This program explored every combination of voice, piano and cello. Included were Beethoven’s joyous first cello sonata, Barber’s beloved Hermit Songs, and works for all three performers by Brahms, Bernstein and Amy Beach. (Arion’s second concert of three.)
Program from Arion's April 8, 2016 concert:
Notes on the Program
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 5 #1 (1796)
The first of Beethoven’s cello sonatas was written (along with its companion, Op. 5 #2 in G minor, as well as two sets of variations on themes by Handel and Mozart) for a specific occasion: Beethoven had been invited to perform a series of concerts at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, in Berlin, one of which was to be with the great French cellist, Jean-Louis Duport (the king was an enthusiastic amateur cellist who employed Jean-Louis’s elder brother, Jean-Pierre Duport, as his cello teacher). The pieces were mostly written en route from Vienna to Berlin by way of Prague, Dresden and Leipzig, and completed in Berlin, where they were probably first heard in June of 1796.
By the time Beethoven wrote them, he had already spent a couple of years working and touring with another of the finest cellists of his era, the young Bernhard Romberg who, in 1790, arrived at the court of the Elector of Köln in Bonn as an internationally-acclaimed soloist, having performed publicly since the age of seven and toured widely while still in his teens. Beethoven, who was employed in Bonn as a part-time organist and a violist in the court orchestra, had a healthy respect as much for Romberg’s instrumental virtuosity as for his professional success. The two made several tours together (in company with Romberg’s cousin, Andreas) in the early 1790s. Their relationship, though collegial, was never easy, and Romberg never lost his (ultimately misplaced) sense of superiority. He famously declined Beethoven’s offer to write a cello concerto for him. Several years later, encountering the composer’s first Razumovsky Quartet, Romberg is reported tohave thrown the score on the floor and trampled it violently with expressions of impatient disgust.
So, despite all this, Beethoven brought a well-informed sense of the cello’s capabilities to the writing of his first sonata. However, even if he exploited these in a variety of ways, it is notable that the cello is still very much a junior partner. Given the fact that he was writing for perhaps the greatest cellist of his day and was hoping to attract the favor of a well-known and powerful aficionado of the instrument (to whom Haydn and Mozart had both dedicated sets of string quartets with prominent cello parts), it is reasonable to ask: why? One important reason is certainly that, at this stage in his career, Beethoven was enjoying success as a performer much more than as a composer. Above all he wished to showcase his own accomplishments as a keyboard player.
Another is that there was really no precedent -- no pre-existing model -- for the kind of cello sonata Beethoven was writing. By the 1790s, the old-fashioned baroque continuo sonata (where a cello would reinforce the figured bass of a keyboard part, over which the keyboard player would improvise freely) was giving way to the obbligato sonata, which itself had undergone an almost complete transformation from being a piece for a solo instrument with ‘obbligato’ keyboard or continuo accompaniment (where certain portions of the keyboard part were written out, rather than improvised) to being essentially a keyboard sonata with an obbligato accompaniment -- commonly a violin or a flute; never a cello. The peculiar title page of the first edition of these early sonatas suggests that this was the case: “Two Grand Sonatas for Harpsichord or Pianoforte with Violoncello Obbligato.” Beethoven’s likeliest models for these sonatas were the Mozart violin sonatas, several of which he had studied minutely as a teenager. Although it would be several years before he would write the first true duo sonata for cello and piano (his Opus 69 in A Major),in which the instruments are treated scrupulously -- almost obsessively -- as equals, the Op. 5 works are the first important first step in that direction.
The F Major Sonata consists of two large movements. The first is a loosely-structured sonata allegro form with a substantial adagio introduction; the second is an expansive rondo with markedly contrasting themes. The mood throughout is exuberant. It is dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, and though there is no record of what the cellist, J. L. Duport, thought of it, the king presented Beethoven with a gold snuff-box filled with louis-d’or, of which Beethoven remarked many years later that it was “not an ordinary snuff-box, but such a one as it might have been customary to give to an ambassador”.
Samuel Barber (1910 -- 1981)
Hermit Songs, Op.29 (1952-3)
Thus nine-year-old Samuel Barber in a letter to his mother, expressing what seems as much like a sense of doom as of vocation. But at its core -- ‘I was meant to be a composer, and will be I am sure’ -- lies a statement of the solid, unshakeable purposefulness that carried Barber through more than thirty-five years of unbroken activity, from youthful but assured works like his Cello Sonata and Dover Beach (both written while he was still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music and both standard pieces in the concert repertoire to this day) through acknowledged early masterworks including the String Quartet (with its famous Adagio arranged for string orchestra and premiered by Toscanini) and the Violin Concerto, all the way to the disastrous premiere of his Antony and Cleopatra by the Metropolitan Opera, on the occasion of the opening of the new opera house at Lincoln Center. (Disastrous primarily owing to technical problems with Franco Zeffirelli’s sets and the general, gaudy vulgarity of his production -- possibly an early foreshadowing of more recent problems at the Met under Peter Gelb’s management?) Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards and honors, Barber was throughout his career -- and remains to this day -- one of the most-performed American composers of the 20th century.
His lifelong interest in writing for the voice originated in childhood visits to the Metropolitan Opera where his aunt, Louise Homer, sang for twenty acclaimed seasons. Additionally, her husband, Sidney Homer, was a composer best known during his lifetime for his songs; it was at his urging that the fourteen-year-old Barber was sent to the newly-founded Curtis Institute, where the boy was the second student enrolled at the school in 1924. Along with studying composition and learning to play the piano to a professional level of proficiency (sufficient to premiere many of his own works), Barber undertook vocal studies as well, and was the school’s first triple major. (By most accounts he had a pleasant but unremarkable voice.)
A similarly abiding interest in Irish literature began early, inspired by his own Irish heritage and perhaps as well by a much-loved Irish cook in the Barber family household. Nearly half of all Barber’s output of songs is settings of Irish texts; Yeats and James Joyce were amongst his favorite writers. A more specific inspiration for the Hermit Songs was a trip to Ireland that Barber took in the summer of 1952. The visit produced initial disillusionment, as it seemed to him that Joyce and Yeats and the world they represented had been abandoned and forgotten by the Irish. In a search for an earlier and more essential representation of ‘Irishness’ he hit upon translations of ‘hermit poetry’ written by monks and lay scholars associated with the monastic communities of medieval Ireland. (Some of the poems are marginalia scribbled, in their native language, by monks in the midst of copying or illuminating sacred Latin texts. It is some of the earliest known vernacular poetry in post-Classical Europe.)
Barber selected ten poems from multiple sources in English translations; for three of these he found existing translations unsatisfying, and commissioned ‘re-translations’ from W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The cycle begins with a poem concerning a pilgrimage and containing a prayer for greater powers of empathy; it ends with a celebration of the pleasures of solitary hermitage -- ‘to be alone, all alone’ -- and an allusion to ‘the last pilgrimage’ (death). The eight poems in between are themselves a kind of pilgrimage alternating between high religious concerns and simple, daily human experience. The most readily audible allusions to the ‘ancientness’ of the texts are a prevalence of open fourths and fifths and the recurring three-note motive of a descending whole step followed by a descending fourth -- outlining between them the most important intervals in the early medieval organum that flourished in European monasteries around the time some of the poems were being written. Interestingly, the songs are notated throughout without time signatures, a feature they share with Holst’s Four Songs, Op. 35.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Four Songs, Op. 35 (1916-17)
Most American audiences know Gustav Holst either as the author of the orchestral suite, The Planets (a staple of outdoor summer concerts and ‘pops’ concerts generally) or, at Christmastime, for his austerely beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter (actually somewhat obscurely entitled ‘Cranham’ but better-known by its first line). On his father’s side of the family he came from a long line of professional musicians, including a great-grandfather who had been court composer and teacher of harp in the Russian Imperial Court at St. Petersburg; his mother, though from a more conventional background, was a fine pianist and singer.
After a number of years spent working and composing in relative obscurity, the success of The Planets brought him a decade of widespread popularity both in his native Britain and in the United States, where he received Yale University’s Howland Memorial Prize, taught and conducted at the University of Michigan, and accepted a visiting lectureship at Harvard University (which was cut short by illness).
Holst suffered from poor health throughout his life. Near-sighted and asthmatic as a child, he was also liable to a persistent nervous inflammation in his right arm that made his study of the violin painfully unpleasant and ultimately thwarted his desire to become a professional pianist. At the age of twelve, his father suggested that he should take up the trombone (partly with the hope that it would strengthen his lungs and relieve his asthmatic symptoms); it was on this instrument that Holst achieved his first professional musical success, playing and touring in an array of theater and opera orchestras and paying his way through music school. He later accepted a variety of teaching appointments, most notably at the St. Paul’s Girl’s School in Hammersmith, where he taught for nearly thirty years, and the Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women, where he began a long and enthusiastic association with adult amateur musicians that influenced and underpinned his mature compositional style in important ways.
For instance, Holst’s daughter, Imogen, has noted that her father first conceived the idea for the Four Songs for Voice and Violin when he observed an amateur violinist improvising simultaneously with violin and voice during a rehearsal break. An improvisatory quality is detectable throughout as -- still unusually, in early 20th century music -- the songs are notated without time signatures, and measures contain different and incomplete numbers of beats; the violin and voice parts do not always have identical numbers of beats in the same measure. (Additionally, it is the relatively simple and technically facile nature of the violin part, suitable to amateur skills, that makes it possible to perform it on the cello -- at pitch, in the original octave -- as it is presented here.)
The texts for the songs are all by anonymous, late medieval poets, on Christian religious subjects. The first, ‘Jesu sweet,’ is about the poet’s love for Jesus and hope for salvation. The next, ‘My soul has nought but fire and ice,’ is a somewhat darker meditation on judgement and a plea for strength to do God’s will, which is followed by a tribute to the Virgin Mary (dispenser of mercy): ‘I sing of a maiden’. The last poem, ‘My Leman is so true,’ is a second and more complex celebration of the love of Christ (leman is an archaic word meaning ‘beloved’ or ‘paramour’ and implying the notion of a mystical union with Jesus).
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Two Songs, Op. 91 (1884)
The story of these songs, originally for contralto, viola and piano, begins with the marriage of Brahms’s close friend and collaborator, the great violinist Josef Joachim, to the distinguished young operatic contralto, Amalie Schneeweiss, in 1863. A year later, Brahms wrote an early version of the second song, “Geistliches Wiegenlied”, (‘sacred lullaby’), as a piece that the three of them could play together to celebrate the birth of the Joachims’ son (christened Johannes, after Brahms).
Although she continued to make occasional appearances in oratorios and song recitals, Amalie relinquished her operatic career at the time of her marriage and, conforming to the expectations of her time and place, occupied herself primarily with home and children (a total of six). Despite a certain amount of friction with the extended Joachim family because Amalie was not Jewish, the marriage was happy enough until Joachim developed an obsessional idea (quite groundless, on all the available evidence, and possibly actually delusional) that his wife was having an affair with Brahms’s publisher, Fritz Simrock. Brahms certainly believed Joachim’s suspicions to be baseless and took Amalie’s side in the dispute. The couple separated and, when Joachim brought divorce proceedings against his wife, a letter that Brahms had written expressing his confidence in the truth of her side of the story was produced in court to support her case, making Brahms’s view of the rift very public. In the midst of all this, as part of an attempt to get the couple to reconcile, he wrote “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (‘stilled longing’), a sort of plea for peace. At the same time, he reworked “Geistliches Wiegenlied” and published both songs as a set in 1884.
The scandal associated with any divorce case in the 19th century made it initially very difficult for Amalie to re-establish herself as a concert artist. Brahms continued to support her very publicly and was one of only a few prominent musicians to aid her in reviving her professional career. The damage to Brahms’s friendship with Joachim was slow to heal and it never quite recovered its former warmth and intimacy.
The text of “Gestillte Sehnsucht”, consisting of three stanzas from a poem by Friedrich Rückert, summons exactly the kind of inner peace that Brahms habitually sought in nature, evoking the whispers of evening breezes and gentle voices of birds. A second stanza begins with ‘desires that stir the heart without rest or peace’ but returns to thoughts of birds and breezes. The song ends in contemplating the eventual, final peace that comes only with the end of life itself.
“Geistliches Wiegenlied” opens with an explicit quotation of the traditional German Christmas carol, “Josef, lieber Josef mein” (‘Joseph, my beloved Joseph’). The tune of the carol, which begins with the Virgin Mary asking Joseph to help her cradle the infant Jesus, is heard at the outset in the viola, but neither its melody nor its words are ever sung by the voice. Brahms’s vocal line begins half as an imitation and half as a kind of mirror of the carol (and also has some of the character of a chorale melody); the words are those of a translation into German of a poem by Lope de Vega: “You who hover.” In it, an unspecified parent calls upon angels to silence the roaring of wind in the treetops because ‘my child is sleeping’ (which is the concluding line in each of four stanzas). It is only by way of the repeated entreaty to ‘angels’ and a mention of ‘Bethlehem’ that we surmise the parent is the same Virgin Mary of the carol, and the child the same infant Jesus. Brahms weaves fragments of the carol throughout the song to make this clear, always in the viola, and brings it back for a final statement, just as the voice finishes reiterating, for the last time, ‘my child is sleeping’.
Amy Beach (1867 - 1944)
Chanson d’Amour, Op. 21 (1893; arr. 1899)
The woman born Amy Marcy Cheney and known for most of her life as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach was, amongst other things, the first widely successful female composer in the United States. Her unusual musical gifts were already apparent in infancy. By the age of 14 she was studying harmony and counterpoint at Wellesley College. Her accomplishments as a pianist culminated in an acclaimed debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17, playing Chopin’s F minor piano concerto. Less than a year later, aged 18, she was married to a prominent Boston surgeon, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, nearly twenty-five years her senior.
That, in one sense, was the end of things; Dr. Beach insisted that she should limit her public performances to two recitals each year and she seems to have complied with this stricture. On the other hand, as an enthusiastic music-lover, the stuffy, middle-aged Beach encouraged her growing ambitions as a composer.
“Chanson d’Amour” is the somewhat anodyne title that Amy Beach gave to her early setting of a famous poem by the notorious satyromane, Victor Hugo: “L’aube nait, et ta porte est close”. Perfectly decorous and yet available of frankly erotic interpretation: “Dawn arrives, and your door is shut: why do you sleep? At the hour when the rose wakes, will you not awaken?” Originally conceived for voice and piano, the composer added an obbligato cello part in an 1899 arrangement.
The death of her husband in 1910, followed by that of her mother in 1911, removed longstanding familial barriers to her career as a performer; she toured widely in Europe as a pianist for three seasons. With the outbreak of World War I she returned to America where she devoted the remainder of her life to composition and to promoting the works of other women, as the first president of the Society of American Women Composers.
Leonard Bernstein (1918 -1990)
Dream With Me (1950)
‘Dream With Me’ is a short piece from Peter Pan, a theatrical production for which Leonard Bernstein is credited as writing both music and lyrics. In many ways, it is easy to see the iconic J. M. Barrie play upon which it was based as a subject ideally suited to Bernstein’s artistic sensibilities and personal history. Originally planned as a ‘musical’, it was eventually staged with only five numbers -- ‘Dream With Me’ was one among nearly two dozen cut because they were beyond the vocal capabilities of the performers (including Boris Karloff) who had been cast in the principal roles. The show ran for 321 performances so that, by Broadway standards, it qualified as a success, but it was entirely eclipsed by the 1954 production on the same theme featuring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, and is now completely forgotten.
Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2016