piano plays the opening theme in a single line, with the violin playing along, but a third below. The roles are soon reversed, after which, for the rest of the movement, the instruments pass themes back and forth in a continuous give-and-take built around scampering scales, a wealth of melodies, and rich two-part polyphony.
Mozart follows this virtuosic technical display with one of his memorable slow movements. From the opening of the Andante—with the piano establishing a steady pulse over which the violin weaves a brief soulful melody – Mozart achieves depths of feeling through simplicity. In an often quoted comment, Alfred Einstein wrote of this slow movement: “It attains an equilibrium of art and soul that is as if God the Father had brought all motion everywhere to a halt for a moment so that man might savor the bitter sweetness or existence” – a bit effusive, perhaps, but Mozart’s music inspires such rhetorical flights. The melodies continue to flow in the dashing third movement, a perpetual-motion rondo packed with cascading scales and virtuoso parts for both instruments, but especially the piano. There are hints of darkness—Einstein heard “a whole world of demons” —but optimism and good cheer prevail in this exuberant finale.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four Hands, D. 940 (1828)
On May 9, 1828, Schubert’s friend Eduard Bauernfeld wrote in his diary, “Today Schubert (with Lachner) played his new, wonderful four-hand Fantasie for me.” Lachner was Franz Lachner, a good friend of both men. The Fantasie was one of an outpouring of masterpieces during the final year of Schubert’s life. He had always written with great intensity and concentration, and he seemed to compose with even greater urgency after 1823, when he learned he had a fatal disease, probably syphilis. From then until his death five years later he wrote feverishly, as if he knew he had to squeeze a lifetime of work into a few short years.
Schubert began the Fantasie in January, 1828, but didn’t finish it until April—too late to perform it in a concert of his own works given at the end of March. (Although the concert was packed and the audience was wildly enthusiastic, it received little notice in the press, because Paganini was then taking Vienna by storm.) Schubert dedicated the Fantasie to Countess Caroline Esterházy, who had been a piano student of his. Several of his friends suggested that he was in love with the Countess. Bauernfeld called it “an idealized love.” Another acquaintance reported that once, when Caroline teased Schubert for not having dedicated any composition to her, he replied, “What is the point? Everything is dedicated to you anyway.” It’s a nice story, but given the difference in their social standing and his illness, it is unlikely that any serious relationship ever developed.
Like everything he composed during his last year, the Fantasie in F minor is a breathtaking achievement. All the traits we think of as Schubertian are here, including his matchless lyricism, harmonic invention, unexpected modulations, love of major/minor contrasts, and sense of drama. But whereas expansiveness characterizes much of his work, conciseness distinguishes the Fantasie. It is in four continuous, tightly constructed movements, played without a break, and with the two outer movements linked thematically as well as tonally. The overall mood is set with the first movement’s opening theme, an elegiac melody over a steady rhythmic accompaniment anchored by octaves. This haunting F minor theme is repeated in F major before dramatically giving way to an ominous second theme. Schubert juxtaposes these two strongly contrasting ideas for the rest of the short movement, which ends with a surprise, when the second theme returns pianissimo, in F major. From pianissimo to fortissimo, the turbulent Largo storms in, briefly interrupted by a passage of quintessentially Schubertian lyricism. This compact slow movement flows into an extended scherzo and trio, which in turn leads seamlessly into a remarkable last movement, in which Schubert cycles back to the themes of the first section before launching a monumental fugue. The fugue builds in tension until it comes to an abrupt halt, followed by silence – a chilling moment that precedes a final return of the opening theme in a brief coda. Christopher Gibbs calls this stunning conclusion “a final gesture of intimacy and longing before the heart-wrenching dissonances of the closing chords.”
William Walton (1902–1983)
Piano Quartet in D minor (1918–1921; revised 1974)
If Schubert’s Fantasie is the poignant meditation of a master who senses that he is near the end of his life, Walton’s Piano Quartet is the youthfully exuberant work of a newly minted composer. Walton—whom the Grove Dictionary calls “one of the major figures to emerge in England between Vaughn Williams and Britten”—was a 16-year-old student at Oxford when he began working on the Quartet. Oxford was important to Walton for two reasons. He spent much of his time there studying scores (especially Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky) and developing his craft. He also became friends with Sacheverell Sitwell, who, together with his siblings Osbert and Edith, “adopted” him as an honorary brother. After Oxford, Walton lived with the Sitwells for more than a decade. Not only did they provide financial support, but they expanded his musical and cultural worlds, introducing him to the musicians and writers who were shaping the arts in the postwar world. They also introduced him to Italy, where, years later, he moved with his wife, building a home on the island of Ischia.
Walton created his first sensation in the 1920s with Façade, a musical setting of poems by Edith Sitwell that drew on everything from popular dances and jazz to Schoenberg’s Pierre lunaire and Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. His Viola Concerto (1929), the dramatic oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), and his first symphony (1935) cemented his reputation as a colorful and inventive composer. During the war years he supported himself by writing scores for films, notably Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. Over the next many years, he received important commissions from major orchestras and artists. His compositions, for which he won many awards and honors, spanned a wide range of styles, from the early Façade, with its roots in the 1920s avant garde, to his opera Troilus and Cressida, an attempt to work within the traditions of 19th-century Italian opera.
The boldly original Piano Quartet is distinguished by melodic inventiveness, vigorous rhythms, tonal ambiguity, and the skill with which Walton assimilates an array of disparate influences and makes them his own. In particular, Ravelian textures can be heard in the first and third movements, while Stravinsky’s rhythmic drive infuses the second and especially the fourth. The energetic first movement, which opens with a lovely modal theme that evokes English folk music, is rich in rhythmic variety. The second movement is a playful romp, filled with spiky rhythms and featuring a fugato for the strings and vigorous writing for the piano. Muted strings, led by the viola, introduce the Andante third movement, a moving reverie in which the viola leads much of the way. The edgy and restless last movement crackles with energy, from the first angular melody that the strings play in syncopation over big, rhythmic piano chords, through a lyrical second melody introduced by the cello and another fugato, to the return of the raucous opening theme in a coda that brings the Quartet to an exhilarating close.
(c) 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.