Chamber music in 3D—rooted, informed and opened to the sky

Dohnányi Serenade in C for String Trio, Op. 10 (1902)
Debussy String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893,4)
Dvořák String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (1878)

Beethoven’s real teaching…was not to preserve the old forms, still less to follow in his early steps. We must throw wide the windows to the open sky; they seem to me to have only just escaped being closed forever. The fact that here and there a genius succeeds in this form is but a poor excuse for the laborious and stilted compositions which we are accustomed to…

Claude Debussy (writing as Monsieur Croche, The Dilettante Hater)

Our first program of the New Year features three composers who drew from the exclusive past to create a more inclusive future. Ernő Dohnányi, Claude Debussy, and Antonín Dvořák each came of age as musicians and composers in times and places where the dominance of Viennese and Germanic public taste and traditions in chamber music had ceased being unquestioned. How to prove personal mastery, create timeless music, court international public taste, yet remain true to one’s own national identity was on the minds of each.

Two seasons ago, when we performed the new and great String Trio by John Harbison in six movements, we learned of his admiration for Mozart’s K. 563 Divertimento for string trio, which he refers to as the ‘once and future king’ of the genre. To honor tradition and to make the string trio his own, John adopted the overall six-movement serious vs. popular scheme as had Mozart, and wrote music that best matched of his experience of the ‘serious’ vs. the popular–the canon, and the blues.

For Dohnányi’s Serenade in C, Op. 10 the historic model that seems most adaptable to his purpose was Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, Op. 8 for string trio. It also begins as it ends–with the same short, jaunty March–includes a set of variations, and ethnic music. In Beethoven’s Serenade the ‘outsider’ music is in a movement entitled Allegretto alla Polacca, i.e., Polish. Dohnányi actually is the Hungarian outsider, (the very one often invoked by the Viennese as in the Brahms’s Gypsy music we played to conclude our November concert), the outsider looking in!

Debussy’s String Quartet appears in our Sanders series for the first time, marking the 100th anniversary of his passing and the changes in sound and taste he brought to music. Much of his life spanned the creation of societies and movements in France determined to promote the resurgence of greatness in French music, visual arts, literature, and to challenge the political, artistic and social dominance of Germanic taste. Debussy sought and reflected influences from outside music, outside Europe, and outside the era of the great Germanic tradition to throw wide the windows to the open sky. While accepting the four-movement scheme and a home key in which to anchor his quartet, he broadens the harmonic palate by using scales, harmonies, note patterns and rhythms used in Asian and/or Early music which allow for more evocative, dream-like impressions, exalted moods and earthy scenes. He is acknowledged today as the single greatest influence on all who followed.

Dvořák’s String Sextet, Op. 48 (1878) follows the two sextet masterworks by his mentor Johannes Brahms (Op. 18, 1862 and Op. 36, 1866), who championed the publishing and playing of Dvořák’s music beyond his native Prague. In seeking success on the world stage dominated by Viennese tastemakers, Dvořák’s earliest struggle was to insist that his first name, Antonín, be abbreviated to the more ambiguous Ant. rather than shortened to the more Germanic Anton. Of the three composers on our program, his is the only one to identify the folk Slavonic origins of his movements–the Dumka (2) and the Furiant (3).

Today’s pieces, new to an established tradition, have stood the test of time by being as rooted in that tradition as they are informed by those on the outside, who opened it to the limitless sky.



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