What is Chamber Music?

December 5, 2018

Introduction: A Slight Disclaimer

Kai Christiansen I like to call earsense the chamber music exploratorium. So what exactly is chamber music? The definition varies a bit depending on whom you ask, and it has changed over the many long years of its history (one could claim 500 years). As a chamber music devotee and a passionate, as well as professional advocate, I could write a great deal about chamber music and that, in the end, is really the sum total of earsense itself. But for the purposes of defining a domain (pun intended) particularly for the general music lover who is apt to know little to nothing about it, I would like to offer a reasonably succinct but persuasive overview.

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Haydn, String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, Sun, No. 4, Hob.III:34

November 21, 2018

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4 (1772)

Though the Op. 20 set of quartets is essentially Haydn’s fifth such collection, these quartets were especially admired by players and connoisseurs of the day (as well as by Haydn himself) and hailed as a new milestone in the genre. From our modern perspective, centuries hence, we might well consider these the first great string quartet masterworks. Know widely as the “Sun” quartets from an illustration on the cover when published by Hummel, they aptly embody the dawn of a new era.

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Haydn, String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5, "Largo"

September 19, 2018

Charles Burney “ . . . they are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects, and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but of one of highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before.”

Charles Burney in a letter to Haydn regarding Op. 76

Haydn's string quartet legacy comprises 68 works written over the span of nearly fifty years and includes at least twenty-five unequivocal masterpieces. They were generally published in groups of six (or three) of which there are several landmark sets, each with its own personality, ingenuity and style. Each set tends to reflect a particular phase of Haydn's ever-creative quartet thinking and, rather miraculously, forms a complete universe in itself, so rich and varied are the musical treasures within.

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Shostakovich, Impromptu for viola and piano

July 30, 2018

From The Strad

Shostakovich Impromptu A previously unknown work by Dmitri Shostakovich, a viola impromptu, has been discovered in Moscow’s central archive, it was announced on 25 September [2017], the composer’s birthday.

The short work, consisting of title sheet, a single page for the viola part and one for the piano score, is titled Impromptu op.33. It was found among documents belonging to Vadim Borisovsky (d. 1972), the violist of the Beethoven Quartet for over 40 years.

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Schumann, Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18

April 25, 2018

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18 (1839)

Robert Schumann The quintessential Romantic composer Robert Schumann distinguished himself in all musical genres but may well be most admired for his character pieces for solo piano. At the time he composed Arabesque, he was visiting Vienna where he hoped to make his future home with his love, the extraordinary young pianist Clara Wieck. At the time, however, Clara’s father forbade the union and Schumann would not yet encounter the musical fame he hoped to establish in that eminently musical city. Hence, while composing during his sojourn, the young Schumann oscillated between hope and despair, the ultimate Romantic polarity some commentators find in the emotional makeup of Arabesque itself.

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Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

April 25, 2018

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 (1880)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky had such an intuitive gift for melody, rhythm and musical expression in general that many of his compositions have become enduring popular classics including the beloved Serenade for Strings. Unlike many of his contemporary Russian composers who eschewed the Western European classics in an attempt to write music that was genuinely Russian, Tchaikovsky was more than content to emulate the masters, particularly his favorite: Mozart. Tchaikovsky specifically stated that his Serenade was a deliberate imitation of Mozart’s style even though it is more Tchaikovsky than Mozart.

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Beethoven, String Quintet in C major, Op. 29, "Storm"

April 25, 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, “The Storm” (1801)

Ludwig van Beethoven When Beethoven composed his only full-length string quintet in 1801, he was beginning a transition between his early and middle stylistic phases, moving from Classical mastery towards a new kind of epic innovation that would define his mature artistry. The years of 1801-1802 witnessed Beethoven confronting the ironic and devastating fate of losing his hearing, eventually prevailing with heroic resolve. This transitional period finds Beethoven composing his second symphony, his third piano concerto and the marvelous Op. 29 String Quintet known by the nickname “Storm” (Der Sturm). Overshadowed by the fame of his string quartets and the string quintets of Mozart and Schubert, Beethoven’s quintet is rarely performed, a special treat to encounter.

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Dialogue with Beethoven, Gordon, Moravec and the Enso

April 7, 2018

Paul Moravec (born 1957)

Dialogue, 2015

Paul Moravec Founded in 1930 and ostensibly the longest running summer chamber music festival in the United States, Music Mountain launched a five-year commissioning project in 2015. For the first year, they commissioned a work for the Enso String Quartet who recommended composer Paul Moravec. The theme for the commission was to create a dialogue with the past, specifically including a connection with the festival’s founder Jacques Gordon, violinist and leader of the Gordon String Quartet. Jonathan Yates, music director for Music Mountain at the time writes:

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Josef Suk, Elegie, Op. 23

March 10, 2018

Josef Suk (1874-1935)

Elegie for Piano Trio, Op. 23, Under the Impression of Zeyer's Vysehrad (1902)

Josef Suk When Josef Suk was born, Dvořák was in his early thirties and would become an important father figure to Suk in many ways. Suk grew up in a Bohemian village where his father, a choirmaster, taught him piano, violin and organ. Entering the Prague Conservatory when he was only eleven, Suk studied violin, theory and chamber music graduating in 1891 with an impressive piano quartet as his first official opus. Still merely eighteen, he remained at the conservatory for another year to study with Dvořák who had just joined the teaching staff. Thus began a multi-dimensional relationship that lasted until the end of Dvořák’s life. Dvořák considered Suk his favorite pupil and in 1898 became his father-in-law when Suk married his daughter Otilka.

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Kurtag, 6 Moments musicaux for string quartet

March 5, 2018

György Kurtág (born 1926)

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 44 (1999-2005)

György Kurtág György Kurtág, a living composer now in his early nineties, is widely regarded as one of the most important avant-garde composers coming into prominence in the second half of the 20th century. Kurtág was born of Hungarian parents but grew up in a part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that became part of Romania in 1918. Speaking Hungarian at home and Romanian at school, he moved to Budapest in 1946 to study music at the Franz Liszt Academy and soon became a Hungarian citizen. Kurtág graduated with degrees in piano, chamber music and composition and established his initial reputation as a pianist. Despite the disastrous uprising of 1956 and a brief yearlong sojourn in Paris in 1957/8, Kurtág chose to remain in Hungary and has been cited as the only composer to live through the communist regime (lasting until 1989) and achieve an international recognition.

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Schubert, Quartettsatz

February 24, 2018

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

String Quartet No. 12, “Quartettsatz”, D. 703 (1820)

Franz Schubert Franz Schubert wrote at least 17 works for string quartet, the bulk of which he composed for the practical purpose of playing chamber music at home with his family. These earlier works, designed for his father, brothers and himself, are skillful, winning and, due to the technical limitations of his family members, suitable for amateur players. This all changed with the so-called “Quartettsatz” (a posthumously applied title meaning “quartet movement”) of 1820 written when Schubert was in his early 20s.

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Webern, Fünf Sätze for String Quartet, Op. 5

February 19, 2018

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Fünf Sätze (Five Movements) for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909)

Anton Webern 100 years after Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet, as the hallowed history of the string quartet reached its 150 year anniversary, the few years of 1908-1909 witnessed the beginnings of a tectonic shift in the genre and, indeed, classical music in general. Arnold Schoenberg, the founding father of the radical Second Viennese School, completed his infamous second string quartet in 1908 and self-published it the following year. The first bold innovation was adding a human soprano to sing song texts in the third and fourth movements. The second more radical departure was Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality in the finale, the first important instance of atonal music for string quartet. Significantly, the text from a poem by Stefan George begins “I feel the air of a new planet.” The premiere caused a scandal.

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Elliott Carter, Esprit Rude / Esprit Doux

February 8, 2018

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

Esprit rude/Esprit doux for flute and clarinet(1984)

Elliott Carter American composer Elliott Carter was a true phenomenon. Born in 1908, he lived to the age of 103 writing more than 60 new works even after the age of 90. Carter studied at Harvard where he was mentored by Charles Ives, studied in Paris with the esteemed Nadia Boulanger and was eventually awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice (for his second and third string quartets) among several other awards and prizes. Growing out of numerous influences including Stravinsky, Copland, Roy Harris and Paul Hindemith, Carter’s mature style occupies an individual world all his own featuring a predominantly atonal vocabulary, a systematic exploration of pitch collections, and, especially, a daunting exploration of rhythm and tempo often assigning a different character of motion to each part forming complex, ever-changing polyrhythms.

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Ravel, Introduction and Allegro

February 8, 2018

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet (1905)

Maurice Ravel In the first years of the 20th Century, Debussy and Ravel were championed as the latest important voices in French Art Music, each playing important roles within an intoxicating style generally labeled Impressionism. In a reflection more of fans and critics than the actual relationship between the two composers or their musical styles, Parisians would even take sides in a feisty rivalry of Debussy vs. Ravel. This passionate dichotomy lent itself to another contest of the period: a competition between two rival manufacturers of the concert harp, each with a different solution for equipping with instrument with the complete array of chromatic tones.

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Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka (chamber transcription)

February 8, 2018

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Petrushka (1910–11, revised 1947)

Arranged by Yuval Shapiro for flute, clarinet, violin/viola, cello, harp and piano

Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for Petrushka, 1911 One of the towering composers of the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky secured his initial reputation with three extraordinary ballet scores for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Marshalling huge orchestral forces, a dazzling technique initially drawn from the Russian Nationalists such as Rimsky-Korsakov, and an innovative approach above all to complex, bristling rhythms, Stravinsky astonished Parisian audiences initially to riot and then quickly to unbridled adoration. While The Firebird seems an extension of his Russian forebears and the Rite of Spring a milestone of nearly apocalyptic modernism, Petrushka strikes a brilliant balance and may well be the foremost of the triptych to most music lovers.

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Schumann, Piano Quintet, Op. 44

February 8, 2018

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)

Robert Schumann Robert Schumann is one of the quintessential Romantic figures of the 19th century. He grew up with twin loves for literature and music and became a great composer and well as a great literary figure, one of the most esteemed and insightful musical commentators of his time. He fell passionately in love with Clara and fought a two-year legal battle against her father to win her hand in marriage. Schumann almost manically attacked the great genres of music and composed, in concentrated fits, piano works, art songs, symphonies and chamber music amassing a formidable catalog of masterworks before madness set in.

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Eugène Ysaÿe, Ballade for Enescu

February 2, 2018

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)

Sonata in d minor, Op. 27, No. 3, Ballade, 1923 (Dedicated to George Enescu)

Eugène Ysaÿe Eugène Ysaÿe was at least generation or so older than George Enescu. A Belgian violinist, composer and conductor, Ysaÿe was widely regarded as among the greatest violinists of his age particularly as an exponent of the Franco-Belgian school. Known as the “King of the Violin” and even “The Tsar”, famous musicians and composers lauded him with superlatives. He performed and taught throughout Europe receiving eminent praise in the form of composers’ dedications for such works as César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A and Ernest Chausson’s Poème while, as a member of the Ysaÿe Quartet, he premiered Claude Debussy’s String Quartet. As his technique faded with age, Ysaÿe turned to teaching, composing and serving as artistic director with the Cincinnati Orchestra at which time he made some recordings.

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Bartók, Romanian Folk Dances

February 2, 2018

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56 BB 68, 1915

Béla Bartók The great 20th century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók needs no introduction to most music lovers. It is a wonderful thematic coincidence that he was born the same year as Enescu. Their deeper connection is a shared Eastern European heritage and, specifically for our Fantezie program, Bartók’s famous setting of six Romanian Folk Dances. Bartók’s profound musical legacy stems from two different but interrelated aspects of his identity as both an early 20th Century avant-garde composer of art music, and a skillfully devoted ethnomusicologist cataloging a diversity of Eastern European folk musics which he sensed would quickly disappear in the modern world.

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George Enescu, Aubade for String Trio

February 2, 2018

George Enescu (1881-1955)

Aubade in C Major for String Trio, 1899

George Enescu Enescu penned his Aubade for string trio one year earlier than the stunning Octet and there is no more perfect contrast for a mini-showcase of Enescu’s fine art. Concise, charming and so skillfully crafted, this little lilting scherzo and trio is a lovers’ goodbye kiss, an aubade being the opposite of the serenade: one at night, one in the morning, both sharing the lovers’ impetus to woo with music. At the other end of the spectrum from the sprawling epic for octet, this little ditty for spare string trio still projects a layered, rich texture possibly evoking a joyfully whistling lover departing on loping horseback to the accompaniment of a country fiddle, a rustic Romanian folk tune in a fresh, new morning after love.

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George Enescu, Octet for Strings

February 2, 2018

George Enescu (1881-1955)

String Octet, Op. 7, 1900 (published in 1905, premiered in 1909)

George Enescu Enescu was a true musical prodigy of the rarest kind. He started playing violin at 4, composing at 5, became the youngest student ever admitted to the Vienna Conservatory when he was 7, graduated when he was 13, spent 4 years at the Paris Conservatory while premiering his first mature composition at the age of 16. As he would spend much of his life and earn much of his fame in Paris as well as Romania, Enescu is also widely known by the French version of his name, Georges Enesco. While he thought of himself first and foremost as a composer, over time, Enescu blossomed into one of the most complete musicians in history: a virtuoso concert violinist (one of the finest of his generation), superb pianist, conductor, teacher, mentor, dedicatee of numerous extraordinary masterworks emerging from the best composers of the day, and finally, as well, a truly original and astonishing composer.

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