Marvelous Mirth and Pastimes

[Sir Thomas] More is a man of angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad a gravity; a man for all seasons.

 Robert Whittinton c. 1480-1530

To conclude our three-concert series at MIT we turn our attention to music for diversion, delight, or just plain fun. Beethoven’s Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 29, is one of his lightest, most virtuosic, and outgoing compositions. Designed on a six-movement scheme more common to the Divertimento than to the four-movement string quartet or piano trio, it contains a minuet with two trios and a scherzo with one. It opens with a short Entrata, announcing the arrival of the musicians, that I can imagine being played by a strolling group of players (since, without cello, no player is anchored in place) following close behind the waiters at a jovial gathering. The Menuetto with two trios follows, and then a restless Allegro molto. At the heart of the piece lies a theme and variations movement with solos lead by each player in turn. It is followed by a sprightly Scherzo and Trio, and an Adagio and Rondo Finale. The faster movements are filled with marvelous games of tag and chase that take the listener’s gaze back and forth across the ensemble, and from the individual to the whole.

Charles Ives’ Piano Trio (written between 1896 and 1907 and premiered in 1948) is widely appreciated for its breach of concert etiquette and decorum by including programmatic elements, raucous intrusions of school and folk songs and quotes of Protestant hymns that in their own way turn the ear away from the usually sacred abstraction of traditional chamber music. The effect can be deeply moving or hilarious depending upon the context. Ives writes:

The Trio was, in a general way…a reflection or impression of…college days on the Campus, now 50 years ago. The first movement recalled a rather short but serious talk, to those on the Yale fence, by an old professor of Philosophy; the second, the games and antics by students…on a Holiday afternoon; and some of the tunes and songs of those days were…suggested in this movement, sometimes in a rough way. The last movement was partly a remembrance of a Sunday Service on the Campus…which ended near the “Rock of Ages.”

Ingolf Dahl’s Divertimento for Viola and Piano (1948) is a four-movement work written for a series of private home concerts given by serious musicians whose primary employment was within the Hollywood movie industry. It was dedicated to and premiered by violist Milton Thomas, with whom I have had the privilege to play over many years in the Sitka Alaska Festival. Igor Stravinsky was present at the premiere and remarked that this was the greatest viola piece he had ever heard. Small wonder. The first movement is chock full of his way of writing rhythmic texture for ensembles of strings or winds. The second movement is a Barcarolle (note the reference to a rocking boat), the third, a set of variations on Scottish American folk song called “The Mermaid” whose words disclose the certainty of dying that comes with seeing a mermaid and having your ship dragged “down below.” Dahl tunes down the viola ‘C’ string to great effect. The final movement is more like Copland than Stravinsky in its jaunty rhythm and is unmistakably American-made by this Swiss-born Hollywood Exile.

Our program closes by combining all the evening’s players in that wonderful romp that is David Diamond’s Quintet for Flute, String Trio, and Piano (1937). It is an energetic work in three contrasting movements tonally centered in B minor. The first movement is rhythmically decisive and sounds in modal tonality one might associate with Medieval practices. The slow movement is lyrical and harmonically rich. The last movement is driven by a compound dance rhythm commonly associated with the Baroque Gigue. Taken together they crystallize our evening’s theme of Marvelous Mirth and Pastimes.



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