Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
from Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58 (1843)
Matt Haimovitz, cello / Clara Bellegarde,harp
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1 (1803)
Adagio molto espressivo
Allegretto con variaziono
Cho-Liang Lin, violin / Mari Kodama, piano
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Cello Sonata in D Minor (1915)
Prologue: Lent, sostenuto e molto risoluto
Sérénade: Modérément animé
Finale: Animé, léger et nerveux
Matt Haimovitz, cello / Mari Kodama, piano
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (The Trout) (1819)
Andantino – Allegretto
Veronika Eberle, violin / Naoko Shimizu, viola
Matt Haimovitz, cello / Edicson Ruiz, bass
Karin Kei Nagano, piano
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58 (1839)
Despite being one of the leading musical figures in the powerful rising tide of German Romanticism, Mendelssohn was at heart a classicist. His close study of Bach (whose cultural revival he helped mount), Mozart, and Beethoven left an inescapable mark on his work as a composer. Yet Mendelssohn was also fully steeped in the rapidly expanding harmonic language of his day. Like Bach before him, Mendelssohn sought in his own music to renew the great achievements of the past and unite them with the expressive ethos of the present.
This interplay between formal tradition and harmonic innovation is at the heart of the Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 58. The sonata was composed in early 1843, a pivotal year in Mendelssohn’s life. In addition to his continuing duties as music director of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mendelssohn was also beginning service as music director for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s newly-minted Academy of Arts in Berlin. That same year also saw the opening of the Leipzig Conservatory, which Mendelssohn founded with his friend and colleague Robert Schumann and packed with an A-list faculty.
Despite so many professional demands, Mendelssohn’s compositional output hardly suffered. In addition to the Second Cello Sonata, he also composed the Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54, and the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61. The Cello Sonata is set in a four-movement form, and is dedicated to Count Mateusz Wielhorski, a Polish-Russian aristocrat and arts patron. Despite the dedication, Mendelssohn gave the premiere of the work in private with his brother Paul, a supremely accomplished amateur cellist.
The third movement, marked Adagio, is an overt homage to the chorales and recitatives of Bach. The movement begins with a long passage for piano alone, after which the cello enters with an expressive, recitative-like melodic line. These two elements are then combined in an understated yet deeply moving demonstration of Mendelssohn’s flawless compositional technique.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30 No. 1 (1802)
Please see “Beethoven” note from Concert 1.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Cello Sonata in D Minor, L. 135 (1915)
If Debussy’s revolutionary status in Western music history is so unique, it is surely because his training—eleven years from the age of ten—at the Paris Conservatoire was so complete. Ever since the time of Louis XVI, who had exacted total control over nearly every aspect of society, French training in the arts was highly institutionalized. Though Debussy submitted to his courses in counterpoint, harmony, and analysis with reluctance he was nonetheless an excellent student. In 1884 he won first prize in the Conservatoire’s annual Prix de Rome, and spent the next two years studying at the French Academy in Rome. Upon his return, Debussy firmly established his independence from the Conservatoire by refusing to compose an overture for the de rigueur performance of the works he composed during his years abroad, forcing a cancellation of the entire concert. Soon thereafter Debussy encountered gamelan music at the World Exhibition in Paris. This discovery had monumental consequences on the composer’s style.
At the end of his career, Debussy looked to the past for inspiration and guidance. His health was declining (he would be diagnosed with cancer in December of 1915), and his beloved country was engulfed in the brutality of the First World War. In this time of existential crisis, Debussy’s thoughts turned to the essence of his musical and aesthetic values. He contemplated a “return to pure music and traditional forms,” and began to plan a series of “six sonates pour divers instruments.” Of the six sonatas, only three were completed. The Cello Sonata was the first, and was soon followed by the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. The third sonata in the set, for violin and piano, was the last completed before Debussy’s illness rendered him unable to work.
While the aim of these sonatas was genuine artistic motivation, it is worth noting their context in light of the war effort. French cultural institutions were enlisted for war propaganda and the result was a de facto cultural ban on anything remotely German. Thus, when Debussy wrote of a return to traditional forms, he meant the French forms of Rameau and Couperin as opposed to those of Brahms or Beethoven. In this way Debussy paid homage to his beloved country as it was being devastated by the war. His late works are an artistic statement utterly devoid of cheap sentiment.
According to one of Debussy’s earliest biographers, the Cello Sonata was “composed without effort.” The work is short, approximately twelve minutes in duration. In its thematic integration of the three movements, the piece is particularly indebted to Couperin; however, its harmonic language is quintessentially Debussy. The composer himself praised “its proportions and its form, which is almost classical in the truest sense of the word.” Though the complete set was to remain unfinished, Debussy’s three sonatas represent a poetic epilogue for one of the most original and influential musical oeuvres ever created.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (“The Trout”) (1829)
Viennese to his fingertips, Schubert grew up in the shadow of Beethoven and Mozart. Musically gifted as a child, he was educated and trained as a choir boy at the Cathedral of Saint Stephen in Vienna. This experience had a profound impact on Schubert. Not only did the choir school provide him with excellent musical training, including study with the renowned pedagogue Antonio Salieri, it forged for him deep friendships that would last the rest of his life.
After leaving school, Schubert led a bohemian life. Undisciplined as a pianist, he never attained the skills necessary of a virtuoso. Although he briefly found work as a school-teacher in his early twenties, he soon quit, instead eking out a living almost exclusively from the sale of his music. Schubert also managed to avoid the typical conventions of domestic life, instead relying on the support of his devoted group of friends. He spent his days composing and his evenings carousing. In essence, he was a prototype for a great many Romantic artists.
Schubert’s greatest musical achievement is his enormous body of art song literature, which became the archetype for nineteenth century German lieder. He began composing songs in his teenage years, and by the age of twenty had set some of his most famous and enduring lied, including “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” “The Erlking,” and “The Trout.” In these early songs, Schubert demonstrated his singular gift for creating piano textures that instantly and perfectly capture the essence of a text.
In 1819, Schubert’s friend Michael Vogl invited him along on summer holiday to the upper Austrian town of Steyr. There Schubert met Sylvester Paumgartner, a mining official and amateur but avid musician. Paumgartner greatly admired “The Trout” and commissioned a piano quintet with the stipulation that one of the movements be a set of variations of the theme. Schubert returned to Vienna in September and began work on the new quintet. Again, at Paumgartner’s request, he took Hummel’s Piano Quintet as a formal model. Yet Schubert’s quintet is much closer in its expressivity and lightness to an eighteenth century divertimento. Biographer Charles Osborne praises the work for its “wealth of melody, its high spirits and charm, and its delightful evocation of the landscape around Steyr, which clearly inspired the composer.”
The quintet is scored for piano with violin, viola, cello, and double bass. By replacing the second violin with a bass, Schubert cleverly frees the upper and middle registers of the piano. The presence of the bass also liberates the cello from its traditional “ground bass” role, giving the instrument greater opportunity for melody.
Following its premiere, the quintet lay in obscurity for ten years. It was not until 1829, the year after Schubert’s death, when the work was finally sold to a publisher by his brother, that the quintet gained recognition beyond the town of Steyr. As was all too often the case, Schubert seems to have been unaware he had composed a work on par with the chamber masterpieces of Beethoven and Mozart.
© 2017 Joseph Stillwell