Masters Each, of Great and Small

Mozart, Harbison and Schumann


The cultivated musician may study a Madonna by Raphael, the painter a symphony by Mozart, with equal advantage.   –Robert Schumann, Journal of Poetry and Thought


We conclude our season with three masterworks: two for string trio with piano from the past, and one, for string trio by a local master, played for the first time in Boston. Each of these shares the distinction of being great among works for small forces by masters of the epic. Each, as well, displays relationships to earlier works from which it is a descendant.

Mozart’s First Piano Quartet (1785), born of a publisher’s commission, in the dark and stormy key of G minor used earlier in his Symphony No. 25, actually cost Mozart the completion of the project because it was received as too difficult to play and not quite cheerful enough for popular taste. Today this quartet for string trio and piano, the first great effort in this form, is heard much as Schumann described the later Symphony No. 40 in G minor—“full of Hellenic grace”—beautifully proportioned, and elegant. Mozart’s Second Piano Quartet considered less challenging for listeners, although equally difficult for players, was produced on his own terms for a virtuoso pianist, and free of market approval.

Harbison has identified his new String Trio (2013) with the great Mozart Divertimento in E-flat major, K.563, a six-movement work that also inspired Beethoven’s E-flat String Trio of the same size. Harbison calls the earlier work “the once and future king” of the genre, acknowledging its “stretches of great learnedness and patches of casual geniality” and how it “exults in the sufficiency of two or three voices.” Where it departs most from the Mozart example is in its abundance of duos and expansive solo cadenzas, for each of the instruments and pairs, as well as sections where all three move in perfect rhythmic unison or staggered unison, i.e., in canon. In doing so he seems to exult in the “game” of chamber music—unity through imitation and agreement—while exploring the freedoms of being left alone, or of recalling that sometimes “three’s a crowd!”

Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op 47 (1842), which lives still in the shadow of his great Piano Quintet written earlier that year, was created for performance by his wife, Clara, who by 1848 toured with the work to St. Petersburg, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna. In structure, its first movement has much in common with Haydn’s practice of writing a slow introduction and Beethoven’s practice of returning to that introduction in the middle of a fast movement. The second movement is in the style of a Mendelssohn Scherzo, in the dark key of G minor! (Schumann is known to have almost idolized Mendelssohn.) The third movement is the one audiences love best—tuneful, heartfelt, and simply textured. At its mid-section it turns inward looking to the point of being Beklemmt (i.e., choked with emotion) as Beethoven specifies in the Cavatina movement of his Op.130 string quartet. Thereafter the simple tune of the opening returns, this time in the viola part, ending the movement on a hopeful note. The last movement opens with a running fugato theme similar in character to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. Melodic episodes and extensive canonic imitation, of which Harbison partakes, follow before returning to the energetic fugato to close.



Pairs and Peers

Our April concert features flights of fantasy—famous duos, and a trio, that are the products of special relationships between prominent pairs and peers: players with composers, composer and composer, and player with player.

The duos are Franz Schubert’s late Rondo for Violin and Piano in B minor (1826), Zoltán Kodály’s early Duo for Violin and Cello (1914), and Claude Debussy’s Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano (1910). The trio is Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (1891), long a favorite at BCMS.

Richard Mühlfeld and Johannes Brahms

Mühlfeld and Brahms

Brahms was the pianist at the premiere of his Clarinet Trio in 1891, the first of four great works he was to write for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose consummate artistry coaxed him out of retirement.

Invited by Gabriel Fauré, then the head of the Paris Conservatoire, to create a challenging solo work for clarinet in 1910, Debussy’s Première rhapsodie is appreciated today in its first piano version, and with Debussy’s later orchestration (1911), for its wide expressive range of character and color.

Without the coincidence of two young and adventurous Hungarian composers (Kodály and Bartók) willing to travel the countryside in search of the roots of what would become their national style we might not have the folksy improvisation and children’s song that inform the Duo for Violin and Cello. Virtuosity and imitation, both competitive and cooperative, is the manner in which pairs and peers relate.

Franz Schubert really must have been taken with Josef Slavik, who was both a violin virtuoso and a composer often favorably compared to Niccolò Paganini. The Rondo in B minor and the great Fantasy in C major were written by Schubert for Slavik. It is certainly a show of youthful endurance lasting, as a single movement, about fifteen minutes of great tunes, high-kicking antics, ambiguous harmonies and false endings to prolong the fun!


Music from our heart to yours

In March we return to Sanders and to spring. Our program features works by Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn from the heart of the Romantic tradition, and the premiere of the gift from our BCMS Commissioning Club—Harold Meltzer’s first Piano Quartet!

Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat major, D.581 (1817) is not heard as often as the great ones by Mozart and Beethoven, or his own two great Piano Trios. It exists in two versions. We will hear the later, new and improved! It is the soul of elegance and grace, devoid of the drama of the Beethovens, and the extended Olympian virtuosity of the Mozart. It has all the sweetness and intimacy of a Romantic miniature, but with many of the witty surprises of Haydn as it fully inhabits the four traditional movements from the Classical Style: Sonata, Three-part song, Minuet and Trio, and Rondo.

Harold Meltzer’s first Piano Quartet (2016) is BCMS’s contribution to the continuation of our Art in our time. Harold Meltzer’s music is widely appreciated and has been heard recently on series throughout the states and often in our own community with BMOP and recently at the Longy School. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and from the Lydian String Quartet to name a few. In the course of writing the piece he experienced the loss of a great friend and mentor. To honor the memory of composer Steven Stucky, Meltzer says:

“Late in the writing of the piece I began to think about how I could memorialize him in music. He would not have liked a dirge, and I wanted the relevant music to be about him rather than my feelings about him. One of his breakout pieces was an orchestral work called Dreamwaltzes, a piece that looks back fondly to the nineteenth century waltz tradition. So I composed a bit of waltz music and embedded it in the work; it sounds like suddenly a music box has opened. In my own backward look to the nineteenth century I overshot: Dreamwaltzes conjures Brahms and Strauss, while mine is the briefest of references, without quotation, to mid-period Beethoven.”

View of Lucerne by Mendelssohn, 1847

View of Lucerne by Mendelssohn, 1847

Our program concludes with Mendelssohn’s birthday present to his sister, Fanny, Piano Trio in C minor Op. 66 (1845). It is his second piano trio, each of them in a minor key. C minor is associated with the dark secretive world that forces its way to the light. Mendelssohn was known to have been a splendid visual artist who included drawings in his letters, and who was said to retain and communicate many of his musical ideas in visual imagery. Over its four movements—from its dark opening in octaves (like his Overture to Fingal’s Cave) through its slow movement song, scurrying Scherzo-like third movement, to its last movement’s laughing opening and conclusion with triumphant songs of praise, Piano Trio in C minor lifts our spirits in gratitude and wonder!


Antonín Dvořák: From Bohemia to Iowa

Prague, Charles Bridge (Karluv Most)

“I am told that there is no popular demand for good music in America. That is not so. Every concert in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or Washington, and in most other cities, no doubt, disproves such a statement. American concert halls are as well filled as those of Europe, and, as a rule, the listeners–to judge them by their attentive conduct and subsequent expression of pleasure–are not a whit less appreciative.”

Antonín Dvořák in Harper’s Magazine, February, 1895


Dvořák retains the distinction of being the only major European composer to come to America (1892-5) on a mission to help found a national school for classical music training. Instead he found his American students patriotic, enthusiastic, daring, and a resource for some of his own best-remembered compositions: the American String Quartet (premiered in Boston in January 1894), the American String Quintet (premiered in New York in January 1894), the New World Symphony (premiered in New York in December 1893), and the Cello Concerto (completed in 1895).

Our February program at the Fitzgerald Theatre this season captures Dvořák’s chamber music before and during the American encounter in ensembles of increasing size, from the Terzetto in C major for Two Violins and Viola (January1887) to the Cypresses for String Quartet (May 1887, based on a romantic song cycle of the same title composed in 1865), and Quartet Movement in F major, B.120 (October 1881). The program concludes with the American String Quintet.

As a composer some of Dvořák’s earliest music was chamber music–a string quintet, string quartet dating from the 1860s. His early training was as an organist, but the stringed instrument he played was the viola! His music is unabashedly Czech despite heavy instruction in the music of the Germanic masters of the time. He incorporated specific folk references– the Furiant and Dumka– within his music as often as Haydnesque variation movements. His sensitivity to the repression he felt as a Bohemian national may have made him more open to the musical practices and styles of American Indians and African Americans born of similar treatment. His summer journey and vacations in the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa would place in close proximity to the American heartland, while time in New York teaching in the inner city would bring him into contact with talented young musicians like the singer, and soon to be composer H.T. Burleigh, who, following Dvořák’s example, created concert arrangements that have preserved traditional African-American music.



Music from the City of Light

Aleksander III bridge in Paris“Actually two schools confront each other: the old comprises the disciples of César Franck, and Claude Debussy may justly be considered the initiator of the new.”

Maurice Ravel, 1913

Paris, much in the news these days, has long been a place of refuge and re-invention for outsiders even as it remained the site of national self-discovery. Our January program on January 31 at Fitzgerald Theatre highlights virtue and virtuosity in the uniquely French take on sounds associated with the café-concert, chambre, concours, and cathedral. We present, for a change, in reverse chronological order, hoping to shed light of our own on a trend that grew since the 1870s with the founding of organizations like Société Nationale de Musique to promote a more distinct identity for French music.

Maurice Ravel’s late Sonata No. 2 in G major for Violin and Piano written between 1923 and 1927 opens the concert with his daring mélange of what outsiders from Igor Stravinsky to W.C. Handy (of St. Louis Blues fame) had introduced to Paris theaters and cafés. At the very heart of this piece are the blues brought from the “wrong side of town” and served to his public for the first time in Rhapsodie in Blue (1924).

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, completed in February 1922, marked a turning point in his style, requiring him to work within the severe harmonic constraints imposed by using just two instruments. The result is a highly virtuosic and imitative work that favors melodic invention and folk elements in response to earlier works by Debussy, Bartók, and Kodály. It opens with a repeated triadic melody that alternates between major and minor as it ascends and descends; and is followed by a scherzo that opens with the same motive in pizzicato. The slow movement begins and ends slowly in the melodic depths of the cello after describing an arc in pitch, emotion, and pacing. The sonata ends with a romp through modal melodies and rhythms gleaned from Eastern European folksong that were also a source for Debussy.

George Enescu, the Romanian-born violinist, violist, pianist and composer (who died in Paris in 1955) was commissioned in 1906 by Gabriel Fauré to write a piece for a competition (concours) at the Paris Conservatoire where Enescu served for years as a jury member. The result is a challenging work that is both virtuosic and lyrical, one that sounds the viola throughout its tonal and coloristic range as an equal with the piano. In structure it falls into three main sections like a sonata movement. Harmonically, at times it displays the subtle shifts associated with both Wagner and Fauré, early influences for a brilliant young composer, who felt out of place in the all too cerebral atmosphere of the conservatoire. With its German title Concertstück stands at the crossroads of a decades-long effort to restore prominence and distinction to French music.

Our program concludes with the late, great Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) of César Franck. Often compared to the great piano quintet in the same key by Johannes Brahms (1864), it is in three big movements rather than four, with harmonies similar to those in music by Liszt and Wagner. Unlike the Brahms, the piano writing goes beyond the tonal range of the string quartet, and often challenges their dominance with an expansive dynamic range and tonal sonorities reminiscent of the organ he played at Saint-Clotilde.

Some players have wondered whether the quiet tremolando that opens the third movement (in the second violin part) might be the source of the fortissimo opening of the last movement of Ravel’s own string quartet! Could be.




Music and Memory

The third concert of our thirty-third season begins with a song by Schubert that quotes the same funeral march theme from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) referenced in Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, the work that concluded our October concert. Franz Schubert’s Auf dem Strom for Tenor, Horn and Piano, D. 943 was written at the beginning of his own final year, 1828, on words from a poem by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860).

Like the Eroica Symphony, Schubert’s work was dedicated to the memory of one thought to be greater than its author. Premiered at Schubert’s first and only public concert during his lifetime, Auf dem Strom was to mark the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death and intended to underscore the loss by incorporating phrases from Eroica’s funeral march in its melody. (See highlighted section below.) The sense of loss is made palpable when Beethoven is imagined as the speaker in the poem, bidding farewell to life and love, no longer able to hear songs from the shore while being carried along on a boat out to sea on an ever-rushing stream. Schubert paints musical images of land and seascape through his use of the natural horn associated with the hunt and distance, and triplets in the piano accompaniment to evoke flowing water.


In the poetry selected for two short songs by Johannes Brahms memories of songs, fragrances, dreams and feelings of childhood are recalled in the down pours and gentle summer rain in Regenlied (Rain song), and as sad tears in Nachklang (Echo). These songs are prologue to the performance of his Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 78. The ‘raindrop’ accompaniments and motifs of the songs appear again in the last movement of the sonata and are the reason it is often referred to as the Rain Sonata.

Following the intermission, we conclude our program with Johannes Brahms’s great Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40, long a favorite at our concerts. Brahms dedicates this trio to the memory of his mother.

We will gather next after many holidays, at 3 pm Sunday, January 31, at the Fitzgerald Theatre of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School for a program entitled Parisian Provenance, in which we remember that Paris remains the City of Light!



Music fit for a King…Archduke…Emperor…and for us

“I hope that Your Imperial Highness will continue especially to practice writing down your ideas straight away at the piano; for this purpose there should be a small table beside the piano. In this way the imagination is strengthened, and one also learns to pin down the remotest ideas at once. It is likewise necessary to write without a piano. Nor should it pain but rather please Your Imperial Highness to find yourself absorbed in this art, at times to elaborate a simple melody, a chorale with simple and again with more varied figurations in counterpoint, and so on, to more difficult exercises. We develop gradually the capacity to represent exactly what we wish to represent, what we feel within us, which is a need characteristic of all superior persons.”

Beethoven writing to Archduke Rudolph, Vienna, July 1, 1823


Our second program of Season 33 sounds, as one, two recent themes familiar to our audience: change and time. Change over time, variation, or metamorphosis lies at the heart of each of our musical offerings.

Bach’s great six-voice fugue, the Ricercar from The Musical Offering is also his richest textured treatment of the theme he was given and commanded to improvise upon by Frederick the Great (King of Prussia and flutist). Even Bach didn’t think he could do it justice on the spot and once at home was determined to do even more. This piece, played in a version for six string players, serves as an invocation to the works that follow.

Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio, Op. 97 is one of at least a handful of  major works dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, who was at the time both his student and a discerning patron. The work is in four movements with Scherzo following the first movement, and a simple theme and variation movement that introduces the Rondo finale without coming to a close. The work, considered to among the most sublime, derives much of its power from Beethoven’s ability to achieve the starkest of contrasts with the simplest material and to both move and mock us from one moment to the next. For me, one of the most amazing areas of contrast comes in the Trio section of the Scherzo where Beethoven resorts to fugal like writing, starting with the cello in its low register, that is more chromatic than anything he had written before or since. The palpable darkness in an otherwise cheerful movement is quickly dismissed with a light dance in a brighter key, before the chromatic darkness returns again. The play of light and dark, the sudden emotional shifts that draw us in, and the outbursts to follow, make this one of the most engaging works in the chamber repertoire.

(Beethoven’s manuscript of the Archduke Trio. More available from Beethoven-Haus Bonn’s digital archive.)

Following intermission the seven-part arrangement of Strauss’s Metamorphosen concludes the program as it completely embodies the idea of change over time. Written at the end of World War Two by a witness to the folly of absolute power and the utter destruction that followed, Strauss invokes the funereal theme of the variation movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) from which he had removed the original dedication to Emperor Napoleon. Unlike most variation movements, the full theme is sounded in the bass at the close of the work. Could this be a way of showing order emerging from chaos?

We will meet this same theme again, in a month’s time, at the start of our next concert, quoted within Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom.”



Introduction, Re-Introduction, and Longevity

“I take the liberty of sending to Your Electoral Highness various musical pieces… composed by my dear pupil Beethoven, who has been graciously entrusted to me. I flatter myself that these pieces will be kindly received by Your Electoral Highness as worthy proof of his industry outside his regular studies. On the strength of these pieces, connoisseurs and amateurs must own without bias that Beethoven will one day take his place as one of the greatest composers in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his master. I only wish that he may still remain with me a while longer.”

F. J. Haydn: to the Elector of Cologne, Vienna, November 23, 1793

Thus was the gracious social introduction that the so-called “Father of Chamber Music” offered on behalf of the talented young viola player of twenty-two he met in 1792. That was the year Beethoven came to Vienna to study harmony and counterpoint and had hoped to travel with Haydn to London where, from 1791 to 1795, Haydn was himself being introduced to London audiences with great acclaim as man who was still creating exciting new work in his sixties!

Among those works was Piano Trio in C major, Hob. XV:21 (1794) that also introduces our thirty-third BCMS Season. This work, in turn precedes one of Beethoven’s most virtuosic and humorous string trios, Op. 9, No. 1 in G major (1798), the very form that Beethoven perfected before moving on to write the great string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, ballets and opera.

Our program concludes with another introduction to longevity, Richard Strauss’ great Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13 (1883-4). Although he was only 20 years old at that time, the quartet was considered to be his only “mature” work for chamber ensemble, one that looks back on Beethoven and Brahms with his invocation of the heroic key C minor (same key as their most famous symphonies). Strauss was known to quote himself ever after. To those who know what comes next, this work can seem oddly predictive and, for all its heroism, minor in the presence of his later achievements.

To those who will be introduced to chamber music by this concert, and to those who are acquainted with this medium and these works, we hope that you will be charmed and refreshed by the originality of each of these composers, both young and young at heart. As Haydn famously said,

“There was no one around me to confuse or torment me, thus I was obliged to be original.”


Congratulations, Marcus!


MIT announced that BCMS Artistic Director and violist Marcus Thompson has been awarded its highest faculty honor, the title of Institute Professor. He joins a small group of Institute Professors at MIT, now numbering 13, along with 10 Institute Professors emeriti. The new appointment is effective July 1.

According to MIT’s Policies & Procedure, “The title of Institute professor is an honor bestowed by the Faculty and Administration of MIT on a faculty colleague who has demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment, and service in the scholarly, educational, and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider academic community.”

In addition to his well-known concert career as soloist and chamber musician, Marcus has been an influential presence at MIT for over four decades. He arrived at MIT as an assistant professor of music in 1973, and was named the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music in 1995, the same year he was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow for exceptional teaching. At MIT, he has developed programs for the study and performance of solo repertoire and chamber music literature from five centuries. As a member of the viola faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music since 1983, Marcus has taught aspiring professionals who now hold positions in orchestras, chamber ensembles, and universities worldwide.

“My initial reaction was that I was shocked, stunned, amazed,” Marcus says of learning of his appointment as an Institute Professor. “I’m also extremely grateful and humbled by the recognition not just of me, but the fact that there is music at MIT, and high-quality music. It’s a privilege to be at MIT, and to be recognized is just an honor.”

“Over his long career, Marcus has worked to give students access to a world-class music program that has changed MIT,” says Steven Hall, chair of the MIT faculty and a professor of aeronautics and atronautics. “Many colleagues told us about his commitment to and generosity with students. Like Penny and Ron, Marcus is one of the great men and women of our faculty who inspire us every day.”

(Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark | MIT News Office)

For more details, see MIT News Office annoucement: Chisholm, Rivest, and Thompson appointed as new Institute Professors

The Music for ‘Now’


So reads the neon sign on the staircase foyer wall of the Linde Family Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The work was acquired in 2011 with funds from its 2010-2011 Contemporary Art Visiting Committee that at the time included members of our audience.

As true as this statement is, in the life of most musical performers it is a rare privilege to introduce a work to the public, and to be able to perform it anew forty years later after it has become important in the history of our art. This will be our experience this week with Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. 147 (1975) by Dmitry Shostakovitch. In 1975 I performed its Boston area premiere as part of a faculty recital at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium with pianist Seth Carlin. I have since performed it at BCMS concerts in November 1993 with Randall Hodgkinson, and again in August 2005 with Mihae Lee.

In 1975 we knew the sonata was the final work of one who had lived through and responded creatively to repeated challenges from an oppressive Soviet regime. We learned since that, in a gesture of hommage to one who had broken the boundaries of his time, Shostakovitch quoted motifs and textures from two of Beethoven’s better-known solo piano sonatas. In time we recognized the first piano theme as a twelve-tone row: the very use of which Shostakovitch himself had previously denounced. What we didn’t know until many years later was that the middle movement is based on his pre-existent 1940’s opera sketch of Gogol’s sardonic play The Gamblers in which two swindlers are duped by their intended mark. The three-movement sonata concludes with some of the most transcendent music that Shostakovitch produced. Today we appreciate this work among the greatest of the past.

In our program Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975) is framed by two major works in minor keys: Schubert’s Quartettsatz D.703 (1820) in C minor, and Brahms’s great Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 (1864-65) in the 150th year since it was first published.