All manner of plucked things and variation

Our April concert can probably be distinguished by its containment of ‘all manner of plucked things;’ that is, the use of the plucked sound, explicitly and implicitly, as a source of the character and variety in the music. (And–for that matter–this music contains all manner of variation, too!) 

Mozart’s first of three quartets for flute and three strings contains some of his most exuberant and virtuosic writing for chamber ensemble. As busy as the viola part is in the last movement, the most memorable feature of the piece is the slow movement, which has a winsome, yet languorous, flute solo accompanied by all three strings playing pizzicato. The effect is very similar to flute playing with harpsichord muted by the lute stop, and that of the Arioso from Bach’s Cantata No. 156 for which the string accompaniment to an oboe solo is often played pizzicato these days. The slow movement closes on an uncertain harmony, one that suggests Mozart intended it to be introductory to the last, and not to be excerpted or played independently. 

The most striking variation is the way in which Mozart re-harmonizes the repetition in measure 8 of the opening phrase–to slither downward into a key-relationship we call the Neapolitan in measure 11. More important than what it is called, is its emotional effect (it’s afekt) on the listener, aware or unaware: to turn one’s gaze more inward. 

Mozart Flute Quartet in D, K. 285, Movement 2

The Saint-Saëns Fantasie for Violin and harp, Op. 124, calls to mind the caricature of Saint-Saëns by his student Gabriel Faure, that appears, among other places, in the Saint-Saëns article in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The drawing may be a sly commentary on Saint-Saëns growing preference for the thin sonorities of the harp in his late works and the elimination of the piano from his chamber works. Fantasie is in one movement with many sections. The first sounds we hear are harp arpeggios under the notes G and F, repeated. When the violin enters, it is given an embellishment on these two notes that spans the interval of a perfect fourth. That interval is the framework around which the melodic material is woven and varied.

Saint-Saëns Fantaisie, opening

In a later section that interval is even more obvious as the outline of an ostinato in the bass (think Pachelbel’s Canon, or Vitale’s Chaconne!) with the notes, repeated over and over with increasingly florid variations added in the violin part above. At times it reminds me of a kind of Spanish Dance, or Salsa. Olé!

Saint-Saëns Fantaisie, ostinato

Keeril Makan is a young award-winning composer who is a teaching colleague at MIT. In 2008 the Harvard Musical Association commissioned from him a Trio for flute, viola, and harp that we performed for the first time last December at the Association’s Beacon Hill venue. During the same month as the commission Keeril was awarded the distinguished Rome Prize that allowed him residency in Italy for a year of composition. At the December concert he told the audience that this trio was intended to be performed as a companion piece to the Debussy Sonata for the same combination. Keeril says that he intentionally did not look at or listen to the Debussy in order to avoid its influence.

According to Keeril the title, Nothing is More Important, refers to issues related to the craft of composition: how to present material where all elements have equal importance by exploring mechanisms for establishing importance such as duration, register, ordering and repetition of events. In this piece he says “ all attempts at expression are of equal importance.”

Perhaps the earliest inspiration for the piece came from the painting Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Vittore Carpaccio, in the Galleria Accademica of Venice. In it the traditional means of establishing the focal point by placement of figures turned inward, the overhead designs, color choices, juxtaposition of youth and age, and the relative sizes of the principal figures all assist in establishing the importance of the child. The presence of three angelic figures playing a flute, viol, and lute adds that extra intangible to the scene.

Keeril’s music has a simple transparent texture. It may be described as minimalist and repetitive with small, subtle changes (i.e., variations) occurring in each part within each cycle. The effect of cumulative change can be experienced as both hypnotic and meditative. Our first reaction on putting it all together last December was “wow”!

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is celebrated throughout Christendom as the Feast of the Epiphany, or as the Purification of Mary. According to the Biblical account written in the Gospel According to Luke, the High Priest, Simeon, was reported to have uttered words that have since been set to music as the Nunc Dimitis.

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word,
for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a Light to light on the Gentiles And to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

In musical settings these words often appear as a separate movement after the Magnificat (the Hymn of Mary in which the Virgin expresses humility, astonishment, and thanks to God for the news of her conception). Taken together they frame that most important period in the church year (and in painting) that observes the Annunciation, Birth (Christmas!), and Circumcision. For observant believers Nothing Is More Important.

The Chausson Piano Quartet in A major is a later and more complex piece than the Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet that closed last season. My colleagues and I have always made light of the theme’s resemblance to a popular commercial from a few years back that I will not quote here.

Every commentator I have read makes much of Chausson’s relationship to and influence by Wagner, Franck, and Debussy. Once you get past the strangeness of the opening theme the harmonies and colors attest to the influences. The thematic material as expected is very useful in creating the kind of cyclical work associated with Saint-Saens, Franck and other contemporaries, where material heard early on makes welcome and varied cameo appearances in later movements.

Chausson’s most famous piece, Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, has some of the most transcendent music every created by anyone. His colleagues were quick to recognize this, and to say so. His early death as a result of biking accident left all feeling as though the world had been robbed of an especially gifted spirit.

So, if you are wondering how this work relates to the explicit or implicit use of plucking, you will need to go back to the theme to realize that it is based on a pentatonic mode commonly associated with Chinese music played on the Guzheng, or Chinese harp:


Note how these notes sound when placed in the A Mode at the beginning, and how they sound in the C Mode (as printed above) at number rehearsal number 5.

Chausson Piano Quartet in A, Movement 1, opening

To this listener Piano Quartet in A major by Chausson is the place where the combination of Wagnerian chromaticism and the use of Chinese pentatonic mode gave birth to the harmonic language of Giacomo Puccini’s operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot!


  1. #1 by Theo on April 4, 2011 - 9:07 pm

    FYI, the wind instrument in the Carpaccio painting is a krummhorn, whose sound in no way resembles that of a flute.

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