Playful entrances, colorful exits, and the lightness of being

Beethoven Serenade in D major for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 25 (1795-6)
Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, L. 137 (1915)
Walton Piano Quartet in D minor (1918-1921, revised 1974)

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 Dilletante Hater)

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Our second Sanders Theatre program of 2018, on Sunday, February 18 at 3 pm, is also the second opportunity to play some of the late, great chamber music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915) was one of the three completed sonatas intended as part of a final project of six. The other two, for violin and piano, and for cello and piano, will be heard in our March 11 and April 8 Sanders Theatre concerts at 7:30.

Like many other composers who preceded him, Debussy sought to challenge received wisdom about what makes a complete chamber ensemble. What instruments can closely imitate each other yet allow for a diverse, satisfying color palette? How much bass is needed to support harmony or generate color, and how is it defined? What instrument can reconcile the opposites? How many movements should there be, (three, four, five, eight?) and at what speeds? Sonata is an original and ethereal musical response to each of these questions by a composer influenced by French Impressionistic painting and its dazzling effects of light on ordinary objects. For musical precedents in French history he would easily have recognized the shedding of new light on the traditional Trio Sonata format: two high instruments bound together with harpsichord underlining and figuring out the bass. In this tone scape, however, the fundamental nature of the bass voice is upended and thereby diminished.

Beethoven’s six-movement Serenade in D major, Op. 25, opens our program with a perky Entrata announced by the flute. That the piece is scored for upper register voices, above the alto/ tenor range, with the viola as the lowest instrument, will not escape notice. This is a playful and virtuosic piece whose quiet and thoughtful moments are easily dispelled by the lightness of touch, tone, and texture.

Concluding our program is the four-movement Piano Quartet in D minor originally begun by the sixteen-year old William Walton in 1918, the same year Debussy passed; revised and later republished in 1974, nine years before Walton’s own death at age 80. Like the early piano quartets of Brahms and Richard Strauss, this one shows promise of things to come: a lot of the jaunty rhythmic propulsion and swagger of the fast movements, and the nostalgic bittersweet tonality swings between major, minor and modal are present in his most performed and enjoyed music–Viola Concerto and the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Although Sir William Walton is considered by many to be the most significant British-born composer between Ralph Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten, he says he really didn’t like music very much, and enjoyed being out of date, not up with the latest fashions and trends. He was a successful film composer, too. At full cry some of his orchestral music once fooled this listener into thinking it was John Williams!

This is the second time in five years we’ve programmed Piano Quartet in D minor because we feel it deserves to be heard much more. It is in every way the antidote to the formulaic, ‘laborious and stilted compositions’ that Debussy decried.

Enjoy!

Marcus

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