Sanders Series

February 9 — 7:30 p.m.

Venue: Sanders Theatre

Passacaglia for Violin and Viola

Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat major, K. 563

Piano Trio in G minor

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The Passacaglia that opens the program by Norwegian composer, conductor and violinist Johan Halvorsen is based on themes by Handel. Called by Einstein “one of his noblest works,” Mozart’s Divertimento was his first work for string trio and among the first substantial works composed for this combination. Smetana composed only four chamber works in his lifetime, all of great personal significance. Composed after the death of his daughter, the Piano Trio was his first and only chamber work until the string quartet 20 years later.

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Johan Halvorsen (1864–1935)
Passacaglia for Violin and Viola (1894)

Although Johan Halvorsen never achieved the international prominence of his colleague and friend Edvard Grieg, he was an important and popular musical figure in Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Halvorsen was a musician of many talents. He was a virtuoso violinist; a conductor who for 30 years headed Norway’s National Theater in Christiania (now Oslo); and an admired composer whose works ranged from scores for the theater (he wrote incidental music for more than 30 plays, from Shakespeare to works by Norwegian dramatists) to three symphonies, other compositions for orchestra, and many pieces for the violin.

Halvorsen made his violin debut in 1885 in Bergen, where he met and began his lifelong friendship with Grieg (he later married Grieg’s niece). Among their important collaborations was their role in creating a written record of Norwegian folk music. Halvorsen’s interest in this music was awakened in 1901 when, at Grieg’s request, he sat down with a folk fiddler named Knut Dale and wrote down the tunes Dale played for him. It was a challenge to transcribe the traditional folk style, with its intricate ornamentation. As Halvorsen wrote to Grieg, “They are not easy to write down. There are small turns and shakes like a little trout in a rapid. If you try to catch them they’re gone.” When Halvorsen had finished his violin transcriptions, Grieg re-transcribed the tunes for piano. Their violin and piano versions were then published simultaneously—an event that Grieg’s biographer John Horton called “a landmark in musicology comparable to Bartók’s early folk-music transcriptions, which they antedate by several years.”

In recent years, thanks to a flurry of new recordings of much of his music, Halvorsen has been rediscovered as a composer whose colorful, beautifully crafted works—ranging from richly orchestrated symphonies to delightful miniatures—deserve a wide audience. Several of his compositions have never gone out of popular favor, including the orchestral piece March of the Boyers, and Bergensiana, a set of variations for orchestra that is played each year at the opening ceremony of the Bergen International Music Festival. Among Halvorsen’s best-known works is this Passacaglia, a bravura adaptation of a movement from Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G minor for Harpsichord. The Passacaglia begins sedately enough with Handel’s theme. Quickly, though, Halvorsen leaves Handel behind as the two instruments engage in a dazzling, fast-paced dialogue, replete with rapid runs, double stops, flamboyant gestures, and just about every technique in the string player’s repertoire. A showpiece that has been a crowd-pleaser ever since Halvorsen wrote it for a Bergen church concert (he played the viola part), it’s a virtuosic romp that is as much fun to listen to as it is challenging to play.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat major, K. 563 (1788)

Mozart was having a difficult time during the summer and fall of 1788. Over the years, despite a decent income, his spending habits had gotten him into financial trouble. Whatever he craved, he bought: expensive shoes, fashionable clothing, a horse and carriage, a billiard table. When money became tighter, he found it difficult to cut back. Now he was in debt and depressed. Close to panic, he bombarded his friend and fellow Mason Michael Puchberg, a wealthy merchant, with increasingly doleful letters begging for help. Puchberg obliged with a steady stream of loans that helped keep Mozart afloat until the composer’s financial situation improved. (All the loans eventually were repaid, some by Mozart’s widow after his death.)

What is striking about this period is the contrast between Mozart’s anxious state of mind and the glorious works he produced. None of his personal distress disrupted the flow of masterpieces. In just six weeks in the summer of 1788 he composed his last three symphonies, each a monumental achievement. A few weeks later he wrote the Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat major as a thank-you to Michael Puchberg for his help. Most likely it was written for private performances at Puchberg’s house; it was not given its first public performance until a year later, in Dresden, with Mozart on viola.

The Divertimento for String Trio is widely considered to be one of Mozart’s greatest accomplishments, and perhaps the greatest string trio ever written. It “stands alone, far above all other works in that form,” wrote Charles Rosen. Mozart had written many divertimenti years earlier, before he left Salzburg for Vienna. This one, however, is different: it marries a form that was intended as light public entertainment with the depth and the brilliant writing for strings that Mozart since had mastered in his quartets and quintets. Like a typical divertimento, it has six movements: two rapid outer movements, two slow movements, and two minuets. Nothing is typical in Mozart’s handling of these movements, however. From the opening sonata-form Allegro, Mozart establishes that this work will be what Rosen calls “an essay in contrapuntal and harmonic richness, with a surface ease of manner that makes light of its ingenuity.” Among the many highlights are the contrast between the Allegro’s genial opening and the bold modulations of its darker, more restless development section; the great depth and breadth of the brooding Adagio, a movement constructed from a simple theme; two sprightly minuets, the first opening with an unexpected rhythmic irregularity, the second featuring two cheerful trios in folk-dance style; a wonderful theme and four continuous variations, the last of which has the violin and cello cavorting in counterpoint around a slow viola line; and the joyful, melodically rich rondo that brings the Divertimento to a radiant conclusion. “Every note is significant, every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound,” Alfred Einstein wrote of the work that he called “the finest, most perfect trio ever heard.”


Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884)
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 (1855)

Unlike Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio, Smetana’s Piano Trio is inseparable from events in his private life. Smetana, who is widely acknowledged as the founder of modern Czech music, is best known for compositions inspired by Bohemian culture and traditions. In operas such as his comic folk masterpiece The Bartered Bride, and in tone poems such as the popular cycle Ma Vlast (My Country), he led the way in showing how the spirit of his nation could be captured in music. Nationalism wasn’t the only driving force behind his work, though. There were other, more personal impulses. His life was dogged by tragedies and setbacks, and chamber music became the vehicle through which he expressed his suffering.

Tragedy was the impetus behind the Piano Trio in G minor. In a two-year period, three of his four young daughters had died. The loss that affected him most profoundly was that of his oldest, Bedriska, a musically gifted child who died of scarlet fever at the age of four in 1855. Shattered, Smetana expressed his grief through the elegiac Trio. As he later explained in a letter to a friend, “The loss of my eldest daughter, an extraordinarily gifted child, inspired me to compose my chamber work in 1855.” He continued, “In the winter of the same year the Trio was performed publicly in Prague with poor success. The critics condemned it harshly, but a year later we performed it in our home for Liszt, who embraced me and expressed his congratulations to my wife.” Liszt must have been impressed by the Trio’s powerful, Romantic expression of deep emotion, by the technical mastery that enabled Smetana to convey the intensity of his feelings, and by the programmatic drama as Smetana pitted grief against happy memories of his daughter.

Two forces battle throughout the Trio’s first movement: gloom, expressed in the violin’s descending, five-note opening theme, which Smetana’s biographer John Clapham describes as “a mid-19th-century variant and extension of the baroque chromatic symbol of grief”; and the calm of a tender second theme, introduced by the cello. Even with the momentary respite offered by this second melody, as well as by a lyrical piano cadenza at the end of the turbulent development section, there is no real relief from the despair and anger that dominate the movement. The mood lightens in the second movement, which begins with a cheerful polka-like rhythm and at times suggests a child at play. It features two trios, which Smetana calls Alternativo I and II: the first a graceful, gentle melody, the second a darker, dirge-like reminder that this is a work of deep sadness. By the last movement, an energetic rondo driven by folk-music cross-rhythms, the mood has become defiant. Here, as in the first movement, the cello offers a calming interlude, but then comes a surprising reversal: it is the lyrical cello theme that turns at the end into a funeral march, and the restless opening theme that returns to bring the Trio to a triumphant 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.