Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Serenata in vano (1914) for clarinet, French horn, bassoon, violoncello, and double bass
Antoinín Dvorák (1841-1904): Terzetto in C major, Op. 74 for two violins and viola Introduzione (Allegro ma non troppo)-Larghetto Scherzo (Vivace) Tema con Variazioni (Poco adagio-Molto allegro)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Octet in F major, D. 803 for winds and strings Adagio-Allegro Andante un poco mosso Scherzo (Allegro vivace) Andante (Theme and variations) Menuetto (Allegretto) Andante molto-Allegro
Program Notes by Judith Eckelmeyer
Chamber compositions can, as we have seen, serve as a vehicle for private communication or experimental exercises that satisfy the composer, principally, while affording new literature for performers and audience. From another point of view, chamber compositions have often fulfilled commissions by performers who are associates or friends of the composer. This case presents some interesting possibilities and problems, as the works on this evening's program will demonstrate.
Carl Nielsen has come to be regarded as a symphonist of some considerable merit Of his six works in that genre, the third (Sinfonia Expansive), fourth (Unextinguishable) and fifth form landmarks in his career. But Robert Simpson's 1979 book, Carl Nielsen, Symphonist (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company) lists 159 works or sets of works, a great many of which are rarely, if ever, performed (at least in this country), perhaps because their explicitly Danish-lore focus is not "universal" enough for the American public or because of the paucity of performers fluent enough in Danish to interpret the vocal works.
Nielsen, like Brahms and Dvorák, was born into a poor family. Like Brahms, his father gave him a model for a performing musical life, and his mother's singing of simple songs gave him a predilection for folk-like music. His childhood contact with the songs and dances of his home district, Fyn (about ten miles south of Odense), continued to be important to his compositional career in later life. His early formal musical training with his father and a local pianist was good enough to permit him to enter the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, where he furthered his skills on the violin and began studying composition. His earliest models were Bach, Mozart and Brahms; the structural element of Brahm's music, in particular, was most attractive to him.
In his larger works, such as the symphonies, Nielsen evolved his own unique means for dealing with the traditional tonal system, building his composition through chromaticism and dissonant contradictions of keys toward an arrival at or triumphant emergence of a firm tonal center. At the same time, other, smaller works tended to treat folk idioms and constructional problems, counterpoint (of which he was particularly fond and an excellent practitioner), and unsentimental clarity as central issues.
Nielsen's Serenata in vano (Serenade in vain) is a kind of microcosm of his compositional thinking. He completed it on May 1, 1914, for use by some friends, musicians from the Royal Danish Orchestra who were going on tour playing Beethoven's Septet, Op. 20 (for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass). Nielsen's work is classically shaped, lean, rustic in that it is expressive without sentimentality and droll without sarcasm; yet it is utterly unique in its adaptation of the serenade idea and the way in which it uses traditional tonal language. It is cast for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and string sections. Simpson describes the three sections as first "a warm-up process in readiness for the serenade; then comes a lovely, persuasive slow part, all moonlight and whispers; but it avails nothing (a serenade "in vain"), and the little band slouches off, trying to keep its dignity in a ridiculous tempo di marcia, disconsolate, prosaic, and not too well in step."
The unusual combination of instruments results in some pastoral sounds reminiscent of Mahler, sometimes in solo or paired passages and sometimes using cello and bass as accompaniment (as in the slow waltz of the first section or the folk-like march of the last). Each moment in the work brings some delight or quiet a bit of humor, with jaunty tunes, expressive yearnings, whimsical and abrupt appearances and changes of melodic line, a touch of a cadenza (to close the second section), and a masterful sense of timing.
Devorák, like Nielsen, wrote his Terzetto, Op. 74, for an unusual combination--two violins and viola--and intended it for two friends who were amateur violinists. The work was composed in 1887, at the height of the composer's productivity, some ten years after the E major (Op. 80) and D-minor (Op. 34) quartets, and also ten years after the Symphonic Variations (Op. 40)-which are related in compositional process to the Terzetto.
The Terzetto is in four movements, the second following the first without a break. Dvorák used relatively simple structures for the first three movements, foregoing the complexity of the sonata form with its developmental traditions of counterpoint and modulations to distant keys. He also set the work in C major, which many might regard as an "easy key. Thus, it would seem, Dvorák approached his two violinistic friends with an eminently playable miniature, in which he would provide the viola part while they performed the upper two voices.
Dvorák, however, seems to have had very high expectations of his friends! The Terzetto's presumed simplicity is in fact tricky business. The first movement, a clear "A-B-A" structure, begins immediately with a C7 chord moving away from the supposed key center of the work; the next few measures contain a chain of dominant-seventh-sounding and altered chords, requiring a refined intonation in performance that must have given the violinists some cause for concern.
A transition from the first movement leads into a lovely 6/8 lyrical movement in E major, an unusual key to appear in a C-major piece. Again, the structure is a large ternary arrangement, with the "B" section's dotted rhythm providing a gentle urgency. At the return of the first material Dvorák uses double-stopped chords in accompanying instruments to fill out the sound.
The third movement is a scherzo in A minor with a trio in A major, in the traditional rounded binary organization. It begins with a melody that Dvorák created with an interesting ambiguity: although set in a triple meter, the melody is syncopated in such a way that it could just as easily be in a duple meter. The scherzo's second part begins with a C-major melody which is accompanied by pizzicato chords, and immediately followed by the three instruments playing sul ponticello (on the bridge), in a kind of ghostly echo. The trio's second part again calls for double-stopped chords in the second violin and viola.
The fourth movement is Dvorák's miniature version of the Symphonic Variations (Op. 78) of 1877. Here, he sets up continuously unfolding modification (or, more properly, transformations) of the opening passage. This is somewhat different from the traditional way of setting up a "theme and variations," which typically have very clear units of sixteen or twenty-four measures, a highly identifiable melody, and progressively more complex modifications or decorations of the theme. Dvorák starts here with an extraordinarily chromatic harmonic pattern around a "low profile" melody in strongly dotted rhythms, as if we were already in the midst of the variation process. He does not define the ends of the theme or of each variation by a clear cadence, as we would expect in the traditional practice; rather, one "version" flows into the next, and we perceive changes in overall style as "variations." The "low profile" melody is useful not so much because it is memorable in itself but because it is highly adaptable to an intensely dramatic presentation, a "quasi recitative" setting or an expressive lyrical passage. Packed into this brief movement are mystery and excitement worthy of a large-scale work.
The "little" Terzetto, appearing so innocent in its C major cloak and its charming, unimposing structure, was more than Dvorák's violin-playing friends could handle-they never did perform it, and he eventually wrote something else for them to play.
Schubert's Octet in F, like Nielsen's Serenata in vano, comes out of the composer's awareness of the then-popular Beethoven Septet, mentioned earlier. Schubert, however, drew very close to the Septet in using the same winds, but he expanded Beethoven's soprano-alto-tenor-bass strings by adding a second soprano, giving himself the two violins, viola and cello of a string quartet, plus the double bass. Schubert further paralleled Beethoven's use of six movements, progression of tempos and styles of the movements (except that the position of the scherzo and the menuetto/trio are reversed by Schubert), and use of a slow introduction to the first and last movements. As many historians point out, these are essentially structural parallels, and Schubert's work is really quite different from Beethoven's.
Schubert wrote the Octet in February and March of 1824, the very months in which he created the string quartets in A minor ("Rosemunde") and D minor ("Death and the Maiden"). As we noted for an earlier concert in which the "Rosemunde" Quartet was performed, this was not a happy, easy time for the composer. The failed theater production of "Rosemunde" was only part of the problem. In 1822 he contracted syphilis and became terribly ill in 1823. That year also saw pressing financial problems, a break with his publishers Cappi & Diabelli, hospitalization with his illness at a serious level, eventual partial recovery but several severe relapses, and works rejected and failed. He had also begun to exhibit a change in temperament as a result of the disease. By the beginning of 1824, although he was more robust, he was a changed man. The two quartets and the Octet reflect in various degrees the symptoms of the dreadful experience of the previous year, and perhaps, too, a sense that the future would soon bring more suffering.
Througout this time Schubert did not cease composing. In periods of comparative health his enterprises were unmatched in richness. The Octet, like the quartets of that year, is a more than fully competent work; it shows Schubert's ability to write with great inventiveness in "old" genres. Of the three, the Octet is more consistently sunny and open to good cheer; yet there are palpable clouds that loom and cast their shadows in the work.
The Octet was commissioned by Ferdinand, Count von Troyer, a fine amateur clarinetist. Schubert expected him to perform the work in ensemble with himself and other friends, including Ignaz Schuppanzigh as first violinist and Josef Linke as cellist.
The Octet's first movement begins with an Adagio introduction that immediately suggests the richness of Schubert's ensemble writing. The Allegro which follows in sonata form shows an interesting contrast of instrumentation between the presentation of the themes in the exposition and in the recapitulation. The ensemble is given full play of sonorities throughout.
The second movement, 6/8, in B-flat, is a serenade sung first by the clarinet and eventually by the violin and other instruments. The haunting melody is accompanied by arpeggiated figures in the lower strings.
The third movement, 3/4, in F, is a scherzo with trio, again featuring the clarinet in a rollicking theme. The trio, in C, shows off the bass in a fast "walk" against the first violin's melody.
The fourth movement, 2/4, in C, is a theme with seven variations. The theme is from the duet "Gelagert unter'm hellen Dach der Bäume" from Schubert's Singspiel, Die Freunde von Salamanka (D. 326) of 1815. The Octet thus follows the pattern of the two contemporaneous quartets in the use of his own borrowed vocal material. The theme is presented very simply, almost as a folk dance, with oom-pah accompaniment; then, each of the instruments partakes in the traditional variation process either as featured soloist or contrapuntally in duet or trio.
The fifth movement menuetto in F and trio in B-flat are set up in the traditional structure. The menuetto is an appreciably slower kind of triple-meter dance than the scherzo of the third movement and seems generally introverted in comparison with the earlier movements. Some of the rhythmic and pitch features of the menuetto's "B" section reach back to the Adagio introduction to the first movement, forming a cyclic transformation of the opening segment of the work. After the trio and the return of the menuetto, a coda blends themes from both sections.
With the sixth movement the characteristics of "absolute music" seem to go out the window. One is insistently reminded through the music itself that the creative product may have been an analog for Schubert's life. The movement begins with an Andante molto in F minor, a dark opening haunted by tremolos in the cello and a glowering bass. The cheerfulness of the first four movements is forgotten, and the inward-looking fifth now appears to have heralded a section that opens into a new and astounding dimension. After a seventeen-measure lifetime, an Allegro, 2/2, breaks upon the scene in bold, almost swaggering, C major with, again, the fast-walking bass. The Allegro's sonata structure gives Schubert an opportunity to suggest that the sunny disposition the movement is only a facade, for in the development the key progressions are wildly beyond the norm. A sense of frantic desperation takes over until the recapitulation once again tries to convince us of a stable, untroubled world, but the normalcy of text-book chord progressions is sabotaged by elided phrases that drive blindly ahead. The surface breaks again with the return of the tremolo and sense of impending doom that the Allegro could not shake. The Allegro motto returns determinedly.
As The Berlin Octet performance is not available on YouTube, please enjoy these performances:
Nielsen's "Serenata in vano" for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass Miguel Pérez Iñesta, clarinet | Maria Wildhaber, bassoon | Merav Goldman, horn | Peter Schmidt, cello | Ander Perrino, double bass