“In the course of time the distance between sources diminishes. Beethoven, for instance, did not need to study all that Mozart studied–Mozart, not all that Handel–Handel, not all that Palestrina–because they had already absorbed the knowledge of their predecessors. But there is one source which inexhaustibly provides new ideas–Johann Sebastian Bach.”
- Florestan, aka Robert Schumann
Our second concert this season is also the second of three on the theme ‘Various Variations’ in great music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We began with Bach’s thirty Goldberg Variations (c.1741), the largest set in history at its time, and continue with one of Beethoven’s earliest efforts, and the only one for string trio, the Serenade in D Major, Op 8 (1795-97). Before writing sixteen string quartets Beethoven wrote five string trios (Op. 3, 8, and 9) for violin, viola and cello– following the example of Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 (1788). In one of its central movements, Mozart writes variations, both plain and virtuosic, on a simple tune. Beethoven was later to write transcendent variation movements in many of his string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies, as well as the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli (1819-1823) for solo piano, Op. 120, said by Tovey to the be the greatest ever written for keyboard.
As writer, composer and eminent pianist, Robert Schumann would have been well aware of the history he was absorbing and shaping in his cultivation and championing of the independent miniature as a new form in which to write music. Stringing together sets of short pieces to allow fantasy to take flight, or to tell a poetic story in song or tone, was to become his signature. In the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 (1849) “Schumann’s refined technique of lyrical recall…makes for a delicate tracery of fleeting allusions, half-remembered ideas.” “The close relationship among the three pieces…is further underscored by the attacca indications linking each of the movements and, more important, by a web of thematic connections.” (Schuman scholar and avid chamber musician, John Davario.) For Schumann, the writer, the set of abstract variations on a theme became the vehicle for narrative and reminiscence.
In each of these sets, whether by Bach, Beethoven or Schumann, the return of the theme at the end, in its original, untested form, is a strong indication of the importance of memory and reminiscence. “In Memory of a Great Artist,” the subtitle of Piano Trio in A minor (1882) by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, reflection upon the character, virtuosity, and artistry of a particular person, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is the motivation for composing this elegiac work.