Hamel Summer Series
August 10 — 8 p.m.
Venue: Charles Mosesian Theater
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Piano Trio in G minor (1826)
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49
Jennifer Frautchi, violin
Ronald Thomas, cello
Max Levinson, piano
The series continues with two British composers who found success and inspiration in Germany. Not just composers, but pianists, conductors and educators, William Sterndale Bennett and John Thomson composed works reflective of their time in Germany and their friendship with Mendelssohn and Schumann. Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio was a great and immediate success. Applauded still for its inspired melodies, mastery of form and warm emotional character, the trio was declared a “master trio of the age” by his friend Robert Schumann.
William Sterndale Bennett (1816 – 1875)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 32 (1852)
Felix Mendelssohn was beloved throughout Europe and especially in Victorian England, where he was lionized by English society and emulated by a generation of British composers. William Sterndale Bennett—whom The New Grove Dictionary calls “the most distinguished English composer of the Romantic school ”—was perhaps the first in England to come under his spell. Bennett was 17 and had just performed his First Piano Concerto when he met Mendelssohn, who was in the audience for the concert. Impressed, Mendelssohn invited him to Germany. When Bennett asked, “May I come to be your pupil?” Mendelssohn replied, “No, no, you must come to be my friend.” It was the beginning of a relationship that would have a lifelong impact on Bennett. Thirty years later, by then the head of London’s Royal Academy of Music and a much-admired composer in England, Bennett referred to his compositions as “works of a Mendelssohn pupil.”
In 1836 Bennett made the first of several extended visits to Germany, at the end of which Mendelssohn wrote to a British friend, “I think him the most promising young musician I know, not only in your country but also here, and I am convinced if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own.” Bennett’s virtuosity was the talk of Leipzig. Socially too he was a success, joining a musical circle that enjoyed billiards and daily lunches with Mendelssohn and Schumann, with whom Bennett became close friends. Schumann later dedicated his Symphonic Etudes to the personable young Englishman. “Were there many artists like Sterndale Bennett, all fears for the future progress of our art would be silenced,” he wrote. Surprisingly, after Bennett returned to England and launched an illustrious career as a teacher, administrator, and performer, his early outpouring of piano, orchestral, and chamber works slowed dramatically.
Bennett’s delightful Sonata for Cello and Piano reflects his indebtedness to Mendelssohn, especially in the contrasts between the cello’s long, lyrical lines and the piano’s virtuoso figurations. Close your eyes and you might think you’re listening to a Mendelssohn sonata. Bennett’s sonata is no mere imitation, though, but a well-crafted work that abounds in lovely, lyrical melodies and is distinguished by the liveliness, freshness, and grace that made his music so appealing to his listeners. The Sonata’s opening movement is in three parts: a long, slow introduction, highlighted by a graceful cello melody; an energetic, airy central section in which passages of rapid triplets alternate with a series of tuneful melodies; and a slow, songful coda that brings the movement to a quiet close. The Minuetto that follows has a charming lilt, with the piano weaving arabesques and the cello taking the lead in a livelier central section. The genial rondo that ends the Sonata is a movement of shifting moods, with sections marked variously “brilliant,” “plaintive,” and “always tranquil.” Again, as in the first movement, the cello sings and the piano cavorts as the movement builds to a cheerful climax, bringing to a close an appealing work from a composer once styled the English Mendelssohn.
John Thomson (1805 – 1841)
Piano Trio in G minor (1826)
The Scottish composer and musicologist John Thomson was another of the many talented composers from the British Isles whose careers were influenced by Mendelssohn. Thomson met and became friends with Mendelssohn when Felix visited Edinburgh in 1829. Thomson was eager to study in Germany, so Mendelssohn wrote a letter of introduction to his family in which he praised several of Thomson’s compositions, including the G Minor Piano Trio. Thomson’s interactions with the Mendelssohn family included one fascinating episode involving Felix’s sister Fanny, herself a gifted composer. Felix’s 12 songs published as Opus 8 in 1827 included some that were actually written by Fanny. It was Thomson who revealed the truth, reporting to English music lovers, “Three of the best songs are by his sister.” A few years later, in 1832, Thomson published another of Fanny’s songs – the first to be published under her own name.
In 1839, with Mendelssohn’s support, Thomson was appointed the first Reid Professor of the Theory of Music at Edinburgh University. For the inaugural Reid Concert that he conducted there, he introduced a new idea: program notes that analyzed the music for the audience. In 1840 he invited Mendelssohn to come to Edinburgh to direct a music festival at the university. Thomson’s idea was to present oratorios of Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. Felix, though, wanted instead to perform Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Thomson demurred, explaining in a letter to Felix that it was impossible in Protestant Edinburgh, “for having Christ as one of the dramatic personae would be a fatal objection to its performance in this country.” Mendelssohn decided to accept another festival invitation instead.
Although Thomson’s early death cut short his composing career, he was admired as a composer of chamber works, songs, and operas. It’s not surprising that Mendelssohn would have been impressed with the G Minor Piano Trio, given its Classical structure, lyrical melodic lines, transparent textures, and Romantic mix of gentleness and ardor. The Trio opens with a solemn Adagio, with the strings playing a slow, downward-moving line that the piano counters with a rapidly rising scale, a pattern that recurs in the sonata-form Allegro. Highlights of the movement include a sweet second theme, a stormy development section, a dramatic conclusion, and, throughout, restless triplets in the piano that propel the music. Each instrument takes a turn as soloist in the charming Minuet and Trio, which begins with an amusingly gruff little theme played in unison, then quickly shifts to a series of light melodies. The cello takes the lead in the Trio, which in character is much like the Minuet. Melodies continue to flow in the waltz-like, ingratiating Andantino, throughout which the strings harmonize or trade parts back and forth while the piano keeps up a simple rhythmic accompaniment. A stormy middle section briefly interrupts the genial mood. Triplets return to propel the good-natured, high-spirited Finale, which features rhythmically irregular passages that periodically disrupt the forward momentum, a fugue-like central section, and a propulsive gallop to a surprise conclusion as the music wafts away, ending on two quietly whimsical notes.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49 (1839)
Mendelssohn occupied a singular place in the vibrant musical life of his time. He was renowned not just for his music and his influence, but also for his warm personality and his remarkable capacity for friendship; he was a favorite of everyone from fellow musicians to Queen Victoria. He was also surprisingly modest. Joseph Joachim told the story of a performance of his D Minor Piano Trio in London in 1844 in which by mistake only the string parts were placed on the music stands. Mendelssohn realized he would have to play the piano part from memory and in order not to draw attention to himself had other music put on his stand. Someone even turned pages, so that “I need not look as if I play by heart.”
Professionally as well as personally, Mendelssohn had a great impact on the musical life of Europe. As director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he promoted the performances both of German masterworks and of worthy new compositions. Energetic in his pursuit of new works, he became what Peter Mercer-Taylor calls “north Germany’s leading arbiter of musical taste.” Meanwhile, despite his hectic schedule and constant claims on his time, he continued to compose. Schumann called Felix’s Piano Trio in D Minor, written in the summer of 1839, “the master trio of our age” and added, “he has raised himself so high that we can indeed say he is the Mozart of the 19th century.” Interestingly, when Mendelssohn played a draft of the Trio for his friend Ferdinand Hiller, Hiller commented that the piano part was too old-fashioned and urged Mendelssohn to make it more virtuosic, in the manner of Chopin and Liszt. As a result, Mendelssohn made significant changes to the first movement, adding brilliance and Romantic unpredictability to the Trio’s Classical proportions.
The Piano Trio is notable for its craftsmanship, Classical form, abundance of memorable melodies, and the brilliance of its piano writing. Two wonderfully lyrical themes open the sonata-form first movement, each introduced by the cello. Throughout the exposition, the cello and violin trade these melodies and develop them harmonically and contrapuntally, while the piano rumbles agitatedly underneath or wraps the melodies in sparkling figurations. That pattern continues in the development section and the recapitulation, at the end of which the music rises to a peak of passionate virtuosity. In a dramatic change of mood, the second movement begins with a Mendelssohn trademark: a gentle Song without Words introduced by the piano, followed by a duet between the violin and the cello, a contrasting, minor-key middle section, and a return to the enchantment of the opening. The third movement, an effervescent Scherzo, is another trademark—the type of light, mercurial, perpetual-motion romp that Mendelssohn invented in his Octet. The Trio comes to a glorious end in a rhythmic Finale that once more combines virtuosic and lyrical elements. Mendelssohn’s biographer R. Larry Todd aptly describes this sweeping last movement as incorporating “the agitated brooding of the first, subdued introspection of the second and playful frivolity of the third…before reconciling them in the celebratory D-major ending.”
(c) Barbara Leish