Program notes: George Li with Festival Musicians

Thursday, July 28, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Schubert: Fantasy in F Minor for Piano, Four-hands, D. 940, Op. posth. 103

Schumann: Quintet in E-flat Major for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 44

Fantasy in F Minor for Piano, Four-hands, D. 940, Op. posth. 103

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Composed: 1828
Length: c. 20 minutes

Instrumentation: piano, four-hands

Schubert’s epitaph, penned by a friend after his death at age 31, reads, “Here the art of music has buried a rich treasure, but even fairer hopes.” It’s an ultimately fruitless cliché to speculate about the music that might have been produced by the numerous composers who died young (Schubert’s partner on this program also died tragically early, at 46). But the sting is sharp when listening to the achingly beautiful F minor Fantasy, composed over the first four months of 1828, the year of Schubert’s death.

Those early months were a time of success and optimism for Schubert. Compositions flowed at a brisk pace, musical evenings with friends were lively and convivial, and Schubert organized a concert entirely of his own music—his first—in March to honor the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. The hall sold out, a testament to Schubert’s widening circle of admirers in Vienna. That summer, however, his health was failing alarmingly, and by November, although composing until his final weeks, Schubert was dead. The exact cause of his death will never be known, though it was most likely related to syphilis.

The genre most closely connected to Schubert’s genius is undoubtedly the lied, the German song, to which he contributed about 600 works of incredible charm, lyricism, and inventiveness. One could argue that the next category on the list is that of works for piano in four hands (two players simultaneously on one piano). Before Schubert, few composers had paid much attention to four-hand piano works, which were largely relegated to light amusements. Schubert, however, approached the genre with the idea that four hands gave the piano a new dimension of potential expressivity, allowing him to play with color and texture in ways that were not possible with a single player. He would ultimately write over 40 compositions for piano four hands, including the groundbreaking Grand Duo in C from 1824 and three major works in 1828, including the F minor Fantasy.

Calling the work a “Fantasy” indicates that Schubert was approaching the work with a structural freedom, though it is clearly organized into four “movements” that are played without break.

What to listen for

  • First movement: Schubert’s masterful lyrical “slow-burn” technique is on full display, with a heart-melting melody surrounded by an accompaniment that grows gradually, almost imperceptibly richer with each new iteration.
  • Second movement: the powerful chords in double-dotted rhythms (a sort of extreme short-long pattern) that open the Largo are borrowed from a Baroque French overture style.
  • Third movement: although there are four hands at Schubert’s disposal, he often chooses to use just three, or has two of the hands play in octaves to vary the color. The beginning of the sparkling Scherzo is an excellent example, with the octaves in the higher hands announcing the theme’s emphatic presence.
  • Fourth movement: don’t be fooled by the identical repetition of the opening movement that begins this one. Schubert is working up to a dramatic fugue, in which the original melody is repeated and interwoven with itself. This may be a tantalizing peek into the direction he might have gone had he been given more time.

Quintet in E-flat Major for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 44

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Composed: 1842
Length: c. 31 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, cello, and piano

In his early thirties, Schumann embarked on systematic explorations of particular musical genres. In 1840, after focusing on piano pieces for several years, his focus was the lied, averaging nearly three songs a week! He moved on to orchestral works in 1841 before concentrating almost exclusively on chamber music from 1842 to early 1843, producing all three of his published string quartets, his piano quartet, a piano trio, and tonight’s Piano Quintet in E-flat during this time. During the first half of 1842, Schumann composed almost nothing at all. Instead, at almost the exact same age that Schubert decided to focus his efforts on perfecting his contrapuntal writing, Schumann concentrated on an intensive study of counterpoint and fugue, followed by a two-month stretch spent poring over the string quartet scores by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. By June, he was ready to begin composition of his first string quartet, and during a three-week period in September and October, Schumann completed his masterful piano quintet.

Schumann’s devotion to the Classical models of form and structure conflicted with his Romantic ideals of freedom and limitless expression. In addition, as Schumann expert John Daverio points out, the quintet was written during a time of transition for chamber music from an enjoyment in the private sphere to one of the public. The tension created by these shifting modes of musical communication manifests itself in the form of surprising contrasts in Schumann’s chamber music, especially in his piano quintet. This piece juxtaposes formal structure and expressive license, characteristics of symphonic and chamber genres, and moments of extroversion and introversion. Although the challenging piano part emerges nearly as a solo line with accompaniment at some times, it recedes into the texture of the ensemble at others, playing the traditional role of a chamber instrument. Schumann’s almost feverish study of chamber music and counterpoint pays off handsomely throughout the piece, but especially in the astonishing closing section: just as Schubert capped off his Fantasy with an impressive fugue, Schumann uses a similar device as a structural climax to his masterful quintet.

What to listen for

  • First movement: the lustrous opening theme consists of leaping intervals that reach upwards and then cascade down. Try to fix this in your mind, as it will reappear in various guises throughout the quintet.
  • Second movement: the title of the second movement suggests a march, here clearly in the somber and slightly hesitating style of a funeral procession.
  • Third movement: the dazzling opening is interrupted suddenly by a gentle lullaby whose melody is essentially an upside-down version of the first movement’s opening theme.
  • Fourth movement: a dramatic build-up late in the movement culminates in a grand pause that sets up Schumann’s coup de grâce: a so-called “double fugue” that combines the movement’s main melody with the opening movement’s theme (yet again!), now in slower rhythmic values.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi