Monday, December 21, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Trio No. 2 In E Minor, Opus 92

Saint-Saëns is a composer accused by some of superficiality and glibness, but the second piano trio shows the criticism to be unjust.  Gone is the Mendelssohnian early romanticism of his earlier piano trio. The second trio was written in 1892, a time when Saint-Saëns was looked upon as an ultra-conservative, and as such his music was out of fashion and not played very much.  Nonetheless, he continued to compose and even experimented with different musical language.  He lived almost another thirty years after he wrote the second piano trio, and ended his composing career with sonatas for wind instruments (one each for clarinet, oboe, and bassoon) and a few piece for piano and voice, in 1921.

Piano Trio No. 2 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with a theme taken up by violin and cello as the piano plays an agitated accompaniment. A second theme is in E major. The development section expands the themes amid a general feeling of turmoil and passion. The themes return in the recapitulation, after which the agitation of the opening of the movement returns in the coda and after a run from the piano a unique cadence ends the movement.

II. Allegretto - The beginning of the movement gives the impression that it is going to be one of Saint-Saëns' delicate trifles, as a tripping tune in E major and 5/8 time is played.  Contrasting sections in the minor show that the movement is not just gentle salon mood music. The piano has some particularly brilliant music in the contrasting sections. The opening theme has the final say in an emphatic close.

III. Andante con moto - Written in A-flat major, this movement has a lyrical theme that is the basis of the entire movement.

IV. Grazioso, poco allegro - A graceful movement that begins in G major with a waltz-like tune. There is a slight contrasting section, more like an intermezzo.  The interplay between the instruments begins again with the opening theme as the music slows down and ends.

V.  Allegro -  Two themes, the first in E minor and the next in E major, begin the movement. Material is treated contrapuntally on its own before the first theme is integrated into it. The second theme returns and leads to a very rapid version of the first theme and the ending chords.


Friday, December 18, 2020

Mendelssohn - Octet in E-flat Major

The career of many composers is a long road of constant growth, sometimes small, sometimes large, even sometimes a complete change in style. Beethoven's music from the very beginning of his career was different from his contemporaries, but the difference between his first symphony and his ninth, his first string quartet and his sixteenth, are huge.

Mendelssohn almost seems like he was formed a complete composer from a very early age, and his style and complexity of his music didn't change dramatically his entire career. Of course he also didn't live past his 38th year, so no one knows if he would have changed his essentially conservative musical voice later in life. 

The String Octet is from 1825 when Mendelssohn was sixteen years old, and another of his popular compositions, Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream was written a year later. These were far from Mendelssohn's first works as he had written twelve symphonies for strings between the ages of 12-14. The octet  is for a double string quartet; 4 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. Mendelssohn himself left directions for its performance: "This Octet must be played by all instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than usual." That the work was written with this orchestral style is evident from the very opening of the work, and that the work lends itself admirably to transcription for full string orchestra.

The octet is in 4 movements and opens with the first theme directly, played by violin with accompaniment. The first movement is far and away the longest in length, but Mendelssohn's inventiveness and mastery of sonata form keeps things interesting. The second movement is a study in gracefulness tinged with a tad of restlessness. It is the third movement, the scherzo where Mendelssohn shows hos much of a master he really was at only sixteen.  Unlike almost all scherzos that are in 3/4 or triple time and ternary form, this one is in 2/4 time and sonata form. It is a precursor to the Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream written the following year. It is taken at a rapid tempo at a subdued music, the original 'fairy' music of which Mendelssohn is known for. The finale begins as a fugue and also brings back echoes of the scherzo.

Mendelssohn was a musical conservative who tolerated the music of Wagner, Liszt , Berlioz and others of the new school, but he had no admiration of it. He helped found the Leipzig Conservatory which mirrored his own views on music and upheld the conservative tradition. But all of that makes not a hoot of difference as far as his music. It is all well-crafted, inspired, and a delight to the ear.