Chamber Music: Mozart and Bartók

Chamber Music: Mozart and Bartók 

Martin: Rhapsodie for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Double Bass
Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K.563
Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion  

Martin: Rhapsodie for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Double Bass

Frank Martin (1890-1974) did not adhere to any “school” of twentieth-century composition and his music, largely unfamiliar outside his native Switzerland, does not greatly resemble anyone else’s. Bach, Schumann, Chopin, and Franck have been cited as figures whose impact can be felt in Martin’s music, and as he developed he enriched his vocabulary through influences as diverse as Indian and Balkan rhythms, Irish folk song, and the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg, all of which he adapted to his particular expressive needs.

The son of a Calvinist pastor in the francophone sector of Switzerland, Martin spent time living in Zurich, Rome, and Paris as a young adult, advancing his musical formation without the benefit of prolonged exposure to a conservatory curriculum. From 1927 to 1938, he served on the faculty of the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, working closely with its founder, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, and promulgating that figure’s theories about rhythm. In 1933, Martin founded the Technicum Moderne de Musique, a private music school, and by 1942 he had gained such respect among his colleagues that he was elected president of the Association of Swiss Musicians, a post he held for four years. In 1946, he moved to the Netherlands, where he lived for the rest of his life, first in Amsterdam, then in the nearby town of Naarden. He continued to travel widely, however, and from 1950 to 1957 taught composition classes at the University of Cologne, about a hundred miles from his home. An unlikely name among the roster of his pupils there was that of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, in his book of interviews titled Hugues Cuénod: With a Nimble Voice, painted an affectionate portrait of the composer: “He was very amusing and good natured, and always loved puns, but he also had a really reserved side to his personality. He was born into a good family of old Genevan society, and led a tranquil life, with many children. He married three times. He was a very Christian and upright man. His personality was characterized by a curious mixture of levity and seriousness.”

When he wrote his Rhapsodie, in 1935, Martin was going through a period of deep immersion in the twelve-tone procedures that Arnold Schoenberg had formalized about a decade earlier. And yet, even under the influence of Schoenberg, Martin marched to his own drummer and adopted the precepts of dodecaphony only to the extent that they suited his expressive goals; and once he had explored the possibilities of Schoenberg’s system deeply, he moved on to the “gliding tonality” that typified his works from 1938 on.

The atonal Rhapsodie represents the most extreme point in Martin’s dalliance with Schonbergian style. He later called it “horribly dissonant: the wickedest piece I ever wrote.” The combination of two violins, two violas, and double bass had been used in the mid-eighteenth century, when a double bass might be interchanged for a cello in Viennese quintet-divertimentos; but in music of later times, this grouping seems unique. At the head of his score, Martin inscribes this motto: “Tout assemblage de sons ne peut nous plaire que si nous sommes sensibles à la loi de leur disposition. —D’après Euler” (“Every assemblage of sounds can please us only if we are aware of the law that governs its disposition. —after [the Swiss mathematician] Euler”).

The one-movement piece, a shade under fifteen minutes, does indeed follow the rhapsodic flow its title suggests. An initial Vivace (alternating at the opening with short declarations of recitative from the double bass) leads to a gentle expanse (Molto tranquillo), a ramping up to a quicker section (Con moto), a return to relaxation (Più lento, then Molto tranquillo), and finally to a concluding Vivace, which remains propulsive to the end. The work won first place in a composition contest sponsored by a group called the Carillon de Genève, but that failed to boost its profile very much. It remained unpublished until 1976, when it was issued in the only edition available still today—a reproduction of the composer's manuscript.

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Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K.563

The classic string trio of violin, viola, and cello reaches one of its summits in the E-flat major Divertimento (K.563) of Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-91). The work’s title may lead the listener to expect a charmed bit of fluff, the word divertimento being derived from the Italian divertire, meaning “to amuse.” Some have suggested that irony informed the choice of title, but it seems more likely that it simply reflects the layout of movements, since divertimentos often comprised more than the four movements that would have been standard in, say, a string quartet. Very typically they alternated slow movements and minuets just as Mozart does here. In fact, this is Mozart’s longest chamber work, and on the whole it is no “lighter” than any of his other major chamber compositions.

The composer is even-handed in his distribution of the music, giving each player generous turns as both melodist and accompanist. In many string trios, the listener senses the sparseness of the texture. Here, one has to keep reminding oneself that it is not a string quartet playing; Mozart brilliantly solves the textural problem he poses, resorting only on very few occasions, such as the spectral opening of the Adagio’s development section, to double-stopping.

It is widely held that Mozart composed this work for Michael Puchberg, his friend and fellow-Mason who at the time was prospering in the textiles business. Mozart was having cash-flow problems, and beginning in 1787 or 1788 he began asking Puchberg for loans. In one letter, the composer makes reference to a trio he had written for Puchberg; it is possible that the work in question was the Piano Trio in E major (K.542), but more likely it was this Divertimento, which Mozart referred to as the “Puchberg” Trio when he played it in Dresden on April 13, 1789.

The first movement is an elegantly crafted sonata-allegro movement built from memorable themes and, in its development, courageous in its harmonic modulations and captivating in its imitative counterpoint. The ensuing Adagio is one of Mozart’s great slow movements, a passionate piece in which ornamental figures serve great expressive purpose rather than simply embellish the melodies. The cello’s opening music, an arpeggiated triad moving upward (mirroring, in a way, the descending-triad principal theme of the opening Allegro), dominates much of the movement, and the eloquent, elongated coda that brings the Adagio to a close is almost entirely derived from this simple figure.

The first of two minuets follows, a sturdy affair with surprising syncopation built into its opening theme and with a gentle trio section to provide contrast. Then comes another slow movement (but, at Andante, just moderately slow), a wondrous set of variations on a foursquare, thirty-two-bar tune that may have been a popular song of the day. Here Mozart’s imagination is on full display; he never crafted variations finer than these, though he may have equaled them on a few occasions. Emotional breadth and technical facility are inseparable as he works his way through the second variation, where canons bustle beneath the soaring melody; the third, where the minor mode invites an atmosphere of mystery while the composer struts his stuff to sophisticates by writing the whole thing in three-part invertible counterpoint; and the fourth, where the viola sings a version of the theme as if it were the cantus firmus in a spectacular choral prelude.

Adumbration of Schubert arrives with the second Menuetto, particularly in its two ländler-like trios. Rather than simply repeat the minuet section at the end (the standard practice), Mozart offers a revisit of the minuet and then adds a charming coda as lagniappe. The finale is based on a folk-like tune; perhaps it, too, was a popular song of the day. Here the listener is treated to all manner of contrapuntal cleverness, and the work concludes as a balm for not only the soul but also the intellect.

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Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

The billionaire Swiss philanthropist Paul Sacher commissioned Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and his Divertimento for String Orchestra, and also arranged for another party, the Swiss Section of the ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music), to commission his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion—and then Sacher anted up the fee for that piece himself. The Basel Section of the ISCM was set to celebrate its tenth anniversary in January 1938 and Sacher felt that Bartók (1881-1945) would be the perfect candidate to write a chamber piece to mark the occasion.

In the spring of 1937 Sacher approached the composer with the ISCM commission, and Bartók responded with a measure of anxiety about the short deadline and with a flurry of thoughts about the specific forces he might use. “What kind of chamber music should it be?” he asked in a letter to Sacher on May 24. “Could it be, for example, a quartet for two pianos and two groups of percussion? Or a piano trio? Would you perhaps consider a piece for voice and piano to be chamber music, or not?” Once Bartók set about the composition he proceeded quickly, and by September 2 he was able to write to Sacher, “I am pleased to inform you that I have almost succeeded in completing the planned work—my choice fell on a quartet for two pianos and percussion; it may be counted on. It consists of three movements; the first and second movements are finished, and half of the third is ready, too.”

Bartók, Ditta Pásztory (his wife and a pianist, like her husband), and two Swiss percussionists played the premiere on the anniversary concert, and the work scored so great a success that subsequent performances were quickly arranged for London, Brussels, Luxembourg, and Budapest. In 1940, Bartók’s publisher convinced him to recast the piece as a Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra. This was not intended to supersede Bartók’s original conception but rather to broaden the work’s possibilities for performances, particularly in the American market, where he viewed as dim the likelihood of the chamber version’s being programmed. As it happens, the concerto version is very rarely presented, and Bartók’s original chamber conception is the one that has steadfastly hooked the public’s fascination.

Prior to the premiere, Bartók penned an analytical introduction to the work, in German, which was published in the Basel National Zeitung. There he explained that he had initially planned to use a single piano but decided to use two the better to balance the “frequently very sharp tones of the percussion instruments. . . . The role of the percussion sounds varies: sometimes they reinforce the more important accents; in places they carry motifs serving as a counterpoint to the piano parts; and the timpani and the xylophone frequently play themes that act as principal subjects.

The work’s timbre is novel and striking. Bartók stresses the pianos’ percussive qualities; at spots, one is tempted to view this as a quartet for four percussion players, some employing pitched instruments and others unpitched ones. The work is cast in a three-movement plan, which is entirely traditional for a sonata, though in this case the center of gravity is heavily skewed to the opening movement, which is twice as long as either of the two that succeed it. The first movement traces a “standard” sonata-allegro form (though with a slow introduction that rises from untold depths to a pitch of high drama); the second adheres to a forthright A-B-A plan, here used to convey one of the composer’s signature pieces in shivering “nocturnal” style; and the third is a rondo.

Bartók’s analysis suggests the subtlety and complexity that unifies the piece at a profound level. The work employs the strict mathematical ratios of the “golden section” and the related Fibonacci and Lucas sequences, which the composer embeds into the rhythmic evolution of his piece and which are underscored not only by rhythmic structures but also by emphases of melody, harmony, and timbre.

—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 now available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.

(March 2018)

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