Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Phantasy Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello
Instrumentation: 2 violins, 2 violas, and cello
In working to put together The English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams began searching for English folksongs around 1903 and within seven years had collected nearly 800 tunes. This work deeply informed the direction his composition would take. While his works generally do not quote these tunes directly, Vaughan Williams so absorbed the style that he was able to infuse his music with this language and make it his own, very much true of his Phantasy Quintet, commissioned by businessman and amateur musician W.W. Cobbett.
The first movement is a slow introduction of sorts. The first viola and first violin offer mirror images of a soulful pentatonic melody. The remainder of the ensemble allow them their introspective solo lines, but also provide a soft cushion of warm harmonies to land on as they proceed.
The melodic material is spread more evenly among the ensemble in the nimble Scherzo. The unusual 7-beat meter is regularly divided into a 4+3 pattern by a nearly ubiquitous rhythmic pattern on 8 notes: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-and-3, where the first four and last four notes match exactly. Whenever this ostinato is (briefly) broken, it signals a shift—either a sectional divide or a tonal change (or both). The scale here is modal, but remnants of the pentatonicism from the first movement are hovering throughout.
The solo cello at the end of the Scherzo gives the other players time to put their mutes in place for the peaceful third movement (during which the cellist is granted a rest). In a slow three reminiscent of the saraband form for which it’s named, the movement is made up of four long, poignant melodic lines carried by the first violin, with some help from the first viola. The music here evokes a feeling that could be described as a combination of Baroque dance and English ballad, in A-A-B-A song form.
The cellist returns to introduce the main theme of the Burlesca finale, a witty series of detached gestures that Vaughan Williams treats—surprisingly—as a kind of passacaglia melody, an ostinato over which the ensemble finds inspiration for flights of fancy. (The apt term burlesca connotes a comedic parody of a more serious work.) The theme will eventually be played in double time creating an entirely different feel. A contrasting section evokes a celebratory country dance and the lurching, sustained return of the main theme suggests that the celebration has perhaps gotten out of hand. Vaughan Williams surprises us one last time with a return to the material from the Prelude, drawing our ears to the melodic connections between these movements.
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Bass
Instrumentation: Flute, viola, and bass
Erwin Schulhoff was born into a musical family in Prague. Early contact with Dvořák launched his musical studies which brought him to Vienna when he was just 12. After fighting in the Austrian army for four years during World War I, Schulhoff relocated to Germany where he became immersed in the musical trends of the time. But it was his return to Prague and the music of Bohemia in the mid-1920s that would define his compositional style represented in the trio we hear this evening. In 1924, Schulhoff attended the Slavic Farmer’s Festival Week in Brno, Czechoslovakia where he heard a variety of folk music. He would later write of the experience, “such fantastic sounds created the greatest stimulation for me and led me to compose my concertino.” He wrote the work in just 4 days and the premiere the following year included Paul Hindemith on the viola. Sadly, political upheaval in Europe would soon catch him in its web: as a Jewish communist living in the Czech lands, Schulhoff’s life was cut short in 1942 after falling ill in a concentration camp.
The first movement bears striking resemblances to the Vaughan Williams quintet just performed. Like Vaughan Williams, Schulhoff makes use of lengthy ostinato passages over which the rest of the ensemble are given free reign. The ostinato here evokes a wave-like pattern cycling through an Eastern sounding pentatonic scale, like the quintet. The intervening material here, however, is decidedly more craggy than in the quintet, with rapidly shifting moods.
A rustic flavor shines through the energetic Furiant movement (which calls for the high-spirited piccolo in place of the flute). The furiant is a very rapid Czech folk dance that traditionally alternates measures of 2 and 3 beats. Often, classical composers will adapt the dance to strict triple time, but Schulhoff retains the flavor of the original by casting the entire movement in measures of 5 beats, sometimes interpreted as 2+3 and other times as 3+2. The result is exciting and unpredictable with a driving momentum.
The Andante is a carefully crafted contrapuntal showcase. The highly chromatic, haunting main melody (first in the flute) lasts 8 measures and the movement consists of a total of nine repetitions of this tune, not unlike the flexible passacaglia of the Vaughan Williams finale. The tune is passed among the players (flute-bass-viola-flute-bass-flute-viola-bass-flute), with the final bass entry coming in “too early” and thus overlapping with the ongoing viola line. The highly integrated countermelodies in the accompanying instruments actually mask the melodic repetitions here.
Like Vaughan Williams, Schulhoff ends his piece with a high-spirited country dance. The piccolo returns here, and in the middle section plays the role of a Moravian flute merchant on the streets of Prague.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 114
Instrumentation: Clarinet, cello, and piano
Brahms composed both his clarinet trio and clarinet quintet during the summer of 1891 and arranged their performances with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whom he deeply admired, in Meiningen in late November. During that summer, Brahms exchanged a number of letters with his longtime friend Clara Schumann, by then in her seventies, trying to convince her to attend the premieres later that year:
You have never heard such a clarinet player as they have there in Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know… that is why I am looking forward to Meiningen…. To listen to the clarinet player would make a red-letter day in your life—a profound joy. You would revel, and I hope that my music would not interfere with your enjoyment.
Although Clara was not there due to illness, the initial performances took place as planned, and the trio was warmly received in Meiningen and in Berlin. Brahms himself reveled in the composition of the work, using the whole range of the clarinet and opting to write for an A clarinet (as Mozart had in his late quintet) which he found to have a darker, richer sound than the B-flat version of the instrument. Formally, the work is tightly constructed, demonstrating a masterfully compact use of thematic material.
The initial theme of the opening movement sets the tone for the work with a soulful cello melody which rises with an arpeggio and then slowly descends. The other main theme of the movement, also introduced by the cello, reverses the contour, beginning with a descending arpeggio. The development section’s hypnotic, pianissimo rising and falling scales in the cello and clarinet return in the coda, ending the piece in the unexpected key of A major.
The D major Adagio stands in stark contrast to the passionate immediacy of the prototypical Romantic slow movement. The emotional depth of the freely constructed movement comes not from Sturm und Drang but from an inspired sense of tranquility projected through tender dialogues among the three instruments.
The A major third movement is a gentle waltz cast in a combination of rondo and scherzo form with five sections of varying length. The main theme, first presented by the clarinet, returns in the third and fifth sections, while the second section fragments that theme, now in minor, and the fourth builds on a related, folk-like melody in continual eighth notes.
The rhythmic vitality of the final movement emerges from a dynamic mixture of 2/4 and 6/8 meters which organize eighth notes into groups of two and three respectively. The kineticism of the exuberant skipping theme that opens the work is contrasted with an expressive second theme in E minor. Brahms chooses to forgo the development in favor of an expanded recapitulation of the first theme, eventually leading to a climactic coda that builds on elements of both themes.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet
Instrumentation: Harp, flute, clarinet, 2 violins, viola, and cello
In 1905, Ravel tried one final time to win the prestigious composition competition, the Prix de Rome. His four previous attempts had failed, and the age limit for the winner was 30. His fifth entry did not even make it past the preliminary round, creating a heated public outcry in Paris where he was already established as a leading composer of his generation. Accusations of corruption and favoritism were not unwarranted and led to a scandal at the Paris Conservatoire resulting in the resignation of several faculty including the director (who was replaced with Ravel’s close friend Gabriel Fauré).
Ravel composed his Introduction and Allegro during this period of uproar, but the work shows little evidence of strife or frustration (scholar Mark DeVoto notes its “sheer amiability and relaxed sensuousness”). The piece was commissioned by the Erard harp company which was in a heated battle of its own against Pleyel, which the previous year had commissioned Debussy to write for their ultimately doomed chromatic harp. It was Ravel’s first major commission and he responded with what is essentially a one movement harp concerto, in chamber music form.
The title of the piece is somewhat misleading, as the two sections of the piece blend seamlessly into one whole. The lush and luxuriant Introduction immediately presents two themes, the first in the winds and the second in the strings that will feature prominently throughout the piece. The second of these is modified to become the primary theme of the Allegro, brightly ushered in by the harp. The first, disguised by compressing the melodic intervals, becomes the second theme of the Allegro, heard initially in the winds (helping to connect it to the Introduction). Ravel also brings back the melodies from the Introduction in their original forms, creating a tapestry of related ideas. The movement is loosely in sonata form, with a wistful harp cadenza coming between the development and abbreviated recapitulation.
Program notes by Jon Kochavi