Thursday, February 24, 2022

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 3 In C Minor, Opus 60 'Werther'

In 1853 when Johannes Brahms was 19, he made a concert tour as accompanist to the violinist Eduard Reményi. On the tour he met Franz Liszt (where tradition has it that he fell asleep while Liszt played the piano) and Joseph Joachim, violinist and composer. Joachim became a good friend  and gave Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann. Later in 1853 Brahms traveled to Düsseldorf and proceeded to impress and enchant both Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.

Brahms stayed with the Schumann's for a few days, and Robert was so impressed with the music he heard from the young composer that he wrote an article for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music) announcing Brahms to the musical world. The article titled Neue Bahnen (New Paths) begins with Schumann writing briefly about new and upcoming composers until he reveals the name of Brahms:
Robert and Clara Schumann
...I thought of the paths of these chosen ones that pursued the art of music with the greatest participation, there must suddenly appear one who would be appointed to utter the highest expression of time ideally, one who did not bring us the championship gradually, but, like Minerva, would spring from the head of Zeus fully formed. And he has come, a young blood, at whose cradle Graces and Heroes stood guard. His name is Johannes Brahms... His  appearance  announced to us: this is an anointed one. Sitting at the piano he revealed wonderful regions. We were drawn into ever widening circles, which made an orchestra of wailing and loud cheering voices from the piano. There were sonatas, more like veiled symphonies; songs whose poetry you without knowing the words would understand, although a deep singing melody passed through all; single piano pieces, partly demonic, partly of the most graceful form; then sonatas for Violin and piano; Quartets for strings; and each so different from the others... May the highest Genius strengthen his genius!
High praise that did as much harm as good, for it put undue pressure on a 20-year old composer that
was still finding his way. Brahms was self-critical by nature, and this passing of the mantle made him even more so.

When Schumann attempted suicide in early 1854, he voluntarily had himself put into a mental hospital for Clara and his children's sake. Brahms lived in the Schumann household intermittently from that time until Schumann's death in 1856. During this time he wrote two piano quartets, No. 1  In G minor opus 25,  and No. 2 In A Major opus 26.  He also drafted a third piano quartet in C-sharp minor, but this one wasn't to achieve its final form until almost twenty years later.

Young Werther
After revising and rewriting, the third piano quartet was finally completed in 1874. The home key of the work was dropped to C minor from C-sharp minor with the quartet becoming one of Brahms most dramatic chamber works. The nickname 'Werther' came from Brahms acquaintance with Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther that deals with a young man that falls in love with a woman that is already married, and so Werther commits suicide. The parallels in Brahms' life in 1855 when the work was begun are evident, for he fell in love with Clara Schumann at the time. There is no clue whether this love remained platonic or became intimate, but Brahms well remembered the feelings he had in 1855 when he told his publisher his idea for a cover page for the printed score of the piano quartet:
On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose.
 Brahms remained somewhat dissatisfied with the work as it didn't have its premiere until 1875, a year after it was published. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - Brahms was labeled as a musical conservative by the followers of the 'New Music' of Liszt and Wagner for a number of reasons, not least of all for his keeping with tradition by writing in the traditional forms of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The writing of chamber music especially was considered old fashioned. But Brahms was did not slavishly keep to an academic model of these forms. He utilized sonata form in the broadest sense of the term, and was innovative in ways to use it. It is never an easy task to technically make your way through a major work of Brahms. The relationships of themes are often blurred as themes appear different that are actually closely related. And his use of modulation between keys is far from conservative. The first movement of this quartet is a good example of how he used all of these elements within a traditional form to suit his musical expression. This movement was one of the original two movement he wrote in 1855 for the quartet. It begins with octaves by the piano which are answered by a sighing figure. The piano again plays bare octaves, and is answered with a slight variant of the sighing theme. A short development leads to a downward figure that brings in the first theme. The second theme is first heard in the solo piano, after which there are 4 variations, each eight measures long like the theme. A variant of the first theme brings the exposition to a close. After a short section based on previous material, what appears to be a new theme in B major is loudly stated:
This theme is stated again in a different key and leads to the working out of the second theme which goes through a short series of variations once again. The sighing motives from the beginning of the work return signalling the recapitulation, this time the opening theme is heard in the key of E minor. The second theme is now heard in the key of G major and goes through a small number of variations for the third time. The first theme is then developed until it ends in C major. A short coda repeats the figures with slight variations that opened the movement, and the music ends quietly.

II. Scherzo: Allegro - This movement was perhaps composed in the 1860's, between the initial composition of the work and the final version. It is in C minor, the same key as the first movement. The music is terse and coarse as the scherzo plays through until a quasi-trio section begins with a new theme but continues in the same mood. The scherzo returns and is slightly shortened. A short coda brings the movement to a close with a Picardy Third, a term for the closing of a work in a minor mode with a major chord:
III. Andante - This movement along with the first movement is part of the music of the draft written in 1855. It is in E major, a key of four sharps that is somewhat far removed from the home key of C minor with 3 flats. It is the only movement of the quartet not in C minor. It begins with a long, sweet melody for the cello (an instrument that Brahms studied briefly in his youth) with piano accompaniment:
The piano's role in this movement is one of gentle support as the strings sing a song of tender calm, a possible love song for Clara Schumann.

IV. Finale: Allegro comodo - The final movement returns to C minor and the piano plays a restless theme under the theme played by the violin:
The second theme is derived from the piano accompaniment of the opening theme of the movement and is played by violin and viola. The exposition is repeated. After the development works through themes and relationships of fragments, the recapitulation replays the violin theme of the beginning in all three stringed instruments with broken octaves in the piano. Themes are expanded until a coda is heralded by the piano playing thick chords in an outline of the second theme. The piano resumes its initial figure in a hushed tone along with the strings until two loud C major chords end the work.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Tchaikovsky - Romeo And Juliet Overture - Fantasy

William Shakespeare's plays have inspired many composers, especially in the Romantic era. Over 20 operas
have been written based on the play, some ballets (most notably by Prokofiev), a dramatic symphony by Berlioz and the modern adaptation West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein.  Perhaps the most
well-known work based on a Shakespeare play is the Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy by Tchaikovsky.

The piece was written by Tchaikovsky when he was 28 years old in 1869 while he was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. It was written at the suggestion of Mily Balakirev, the leader of the group of Russian nationalistic composers called The Five. Tchaikovsky had already written his first symphony and a symphonic poem and complained that he was already burned out, but Balakirev pestered him until he began work on it. Balakirev gave him some advice on technical matters of form and critiqued the first version of the work. 

The second version of the work was not an immediate success. It was even hissed the first time it was played in Vienna. But The Five composers embraced the work, even though Tchaikovsky was not considered in their group. About ten years after the premiere of the second version Tchaikovsky revised it again, changed the ending and added Overture - Fantasy to the title. It is this third version that is played in concerts. 

Shakespeare based Romeo And Juliet on a story from Italy written in the middle of the 16th century, but the theme of tragic romance goes back way before the 16th century. Shakespeare fleshed out the story by adding characters and expanding the plot. A short synopsis:
The story is set in Verona, and revolves around the conflicts between two families that are sworn enemies, the Montagues and Capulets.  Romeo is the son of the patriarch of the Montagues, and he attends a ball given by the Capulets to try and meet a woman that he is attracted to, but he meets Juliet instead at the ball and falls in love with her. They meet after the ball (the famous balcony scene) and agree to marry despite their families' mutual hatred. With the help of Friar Laurence they are married the next day. Trouble brews and lives are taken after a fight between supporters of the families. Romeo is banished from Verona, and as Romeo and Juliet's marriage is a secret, Juliet is betrothed to another. Romeo steals away and spends the night with Juliet.  Juliet's family tries to force her to marry another, and Juliet goes to Friar Laurence for help. He gives her a potion that will make it appear as if she is dead and promises to send word to Romeo about the plan. Romeo returns to Juliet's chamber but he wasn't informed of the potion and thinks her dead. He gets poison and goes to the crypt where Juliet lays. The other to whom Juliet was betrothed is in the crypt mourning her death, Romeo kills him and drinks the poison. After Romeo dies Juliet awakens from her potion-induced sleep, sees that Romeo has killed himself, so she kills herself with Romeo's dagger. Members from the two families find all three of them dead in the crypt, and realizing the tragedy their family feud has caused, reconcile with one another. 
The play itself has many side plots and Shakespeare combines some comic scenes with the dramatic and
tragic to keep a steady build-up to the climax of the play. Tchaikovsky uses dramatic and tragic elements of the play to construct his Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy.

The work is a tone poem written in sonata form. The opening of the work is an introduction based on the character Friar Laurence.  Friar Laurence is a man of the church, in Verona no doubt it is the Catholic church, but Tchaikovsky, a Russian,  gives the introduction the solemn tones of a Russian orthodox chant! The next theme is one of agitation and drama as it represents the warring Montague and Capulet families, with cymbal clashes symbolizing the clanking together of swords. The next theme is one of soaring passion and beauty, the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. These three themes make up the exposition of the piece.

In the next section of the piece only the themes are developed. After the development, the themes return and move towards a representation by cymbal clashes of the suicides of the lovers. An epilogue with a steady pattern of timpani taps underscores a beautiful reminiscence of the lovers by the woodwinds, the love theme enters one last time and the work ends with a loud climax by the orchestra.