Fall Concert Series Program Notes


Friday, October 18, 2019, 8:00 p.m.

Sunday, October 20, 2019, 2:00 p.m.


Passacaglia in G minor

As the eminent Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen married a niece of Edvard Grieg, it is not surprising that his musical style resembles that of his uncle by marriage. This Passacaglia represents a late Romantic adaptation of Baroque style similar to that of Grieg’s own Holberg Suite. The original piece by Handel is the last movement of the seventh of his harpsichord suites, HWV 432. A passacaglia was a type of variation movement in which the theme was not a tune but a bass line or a chord progression—in this case, a set of eight chords filling four measures. The melody, the rhythmic figuration, and the texture could contrast sharply from one variation to the next. Pieces of this general type were extremely common in the seventeenth century (the Pachelbel Canon is a familiar example) but had become a bit old-fashioned by 1720. Some late nineteenth-century composers took an interest in the form, notably Brahms in the finale of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn and in the last movement of the Fourth Symphony.

Handel’s original movement had thirteen variations. Halvorsen transcribes the theme and the first three variations literally, giving the two stringed instruments the right- and left-hand parts. The third variation is an inversion of the second, with the two hands, or the violin and viola, switching their parts. At this point, sixteen measures into the piece, Halvorsen forsakes the original almost completely and composes a long chain of original variations, employing a variety of colorful string techniques: shimmering tremolos, bouncing of the bow, playing on the bridge, and the like. Its showy qualities have made this work a favorite with string players and it has become Halvorsen’s best-remembered composition.

Paul Taffanel

Wind Quintet in G minor

The quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn first flourished in the early nineteenth century in Paris, where composer/theorist/pedagogue Antoine Reicha (boyhood chum of Beethoven and later counterpoint teacher of Berlioz at the Conservatory) brought forth two dozen such works to great acclaim. More recent composers have confined themselves to one or two examples, but Paris has still figured in the story.

Like Reicha, Taffanel was a professor at the Paris Conservatory, one of the most influential flutists and flute teachers of the nineteenth century. His playing and teaching emphasized the songful qualities of the instrument, and he is credited with bringing Bach into the repertory of French flutists, displacing a literature of nineteenth-century showpieces that have not generally aged well. He also led a revival of interest in wind ensemble music in the 1870s and 80s that once more made Paris a center of activity in this field. This 1876 quintet is his most frequently performed composition; it is so elegant and charming that one can only wonder what other gems there may be in his oeuvre.

The quintet opens with a nervous motif in the low registers of the clarinet and bassoon. (Throughout the quintet, Taffanel keeps the clarinet in the low and middle portions of its range, giving the flute and oboe the high-lying parts.) Though several contrasting ideas enter in the course of the movement, the restless opening motif keeps coming back, and at the end of the first movement the music simply dies away. The second movement is calmer, with long, lyrical melodies in the horn and clarinet. The finale has much of the nervous energy of the first movement, but this time the movement, and the quintet, end cheerfully.

Jean Françaix

Wind Quintet no. 1

Jean Françaix studied piano at the Paris Conservatory but completed his training as a composer privately with Nadia Boulanger (who would also teach dozens of American composers starting with Aaron Copland).  His long career as composer and pianist kept him so thoroughly occupied that he never took a teaching position. This quintet dates from 1948, though it took six years for a group to master its difficulties and give its first performance, in Paris, of course. Those difficulties, formidable for the performers, are far less daunting for the audience. As with all Françaix’s music, the irregular rhythms, spiky harmonies, and unusual playing techniques are all used in ways that speak to the listener, and as in many of his works, the effect is humorous.

The quintet is in a familiar four-movement layout. The slow introduction abruptly leads into the quick part of the first movement, which gallops along merrily; to American ears some passages may suggest “The Camptown Races.” The main section of the second movement bustles along even more quickly, but there is a long slower section in the middle. The return of the main section is cut short by more of the slower material, and a concluding return of the opening is even shorter. The third movements is a set of five contrasting variations on a short theme, some of the variations running more than twice as long as the theme itself. The “French march” finale moves in quick time, somewhat obsessively passing the main idea around in the ensemble; it ends with a flourish in the horn, answered softly by cuckoo calls in the woodwinds.

Antonín Dvořák

Piano Quintet in A major

Dvořák had composed his first piano quintet, also in A major, in 1872. Reportedly, when he tried to find the older piece in 1887 and failed to locate it (it was later recovered and published), he decided to compose this new quintet, which is one of his masterpieces. It came to him quickly between mid-August and October 3 of that year, received its premiere the following January, and was in print within a few months. The quintet is in the cheerful key of A major, the same as Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, and, except for the second movement, is just as sunny in mood.

As in his Symphony No. 8, composed two years later, Dvořák begins the quintet with a lovely singing melody in the cello answered by livelier material in the full ensemble. The movement is fully worked out, with a second theme that starts out songfully but transforms into a vigorous dance to conclude the main sections.

While the entire quintet has a strong flavor of folk music, both middle movements explicitly employ folk-dance idioms. The dumka (plural dumky) was originally a Ukranian lament, but Dvořák expands it to include sections of sharply contrasting material so that it alternates between despair and cheerfulness. Dvořák was quite fond of this form and later composed an entire piano trio, Op. 90, that completely abandons the standard sequence of movements and consists simply of six dumky. The furiant was a lively Czech dance, though presented here in the form of a Schubertian scherzo with a slower middle section.

Like the first movement, the finale is conventional in form. A few preparatory measures lead to an ebullient main theme and the mood remains cheerful throughout.