Friday, May 3, 2019, 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 5, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quintet in G minor
In the spring of 1787, back in Vienna after a triumphant visit to Prague, Mozart composed a pair of string quintets, finishing the C major quintet, K. 515, on April 19, and this quintet in G minor on May 16. With the the C major piano concerto, K. 503, and the “Prague” symphony, K. 504, both completed the previous December, these quintets show Mozart’s style at its most sumptuous and expansive. He soon would be off to Prague again to compose Don Giovanni, and by the time he returned to large instrumental works he would be writing in a more compact style—even the “Jupiter” symphony, composed the following year, is less spacious.
The two quintets are similar in dimensions and form (unusually for Mozart, both have the minuet in second place) but very different in mood. While the C major quintet is warm and sunny, this G minor quintet is deeply melancholy. The opening theme sets the tone for the whole: it outlines the G minor chord and follows it with a series of sighs going down the scale. Mozart stays in the principal key a remarkably long time, presenting the opening idea first as a trio for the violins and first viola and then as a trio for the violas and the cello before giving it to the full quintet, and introducing a new, more songful theme, then finally moving on to another key. When we do arrive in a new, major key, the first thing we hear is that new theme again, followed by additional ideas to round off the first part of the movement. At the end of the movement, this material returns in G minor, with a coda extending it further and bringing things to a somber conclusion.
The minuet maintains the serious tone, accentuated by dissonant chords on offbeats. The trio provides some relief; it is the first place in the quintet to use the key of G major. As usual, the main section of the minuet returns, so the change in mood is short-lived.
The slow movement, with the strings muted, is more cheerful. The main themes are peaceable major-key ideas, but even in this movement the optimistic tone does not prevail throughout; the transitional passages between the themes are unusually long and dramatic.
The somber mood of the first two movements returns in the long G minor introduction to the finale, which is unique in Mozart’s later music. When the introduction reaches a quiet conclusion we have no idea what to expect. What Mozart gives us is the antithesis of the opening of the quintet: a contradanse tune that outlines the G major chord and then merrily proceeds straight down the major scale. The movement as a whole is a long, complex rondo that serves as a counterweight to the earlier ones and yet maintains a cheerful tone almost throughout.
Quintet for oboe and strings
Though born in London, Arthur Bliss was the son of an American businessman. After serving in the British Army in World War I he completed his musical studies and began to make a name as a composer in postwar London. He also spent several years across the Atlantic teaching in California. Bliss would become one of the most prominent British composers of his generation, serving as Director of Music for the BBC in 1942-44 and Master of the Queen’s Music from 1953 until his death.
In 1925, during one of his stays in the United States, Bliss met the chamber music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. They hit it off well and Coolidge commissioned this quintet for her Venice Festival of 1927, where it was first performed with the great oboist Leon Goossens in the featured role.
The quintet opens with a duet for the violins, which the other strings eventually join. Only after some time does the oboe come in, at first in the middle of the texture and then rising to the top. Halfway through the movement the tempo picks up. As the movement draws to a conclusion the pace slows to that of the opening and then still further as it ends quietly.
The second movement is a set of variations on a modal melody in the style of a folk tune in varying moods and tempi. The finale begins with a lively jig rhythm; later Bliss introduces a traditional tune, “Connelly’s Jig,” and the music romps on to the end.
Sextet for piano and winds
1930-32, rev. 1939
The combination of wind quintet and piano would seem a logical one, but there are comparatively few pieces written for it, and this is the undisputed masterpiece of the lot. Poulenc composed it in 1930-32 but revised it extensively in 1939. It has some spiky harmonies that remind us of Poulenc’s admiration for Stravinsky, but Poulenc’s own charm always prevails.
Poulenc’s music tends to be made of short sections, the longer pieces being made of multiple shorter ones. Thus in this sextet the opening movement consists of a lively, cheerful first section, a middle section that is half as fast, and a final section based on the same material as the first one. The second movement simply reverses the procedure, with the outer sections being slow and lyrical and the middle section being twice as fast. The finale is mostly in a very quick tempo, but just at the end it slows down for a more majestic conclusion.