Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dvořák - String Quintet No. 3 In E-flat Major, Opus 97

Dvořák's String Quintet In E-flat Major was a product of his stay in the United States as the director
of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. During the summer of 1893 he stayed in Spillville, Iowa where there was a community of Czech immigrants.  Dvořák was a man with deep roots in his homeland, and the few months he spent in Spillville helped to aleve some of his homesickness. He wrote a letter to a Czech friend and described Spillvile:
Spillville is a purely Czech settlement, founded by a certain "Bavarian", "German", "Spielmann", who christened the place Spillville. He died four years ago, and in the morning when I went to church, my way took me past his grave and strange thoughts always fill my mind at the sight of it as of the graves of many other Czech countrymen who sleep their last sleep here. These people came to this place about 40 years ago, mostly from the neighbourhood of Pisek, Tabor and Budejovice. All the poorest of the poor, and after great hardships and struggle they are very well off here. I liked to go among the people and they, too, were all fond of me, and especially the grandmas and gran dads were pleased when I played to them in church "God before Thy Majesty" and "A Thousand Times we greet Thee".
It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer's nearest neighbour is often 4 miles off, especially in the farms (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don't meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very "wild" here and sometimes very sad, sad to despair .
He wrote the String Quartet No. 12 In F Major (American) as well as his 3rd String Quintet and other chamber music during his stay in Spillville.  The quintet was first performed in New York City in January of 1894, and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non tanto -  Dvořák's quintet is a viola quintet, that is to say it has an extra viola added to a standard string quartet. The viola was Dvořák's instrument, and the first movement opens with a short theme for solo viola. This theme is picked up by the cello and played in the minor mode. This is all by way of introduction to the actual beginning of the movement with the playing of the first theme by the violin. While  Dvořák was in Spillville, he saw a troupe of Native American Indians that were passing through. He heard their songs and dances and was inspired to use some of the rhythms as in the second 'drum' theme of this movement. The exposition is repeated. The drum rhythm is used in the development section along with the other themes. The recapitulation leads to a coda that has a reference to the material heard in the introduction before the movement ends quietly.

II. Allegro vivo - A solo viola begins the second movement which is in B major. More rhythms reminiscent of drum beats punctuate this scherzo as the themes are played. The trio section is in B minor and is a long, rather sad melody played by the viola.

III. Larghetto - The third movement is a set of variations on two themes, the first in A-flat minor and the second in A-flat major. This double variation movement has 5 variations for each theme with the themes ending the movement in their original form.

IV. Finale. Allegro giusto - The last movement is a rondo filled with attractive melodies and more examples of how American music influenced Dvořák, and no doubt reminded him of his own beloved native music with the common factor in each being the pentatonic scale.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elgar - Piano Quintet In A Minor, Opus 84

Edward Elgar's father was a piano tuner, organist and professional grade violinist. His mother instilled in her son a love of nature and the arts. All of the Elgar children had musical training from local teachers, with Edgar excelling in violin and organ playing.  But in the social class structure of 19th century Victorian era England, the common social standing of Elgar's family didn't help with his desire to become a composer. This combined with the fact that he received very little formal training outside of lessons from local teachers (and none at all in composition) made him feel like an outsider.

After a short time as a clerk in a law office, Elgar resigned and made a living by giving organ and violin lessons as well as being an accompanist and composing. He also took the job as conductor of an attendant's band at a local insane asylum where he gained practical knowledge about other instruments. He became proficient in other instruments as well, and continued to learn his craft as a practicing musician in many venues and performing groups.

Elgar's reputation as a composer began with works for chorus, a favorite music genre in England. He is most well known for his works for orchestra that include two symphonies, a violin concerto, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Pomp And Circumstance Marches (including the ubiquitous trio from March No. 1 that is played at high school commencement ceremonies) and many other works. He was highly regarded in his lifetime by the public as well as other composers. In 1931 Richard Strauss called him the "first progressivist in English music".

He composed chamber works from his earliest years until his old age, and while staying in the country over the summer of 1918 he worked on three of his last works for chamber ensemble; The Violin Sonata in E Minor Opus 82, String Quartet in E Minor Opus 83, and the Piano Quintet in A Minor Opus 84. Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the prominent English music critic and writer Ernest Newman, and after completion of the first movement wrote to the dedicatee:
Your Quintet remains to be completed, the first movement is ready and I want you to hear it, it is strange music. I think I like it-but-it’s ghostly stuff.
The Piano Quintet was premiered in May of 1919. It is the longest chamber work that Elgar composed and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - Allegro - The first movement is in cyclic/sonata form that begins with a strange introduction. There is an often told story of a possible inspiration for this movement that was brought about by a group of twisted and gnarly trees in a park that was near the cottage that Elgar stayed in on his summer vacation of 1918. These trees were said to give off ghostly shadows at night, and one of Elgar's friends related a tale that the trees actually contained the remains of Spanish monks that held unholy ceremonies in the area years before. A far-fetched tale with no basis of truth, for there is no record whatsoever of any Spanish monks ever being in the area. The introduction leads to a quickening of tempo and the first theme, which is derived from the opening introduction. A fragment of the introduction appears and leads to the second theme that is more introspective and quiet. After this plays through, a third theme comes forth that sounds like Victorian salon music, quite a contrast to what has preceded it.  A short repeat of the introduction leads to the development section, a vigorous fugato on the first theme leads to the recapitulation. Themes are reheard, along with the enigmatic introduction at the end of the movement, and as it quietly ends the careful listener discovers that the themes within the movement all grew from the introduction.

II. Adagio - The middle movement has been called the heart of the quintet, and begins with a mellow theme played by the viola. The entire movement is music of nostalgic late Romanticism, but a sense of tragedy and mystery is heard through the sections of slow piano wanderings that are punctuated by tremolo strings. The climax of the movement arrives close to the midway point, after which the music returns to the viola theme as well as the piano and tremolo strings sections. Fragments of themes from the first movement are heard as the adagio slowly draws to a quiet close.

III. Andante - Allegro -  The first movement introduction returns at the beginning of the finale, and leads to a less serious theme that is still attractive to the ear. The piano then introduces another theme, one that is syncopated. The music builds in intensity until the opening movement introduction and other themes are repeated. The main theme of the finale returns and leads to a coda before the music ends in a rousing finish.

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