Chamber Music at the Gunn Theater at the Palace of Legion of Honor, May 13

Chamber Music at the Gunn Theater at the Palace of Legion of Honor 

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 6 in G major for Strings, Opus 101
Brahms: Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major for Strings, Opus 18  

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 6 in G major for Strings, Opus 101

Franz Joseph Haydn’s first keyboard trios date from the early 1760s and his last from 1797. In the course of that time Haydn (1732-1809) produced about forty-five piano trios (the numbers being somewhat disputed due to a handful of lost and questionably authentic works). Fifteen of them date from between 1794 and 1797, placing them within the high tide of his mature mastery. Musical practice developed considerably during those decades, with one salient change being the supplanting of the harpsichord by the piano. During his visits to London, in 1791-92 and 1794-95, Haydn became acquainted with English pianos, which were considerably more robust and extroverted in their sound than were the Viennese instruments he had known previously. His late piano trios seem tailor-made to exploit the strengths of the new English pianos, and their keyboard parts accordingly sparkle perhaps a shade more effusively than do the corresponding parts of his earlier trios.

He wrote his C major Piano Trio (H.XV:27) for the piano virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi. Born in Aachen, she had moved to London and studied piano with Muzio Clementi. Haydn admired her playing so much that he composed at least two (perhaps all three) of his last piano sonatas for her, as well as the three piano trios H.XV:27-29. His Jacob’s Dream, a standalone movement for piano trio, was also unveiled at her home. In May 1795, he served as a witness at her wedding to Gaetano Bartolozzi, a violin- and viola-playing picture dealer and import-export wheeler-dealer whose father, Francesco, had engraved Haydn’s portrait in 1791. (Therese and Gaetano would later separate; their elder daughter became famous as the actress and contralto Madame Vestris.) The sonatas and trios Haydn composed for Therese Jansen Bartolozzi stand at the summit of his keyboard production in terms of requisite virtuosity (including notable specimens of octave playing and hand crossing), creative use of available effects, and harmonic and structural imagination.

The first movement opens with a theme of abrupt vigor, crafted beautifully for the keyboard, and the exposition unrolls busily from there, leading to a development section in which a lugubrious, searching opening leads to a span of strict, finely wrought counterpoint—the corresponding section of his Symphony No. 98 comes to mind—and then is rounded off with the expected recapitulation. But this is no apish recasting of the opening exposition; where the exposition had been rich in deceptive cadences the exposition plunges forward with no such sidesteps.

The central Andante lies in A major, a third below the overarching tonic key of C; thirds-relationships would increasingly interest composers in the generations following Haydn, and one may count this piece (along with several of Haydn’s other piano trios of similar vintage) among the progenitors of this new structural modus, one that was unquestionably passed forward thanks to Haydn’s pupil Ludwig van Beethoven. The movement is cast in a simple A-B-A form, with the “B section” being a violent, minor-key interlude in the midst of the matter and with a little cadenza for the piano popping up near the end. 

For his Finale Haydn serves up one of his irresistible sonata-rondos. In the main theme the music hops from register to register all over the piano’s keyboard. This whirlwind of a movement leaves the performers practically breathless (especially the pianist) and the listeners grinning, if not laughing outright. The piece is filled with humor, sometimes of a gruff sort that points ahead to Beethoven. Among this work’s admirers was no less estimable a personage than Felix Mendelssohn, who played the piano part at a concert on February 22, 1838, and was proud to purvey this “find.” He wrote to his sister, “The people couldn’t get over their astonishment that such a lovely thing could exist, and yet it was published long ago by Breitkopf & Härtel.” Once discovered—or rediscovered—it is not a piece a music lover would want to let go of again. 

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Brahms: Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major for Strings, Opus 18

The term prelude has an ancient and distinguished lineage in the history of French music, reaching back into the Renaissance, when lutenists improvised preludes to verify that the instrument was in tune and to set the key of the ensuing piece in the ears of the listeners. During the Baroque era, preludes became part of the art of keyboard, wind, and string players as well, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, notated preludes often appeared in instructional treatises, where they carried pedagogical import.

When Claude Debussy (1862-1918) came to write his two books of Preludes for the Piano, in the opening years of the twentieth century (Book 1 in 1909-10, Book 2 in 1911-13), he viewed them as small-scale pieces each of which conveyed a single, unified character. Rather than set the scene for another, larger piece, each of these twenty-four preludes is a scene in and of itself. They are, in a sense, preludes to nothing—or at least to nothing provided by the composer. In this sense, they fall into the tradition of piano music defined by such works as Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes, with which they inevitably bear some sort of comparison. Unlike Chopin, Debussy did attach descriptors to his preludes, but he seems to have wanted to both provide them and downplay them. As a result, each prelude is headed by a traditional marking denoting tempo or mood, and the more literary “title” is printed only at the end of the piece, invariably following a three-dot ellipsis, as if it were an afterthought.

In Voiles (Sails—Modéré), we find Debussy reveling in the whole-tone scale, a harmonically ambiguous pattern of notes with which he is particularly associated. When the piece briefly departs from such arrangements, it alights instead on a pentatonic melody—again somewhat alien to the major or minor scales that fuel most of European music. Voiles can translate as either “sails” or “veils,” but in English-speaking lands the former has become more widely attached to this piece. We can easily imagine sails rustling gently in a slight breeze. Debussy, however, advised listeners not to hear his music in overly pictorial terms. “It is not a photograph of the beach or a postcard for August 15,” he wrote, perhaps a bit grumpily.

A Spanish flavor inhabits La Sérénade interrompue (The Interrupted Serenade—Modérément animé), in which the piano-writing evokes the sound of a guitar; indeed, the composer marks it quasi guitarra. Debussy’s Spanish contemporary Manuel de Falla declared it a masterwork and expressed admiration for its “quite Andalusian grace.”

La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair—Très calme et doucement expressif) is a frequently encountered chestnut in Debussy’s catalogue. Early in his career he had composed a song with the same title, but there is no musical carryover between the song and this piano prelude. The noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger found something reminiscent of Chabrier (whom she did not admire) “in the melodic turn of theme and the frequent use of cadential formula.” Indeed, it is not a very typical Debussy piece, being a quiet and uncomplicated reverie less equivocal in its harmony than many of his compositions.

In La Danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance), dotted rhythms keep the airy music (marked “Capricieux et léger”) tripping lightly along. The title refers to the mischievous sprite in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Debussy was a Shakespeare aficionado. In a questionnaire he filled out for an admirer in 1889, he responded to “Your favourite heroes in fiction” with Hamlet, and to “Your favourite heroines in fiction” with Rosalind.  Rosalind might have become more a part of his life, since he briefly flirted with the idea of composing an opera on As You Like It; and in 1902 he sketched two movements of incidental music for a theatrical presentation of King Lear, not enough to be useful when the production was mounted.

Minstrels is a jaunty number (Modéré [Nerveux et avec humour]) that was meant to evoke something American of the early vaudeville era. It is a close cousin to another of his famous piano pieces, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, from his Children’s Corner suite. 

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(May 2018)