An Evening of Bassoon & Strings

Ellen Connors, bassoon
Heather Kufchak, violin
Will Manley, violin
Brett Allen, viola
Cora Kuyvenhoven, cello


François Devienne (1759-1803): Quartet for Bassoon and Strings, Op. 73 No. 1 in C Major
Though not a name typically featured on concert programs today, François Devienne was among the most influential wind composers and pedagogues of his day, and his legacy continues to cast a tall shadow among wind players. Born to a saddle maker and the youngest of fourteen children, François matured to become one of Paris’ most active performers, playing both bassoon and flute (the former with the Paris Opera) and composing prodigiously. His oeuvre includes his seminal pedagogical treatise, Méthode, twelve operas and no less than 300 instrumental works, including dozens of concertos, sinfonias for woodwinds and an array of works for mixed ensemble, such as quartet heard here.

The very opening bars of Devienne’s C major Quartet for Bassoon and Strings reveal a composer clearly a product of his time, writing music simply to please and scoring according to classical hierarchy—treble instruments carry the melody, bass instruments provide harmonic and rhythmic support. The Allegro spritoso opens with a brief string introduction, plotting out the thematic direction to follow, while the bassoon line—no doubt originally intended to be performed by the composer—displays unmistakable virtuosity throughout. The movement is constructed in sonata form, making use of two distinct ideas, the first, a charming melody heard at the start, and the second, ushered in by the cello, cast in a darker realm. The Adagio cantabile, constructed as a simple A-B-A song form, opens with a gracious, extended bassoon melody and is again offset with a plunge into the minor mode. But Devienne won’t remain here for long—he quickly returns to terra firma, the opening material now making room for added bassoon arabesques. The finale again reveals a composer operating squarely within the classical tradition. This is the epitome of the classical rondo—ever elegant, its opening melody returns verbatim, interspersed by contrasting episodes, including a dazzling flurry of virtuosic scales undertaken by the entire ensemble. As much fun to hear as to play, the music winds down with a folksy, sustained drone before its spirited push to the final bar.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1
In 1806, some six years following the composition of the Devienne just discussed, Andrey Razumovsky, a Russian count then serving as his country’s ambassador to Austria in Vienna, commissioned Beethoven to write a series of string quartets. A gifted violinist himself who often took part in chamber music evenings at his estate, Razumovsky understood full well Beethoven’s importance as a composer and that the composer’s livelihood depended on commissions of this sort. At the end of May of that year, Beethoven set to work on the first of what would be his three quartets, Op. 59. By November, the set was complete, three middle-period works that put miles between what the string quartet had been and what it had become. Having commissioned the work, Razumovsky was granted the dedication and thus became ever linked to these majestic compositions.

Eight years later, a good portion of Razumovsky’s magnificent palace burned to the ground. The palace, which overlooked the Danube, was fitted out with an outstanding art collection, a formidable music library and an in-house string quartet, a formidable group of musicians with whom Beethoven had often worked. But on New Year’s Eve of 1814, during a party in celebration of the Congress of Vienna and honoring Tsar Alexander I, a fire broke out in one of the wings. Along with a good portion of the palace and much of the artwork being destroyed, the fire took the livelihood of the musicians with it. The count, who had looked to the progressively minded Beethoven years earlier and had been one of Vienna’s most vibrant personalities, was left a broken man.

The Op. 59 quartets display a marked difference from the composer’s earlier set of six quartets, the Op. 18, which date from the closing years of the 18th century. Those works, while certainly revolutionary, displayed much that placed them squarely in the context of their time, perhaps best compared with the late quartets of Mozart and Haydn. By contrast, those written during Beethoven’s so-called “Heroic” period reveal his musical thought growing and expanding in every conceivable direction—these are emotionally, harmonically and technically demanding works, robust compositions written not for amateur players, but intended for professional performers. While still relying on the essence of classical forms, Beethoven infuses his scores with a heightened level of emotional subjectivity, evident in their explosive power and poignancy. In so doing, he likewise made unprecedented demands on his listeners, who were now confronted with intense chamber works lasting some 40 minutes each.

Even the very first bar of the opening Allegro reveals that Beethoven has something completely revolutionary in mind here: the cellist ushers in the melody, a highly unusual gambit that essentially turned classical expectation on its head. The music quickly builds in intensity, giving way to a transitional idea whose essence is largely rhythmic. A longer, more luxurious idea follows, brought first by the violins, then viola and cello together. This movement is truly a world unto itself, evident in its expansive array of ideas, the wealth of invention that seems to follow its own course, its unexpected shifts of textures and dramatic range of dynamics and its demanding passagework. There is even an expanded fugato at its center, a contrapuntal technique that hearkens back to an earlier era but which Beethoven now invests with romantic power.

Beethoven’s finale actually follows directly on the heels of the deeply moving Adagio (which, along with the Scherzo, are not performed here). The movement opens with a lighthearted theme russe, a Russian melody that Beethoven pulled from a collection of folk melodies, no doubt in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his benefactor. However, its modest beginnings (which again opens with the cello) provide little hint of the drama to follow. The movement moves deftly between a melancholy lightness, evident in the decorative violin trills at the start and its second theme (offered first by the second violin!), and high energy, apparent in the fast and furious offbeat passagework found at the close of the exposition. The start of Beethoven’s development is easily recognizable— it opens with and immediately explores the Russian theme (though in far removed tonal terrain) and is followed in due course by the offbeat passagework. Beethoven’s transition to his recapitulation, however, is a far more subtle affair and you may not even know you’ve arrived until the cello delivers its plaintive second theme. Beethoven sets up his coda with theatrical flair—two grandly flamboyant cadences mark the moment—but is then followed with still further development of the Russian theme! As the movement finally reaches closure, the mood turns peaceful and resigned, until a final burst of energy drives the quartet to its triumphant final chords.


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Six Studies in English Folk Song
Vaughan Williams was among those composers at the start of the 20th century who sought to distance themselves from the mainstream Germanic tradition, in particular the music of Wagner (and even Brahms) that had pulled most of Europe’s foremost composers into its orbit. To be sure, Vaughan Williams’ musical training was rather traditional. His teachers, among them the gifted composer Charles Stanford (whose lush, romantic scores have sadly been all but forgotten), were themselves products of the Wagnerian thread that wound itself through much of the second half of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, relations between the progressive-minded Vaughan Williams and Stanford, a staunch conservative, were less than ideal and ultimately Vaughan Williams went his own way. His path eventually led to the countryside. Long interested in folk music and fearing the results of industrialization, in the early years of the century Vaughan Williams began traveling into the country with a pencil and paper, collecting and notating what he heard. With time he amassed in excess of 800 folk songs, thus preserving a native heritage while also providing source material for a personal style.

Unlike some composers, who sought to imitate the folk style, Vaughan Williams frequently quoted the actual songs outright. His composition Six Studies in English Folk Song, from 1926, sprang directly from this approach. Scored originally for cello and piano, the architecture for each of its brief seven songs is principally the same: the folk song is rendered at the start, sometimes with a bar or two introduction, and is then repeated in the accompaniment, to which the soloist offers imaginative, attractive ornamentation. The tempo of each is slow, save the last. Throughout, one can fully appreciate the composer’s love for the music of the English countryside, which the composer brings to life within a wholly unique, highly attractive idiom. In setting these songs, Vaughan Williams, who composed the work expressly for May Mukle, among the first women cellists to gain an international reputation, asked simply that they be “treated with love.” They have since been transcribed for various combinations of instruments, including the version for bassoon and strings heard here, as arranged by Alan Hawkins.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op.11
When we think of Tchaikovsky, usually his romantic symphonic works come to mind—the famous “Pathetique” Symphony and universally recognizable First Piano Concerto, to name two. But the composer who was drawn to larger-than-life ideas also understood the allure of intimate chamber music, evident in his masterful and brooding A minor Piano Trio and his flamboyant String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence. The D major Quartet was composed in 1871, while its composer was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Hoping to add to his meager salary, Tchaikovsky sought to raise money and awareness of his music by holding a benefit concert, an affair commonly undertaken by 19th century musicians (in the case of the string quartet, this was as much a pragmatic decision as creative, since paying just four musicians appears to have been within the composer’s modest budget). Though the quartet was composed just weeks earlier, the concert proved a tremendous success.

Tchaikovsky opens his quartet’s second movement, marked Andante cantabile, with a Ukrainian folk song that reflects on love by way of a drunken peasant. This opening theme, which has something hymnal about it, is vintage Tchaikovsky—romantic, nostalgic and sentimental—and became an instant hit. No less than Tolstoy was moved to tears upon hearing it, as the composer himself later related in his diary: “Never in my life have I felt so flattered and proud of my creative ability as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting next to me, heard my andante with tears coursing down his cheeks.” Its second idea, played over a pizzicato accompaniment, is no less effective and if Tchaikovsky was ever said to wear his heart on his sleeve, he did so here. The Allegro-giusto finale, is likewise imbued with the flavor of the Russian folk, but its ideas are placed within a far more complex and arguably alluring framework. Indeed, this highly crafted movement features an ever-changing array of textures, from chordal writing for the entire ensemble to deft counterpoint, with a rich exchange of material through and through. If the conclusion feels somewhat overly dramatic, particularly in light of the sophisticated writing that preceded it, one can hardly fault its composer, whose comprehension of the medium, with its seemingly inexhaustible expressive possibilities, are masterfully exploited in this, Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet.


Anton Reicha (1770-1836): Variations for Bassoon and String Quartet
Czech-born Anton Reicha was among those musicians known to Beethoven already in his youth. Anton ran away from home at the age of 10 and was raised by his paternal uncle, Josef; when the latter moved to Bonn, young Anton took up a position there with the electoral orchestra, the court orchestra that counted Beethoven among its members, playing viola. As a consequence of Europe’s changing, and sometimes threatening political climate, Reicha moved first to Hamburg, then to Vienna and finally to Paris, where he lived out his career as a professor of the Conservatoire (his students included a young Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz!). A prolific composer (he actually harbored very progressive musical ideas, such as polyrhythm and microtonality, techniques centuries ahead of his time), Reicha absorbed influences wherever he lived. While he composed in a variety of genres, his wind quintets remain his best-known and most important compositions.

The Quintet for Bassoon and String Quartet opens with mock seriousness, a solemn sustained G setting the tenor for the introduction to follow. But a brief bassoon cadenza spins its way upward into the Allegro, and we’re off with a jaunty, charming theme, pregnant with ideas for a series of variations. Reicha’s intentions are clear from the first variation. This is a showpiece for the bassoon; the quartet is there for support. This is evident in the pizzicato second variation, which underscores the bassoon’s syncopated lines, or subsequent variations that exploit the wind player’s virtuosity and breath control. Still, Reicha’s high level of craftsmanship and his understanding of pacing and architecture is readily apparent even in one of the composer’s less serious compositions.

(c) Marc Moskovitz