Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov - String Sextet In A Major

In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered the position of professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music.  He accepted the position although he was still an officer in the Russian Navy and had to teach his classes in uniform. Of more immediate concern was Rimsky-Korsakov's lack of formal musical education. He had already composed works for orchestra that had received glowing reviews, but he composed them by his natural talent and keen ear. He consulted his friend and mentor Pyotr Tchaikovsky who suggested he best get busy studying. Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of these years of study:
I practiced a lot and studied Bach’s oeuvre in particular, appreciating his genius, whereas before when I didn’t know his works well, I was inclined to follow the opinion of Balakirev, who called him a “composition machine”
Rimsky-Korsakov threw himself into a rigid program of self-education and came out of it a master. While he was studying he concentrated on technical exercises and did next to no original composition. After his crash course in theory and counterpoint, he began to compose works for smaller chamber ensembles and in 1876 entered a competition for compositions for chamber ensemble in two categories; works for strings alone and works for piano and one or more instruments. He entered a work in each category; the String Sextet In A Major and the Quintet in B-major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon.

Neither one of his compositions won a prize, although the String Sextet got an honorable mention. The composer set aside the sextet and it was almost forgotten. It was finally published in 1912 after Rimsky-Korsakov's death, but that addition was lost after the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The sextet was reprinted during the soviet era, but went out of print. The work has since been reprinted and is heard on occasion.

The String Sextet is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace - The first movement begins with a theme theme that is solidly in the home key of A major. This theme is passed along the instruments until the next theme begins. This second theme resembles the first in mood, and the exposition gives a feeling of charm and grace.The development section is short and maintains the mood. Rimsky-Korsakov's study of counterpoint is in evidence periodically as themes are played off against each other. A slight repetitive climax leads to the recapitulation as the main theme returns with a more elaborate accompaniment. The movement ends with a short coda.

II. Rondo fugato. Allegretto grazioso - The composer was rather proud of this movement, a six-voiced fugue, along with other contrapuntal sections.

III. Scherzo. Vivace alla saltarello - A saltarello is a fast Italian dance. This one is just that, fast and somewhat furious. The middle section is in contrast as it is slower and has a theme that is treated contrapuntally.

IV. Andante espressivo - The only slow movement in the sextet begins with a mellow theme for the cello. The music proceeds slowly and the tune is highlighted with complex counter melodies and a rich accompaniment as it moves from the cello to violin.

V. Finale. Allegro molto - The instruments bounce a rondo theme back and forth and in unison. Slight slower episodes give way to the rondo theme, and the movement ends with a short coda.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Tchaikovsky - String Quartet No. 3 In E-flat Minor, Opus 30

Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote very little chamber music, only eight pieces in all. An early string quartet and quintet for harp and string quartet went without opus numbers. Of the six numbered compositions there are three string quartets, a work for violin and piano, the In Memory Of A Great Artist piano trio and the Souvenir of Florence string sextet.

All three numbered sring quartets were written between 1871-1876, with the 3rd quartet being written in Paris and Moscow early in 1876. The work was dedicated to Tchaikovsky's friend Ferdinand Laub, who played first violin in the premieres of the first two string quartets. Laub had died suddenly in 1875 at 43 years of age.

The quartet was first played a few weeks after its composition at the home of Nikolai Rubinstein's house (who died in 1881 and was the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's piano trio in 1882). It has 4 movements:

Ferdinand Laub
I. Andante Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - The work begins in a solemn mood with a long introduction that consists of two themes. The initial theme is carried by the first violin with interjections of harmony by the other strings. The next theme also begins on the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment. The theme is then taken up by the cello. The proper beginning of the movement is marked by the playing of a quietly agitated theme. The next theme is more lyrical but remains laced with underlying tension. A short section leads to the development section where the two themes struggle back and forth. The themes change guises as they return for the recapitulation. Material from the introduction returns and the movement quietly ends.

II.  Allegretto vivo e scherzando - After the long and uneasy first movement, the scherzo brings a welcome contrast. The scherzo itself is restless as it bounces notes from instrument to instrument. The middle section highlights a mellow theme played by the viola. The scherzo returns and after a short coda the movement ends quietly.

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto -  Contrast is provided by a third movement that is not only considerably longer than the previous one, but of a lugubrious character as well. Tchaikovsky creates a sullen mood immediately by the playing of a funeral march.
Muted strings played at a relatively loud volume create an other-worldly sound and add to the sadness. This movement is the heart of the quartet, and conveys Tchaikovsky's loss of  friend and colleague Ferdinand Laub. A mellow theme plays after the march and is traded off between violin and cello. The funeral march returns as the first violin plays a lament over it. The mellow theme returns and segues back into the funeral march. As the march plays, the cello intones a repeated B-flat as the march and other materials reappear. The movement ends with all four instruments playing a high pianissimo E-flat minor chord.

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto - A vigorous rondo movement ends the quartet. Themes are reminiscent of Russian folksong, along with a continuation of the overall uneasiness of the previous movements. There is a manic quality to this movement that is halted by the recollection of a fragment of the 1st movement. The manic music picks up where it left off and ends the movement.

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