Friday, February 15, 2019, 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, February 17, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Ernő von Dohnányi
Serenade in C major
Dohnányi and his colleagues Bartók and Kodály were the leading creative figures in Hungarian musical life in the decades before World War II. After the war, he emigrated to the United States, where he joined the faculty of Florida State University.(His grandson Christoph made his career as a conductor in this country, with a distinguished tenure as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra.) Simultaneous careers as a pianist, a conductor, and an administrator kept the elder Dohnányi’s catalog of compositions to moderate size, and his conservative, Romantic orientation caused his work to be overlooked for much of the twentieth century, though performances of his music are increasingly common now.
Dohnányi was a musical prodigy whose Piano Quintet, op. 1, written at the age of eighteen, drew the praise of Brahms, who was a major influence on the young composer’s style. This Serenade, dating from 1905, is still in the Brahmsian vein. It also, however, looks back to Beethoven’s Serenade, op. 8, which was written for the same three instruments and which also begins with a little march. As one might expect from the model, none of the four following movements is terribly long or involved, though all are high in quality: a lyrical Romanza, an energetic Scherzo, a set of variations, and a cheerful rondo finale.
The Masque of the Red Death
André Caplet is now remembered more for his connections with his contemporaries than for his own work. In 1901 he won the coveted Prix de Rome in preference to Ravel, and he later became a close friend and collaborator of Debussy. His career as a violinist and conductor was cut short by wounds received in World War I, and from then until his death at 46 he was primarily active as a composer and orchestrator. The Masque of the Red Death, inspired by the story by Edgar Allan Poe, was first composed in 1908 for chromatic harp and string orchestra. In 1923 Caplet prepared the version for standard harp (or piano) and string quartet that we are hearing.
In Poe’s story, the prince of a land that is being ravaged by a terrible epidemic shuts himself and some friends up in his palace. Thinking that they are keeping the disease at bay, they hold a masked ball. A stranger knocks on the door at midnight and enters uninvited. At first he appears to be a victim of the Red Death; in reality, he proves to be the Red Death itself and the prince and the revelers die.
The music is remarkable for the range of sound effects Caplet obtains from the harp and string quartet, many of them soft and subtle. The first big section of the piece, in fact, is primarily about atmospheric effects. Then comes a frenetic waltz. The revelers become more and more anxious, and then comes the knock on the door and the clock striking midnight. The end comes swiftly and quietly until the final chord that is neither major nor minor, simply hollow and empty.
Octet in E major
A virtuoso violinist, one of the creators of the modern art of conducting, and a renowned composer, Louis (or Ludwig) Spohr was one of the most prominent German musicians of the early nineteenth century. His ten symphonies and his numerous oratorios, operas, and songs dropped out of the repertory in the decades following his death, and only the eighth of his eighteen violin concertos received much notice in the twentieth century, but his four clarinet concertos and some of his enormous output of chamber music have continued to be performed. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his work and nearly all Spohr’s instrumental music is now available on recordings.
Spohr spent the years 1812 to 1815 in Vienna as musical director of the Theater an der Wien. He was a central figure in the musical life of the city and had frequent contact with Beethoven, conducting the premiere of the final and definitive version of the latter’s opera Fidelio in 1814. Spohr composed a group of chamber works in these years on commission from the businessman Johann Tost, who had once played violin in Haydn’s orchestra at Esterháza. Tost used his exclusive rights to the works to ensure that he was invited to social events at which they would be performed and at which business might also be transacted. Tost’s finances collapsed before he had paid for all the compositions, but Spohr was able to reclaim his manuscripts and sell their publication rights for a good sum.
The Octet was intended to show off four virtuoso performers from Spohr’s theater orchestra: the principal clarinet, the principal horns, and, of course, Spohr himself as violinist. It also provides a good sample of Spohr’s style: he represents the conservative side of Beethoven’s generation, writing elegant music of beautiful craftsmanship that looks back to Mozart and Haydn for inspiration.
The brief Adagio introduction of the Octet begins with a chord in the strings answered with a minor-mode phrase in the clarinet. Other instruments respond, and the first four notes of the clarinet’s phrase assume greater importance. The Allegro begins with the motif again, now clearly marked as the principal idea of the movement; Haydn will sometimes introduce an important musical idea in a slow introduction in just this offhand way.
The lively second movement is also reminiscent of Haydn, in particular the quick minuet second movement in Haydn’s last completed string quartet, op. 77, no. 2, which has similar cross-rhythms. The slower, major-key middle section, a Ländler (a folk dance related to the waltz) featuring the winds, contrasts with the nervous, minor-key main section of the movement.
Tost requested that Spohr employ the theme known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith” in the third movement of the Octet. Handel had written variations on this theme as the final movement of his fifth harpsichord suite, HWV 430. Legend has that he heard a blacksmith pounding it out, or perhaps singing it at work; a theme this clear-cut could well be a folk song. Spohr’s version of the theme is already somewhat altered from the original, and his variations have nothing to do with Handel’s. In the theme itself, Spohr alternates phrases between the winds and the strings, and several of the variations feature the violin.
Like many of Spohr’s finales, the last movement of this Octet is a piece in moderate tempo intended to provide a relaxed conclusion rather than a climax for the work. The cheerful tune in the first horn that opens the movement is worked out in much the same graceful way as the main idea of the first movement, passing through various instruments so that everyone in the ensemble has something to say.