Chamber music, especially in its purest type, the string quartet, is regarded by many music-lovers as the highest form of music. To begin with, by its very limitations it is to some extent free from sensationalism into which orchestral music so easily falls. Impossible to two violins, a viola, and a violoncello are the purely sensuous stimulations of ears and nerve centers to which Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and the Stokowsky-Bach transcriptions, and in general the whole ‘Overwhelming’ school, owe a good deal of their popularity. A quartet has a great soul in a small body, and depends on the intelligence and sympathy of the listener to fill out, progressively as his experience deepens, what it only suggests… In other words, the string quartet may grow, as our experience of it grows, to be more vivid to us than the most luxurious orchestra, for the very reason that we cannot take it passively, but must enter it actively, becoming co-creators with it.
Daniel Gregory Mason, Columbia University, 1947
I’m always secretly glad when I realize that it’s time to crank up the aged brain and plunge into that pretty much useless activity of writing program notes. I don’t know what the “secretly” part really means, but the ‘glad’ is because I love chamber music and writing about it gives me a chance to think about chamber music and most of all to cast the aged mind back over the decades of chamber music and the many years of rich and fertile programs that we Saratoga Chamber Player fans have enjoyed…. And being refreshed, have often times, yes, been improved in mind & spirit.
Among many other fine composers, Beethoven has been, of course, an oft honored participant in these our festal occasions, feeding the soul beginning for us back near the end of the last century — March 24th 1996 — with the fully mature, glorious & formidable “Archduke” Piano Trio opus 97 dedicated to Ludwig’s pupil & young patron the archduke Rudolf, youngest son of the Emperor Leopold II. Some months later we were treated to a much earlier work, the wonderfully dramatic String Trio in C minor, the 3rd trio of his opus 9. These three early string trios (Vienna 1797) are, by the way, as refreshing a pair of musical delights as any of the many pieces of the time, but because they were composed at a point in time when young Beethoven’s teacher, “Papa” Haydn was the King of the String Quartet and universally acknowledged as the greatest composer of his day in Europe, Russia & even in the more or less United States of America. Furthermore, Der Alte (the old man) had just published another “six-pack” of those excellent Quartets, as opus 96, soon to be well-known works and attracting nicknames: “Emperor,” “Sunrise” “Quintens/the Fifths” and to this day are among the most performed. Some critics have noted that Ludwig’s works for three stringed instruments were his way of working up to works for four! Actually, by the time Haydn published this opus 96, his student, inspired and determined, had already embarked on his first String Quartets, those six of his opus 18, published in Vienna the next year, 1801, the first year of the new century and composed just after Haydn had published his last in the last year of the old century.
Now one more fact, and we’re done with these calendar games. Haydn was also King of the Symphony: we usually stop at the last of the twelve London symphonies, composed between 1791 & 1795 for his two expeditions to England, more in London than elsewhere — although he did get around quite a bit, both loved & loving everywhere he went. This last symphony has born the sobriquet “London” and the final number 104: 104 symphonies! That’s a helluva lot of Symphonies, don’t you think? Well there’s (at least) one more thing that was bugging Beethoven about his relationship with Haydn: he himself had not composed even one symphony. I’m not sure about this, but I think that Beethoven had the new century on his mind and this drove him to finish the Symphony in C that he’d been working on for some time. And he was able to get the Gewandhaus Orchestra to play it and also a Leipzig publisher to handle it. The critics fussed about some things, especially the symphony’s short but searching introduction, hunting for a home key! But on the whole it was a success: and if they didn’t like that short but really interesting little intro, what would they think five years hence when the “Eroica Symphony” blew into town?! The genre of the symphony would never be the same again. The future had arrived, and Beethoven would be its name. Ludwig composed only nine, not even nineteen let alone 104…no no: but the genre would never be the same again…
No, of course we will not be listening to the Eroica Symphony today: our concert begins with an with a much earlier Beethoven chamber piece, so early that it doesn’t even have an opus number. That’s right: it’s a Woo-work, not opus 28, but rather WoO 28 which means “werke ohne opus/works without opus numbers. WoO+ a number does not necessarily mean that it was composed earlier than the three Piano Trios opus 1, although it often does mean that. It only means that the work was not immediately published, either because Beethoven didn’t want to publish it, or because he couldn’t find a publisher, or was too busy to bother. It usually indicates that no one had commissioned it and/or Beethoven didn’t want to ask someone’s permission to dedicate the work to her or him. These “Don Giovanni Variations” were composed around 1793-4, when Ludwig was about 23 or 24 years old.
As we can see, he was not a wunderkind like Mozart or even Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Michael. Ludwig’s father was an okay tenor in the Bonn Court music establish-ment, a good enough violinist and also pianist to give lessons in both instruments to supplement his slim salary, but otherwise an abusive drunk and a wastrel. It was his ambition to peddle his son as a child prodigy like Mozart, but Ludwig was not into it & got paddled a good deal in the exchange. But the lad did became an adequate violinist, and a slightly better violist as well, thus salaried in the Bonn court orchestra. His talent in those three instruments attracted a first rate volunteer teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, who had come to town to be the Bonn Cathedral Organist. This good man guided his pupil through the 48 preludes & fugues of Sebastian Bach’s Wohl Temperierte Klavier, an astonishing achievement which showed two things: first the idea that the elder Bach was forgotten by the middle of the 18th Century is totally wrong and second, that the boy Beethoven was rapidly becoming a fine & rapidly improving keyboardist, who showed an extra ordinary ability to understand what the composers he played were trying to do. There was also early evidence that he would become the phenomenal improviser that would later make him famous when he got to Vienna. Finally he showed that he would be a good enough organist & and choir leader to take his teacher’s place at the Cathedral Organ for several months at a time, when Neefe had to be out of town. The next year, 1782, he began to compose a little and Neefe was able to get a set of Ludwig’s variations-on-a-march, published before the lad’s 12th birthday.
As he continued to mature, he became more & more devoted to the works of Mozart and in 1785 he published a set of three piano quartets that were the loving images of Mozart’s two Piano quartets K. 478 & 493, published the year before up north in the imperial City of Vienna, only the year before. That Ludwig was able to do this indicates that at least in the Rheinland city of Bonn he must have solid support from wealthy aristocrats like Count Ferdinand von Waldstein. This guy was only 8 years older than Beethoven and had studied with their mutual teacher Christian Neefe. He is remembered today only as the recipient of the famous “Waldstein Sonata” #21 in C op.53
By the time of the Don Giovanni Variations (1795 on La chi darem la mano/’there we will give each other our hands’) we hear first in our concert today, Beethoven himself was very well established in the Imperial City Herself !
But before we move on with Beethoven to the Imperial City, we have five charming pieces to experience.
Our concert program today begins with one of the young Beethoven’s several tributes to Mozart, his charming variations for Cello & Piano WoO 28 on Don Giovanni’s lovely “la ci darem la mano.” Our program will end today with one of the Last Five String Quartets, the giant #15 in A minor, opus 132, not far from the end of Ludwig’s time to walk upon the earth. In this respect, we might say that our concert is about beginnings & endings. Or not. After all, the music lives for ever, nicht wahr?
1. BEETHOVEN: Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” (from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”) Beethoven’s instrumentation calls for two oboes and an English horn. But today we have flute & violin subbing for the two oboes and the viola (with it’s alto voice) for the English horn. Because I’ve always loved this aria so, my ears have never liked the nasality that Beethoven’s three double reed instruments imposes on Mozart’s lovely lyrical sound and I’m looking forward to what Susan’s, Jill’s & Michael’s performance will bring to the singing of the youthful Beethoven’s music. Of course a more lyrical texture may create a smoother characterization for the seductive Don Giovanni [viz. Don Juan] as he puts the make on Zerlina.? However, whatever you & I may think, Zerlina can take care of herself & keep her rustic fiancee Masetto from jumping out of his skin. Albeit that Beethoven did choose those three members of the oboe family to do his musical seduction scene… And, well, although I’ve always thought that Beethoven is a good orchestrator– not everyone does — I can’t help but think that our friends the Musicians have made a more pleasing choice!
As I understand it, the transcriptions of the two pieces from Rossini operas and in between the two Rossini pieces the third from the Mozart Concert Aria were done by Antoine Benoit Tranquille Berbiguier, a French name that will be familiar to all serious devotees of the flute, esp. for a book of 18 Etudes or Exercises for the Flute : 18 exercices pour la flûte traversière/in American/ English that would probably read “18 exercises for the transverse flute. A “transverse” flute is the one we’re most used to hearing & seeing. The word ‘exercises’ may read ‘etudes’ in American editions.
2. ROSSINI: “Come Dolce All’Alma Mia” (from “Tancredi”) The music of the 2nd piece on our program is arranged from an aria near the end of Rossini’s opera seria Tancredi, a great improvement on the five act French drama, even if it was by Voltaire! And the Aria? Just what we’ve been waiting for: the soprano assures the tenor that she loves only him and has not given in to her villainous captor. Goodness me! imagine that! This is as close as I have ever been to this opera. And now, we can all go to the seashore.
3. MOZART: “Praise de Jerico,” [viz. so spelled, sans ‘h’] The third piece is something I’ve never heard or even heard of before. And I can’t find it in any text, either print or electronic… But for Heaven’s sake! Jill assures me it It is by Mozart! so all will be well! What more could we want? Here’s what Jill sent me via E-mail:
“I have a vivid memory of performing this aria as a “Concert Aria” way back when I was in the Pittsburgh Symphony… It was scored for solo piano, soprano, and orchestra. Andre Previn was the pianist/conductor, and Jill Gomez was the soprano (I’m pretty sure).”
All of this makes it a very intriguing choice for us, the audience!
5. more ROSSINI: “Zitti Zitti” from the “Barber of Seville.” Italian Zitti = “Hush,” the vocal Trio from the most famous of all comic operas, the Barber of Seville, is a really good piece and get’s a pretty good performance on You Tube. Still, this afternoon, we’re not into televised scenes from operas, but rather the performance here of this beautiful vocal Trio transcribed into true Chamber Music! Not everything, even in The Barber, is done for laughs! Italian comic opera has to do with getting the right boys paired off with the right girls and never never let the villainous rougher, older, richer(?) sinister Trump-like bloke win in the end. Who knew that it was also about getting good vocal music transcribed into Chamber Music!
6. And finally, GINASTERA: “Impressiones de la Puna” for Quena –“Flute of the Andes,”– String Quartet. [Quena is pronounced KAY-nuh. String Quartet is pronounced String Quartet]. Because all I knew about this piece was that the folk-music-loving Ginastera [pronounced ZhinasTAYra]was only 18 when he composed it, I was much impressed with how good a piece this is. I hope you’ll hear it that way too. I don’t know whether Susan will be playing a Flute of the Andes (Quena) or her usual transverse flute, but I’m sure it will be a fine performance.
“These five late quartets have always been regarded as among music’s Himalayas…” so says Paul Griffiths in the piece about Beethoven in his “Penguin Companion to Classical Music, ” page 81. I would qualify that by prefacing it with the words “…after a long rocky beginning…” For instance, old Goethe — (born 20 years before Beethoven, but outliving him by 6 years — roundly disliked them, saying that Beethoven was “losing his strength of mind” when he composed them. And the aged poet was horrified when the boy genius Felix Mendelssohn (summoned, at the age of 12 to visit the old man) told him that they were among the greatest things Beethoven, or “any other composer” had ever produced and that he himself was studying the A minor Quartet opus 132 and was trying to compose a Quartet in A major/minor, as an homage! [Half a dozen years later, Mendelssohn produced his fine Quartet in A major/minor opus 13, perhaps his best]. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn’s opinion about these quartets continued to be in the minority for most of the rest of the 19th Century, and although several of the best, like the great violinist & string quartet leader Joseph Joachim, continued to champion them, the majority of musicians and audiences continued to consider them too difficult!
Igor Stravinsky said of the “grosse fuge”, the notorious original finale of the String Quartet #13 opus 130: “[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” People of it’s day, however, did not think so, in fact refused to play it, so that ultimately the dying Beethoven was persuaded to write another finale, an absolutely delightful little piece to bring the huge B-flat Quartet #13 to a friendly finish. Composed only a few weeks before the composer died it proved to be his last complete composition in any genre. The Fugue was published posthumously and called by some the String Quartet #17 and published as opus 133; he also arranged the original for piano four hands, published posthumously as opus 134: all of these were dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, his long time patron and music student. [Ludwig dedicated 14 works in all to his favorite student, including the Emperor Concerto, the huge B-flat piano sontata, the famous “Archduke Trio” in B-flat and the massive Mass “Missa Solemnis” Whatever the Archduke may have thought of the Fugue has remained unknown. Incidentally, this Rudolph was the 8th and youngest son of Emperor Leopold II and youngest brother of Franz, who would succeed their father as the next Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. As youngest brother, Rudolph would have been aware that he was very unlikely to become emperor himself and he pursued a career as a churchman, becoming the respected although short-lived archbishop of the Cathedral in Vienna. He died at 43 only 6 years after Beethoven died at 56 but is remembered forevermore by his attachment to the increasingly lionized composer.
Our friends the Musicians have chosen to bring us a giant String Quartet one of the non plus ultra giant quartets, the giant #13 in A minor second of those last five masterworks, the Late Quartets composed in the wake of the Ultimate Variations those 33 stunning variations opus 120 on publisher Diabelli’s goofy little waltz, and the Ultimate Symphony famous Ninth in D minor and the non plus ultra of the Mass, the Missa Solemnis.
Am I trying to scare you? Trying to lay a grounding of Awe so that we can all have an “awesome” experience?? … as our children and grandchildren might say, but probably wouldn’t have occasion to? And by the way, what does “awesome” mean to our grandchildren? Does it have anything to do with Awe? These last works of Beethoven are certainly an awesome achievement… in my white-haired opinion.
The first three of the last five quartets were commissioned by another Russian aristocrat, Prince Nicolai Galitzine. The prince had lived for a while in Vienna and knew the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He played the cello; his wife was an accomplished pianist. He arranged piano works of Beethoven for string quartet and at least one string quintet to play with others. In November 1822 he commissioned Beethoven to write string quartets. He wrote in French from Saint Petersburg to the composer: “Being as passionate an amateur as an admirer of your talent, I am taking the liberty of writing to you to ask you if you would be willing to compose one, two or three new quartets. I shall be pleased to pay you for the trouble whatever amount you would deem adequate.” Beethoven agreed to this, asking 50 ducats for each quartet, quite a lot of money in those days. He had not written a string quartet since his opus 95 in 1810. And in 1823 he was occupied with the composition of the afore mentioned Ninth Symphony op.125 & great Missa Solemnis opus 123 and did not begin serious work on the quartets until 1824. The first of these, the String Quartet #12 in E-flat op. 127 was given its first performance by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in March 1825, and compared to the “Harp” quartet of 1809, not understood nor liked. The “Schup” Quartet later performed the other two of the three works commissioned by the prince, the String Quartet No. l3 [14th in actual order] in B-flat opus 130 , and the String Quartet #15 [13th in actual order] in A minor opus 132. Beethoven received the fee for the first quartet [i.e.#12]; and although the prince acknowledged his debt for the other quartets, it was not paid in the composer’s lifetime, the matter being finally settled with Beethoven’s heirs in 1852, 26 years after the composer’s death. Other associations with Beethoven:
The prince was an intermediary in the sale of a copy of Beethoven’s greatest choral work the stupendous Missa Solemnis to the Russian court; it was through him that the1st performance of the work took place in St Petersburg in April 1824.
Beethoven’s overture Die Weihe des Hauses/Consecration of the House (with a chorus and some other pieces for the opening of the theater all composed in 1822) Composed for one purpose (the opening of the theater) but dedicated to Galizine, for another reason.
but the overture was not published until 1825, as op.124, dedicated to this prince Galitzine.
At the top of the page where the Adagio movmt of the quartet begins, Beethoven wrote both in German and Italian; “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” which means like “Holy song-of-thanks to the Divinity of one-recovering-from-illness — in the lydian mode.” The andante that follows is “feeling new strength.” But the Dankgesang is the big thing as is the sense of strength that follows. This movement is long but it’s a marvel: the warm heart of the work. Next, a shocking, 2-minute march that keeps getting faster is the important intro for the passionate Allegro that follows. As for our past History in Saratoga: We have had 6 of the 16 Beethoven String Quartets on 5 different concerts over the years. And thanks to you all, we’ll have a bright and vital future a-coming!
On 6/11/17 we had two!( “6 in B-flat the only one from the 6 quartets opus18) The other that day was the lovely “Harp” Quartet #10 in E-flat, opus 74 (year: 1810 composer was 39).