Brahms & Friends

Katherine McLin, violin
Heather Kufchak, violin
Mary Harris, viola
Marc Moskovitz, cello
Andrew Campbell, piano


Franz Schubert (1797-1828): String Trio in B-flat, D. 471

The musical talent of Vienna native, Franz Schubert, blossomed early and blossomed quickly. But beyond sheer talent, which the composer had in spades, he also had the advantage of a musical household, and early on joined the family quartet as the violist. Still, his father supposed his gifted son would be a schoolteacher like himself and though continuing his musical studies and singing in the choir of the Imperial Seminary, Schubert pursued teacher training. Eventually taking a position at his father’s school, it took but two years to demonstrate just how distasteful Schubert found the profession. Schubert’s musical studies, meanwhile, had continued unabated with Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s nemesis in “Amadeus”), a figure who proved the most influential of Schubert’s teachers.

In 1816 Schubert left his father’s school, determined to make a go of it as a composer. Among his compositions that year was the B-flat String Trio, though only the first movement was seen through to completion (some measures of an incomplete second movement remain extant). While it’s unclear why the composer broke off work on the chamber piece, his completed first movement is a gem, revealing Schubert’s unsurpassed gifts as a melodicist. Marked simply Allegro, the score reflects the more general style composers were then cranking out for publishers (who, in turn, were eager to supply the growing and seemingly insatiable market of house music): the music is easily accessible, charming and not overly demanding for the players; its themes are clear-cut and individual; and the violin carries the majority of the melodic weight, with the viola and cello largely adding structural weight and support. And as tradition would dictate, the first movement is crafted in sonata form, with contrasting themes and a repeat of the exposition. In typical Schubert fashion, however, the development section (following the repeat of the opening exposition) serves as an exploration of harmony—Schubert runs his ideas through an attractive variety of keys rather than actually re-examining his material. That said, one need not hear more than the trio’s opening bars to appreciate Schubert’s exquisite talent. Already at the age of 19, he soared far above the heads of most of his contemporaries.


Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Sonata for Violin and Piano

Copland’s Violin Sonata sprang from the year 1943, a period of great productivity for the composer whose musical voice was becoming increasingly recognized as one of the most important and original in America. Having passed through a period of “intellectual” works, compositions that pushed the envelope beyond what the masses could appreciate, Copland made an about-face, embracing instead the concept of simplification and familiarity. Retooling his musical vocabulary and philosophy, and looking closer to home for musical subjects and sounds, Copland made his work accessible to larger audiences, thereby gaining an increasing following and ever growing measure of support, though to be sure, there were also those who criticized him for “selling out.” Some of his projects were intended for children, such as piano pieces entitled The Young Pioneers; others, painted on broad canvases, were intended for large audiences, such as his symphonic work El Sálon México and the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Incorporating a more accessible style and honing the concept of an American sound, Copland sought to transmit the idea of wide-open spaces. This he accomplished in a variety of ways, including a reliance on open sonorities and a free or expansive use of time and meter. On the other hand, by drawing on simple repetitive rhythms and dance patterns, he was able to convey life on the plains or in the mountains, whether rugged or joyous.

Copland left the following description of his Violin Sonata:

There are three movements — moderate tempo, slow, and fast. The last two are played without pause. The first movement alternates in mood between a tender lyricism and a more rapidly paced section. The slow movement is bare in outline and poetic in nature. The finale combines light and bouncy material with sections that are more serious in tone. The Sonata ends with a short coda that makes reference to the theme of the opening movement.

Rather than say too much, the composer’s restricted prose suggests that he preferred to let his music speak for itself. Still, it may also be helpful to point out a few distinguishing characteristics of this twenty-minute work. First, for those more familiar with the composer’s larger scores, such as Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring, the language of his Sonata for Violin may come off as austere. Indeed, its textures are lean and its vocabulary rather neo-classical at times, such as those passages of canonic interplay found in all three movements. And, of course, the composer is working within the rather limited confines of a duo, as opposed to the seemingly endless varieties of color and volume an orchestra can provide. Nevertheless, though straddling the fence between his progressive and more accessible styles, in some crucial ways Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is cut from the same cloth as his more recognized works. In particular, his avoidance of thick chords and his reliance on “open” intervals—that is, broadening the distance between various notes or groups of notes—is plainly evident in the textures of the sonata’s gentle opening. Here, both instruments offer a relaxed conversation, their wide leaps and “open” intervals pivoting back and forth without any real direction, but rather serving to project a sense of open space and quiet grandeur.

There is another aspect of this music that is easily overlooked but unmistakable: Copland appears to be making a conscious attempt to distance himself from the western Classical tradition. Thus, rather than incorporating evolving themes and goal-directed harmony, features fundamental to Western composers, Copland’s score is built on small gestures, tight-knit and repetitive ideas that exist for their own sake. And while his language is harmonically diatonic (that is, grounded in tonality), Copland’s chord choices, like his melodic gestures, are unconventional and even ambiguous. In other words, his ideas exist independent of any expected musical “logic.” Indeed, as with “Impressionism,” choices are made based on the desired effect and color, rather than being determined by the “rules” of composition that have governed the Western musical tradition for centuries. This improvisatory quality can be challenging for those accustomed to more “classical” rhetoric of Schubert and Brahms, with its sharply defined themes and exciting harmonic pull. Copland’s sonata, by contrast, remains steadfast and grounded. Whether reflective or energetic, the Violin Sonata operates on its own terms, offering its listeners a refreshing sense of tenderness and reflection.


Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960): Theme and Variations and Rondo from the String Serenade in C Major, Op. 10

The son of a doctor and amateur cellist, the Hungarian Dohnányi Ernő, or Ernst von Dohnányi, his adopted German name, began his musical studies at home before pursuing studies at the Budapest Academy. His brilliant musical gifts led to his graduating before his studies were officially complete, with high marks in composition and piano. Piano debuts in Berlin and Vienna launched his solo career, bringing international notoriety and leading to engagements in America, where he eventually came to live and work (Florida State University). As a composer, Dohnányi shows the unmistakable influence of Brahms and indeed Brahms once championed the younger man’s music in Vienna. But despite being keenly aware of cutting edge musical developments of the new century, from nationalism to atonality, Dohnányi steered his own course. He remained a musical conservative, honing a personal style imbued with the late romantic idiom common to the waning years of the 19th century, while occasionally also finding inspiration in the music of his native Hungary.

The C major String Serenade was a product of the year 1902, composed during a concert tour of London and Vienna. Cast as a five-movement serenade recalling the early classical period, Dohnányi’s trio actually follows in the serenade tradition practiced by Brahms and his Viennese colleague Robert Fuchs. In contrast to the Schubert trio heard earlier, Dohnányi’s Serenade clearly calls for a much more integrated ensemble—this is truly music for three separate but equal players dividing up the melodic and harmonic labor. Dohnányi’s Theme and Variations beautifully reflect the composer’s sure and inventive hand. The choral-like theme is followed by a series of variations that encase the opening in a richly alluring variety of textures and tempos, including the highly evocative final variation, a shimmering Adagio suggestive of Brahmsian warmth. The spitfire Rondo finale is launched by two quick chords that serve to anchor the movement as a whole. In between Dohnányi moves dexterously through a constantly evolving harmonic landscape and nearly moto perpetuo sixteenths. The introduction of the folksy Magyar melody is actually drawn from the Serenade’s first movement, as Dohnányi allows for a brief connection to the work’s opening, before dropping the curtain with a solitary, triumphant C major chord.


Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34

The years surrounding 1862 proved pivotal ones for the German-born pianist and composer Johannes Brahms. His friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, had died six years earlier and Brahms’ relationship to Robert’s widow, Clara, a formidable pianist and composer in her own right, now ripened from infatuation to one of deep, undying friendship. Brahms had also cemented another important friendship with the violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim. And as will be seen, both Clara and Joachim exerted critical influence on Brahms’ music. Brahms’ romantic history with soprano Agathe von Siebold, his “last love,” had also come to an end when their brief engagement was broken off. And then, in 1862, a hoped-for conducting post in Brahms’ native Hamburg fell through, confirming that it was time to leave home. Brahms headed for Vienna and for all intents and purposes, he never left. He surrounded himself with a notable circle of musical friends, conducted the Vienna Singakademie and most importantly, turned to composing full time (until now he had supported himself largely as a touring pianist). Indeed, the time needed for composition soon convinced Brahms to resign his conducting post. Among his projects of 1862 was a quintet for two cellos, music that drew inspiration from one of Franz Schubert’s final chamber works and which was gradually transformed into the composition you will hear today.

Perhaps no other work of Johannes Brahms offers a better testament to the composer’s genius, his critical judgment about his own work or his willingness to accept the criticism of his trusted colleagues. Joachim, whose judgment he valued highly, weighed in early, deeming the dark tenor of Brahms’ cello quintet composition too hefty for strings alone. At the violinist’s suggestion, Brahms refashioned it as a work for two pianos, destroying the original score in the process (sadly, an all-too-common trait of the self-critical Brahms). Though Brahms remained very partial to the duo and even saw this latter version through to publication, Clara Schumann’s advice was that he return to his workshop:

The work is splendid, but…is so full of ideas that it requires an orchestra for its interpretation. These ideas are for the most part lost on the piano. The first time I tried the work I had a feeling that it was an arrangement… So please remodel it once more!

The solution was a combination of both forces, a work that could draw on the sustaining power and emotional depth that a family of strings could deliver while exploiting the full potential and physical power of the modern piano, an instrument Brahms understood as well as anyone.

Thus, what finally emerged in 1864 as the Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings, arguably the “crown jewel” of Brahms’ chamber music, had traveled a circuitous path. By now Brahms had a number of significant compositions to his credit, including a great deal of chamber music, songs and orchestral works (although given the tall shadow that Beethoven cast over the thirty-one-year-old composer, Brahms wouldn’t deem himself ready to compose a symphony for another decade). Nevertheless, the quintet reveals a composer already at the height of his powers, as measured not only by the brilliance with which he integrates the five instruments but the score’s organic musical content as well. Curiously, one of the most powerful features found in this titanic score is also the smallest: the distance of a half step, known to musicians as a semi-tone. This interval is the smallest distance possible on the piano, as exists for example, between a white key and its black-key neighbor. This semi-tone is fundamental to the emotional intensity of many of the quintet’s melodies and indeed plays a critical role in the questioning theme heard at the very start of the Allegro non troppo (played in unison by the entire ensemble). Following the first cadence, the score explodes with a compressed version of this opening idea, an answer of sorts that in turn leads to a fully re-orchestrated (and indeed “orchestral”) statement of the opening theme, offering a supreme example of Brahms’ power of invention. The tenor of the movement is thus fully established and matters can now move ahead accordingly. Listen how Brahms continuously and miraculously finds the means to produce textures and colors of orchestral proportions and conveys an immense emotional landscape with but five performers. This is nowhere more evident than in the Allegro’s coda: having recapitulated in a peaceful F major, Brahms cuts matters short and seizing upon his opening idea, shatters the tranquility with a thunderous return to F minor.

The slow movement, marked Andante, un poco Adagio (a somewhat slow walking pace), captures Brahms at both his melodic and emotional best. Clara, upon hearing this music, marveled at how “rapturously it sings and rings from beginning to end!” Though it possesses moments of intensity, a broad lyricism dominates this nine-minute nocturne. Projecting incredible sweetness and youthful passion, its atmosphere also offers, in the words of biographer Jan Swafford, a welcome “retreat from the surging passion and grim determination of the first.” The cello’s ominous open C string pizzicatos set the tone for the C minor Scherzo that follows, an explosive movement that gains as much power from its syncopated writing as for its contrasts. Cast as a “traditional” A-B-A Scherzo, the movement’s outer portions possess a demonic quality on account of its quick offbeat interjections and syncopations, the latter evident in the ascending violin lines near the movement’s start. This is offset by a secondary theme in C major, whose spirit and key completely, if temporarily, nullifies the demonic C minor atmosphere of the opening. Brahms scores the contrasting trio (middle-section) in C major as well, though its ebullient character literally remains underscored by the agitated rhythms of the opening. Take note of the movement’s final bars, where we clearly hear Brahms incessant use of the interval of the minor second discussed earlier; he is here tipping his hat to Schubert, who made such poignant use of that very interval at the close of his own cello quintet, among the last works to flow from his pen.

The pathetic, eerie strains of the Finale’s slow introduction again remind us of the intense fabric with which this quintet is woven, while its sustained quality reminds us why Brahms needed strings in the mix. The desolate opening gives way to an Allegro non troppo, offering great emotional breadth and incorporating ideas noble (opening, rising cello theme) and resigned, and perhaps even a bit humorous. Yet all the while, Brahms resolutely denies us any confirming harmonic motion to the “hopeful” major mode, opting instead to instill the quintet from start to finish with brooding intensity. With his coda, Brahms offers up the final masterstroke: having allowed a sense of tranquility to temper the stormy atmosphere, he now slips into overdrive. The 6/8 Presto begins calmly enough, with a rocking string gesture drawn from the cello’s noble theme (again, one of the many instances of the work’s organic nature), until the ensemble’s racing downward scale unleashes a tempestuous drive to the end, the final bars providing an unapologetically dark and turbulent conclusion to the quintet’s opening query.

© Marc Moskovitz