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February 3, 2017

Works for violin, cello, piano: duos by Chopin, Martinu, and Ligeti; Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor, Op. 49

Program

Frederic Chopin Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.65
Bohuslav Martinu Duo No. 1 for Violin and Cello, H.157 (1927)
György Ligeti Duo for Violin and Cello -- Hommage a Hilding Rosenberg (1982)
Felix Mendelssohn Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49

Artists


Notes on the Program

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65 (1848)

Chopin played his first public performances as a child of seven and continued to give concerts regularly throughout the years of his education at the Warsaw Lyceum and, subsequently, the Warsaw Conservatory. In his mid-teens he was engaged by the inventors of the aeleomelodicon (an instrument similar to the harmonium but with a wider range and greater power) to give public demonstrations of it, including one for Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Later, in 1830 -- shortly before Chopin left Poland for good -- he gave similar concerts on another, related invention: the aeleopantalon, which combined the capabilities of the earlier contraption with a regular piano and allowed the performer to switch from one to the other at will.

It seems possible that some of the distaste Chopin later expressed for giving public concerts originated in what must have been the circus-like atmosphere surrounding these demonstrations (never mind years of being presented as a 'child prodigy') but the reasons he gave were that he felt his sound at the keyboard was not suited to large spaces, and that much of the subtlety of his playing was lost in such an environment. From the time at which he settled permanently in Paris (1831) until his death, he typically gave a single, yearly performance there at the Salle Pleyel (which seated 300 people -- only a little more than Weill Hall). Other, infrequent appearances were usually part of benefit concerts, most often for causes related to Polish political exiles. He preferred the ambience of the salon.

'Salon music' is, in our time, a derisive expression, calling to mind precious, vapid morceaux executed with a knowing wink and possibly the twitch of a scented handkerchief. But in the setting of a salon -- whether that maintained at an exalted level by the Rothschilds or in his own comparatively modest apartment -- Chopin felt that he could engage on an intimate musical level with a select audience composed of a mix of his own musical peers, educated connoisseurs and amateurs, and artists and intellectuals of other disciplines. In this atmosphere, he raised salon music to a high art form, filling his series of mazurkas, waltzes, polonaises, scherzos, nocturnes and ballades with unequalled expressivity and emotional intensity. (The salon was also an ideal environment in which to cultivate the wealthy students who, in addition to the sale of his compositions, were the chief source of his income. You needed to be wealthy to study with Chopin or, failing that, to have a wealthy sponsor or patron: he charged unheard-of fees.)

It is not surprising that, when his imagination turned to larger compositional expressions, he should have chosen -- rather than an orchestral symphony -- the intimate medium of chamber music. Chopin was, first and last, a composer of the piano, and never wrote a single work that did not include his instrument. An early piano trio (Op. 8) is not a successful piece of music. His Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3, was written for Prince Anton Radziwill (an enthusiastic amateur cellist) and his daughter to play together. A Grand duo concertante based on themes from the Meyerbeer opera, Robert le diable, was written in collaboration with the great French cellist, Auguste Franchomme (who became a lifelong friend), shortly after Chopin arrived in Paris. Except for some songs, collected for publication after his death, these few (fairly undistinguished) pieces constitute the entirety of his chamber music output before the cello sonata. None of them (including the piano trio, whose first movement exposition repeat is arguably in the wrong place) evinces much interest in compositional forms or structures.

The cello sonata is different. Written in the last year of his life, and the last work of his to be published in his lifetime, it formed part of his final Paris recital in February, 1848 (about a week before the outbreak of the revolution that eventually toppled the 'July Monarchy' of Louis-Philippe and led to the founding of the short-lived Second Republic). In its four movements, Chopin confidently explores the standard forms of sonata, scherzo/trio and rondo -- as well as the problem of combining a solo string instrument with the piano -- in innovative ways, adapting them to his own expressive and compositional purposes. While utilizing overall the principles of the duo sonata model established and developed by Beethoven (one followed by Brahms, as well as such 20th century masters as Shostakovich and Britten, in their cello sonatas), Chopin departs from this template in some important specifics when it suits his purposes. The work is dedicated to Franchomme, who was the cellist for its Paris premiere in the performance previously mentioned.

Not long after this concert, Chopin departed for an extended tour of England and Scotland, suggested by his student and admirer, Jane Stirling. In increasingly poor health for years (by the time Chopin ended their long relationship in 1847, George Sand was referring to him as her "beloved little corpse" ), he had gone through periods of being unable to compose or teach regularly and was seriously short of money; with the onset of the revolution his teaching income dried up suddenly and completely. Jane Stirling made all of the arrangements, paid Chopin's expenses and acted as a sort of tour guide. At some point during the tour she seems to have proposed marriage to him, whether from genuine romantic interest or simply as a means of permanently alleviating his financial difficulties is unclear. Certainly there were widespread rumors of an engagement. Chopin wrote to a friend at the time: "They have married me to Miss Stirling; she might as well marry death." The tour undoubtedly took a further toll on his health -- he had to be carried from the stage at a concert in Manchester, and nearly collapsed at his final public performance in the London Guildhall; on one of many visits to physicians he wrote out a full will and testament -- and it was not a financial success. Upon his return to Paris, Jane Stirling covered his debts and, after a period of months during which he lived in the suburbs of Paris subsidized by another admirer, she installed him in a more centrally-located apartment where it was easier for friends to call on him in the last weeks of his life.

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959)

Duo No. 1 for Violin and Cello, H. 157 (1927)

Bohuslav Martinu was born in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic where his father (a shoemaker by trade) served as a fire watchman, with the result that the Martinu family lived at the top of their village church tower. Martinu was a frail child, frequently in poor health; he often had to be carried up the stairs of the tower to the family apartment by his father or an older sibling. A talented violinist from an early age, he was enrolled as a student at the Prague Conservatory at the age of 15 but lacked the necessary discipline and focus to excel in such an environment. He was soon transferred to the organ department to enable him to study composition but achieved very little beyond cultivating an interest in French Impressionistic music and conceiving a vague desire to live and work in Paris. Eventually expelled from the conservatory on the grounds of 'incorrigible negligence', he returned to his home town and spent several years there giving violin lessons and beginning to compose music in earnest. The first of his compositions to attract serious interest was a "Czech Rhapsody" which he wrote in celebration of the creation of the independent republic of Czechoslovakia in 1919.

In 1923, with the support of a modest grant from the Czech government, Martinu made his way to Paris to study with Albert Roussel (under whose guidance he worked for over a decade). Throughout the remainder of the 1920s he experimented in a variety of idioms and styles, devoting himself above all to writing ballet scores. One of the best-known of these, La revue de cuisine, dates from the same year as the Duo No. 1 for Violin and Cello -- 1927. A chance encounter in a Paris cafe with Serge Koussevitzsky resulted in the premiere of another of his works (a symphonic celebration of Charles Lindbergh's successful flight across the Atlantic) by the Boston Symphony at around the same time. Winning the Coolidge Prize in 1932 brought a second Boston Symphony premiere and was the beginning of a period of widespread success for Martinu in the United States.

He remained based in Paris until the outbreak of World War II. A mass he had written in honor of the Czech Resistance in the aftermath of the signing of the Munich Agreement resulted in his being placed on an enemies list by the Nazis; early in 1940 he and his French wife fled Paris, heading first to southern France -- where it took six months to arrange transit out of the country -- and eventually, by way of Spain and Portugal, to New York City. Five of his six symphonies were written in Manhattan during the war years, along with several concerti and some of his best chamber works. In 1946, at Koussevitzsky's invitation, he spent a summer teaching at Tanglewood, where he suffered a serious and debilitating fall from a rooftop. He later joined the faculties of the Mannes College of Music and Princeton University (his most famous student was Burt Bacharach). In 1953, shortly after the premiere of his television opera, The Marriage (commissioned by the NBC Opera Theater), he returned to Europe where he lived until his death in 1959. (Earlier hopes of returning to Czechoslovakia were thwarted by political developments.)

Martinu's first Duo for Violin and Cello (he wrote a second in the last year of his life) consists of two movements: a relatively brief Preludium in moderate tempo followed by a longer and more rambunctious Rondo. Closely imitative counterpoint is a hallmark of the work throughout. Structures are free and sectional. The rondo includes substantial cadenzas for each instrument. Although the piece forecasts Martinu's mature, neoclassical style, it suggests, more than anything else, the exuberant freedom and experimentation of the composer's first years in Paris.

Györgi Ligeti (1923-2006)

Hommage á Hilding Rosenberg (1982)

In common with the work of other 20th century avant-garde composers, Ligeti's music is most familiar to general audiences through its use in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, along with others directed by Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann. (Ligeti successfully sued Stanley Kubrick over the unauthorized use and modification of his music in 2001.) His most innovative compositions -- and those for which he is still best-known -- date from the 1960s. By the middle of the following decade he had entered a lengthy period of transition during which he produced the first version of his opera, Le grande macabre, which explores the great Italian operatic tradition, from the early baroque through Verdi, by way of quotation and stylistic pastiche. In his final decades, Ligeti became preoccupied with rhythmic complexity (he was, for instance, fascinated by Conlon Nancarrow's densely polyrhythmic studies for player piano).

The brief, haunting Hommage á Hilding Rosenberg was written in 1982 as a birthday tribute to the Swedish composer, with whom Ligeti became acquainted while he was serving as a visiting professor of composition at the University of Stockholm. Simpler and more direct than some of Ligeti's music, its subtitle proclaims its 'evocation of the spirit of Bartok'.

Ligeti was born in Romanian Transylvania (later annexed by Hungary) to Hungarian Jewish parents. In 1944 he was consigned by the Horthy regime to a forced labor brigade in Hungary; his younger brother was sent to Mauthausen (the same camp from which Simon Wiesenthal was liberated in 1945); his parents were sent to Auschwitz; only his mother survived. He began his career as a composer and teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest but fled after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Revolution. Following periods spent working in Cologne, Stockholm, Hamburg and (briefly) San Francisco, he settled in Vienna where he remained until the end of his life. Ligeti was a great-nephew of the eminent violinist and pedagogue, Leopold Auer; his son, Lukas Ligeti, is a composer and percussionist who lives in Brooklyn.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49 (1839)

In 1821, when Felix Mendelssohn was 12 years old, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously remarked: "What [Mendelssohn] already accomplishes bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time as the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child." Whether or not Mendelssohn has the best claim to 'prodigiousness' as a composer, he was undoubtedly the best- and most thoroughly-educated of the great European composers, with especial emphasis in languages and literature, philosophy and the fine arts (the only subject in which he showed no discernible interest at all was mathematics -- an indifference he shared with Beethoven). His translation of one of the plays of Terence from Latin into German was published around the time he wrote his great Octet, at age 16; he sketched and painted in watercolors to a professional standard.

The grandson of one of the most widely-appreciated German philosophers of the 18th century (who also founded a family fortune in textiles) and son of a successful banker, Mendelssohn's path to professional success was eased in ways that few composers enjoy. At the same time, there was no temptation for his family to exploit his youthful gifts (or, for that matter, those of his sister: another of the ways in which Mozart and Mendelssohn bear comparison was in having gifted sisters whose talents were overshadowed and neglected). Most of his early performances were given in his family's home, as part of his parents' salons.

Famous for reviving interest in the public performance of the works of J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn instigated a less well-known but equally important revival of Handel's music and, in company with his friend and colleague, Robert Schumann, was also one of the most influential proponents and popularizers of Schubert in the years after that composer's untimely death. While maintaining cordial professional relationships with numerous contemporary composers, Mendelssohn privately expressed contempt for many of the most successful, including Liszt, Meyerbeer (a distant cousin) and Hector Berlioz, of whom he remarked that "one ought to wash one's hands after handling one of his scores".

Olympian disdain of this sort along with general social aloofness earned him the nickname "The Discontented Polish Count" amongst family members. He was also prone to ferocious outbursts of temper in which he sometimes became nearly incoherent. Although he led a conventional family life, with five children, from the time of his marriage in 1837 until his death ten years later, he spent his last few years obsessed with the great Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind, after meeting her in 1844. His letters to her were destroyed after her death but other documents alluding to their contents make clear the intensity of his feelings for her. Whatever the precise nature of their relationship it was clearly close and emotionally fraught. When Mendelssohn died, Lind wrote that "he was the only person who brought fulfillment to my spirit". Unhappiness over the situation with Lind along with the deep distress caused by his sister Fanny's death in 1847 are thought to have combined with overwork and general poor health to create the conditions for the series of strokes which killed Felix Mendelssohn at the age of 38. There was almost certainly some inheritable element involved as well, as Mendelssohn's sister, both parents, and grandfather all died of similar apoplexies.

The Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, has long been acknowledged as one of Mendelssohn's supreme compositional achievements. As the second of his mature works of piano chamber music (the first being his Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 45, for cello and piano), it is interesting to note that, in its initial conception, the piano part was far less virtuosic than in the finished, published version. Revisions (most extensive in the last movement) were made at the suggestion of the composer and pedagogue, Ferdinand Hiller (now chiefly remembered as the butt of several of Wagner's deeply unfunny, anti-Semitic anecdotes in his autobiography). The use of forms, while masterful, is mostly quite conventional but the piece does contain two examples of very distinctly 'Mendelssohnian' innovation. The second movement is a 'Song Without Words' of the sort pioneered by Mendelssohn (and/or his sister Fanny). The third is a scherzo that departs from the usual template in having no contrasting 'trio' section; it is, rather, a brief sonata form movement modelled in shape and character on Mendelssohn's own Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream". It was in his review of this piano trio that Robert Schumann called Mendelssohn "the Mozart of the 19th century, the most illuminating of musicians".

Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2017