Hamel Summer Series

August 17 — 8 p.m.

Venue: Charles Mosesian Theater

Short Pieces for Violin and Piano

Piano Quartet in D major, Op. 23

Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26

Featured Musicians

Arnaud Sussmann, violin
Dimitri Murrath, viola
Ronald Thomas, cello
Mihae Lee, piano

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The third installment of the Summer Series begins in England with Sir Hubert Parry, educator, historian and early contributor to the Grove Dictionary of Music we all use to this day. Parry, never able to study with Brahms as he wished, found inspiration in the music of Wagner and Liszt, much as Dvorak did in later years. Dvorak composed his first Piano Quartet at the age of 34, years before his elevation to international acclaim, but with all the distinctive musical personality for which he is known. Concluding the program is Brahms’ second Piano Quartet, premiered in Vienna in 1862 just 13 days after the first with Brahms himself at the piano.

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Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Short Pieces for Violin and Piano (1894)

English composers from the 19th century have generally been given short shrift by musical historians. One critic, for example, commented that William Sterndale Bennett’s preeminence was “emphasized by the flatness of the surrounding countryside.” Charles Parry is another who was dismissed as old-fashioned by 20th-century listeners. In recent years, though, as Parry’s music has been rediscovered and performed in public, audiences have found a richness and adventurousness that belie these earlier impressions. His own contemporaries had a much better appreciation of his gifts. He was an important and influential figure in English musical life: a director of the Royal College of Music, a teacher, a musical scholar, and especially a widely admired composer. For years his third symphony, the “English,” was the most frequently played symphony in England. His stirring hymn “Jerusalem,” written in 1916 to words by William Blake, is now practically a national anthem, sung at everything from sporting events to the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate.

Parry’s compositional style was greatly influenced by Brahms. After studying law and modern history at Oxford, Parry began his working life as a clerk for an insurance company while composing on the side and dreaming of studying with Brahms. When that couldn’t be arranged, in 1873 he began working with the renowned pianist and teacher Edward Dannreuther, who expanded Parry’s musical horizons through a study of the Classical composers as well as of Brahms and Wagner. Parry was impressed by the visionary ideas of both of these men, but it was Brahms whose innovations had the greatest impact on his emerging style. Parry remained a lifelong admirer, and his compositions reflect his close study of Brahms’s chamber music. From Parry’s earliest chamber works—the Grosses Duo for Two Pianos in E minor, the Piano Trio in E minor, the Piano Quartet in A-flat major—he shows his mastery of Brahmsian sonata technique, with its expanded forms, extended key relationships, and motivic development. (Later in tonight’s program, you’ll hear how Brahms used these same techniques in his A major Piano Quartet.) After Brahms died in 1897, Parry, deeply affected, wrote a moving Elegy for Brahms that includes quotations from Brahms’s music. When Parry died, the Elegy was played at his own memorial concert.

By the time Parry wrote Twelve Short Pieces for violin and piano, he had turned to music full time, and his national reputation was firmly established. Commissioned by the publisher Novello, these Short Pieces are delightful miniatures that traverse a wide range of emotions and styles. Each one is dedicated either to the composer’s wife, Maude, or to one of his two daughters, Dorothea (Dolly) and Gwen. The pieces include romances, capriccios, envois, a prelude, and a lullaby. When you listen to tonight’s selections, you might occasionally hear strains reminiscent of other composers like Dvořák, Schumann, and of course Brahms. What you’ll certainly hear is one charming character piece after another, from a gifted melodist whose distinctive works are true treasures of 19th-century English Romanticism.


Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet in D major, Op. 23 (1875)

Dvořák was already an accomplished although still obscure composer when Brahms entered his life, and the two began a friendship that Leon Botstein has described as “a relationship that is quite unparalleled in music history.” They first came into contact in 1875, when Brahms sat on an Austrian jury that was awarding financial support to worthy but needy composers within the Hapsburg Empire. Brahms was bowled over by the works Dvořák submitted, and he saw to it that Dvořák received a grant. As the critic Eduard Hanslick later wrote to Dvořák, “Johannes Brahms… takes a great interest in your fine talent….The sympathy of an artist as important and famous as Brahms should not only be pleasant but also useful to you, and I think you should write to him….After all, it would be advantageous for your things to become known beyond your narrow Czech fatherland.”

Brahms’s enthusiastic support was life-changing for Dvořák. His breakthrough came when Brahms persuaded his own publisher, Simrock, to publish Dvořák’s Moravian Duets. They were a hit, and the publisher then commissioned the Slavonic Dances (modeled on Brahms’s Hungarian Dances) which launched Dvořák on the road to international fame. Over the years Brahms offered continual advice and support. (Once, Brahms proofread Dvořák’s music for Simrock and discreetly cleaned up his careless friend’s counterpoint.) “What impressed Brahms about Dvořák,” according to Botstein, ”was the seemingly unlimited inventiveness of Dvořák’s melodic materials, his uncanny sense of time and duration, and the dazzling sense of musical line that the younger composer achieved.” All of these strengths are apparent in Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in D major, written in just 18 days in 1875, after Dvořák learned he had been awarded his stipend.

The quartet begins ingratiatingly with a folk-sounding, syncopated opening theme that almost immediately shifts to a new key before giving way to a more vigorous second theme—an early indication of the surprises and pleasures to follow. The long sonata-form movement is striking for its expansiveness, its leisurely development of a wealth of melodic ideas, its harmonic color, and the skill with which Dvořák balances the four instruments. The mood is entirely different in the second movement, in which a melancholy, minor-key melody is followed by five variations that introduce a range of textures and rhythms. One instrument enters at a time in the sparse first variation. The piano introduces the melody in the thicker-textured second, and again in the inverted-theme third. The arpeggiated, richly colored, Slavic-tinged fourth variation moves back and forth between major and minor. After a sharp metric shift to 6/16 in the last variation, an extended coda restores the original tempo and melancholy air. Unusually, the good-natured last movement combines a scherzo with a finale. The sections alternate, rondo-fashion; the rhythms shift from waltz to country dance; and the melodies flow, as does the humor. It’s a delightful end to a fresh and inventive work from the composer Brahms hailed as “a spontaneous talent, who knows from inside himself what’s right.”


Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26 (1861)

To Wagner, Brahms was a traditionalist whose music belonged to the past. To Schoenberg, he was a progressive whose innovations influenced Schoenberg’s own musical ideas. In a way, both were right.  Brahms’s reputation as a traditionalist and a conservative came from his championing the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and from his use of traditional Classical structures in his own music. What he did within those structures, however, was another story. While he understood traditional sonata form—two or more themes presented in an exposition, elaborated on in a development section, and resolved in a recapitulation—he was innovative in his treatment of it. As Jan Swafford notes, “A Brahmsian movement is often made of succinct melodic ideas that begin to transform as soon as we hear them, and continue to evolve and recombine throughout, accompanied by the sort of abrupt key changes that used to be confined to the development section.” This is the technique that an admiring Schoenberg named “developing variation,” and that Brahms uses in the superb A major Piano Quartet.

Brahms wrote the quartet during a relatively placid period in his life, while he was living on his own outside Hamburg. During this period he wrote several important works, including the Handel Variations and his first two piano quartets, the extroverted No. 1 in G minor and this lyrical and expansive companion. The first movement of the A major quartet gives a good sense of how Brahms’s developing variation works. Instead of traditional thematic development, Brahms develops a wealth of motives incrementally and in complex relationships. Brahms opens with a striking two-part thematic statement: The piano begins a gentle, irregular motive, in triplets, which the cello answers with a flowing phrase in eighth notes. The strings repeat the triplet motive, immediately after which these two ideas begin evolving harmonically and melodically. Meanwhile, the two contrasting meters play out against each other throughout the sonata-form movement. When, for example, after an intense transition the piano introduces a second theme, the rhythmic pattern of three notes against two reemerges, with the piano this time picking up the eighth-note rhythm and the cello countering with triplets.

While the first movement reflects Brahms’s admiration for Schubert, the beautiful second shows his affection for Schumann. Tranquil, at times ardent, and melodically rich throughout, the Adagio is striking for its long, arching piano themes, the muted sonorities of the strings, and especially the strange, somewhat ominous arpeggios that twice interrupt the melodic flow before closing the movement. Brahms next presents a Scherzo that is surprisingly light and amiable, although the minor-key Trio, which opens with a fiery canon, is made of sterner stuff. The vivacious Finale is marked by exuberant, Hungarian-style themes that sweep the music to a joyful conclusion. It is marked, too, by a continuation of rhythmic irregularities. At the start of the movement, for instance, Brahms seems to be having a good time disguising where the beat falls. This playing with meter is another element that increasingly becomes a distinguishing feature of Brahms’s musical style.

(c) Barbara Leish