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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Beethoven: Sextet in E-flat major for Two Horns and Strings, Opus 81b

Taneyev: Quartet in E major for Piano and Strings, Opus 20

Mozart: Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581


Beethoven: Sextet in E-flat major for Two Horns and Strings, Opus 81b

THE BACKSTORY In 1792, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), an orchestral violist and accomplished pianist, moved from his native Bonn to the heady musical capital of Vienna. He had a few connections there. He had visited for perhaps two weeks in 1787, when he may have taken lessons from Wolfgang Amadè Mozart. He had met Franz Joseph Haydn, too, when that distinguished composer touched down for a stopover in Bonn on his way to (or perhaps from) London in 1791 and pronounced the young Beethoven a talent worth watching. Mozart died in 1791, just before Beethoven undertook his move, but Haydn was enjoying an active retirement and Beethoven signed up for composition lessons with that eminent master. It was not a greatly profitable teacher-student relationship. When Haydn left for another tour of England, Beethoven embarked on more influential lessons from the academically inclined Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and also received coaching from the Viennese Imperial Capellmeister Antonio Salieri.

The 1790s represented indispensable student years for Beethoven, and, after the manner of judicious journeymen, he studied and copied the best masters. One of the models he emulated was Mozart, and during the 1790s he produced several sets of variations for a range of instrumental combinations, based on melodies from Mozart operas. In 1796, he saluted Mozart in his Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds (Opus 16), clearly based on Mozart’s Quintet in the same key for the same instruments, and we know that he also copied out by hand at least two of Mozart’s string quartets.

Beethoven composed a lot of chamber music during his first decade in Vienna. His first published pieces, in fact, were his three Piano Trios (Opus 1) of 1791-92, and before the decade was up his chamber music catalogue increased by other pieces that remain in the working repertory today: the Serenade for String Trio (Opus 8), the three String Trios (Opus 9), and the Clarinet Trio (Opus 11). In addition, he composed his enormously popular Septet (Opus 20) in 1799-1800, while he was working on his first set of Six String Quartets (Opus 18). But those are just his published works from that time. He also produced many pieces that weren’t published until considerably later.

One was his Sextet in E-flat major (Opus 81b) for two horns and string quartet. Beethoven wrote it in 1794-95, but it wasn’t published until 1810 (by the firm of Nicolaus Simrock), which is when it was assigned its deceptively out-of-order opus number. Simrock also hailed from Bonn, where he had played horn in the Elector’s orchestra (the one in which Beethoven had played viola), and he was a friend of the Beethoven family from early on.

THE MUSIC There is little doubt that Beethoven wrote this piece, with its prominent and difficult horn parts, expressly for Simrock. Years later, he mentioned in a letter to Simrock’s son, “Your father will probably still remember how I asked him about certain notes on the horn, and will notice that the former pupil now gives his master some hard nuts to crack.”

The horn parts are indeed challenging—especially when we recall that the horns of Beethoven’s day had no valves, but rather consisted merely of coiled tubes of notoriously unstable acoustical character. Pitches could be altered principally by subtle changes in the player’s embouchure (a fancy word for the mouth muscles and lips). This is not a deep piece, and it reveals nary a glimpse of the Beethoven that would leave Berlioz, Liszt, and their friends gasping. But the longest journey begins with a single step, and for Beethoven that first step was learning how to write music like a proper Viennese Classical composer.

Taneyev: Quartet in E major for Piano and Strings, Opus 20

THE BACKSTORY Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) was not quite ten years old when he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1875, the first recipient of the school’s Great Gold Medal. A piano pupil of Nicolai Rubinstein, he had made his official debut as a concert pianist four months earlier, in Brahms’s D minor Concerto, and seven months later he was the soloist for the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Tchaikovsky was one of his principal composition teachers at the Conservatory, and Taneyev served as soloist for the Russian premieres of every one of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. The two remained close friends until Tchaikovsky’s death, with the student serving as a critical but trusted sounding-board for his self-doubting teacher.      

When Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory’s faculty in 1878, Taneyev replaced him as teacher of harmony and orchestration. He later added counterpoint, fugue, musical form, and piano to his teaching duties and served as the Conservatory’s director from 1885 to 1889. The list of his pupils reads like a roster of the future of Russian music, including such up-and-comers as Reinhold Glière, Alexander Gretchaninov, Nicolai Medtner, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, and Alexander Siloti. Igor Stravinsky was not among them, being pledged to the rival Rimsky-Korsakov camp, but Taneyev did provide advice and encouragement for the young Sergei Prokofiev, although he stopped short of taking him on as a private pupil. Taneyev enrolled for a while at Moscow University, struck up a friendship with the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, spent two summers at the home of Leo Tolstoy (whose wife had a crush on him), and, during his tours as a concert pianist, made the acquaintance of such literary lions as Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. 

Like Tchaikovsky, Taneyev was drawn to the Germanic mainstream of music more than to the overt Russian nationalism of the “Russian Five.” He is understandably viewed as a musical conservative. He was obsessed with early music, particularly with the counterpoint of the Netherlandish masters of the Renaissance, and he authored a two-volume treatise titled Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style, produced over some twenty years. (An unfinished sequel on canon and fugue was edited and published posthumously.) In his symphonic works, he usually limited his orchestration to an ensemble of Mozartian makeup. For much of his career, his greatest devotion was to chamber music, which was highly atypical for Russian composers at that time. He ended up enriching the chamber catalogue with a dozen string quartets (counting some incomplete works) as well as important entries into the repertories of the string quintet, piano trio, piano quartet, and piano quintet.

THE MUSIC The Piano Quartet is the earliest of his chamber pieces using piano, a surprising fact given that it was his own principal instrument as a performer. He was an experienced chamber composer by the time he started on it, in early November 1902, having already completed nine of his string quartets and both of his string quintets. It is a work of ambitious scale, its three movements running between 35 and 40 minutes. The opening Allegro brillante lives up to its name, demanding high power piano technique but also dazzling by way of its constant outpouring of melodic variety and episodes of contrasting character. The movement is cast in a relatively rigorous sonata form, employing two principal themes, as one would expect of such a structure. The musical language seems born of Germany, France, and Russia, as if a hybrid of, say, Schumann, Franck, and Tchaikovsky, plus an occasional breeze from the palm court à la Arensky—an altogether original voice, really.

The work reaches its lyrical peak in the second movement, where the deeply felt melody of the Adagio più tosto largo sections (which open and close the movement) surround a tumultuous Allegro agitato interlude in the middle. The finale has sonata-form tendencies, though freely defined; and Taneyev cannot resist dropping a fugue into the middle of things, worked out in rhapsodic fashion, before concluding with a serene “seraphic” section in which the piano injects tintinnabulations marked quasi campanella (“like a bell”).

Mozart: Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581

THE BACKSTORY Perhaps no piece of chamber music sets so autumnal mood as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet—at least none before Brahms. Nostalgic longing came naturally to Mozart (1756-91), or at least his mode of musical expression; but he rarely vented it so freely, and at such uninterrupted length, as he did in this quintet, a major-key work with a minor-key aftertaste. In fact, Mozart wrote the piece in autumn, at the end of September 1789. The times were tumultuous. England was reeling from the war in America; France was in turmoil, the Bastille having fallen little more than two months earlier; and the rest of Europe was on sharper political pins and needles than usual.

On a personal level, Mozart’s life was also in distress. The novelty of his childhood successes were distant memories and his Viennese public was applauding his piano-playing less loudly than they had just a few years earlier. In July, his wife, Constanze, fell dangerously ill. Her leg became ulcerated, requiring expensive medical attention away from home. While she was gone, Mozart spent much time with his friends. One of his closest was the Austrian clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), who had begun freelancing with the Viennese Imperial Wind Band in 1782 and joined the Vienna Court Orchestra in 1787, accompanying the Mozarts on their trip to Prague that year. Stadler would also be part of the Mozarts’ Prague entourage in 1791, playing in the orchestra at the premiere of La clemenza di Tito, in which the composer spotlighted him through several clarinet obbligatos. Though Stadler’s character has been questioned—some have suggested that he took advantage of the Mozarts’ hospitality, and even that he stole the composer’s pawn tickets—Mozart steadfastly admired him and bestowed on him two of his greatest instrumental masterpieces: his Clarinet Quintet and his Clarinet Concerto. Mozart apparently wrote both pieces for a basset clarinet—essentially, a standard instrument with an extended bass register. It is on such an instrument that Stadler probably played when the work was unveiled in a Christmas concert of Vienna’s Tonkünstler-Societät.

THE MUSIC In the Clarinet Quintet we hear Mozart at his most personal, allowing music to flow from his soul without answering to the terms of a commission or the exigencies of a public. It was written from an overflowing heart and offered as a gift. Mozart indulges himself with spacious pacing and luscious timbre. The themes of the first movement tend toward the wistful, and the slow harmonic rhythm holds in check the vigor of the tempo marking of Allegro. The clarinet’s warm sonority goes hand in hand with the autumnal spirit, the more so since Mozart spends a great deal of time emphasizing the instrument’s rich lower range. Having set the mood with an Allegro that is hardly an Allegro, Mozart turns to the profound soulfulness of the Larghetto, in which the clarinet offers a hushed song supported by the muted quartet of strings. Other Mozart slow movements are introspective, but few make their appearance after an opening movement as relaxed as that of the Clarinet Quintet. Together, the two movements achieve an expanse of rarest poignancy.    

Concerto-like dimensions rule over the third movement, too, a Menuetto with two trios. Despite making efforts to be good-humored, the minuet itself remains bittersweet. The strings reign over the first trio, anxiously, in the minor key; the clarinet joins the ensemble to restate the opening minuet (without repeats), and in the second trio its upturned phrases seem to laugh with only a pathetic, forced smile. The musical aesthetics of Mozart’s time exerted pressure for a happy ending, and Mozart complies with a finale in which six variations are derived from a four-square, folk-inflected theme. All the same, happiness seems rather an interloper, and Mozart allows the viola to inject ominous appoggiaturas (leaning notes) in the minor-key third variation, and the clarinet and violin to exchange final nostalgic memories in the fifth, before closing with polite assurance that the clouds are sure to pass.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.