“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
–Winston Churchill: Tribute to the Royal Air Force, House of Commons August 20, 1940
Although not playing our April concert I will be in the house wondering if the relationships I heard while planning the program will be as meaningful to others as to me. The first two pieces are responses to war, the First and Second World Wars, respectively. The Brahms, in addition to continuing our perusal of piano quintets, and being a complete contrast to both pieces, shares some textural and rhythmic elements (unison and octave writing and strong continuous jaunty dotted rhythm) with the Britten.
As you might know from the program notes about the Janáček Sonata, with this performance we are observing the ninetieth anniversary of its premiere this month. Although started in 1914, it wasn’t completed until 1921 and premiered on April 24, 1922. Janáček’s music is everywhere these days and drawing renewed attention because of the upcoming performance of The Makropulos Case, about an ageless opera diva, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera next week. Those who have followed these introductions may recall we mentioned two months ago how Janáček displaced the more Germanic oriented Fibich within the pantheon of the three great Czech composers along with Smetana and Dvořák. Janáček became a master dramatist, one who was as influenced by the beauties of line and harmony associated with Puccini and Debussy, but who ultimately took his own path rooted in Czech folk traditions.
The sonata, dating from the time of World War One and its aftermath, opens in restlessness and turmoil. Janáček wrote of “just about hearing the sound of steel clashing in my troubled head.” (The first performance I heard of this piece was by Harumi Rhodes with Hsin-Bei Lee on a recital about eight years ago. As a result of that encounter I was determined to hear Harumi play it again.) The opening dramatic gesture in the violin joined later by the tremolando in the piano is so striking that I feel drawn urgently into a great and ancient conflict from which no resolution is apparent. These gestures and their accompaniment are so at odds that they do not satisfy the need for completeness we’ve learned to expect from melody, accompaniment and cadence.
Janáček Violin Sonata, 1st movement, opening
It is only in the middle of the second movement that the desire is satisfied with simplest of melodies played first by the violin. The melody is followed by a slower section, marked Meno mosso, in which the harmonic influence of Debussy is most apparent in the piano writing.
Janáček Violin Sonata, 2nd movement
The third movement has the clearest treatment of folk ideas in the piano writing punctuated by corroborating gestures in the violin part.
Janáček Violin Sonata, 3rd movement, opening
And, finally, the last movement allows a sense of resignation and repose even in fragmented gestures of the violin. The sonata was first played on our series in 2001.
Janáček Violin Sonata, 4th movement, opening
On hearing of Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C major (1945) for the first time as I did several months ago I was struck by the great sense of clarity between foreground and background material, the use of a lot of unison and octave writing, often against a sustained background, and the use of solo cadenzas to delineate important sections. In fact its opening section reminds of the opening to his Festival Te Deum (1934) sung in octaves like an ancient chant. When full part harmony appears it is a though the scene is changed from black and white to full color.
The quartet was completed in the aftermath of World War Two following a concert trip to play for survivors of the concentration camps as accompanist to violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Somehow I feel the invocation of the Festival Te Deum texture to open this work sets the emotional stage for what follows.
Britten Festival Te Deum
Britten String Quartet in C major, 1st movement, opening
The second movement Scherzo, muted and skittish, is described as ‘malevolent.’
Britten String Quartet in C major, 2nd movement, opening
The third movement entitled ‘Chacony’ (think Chaconne, as in Bach Chaconne for solo violin) is spelled that way in reference to the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, who, among others, also wrote in this form–but spelled it differently. It is a series of twenty-one variations (or divisions on a ground) in a manner that Purcell might have conceived. That it has a number of solo cadenzas to delineate sections larger may be a passing reference to Bach, whose great Chaconne is also a sectional work.
One of the hardest things for me to understand as a lover of Brahms and Britten was why Britten considered some of Brahms’ symphonies and chamber music ‘ugly and pretentious,’ and ‘gauche.’ Apparently, he started out liking the music as a young man and then something changed. In placing their music side by side, as we do in this concert, we can only hope that each gets his due while others decide.
I wonder what Britten thought of Brahms’ Symphony #4, which concludes with a great Chaconne. Or how he might have reacted to hearing the opening of Brahms’ great Piano Quintet placed after his Quartet in C major, realizing that it starts with the same skip of a fourth in unisons, the same textural choice Britten made so prominent in introducing the theme of ‘Chacony.’
Britten String Quartet in C major, 3rd movement, opening
Brahms Piano Quintet, 1st movement, opening
This performance of the Britten quartet will be our first on the BCMS series.