Sanders Series

March 9 — 7:30 p.m.

Venue: Sanders Theatre

Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67

String Quintet in C major, Op. 29

Piano Quintet in C minor. Op. 115

Featured Musicians

Harumi Rhodes, violin
Yura Lee, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Dimitri Murrath, viola
Astrid Schween, cello
Randall Hodgkinson, piano

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Turina sets the stage in Andalusia with constrained and mysterious melodies that hearken to the ancient deep songs of southern Spain and the familiar feel of a Flamenco guitar. Beethoven’s Viola Quintet straddles the Classical and Romantic eras, drawing inspiration from the Viennese masters before and anticipating the independence and freedom of the next century. Deaf and frail in his old age, Fauré’s second Piano Quintet is nevertheless a powerful work, restless in its gestures and transparent in texture.

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Joaquín Turina (1882–1949)
Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67 (1931)

One piece of advice changed the direction of Joaquín Turina’s musical career. Turina was born in Seville, Andalusia, where he showed early gifts as a pianist and composer. As a teenager he moved to Madrid, hoping to earn a living writing the popular light operas known as zarzuelas. Unfortunately his efforts failed to attract much notice, and in 1905 he went to Paris, enrolled in the relatively conservative Schola Cantorum, and began to study composition with Vincent d’Indy. The city was a hotbed of new ideas and an exciting place for a young artist. Turina met Debussy and Ravel and was impressed by their revolutionary ideas. He also became friends with his fellow countrymen Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz, who were in Paris at the same time.

For De Falla and Albéniz, something essential was missing from Turina’s early musical efforts. After they heard his much-praised Piano Quintet, which was written in 1907 and reflected the influence of his French teachers, they confronted him. Telling him that he was listening to the wrong voices, they urged him to return to his Spanish roots, embrace his Andalusian heritage, and draw his inspiration from Spanish song. Turina took their words to heart and increasingly began to draw on Andalusia’s popular musical traditions in his compositions. After graduating from the Schola Cantorum in 1913, he returned to Madrid, where his music was enthusiastically received. Turina went on to become one of Spain’s most widely admired composers. Later he would say, “Those words were decisive for me; they are a piece of advice that I have tried to follow throughout my career.” Or as he once summed up his musical journey, “My music is the expression of the feeling of a true Sevillian who did not know Seville until he left it.”

The colors and rhythms of Andalusia infuse Turina’s Piano Quartet in A minor, a work that reflection of his many musical influences. Its organization is cyclical, with unity coming from motifs and effects that are carried from movement to movement—an approach that reflects Turina’s studies with d’Indy in France. Debussy’s Impressionistic harmonies make their influence felt too. But the Quartet’s spirit—with its gypsy and Andalusian rhythms and traditional folk songs, and with soulful melodies weaving above the strum of guitars—is entirely that of Moorish Spain. The first movement plants the seeds of what is to come. The violin’s haunting opening melody is repeated in the second and third movements, while musical effects that suggest a guitar—chord progressions from the piano, pizzicatos from the strings, the violin’s tremolo—recur throughout the Quartet. The piano keeps up the guitar effects in the fiery second movement, which captures the many moods of Gypsy and Andalusian songs and dances, from tender melodies to suggestions of foot-stamping flamenco. After a flamboyant beginning, the third movement, like the second, presents a kaleidoscopic succession of melodies and rhythms before ending with a flourish—a final, dramatic restatement of the lyrical melody that began the Quartet.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
String Quintet in C major, Op. 29 (1801)

Beethoven was at a crossroads when he wrote his String Quintet in C major. After moving from Bonn to Vienna in 1792, he spent the next several years proving that he could match Haydn and Mozart as a master of each major genre of the Viennese Classical style. By the time he wrote the Op. 29 Quintet he had already composed, and won applause for, his early sonatas, trios, and quartets. Now, in 1801, he was restless and ready to set off on what he called his “new path”—the revolution that would take music from the Classical to the Romantic era. The Quintet was written at this decisive juncture in Beethoven’s musical journey.

There’s an interesting story associated with the Quintet that illustrates the combative side of Beethoven’s personality. The work was at the center of a contretemps over its publication. Beethoven dedicated it and gave it to his friend and patron Count Moritz von Fries, who in turn gave it to Beethoven’s Viennese publisher, Artaria. Meanwhile, though, Beethoven had given the rights to a Leipzig publisher, Breitkopf und Härtel. Beethoven tried to sabotage the Artaria edition, publicly charging that it was “very faulty, incorrect, and utterly useless to players.” Artaria sued, Beethoven refused to back down, and the case dragged on in the courts for years.

The C major Quintet looks in two directions: back to the Classical past, and ahead to things to come. Like much of Beethoven’s early work, it shows Mozart’s influence. Mozart’s great series of viola quintets undoubtedly pointed the way for Beethoven, who, like Mozart, takes full advantage of the richer harmonic and textural possibilities that the second viola allows. The first two movements in particular are gracious examples of the Classical style. The expansive Allegro that opens the Quintet is Mozartian in its gracefulness, effortless flow, and harmonic breadth. There is playfulness too, such as when the violin adds chirps over the main theme in the recapitulation. Even in this amiable first movement, though, Beethoven pushes boundaries: instead of sticking to the conventional tonic-dominant relationships of Classical composition, he consistently moves to keys that, unorthodoxly, are a third away.

Gracefulness and charm also characterize the second movement, a beguiling Adagio rich in lyrical phrases, harmonic color, and impressive contrapuntal writing. Then, in the energetic and playful Scherzo, Beethoven tries another new idea: The movement grows entirely out of a brief three-note motif in the opening measure, presaging a conciseness that will occur more frequently in Beethoven’s later works. The inventiveness continues in the Presto, which Beethoven launches with suggestions of thunder and lightning that earned the Quintet the nickname “Storm.” Among the surprises are the stop-and-start character of the opening motif; an unusual number of themes in the exposition and development; and a sudden change to Andante toward the close of the development, when Beethoven introduces an amusingly simple, minuet-like little tune.  A satisfyingly stormy coda brings to a close a masterful work that marks an important step in Beethoven’s creative development.


Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)
Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 115 (1919–1921)

Fauré was a revered composer, teacher, and conservatory director, whose artistic principles—especially his strikingly original ideas about harmony—had a major impact on musical development in the first part of the 20th century. He was an innovator, but not a revolutionary: he had no interest in abandoning his French roots. Rather, his aim was to build bridges between the French musical past and the Modern future. He succeeded, in music that his biographer Robert Orledge calls “the fluent and distinctive quintessence of Gallic civilization.”

Aaron Copland commented that Fauré’s music “possessed all the earmarks of the French temperament: harmonic sensitivity, impeccable taste, Classic restraint, and a love of clear lines and well-made proportions.” All those qualities are very much in evidence in the Piano Quintet in C minor. By the time Fauré wrote it, many people had assumed that he was done with composing. He was increasingly deaf and infirm, and in 1919 he was asked to resign as director of the Paris Conservatory, a position he had held for 24 years. Yet his mind was vigorous, and he now was able to devote himself fulltime to composition. That summer he began the Quintet, a graceful and contemplative work that, like everything Fauré wrote, melds tight structure with long melodic phrases, innovative progressions, and modal harmonies. The first movement is a melodic feast wrapped in an impressive structure. It begins with a warm opening melody introduced by the viola over a tremolo piano, and with a rhythmic ambiguity: what sounds at first like 4/4 time is actually 3/4 time. Although the structure of the movement is complex—themes are developed continuously in four sections—the melodies flow effortlessly in what seems an unbroken arc. Among the movement’s many pleasures are a polyphony-rich development and a soaring conclusion that builds to a joyous coda.

Nobody writes a French scherzo better than Fauré, as he proves in the second movement, a frothy, mischievous confection filled with shimmering, scampering scales on the piano, pizzicatos, spiccatos, and cross-rhythms from the strings, and at the end, descending staccato grace notes that sound like giggles. The Andante that follows is as reflective as the scherzo is carefree. It is an ethereally beautiful movement, with an uninterrupted string of arching melodies and the wonderful step-by-step modulations that are a favorite Fauré technique. The arching shapes continue but the autumnal mood is broken in the finale, a rhythmic and spirited rondo. Like the first movement, it begins with the piano playing under the viola and ends with an exuberant surge of sound. According to Robert Orledge, Fauré reported that he had trouble with the form of the first movement (”As Saint-Saëns says, in the ordering of ideas, the difficulties do not smooth themselves out with age”), but that in the finale he was “working with continuity and pleasure.” The real pleasure is the listeners’, thanks to a work in which, as Aaron Copland wrote, Fauré “showed himself to be an example of a septuagenarian at the zenith of his powers.”

© Barbara Leish