by Jack Bryce
board member and
Take a look at the precarious beginning of Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in the video below. Members of the Belgrade Philharmonic illustrate the visual cues needed to execute the simple unison figure at the start of the piece. Co-Artistic Directors Norbert Nielubowski and Susan Billmeyer mention how important mutual trust in the ensemble is successful execution. It is almost like a play in a game of football, watching how each member of the ensemble communicates during a predesignated plan of attack.
Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized at Bonn, December 17, 1770 – died at Vienna, March 26, 1827) is likely the most widely admired composer in Western music. He moved to Vienna to live for the rest of his life in November of 1792, not quite 22 years old. The Quintet for Piano and Winds, op. 16, was composed four years later in 1796, the year of Beethoven’s first concert tour, to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin, lasting from February to some time in July. (We can date the Quintet from sketches that survive on a distinctive type of paper, which he used only in Berlin in 1796.) And luckily we know about the first performance, at a benefit concert in Vienna on April 6th, 1797, from Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven’s, who reports as follows:
That same night Beethoven played his quintet for piano and wind instruments; the famous oboist Ramm from Munich also played and accompanied Beethoven in the quintet. In the last Allegro a fermata occurs [early on] before the theme begins again. Beethoven suddenly started improvising, taking the Rondo subject as his theme and entertaining himself and the others for quite some time. This was not the case with the accompanists, however; they were very annoyed and Mr. Ramm was even angry. It did indeed look very droll to see these gentlemen, expecting to begin at any moment, raising their instruments to their mouths incessantly and then quietly putting them down again. At last Beethoven was satisfied and returned to the Rondo. The whole company was enchanted.
The Quintet was not published until 1801. A fascinating question is the relationship of this piece to Mozart’s Quintet for the same combination of instruments, K. 452, composed twelve years earlier in 1784. In a letter to his father, Mozart wrote of “a quintet that was extraordinarily well received; I think myself that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written… I wish you could have heard it!” Now Mozart and Beethoven are the first composers to write for winds and piano. Mozart’s great piece was not published until 1800, nine years after his death, but it is known that the owner of the autograph manuscript in 1800 was Beethoven’s friend Nikolaus Zmeskall. He is likely to have had this for several years, and could have shared it with Beethoven. Another likely possibility is that Mozart’s quintet was already known and being played in Prague from manuscript copies, so that Beethoven could have heard and been inspired by it when he was in Prague in 1796. It is remarkable that besides their unique instrumentation, both pieces are in Eb major with three movements, of which the first is in sonata form with an extended slow introduction, the middle movement is in Bb major, and the last is in rondo form. Remarkably, the stepwise scale motive descending from G to Ab in the slow introduction of Mozart’s piece is found again as the opening motive in the Allegro first movement of Beethoven’s. In his third movement, however, Beethoven uses a theme from Mozart’s Eb major Piano Concerto, K. 485, from 1785.
Alban Maria Johannes Berg (Vienna, February 9, 1885 – December 24, 1935), Austrian composer, was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) along with Anton Webern (1883-1945), at the time of World War I. Berg’s family owned the Berghof, an estate in Carinthia, as well as properties in Vienna and a successful export business; but at the death of Berg’s father in 1900 a difficult financial time ensued, with Berg also doing very badly in school and fathering an illegitimate daughter as a teenager. He worked in civil service until 1906, when his mother got a large inheritance and Alban was able to devote all his time to music. He had already begun study with Schoenberg in 1904, and by the time Schoenberg moved to Berlin in 1911 had moved to a freely atonal style. Berg was married in 1910 to Helene Nahowski, and took on managing family property as well as teaching and editorial work for Universal Editions, especially the editing of major works by his teacher Schoenberg, who became ever more demanding of Berg’s help with domestic and financial matters as well as music. Despite Berg’s devoted service to his teacher, their relationship remained severely strained.
Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op. 5 (1913), is an early masterpiece, written with extraordinary brevity and compression; it lasts just over 7 minutes. It demonstrates the furthest point that Berg reached in abandoning distinct themes; instead the music comes from playing with small cells of pitches in the form of wedges, sets of intervals, and transformations of material that are virtually impossible to perceive by listening. To me, this extraordinarily abstract quality is actually a blessing; for a careful listener is rewarded by a remarkably personal and moving experience, impossible to analyze except on paper, yet extremely vivid. Berg retained this personal quality even as he moved from his atonal opera Wozzeck, through a transitional phase represented by the Kammerkonzert and Lyrische Suite, into the fully developed 12-tone style of his final compositions, the opera Lulu and the Violin Concerto.
Darius Milhaud (Marseilles, September 4, 1892 – Geneva, June 22, 1974), French composer, grew up in Aix-en-Provence, where his father, an almond dealer, was an excellent amateur pianist and his Italian mother a fine contralto. Milhaud himself began playing piano duets with his father at the age of three, had a lovely baritone voice, and was an excellent violinist. At the age of ten he began to play 2nd violin in his teacher’s quartet, but soon turned to composition. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire from age 17 to 23. The Milhauds were Jewish, but at age 20 Darius became great friends with Paul Claudel, the fervently Catholic poet, playwright, and diplomat, “the great stroke of luck in my life.” At age 25 he embarked with Claudel, who was appointed ambassador to Brazil in 1917, to travel with the ambassador and translate coded messages; he also organized concerts and lectures for the Red Cross. A year later he went via the West Indies and New York back to Paris, arriving in 1919 in time to share the extraordinary musical culture there in the twenties. He renewed friendships with Koechlin, Honegger, and Poulenc, and made new ones, notably with Satie. He discovered jazz in London in 1920, where the Billy Arnold Jazz Band had just arrived from New York. In Vienna in 1921 he met Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; he toured the US in 1922 and 1927, and Russia in 1926; he wrote music criticism for the Courrier Musical, and later (1934-37) for the daily paper Le Jour. By 1930 he had established himself as a major composer, for example with the great success of his multimedia opera Christophe Colombe (Berlin, 1930). In the thirties he went from success to success, despite increasing attacks of rheumatoid arthritis which put him permanently in a wheelchair by 1948. Learning that the Nazis had him on their list, he fled to the US in 1940, where he was appointed at Mills College, Oakland; he also taught at the summer music school in Aspen, and from 1948 to 1951 was honorary director of the Musical Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. He was able to return to Paris in 1947, and became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, but lived and worked both in France and the US until 1971, when he retired from Mills College. An enormous number of French and American composers were his students, including jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. He composed to the end of his life, and left no unfinished works; he finished with a wind quintet written in 1975 for the 50th anniversary of his remarkable marriage to his cousin, Madeleine Milhaud. His vast output includes work in every genre of music.
Milhaud’s String Quartet No. 7, op. 87 (1925), one of eighteen quartets written from 1912 to 1950, is typical Milhaud—solidly musical, beautifully evocative, and extremely interesting. The first movement, Modérément animé, consists of extremely lovely melodies in a highly contrapuntal setting, interrupted occasionally be a jazzy, percussive gesture. The second movement, Doux et sans hâte—Assez animé et gracieux, also features beautiful tunes in counterpoint, which twice come to a mysterious close before starting up again; the third time this happens is the end of the movement. The slow third movement, Lent, consists of yet another lovely melody, enchanting but rather fragmentary, with frequent pauses; it disappears before our ears into nothing. The finale, marked Vif et gai, sounds to me like an outburst of gaiety from old Provence, again disappearing into nothing, but with a final brash chord.
Bohuslav Martinů (Polička, Bohemia, December 8, 1890 – Liestal, Switzerland, August 28, 1959) is generally judged the most important Czech composer of the 20th century after Janáček. Until 1902 the family lived at the top of the church tower, where his father supplemented his earnings from being a cobbler by looking out for fires and ringing the bells for services. Martinů quickly developed as a violinist, leading the Polička string quartet and giving his first solo performance at age 15. His community raised funds to send him to the Prague Conservatory at age 16; but his attendance was poor and he was suspended regularly until he was expelled for “incorrigible negligence” in 1910 at age 20. But he enjoyed Prague cultural life, and began to compose. He also subbed in the 2nd violin section of the Czech Philharmonic and became a full member in 1920. At age 33 in 1923 he moved to Paris to study composition with Albert Roussel, and never again lived in Czechoslovakia, though he returned for holidays. In Paris he heard Stravinsky, Les Six, and jazz. Serge Koussevitsky, who replaced Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony, was often in Paris, and having met Martinů became interested in the composer’s La Bagarre, which was premiered to great acclaim in Boston. In 1931 he married Charlotte Quennahen, a dressmaker with whom he had lived since 1925. Despite his various affairs, Martinů kept a sentimental affection for her and they remained a couple until his death. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940 he fled with Charlotte to Aix-en-Provence, and then left Provence for Lisbon whence they came to New York in March. He stayed in various places in New England, composing and teaching. At Tanglewood in the summer of 1946 he had a serious fall, preventing much work until 1948, when he took up appointments at Princeton and the Mannes School. With a Guggenheim scholarship Martinů returned to Paris in 1953, and then to Nice. In 1955 he returned to New York, but depression sent him back to Europe, where he taught at the American Academy of Music in Rome until 1957; from there he moved to Switzerland until his death in 1959 from stomach cancer. He was a remarkably prolific composer, writing in every genre, vocal and instrumental.
The Nonet on today’s program, Martinů’s second, from very near the end of his life in 1959, is a congenial and goodhearted piece of Czech Gemütlichkeit; despite its learning and subtlety, it is easy on the ears and warming to the heart. The jolly first movement, Poco Allegro, shows some influence from neo-classical Stravinsky. The second, Andante, is sweet and mysterious, with a grand midsection. The finale, Allegretto, is gentle and lilting, with quite a variety of textures and attitudes—and then a rather sudden, serene conclusion.