Spring Concert Series Program Notes


Friday, May 3, 2024 8:00 p.m.

Sunday, May 5, 2024 2:00 p.m.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Quintet for piano and winds

At the beginning of 1784 Mozart’s career as a pianist was at its peak. He was in the midst of composing a series of fifteen magnificent piano concertos in five years that would have been a crowning achievement for any other three composers, as well as many of his familiar piano sonatas; he was also performing steadily and teaching regularly. In the first months of the year he produced the concertos K. 449, 450, 451, and 453; this quintet occupies the missing spot in that sequence. Mozart finished it on March 30 as he was preparing for his biggest concert of the season, an evening of his works on April 1 in the Burgtheater, the principal court theater. With the best orchestra in Austria at his disposal he performed his latest symphonies (the “Haffner” and the “Linz”) and two of the new concertos. With four of the principal winds of the orchestra (including his good friend Anton Stadler on clarinet) he also introduced the quintet. The concert was a success, and the quintet was warmly received. Writing to his father the next week Mozart said of it, “I consider it the best thing I’ve written in my life—I wish you could have heard it!—and how beautifully it was played!”

            The quintet is the first chamber work Mozart composed for piano with an ensemble capable of balancing it, making it the forerunner of his two quartets for piano and strings. The winds usually operate as a group, either joining or alternating with the piano, and solos are generally short.

            As is typical of Mozart’s piano sonatas and chamber works with piano, the quintet has three movements. The long slow introduction is, however, unusual in that repertory. It is more an orchestral gesture and seems rather more of a build-up than necessary for the cheerful Allegro moderato that follows; perhaps Mozart was teasing his audience. The following Larghetto is a bit more serious, though not too much so. The finale is a rondo on a graceful theme. Toward the end there is a cadenza in tempo for all five instruments before the main theme returns for the final time.

George Walker

String Quartet no. 1

After graduating from Oberlin College at age 18, pioneering African American pianist-composer George Walker entered the Curtis Institute of Music.  He graduated in 1945, receiving Artist Diplomas in piano and composition as well as winning the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Auditions and performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 with the Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy. He went on to receive a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and to undertake further study with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. Walker taught at a series of distinguished institutions, ending with a long tenure at Rutgers University. He received numerous major awards and commissions, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Lilacs, for voice and orchestra, which had been commissioned and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

            This quartet from 1946 was Walker’s first important composition. Its second movement attracted so much notice that Walker arranged it as a piece for string orchestra, entitled Lyric, which has become his most-performed work. There is an obvious parallel with the first string quartet of Samuel Barber, who had also studied with Rosario Scalero at Curtis: its Adagio second movement, arranged for string orchestra, had already become that composer’s best-known work. Both slow movements are similar in conception, involving long lines moving from one note of the scale to the next, ascending and descending, and coming together at cadences in a manner resembling the vocal style of the Renaissance. Barber’s movement is lusher and more Romantic; Walker’s is more restrained and Modernist in expression. The two outer movements, both vigorous but with lyrical touches, hold their own within the overall structure.

Gioachino Rossini

Duo for Cello and Double Bass

This duo came to public notice when the autograph was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1968. Rossini composed it in 1824, a year that included an extended stay in London. In that city he made numerous appearances with his friend Domenico Dragonetti, the greatest double bass player of the era, and it is safe to assume that the piece was intended for him. Since Dragonetti favored a three-stringed instrument tuned in fourths, AA–D–G, the lowest note in this duo is

  1. Because this is not much lower than the lowest note on the cello, Rossini avoids the bottom register of the cello so as to keep the double bass on the bottom of the pair most of the time.

            The duo is in three cheerful movements, fast-slow-fast. As one would expect from an operatic composer, Rossini emphasizes songful melodies and rapid passsagework in the high registers of the two instruments with relatively straightforward accompaniments. In the first and most elaborate of the movements, the two instruments share the musical interest, trading ideas back and forth; in the other two movements, the bass serves more as an accompanist, allowing the cello to shine.

 Louise Farrenc

Nonet in E-flat major

Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont to an artistic family (her brother August Dumont was a noted sculptor), the young Louise studied piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory. Her marriage to the flutist/composer/music publisher Aristide Farrenc was both a personal and a professional relationship, though their pianist daughter Victorine Farrenc would die tragically young. Louise was a professor of piano at the Conservatory from 1842 to 1873, the only woman to hold that position there before the twentieth century. First Aristide and then Louise became interested in the history of keyboard music, and in 1861 they began publication of a series of volumes entitled Le trésor des pianistes (The Pianist’s Treasury) documenting the repertory from the sixteenth century to their own day. Louise continued the series after her husband’s death, seeing the 23rd and final volume into print in 1874.

In addition to this, Louise Farrenc was one of the most noted composers of instrumental music in Paris in her lifetime. The Parisian musical public was primarily interested in opera, but a number of composers associated with the Conservatory achieved local success writing well-wrought chamber music, and occasionally symphonies, in a generally conservative style. Farrenc’s composition teacher Antoine Reicha was known for his two dozen wind quintets, and the slightly younger Georges Onslow brought out a large number of string quartets and quintets. Other composers, now remembered for their operas, joined in on occasion, including Luigi Cherubini and Charles Gounod. The familiar Symphony in C major by Georges Bizet can be connected to this development. The status of instrumental music would only improve after the disastrous war of 1870. Farrenc composed most of her large-scale works in the 1840s and 50s: three symphonies, a piano concerto, and a series of chamber works for different combinations, mostly with piano. Her work was well supported—at the 1850 premiere of this Nonet the violin part was played by the young phenomenon Joseph Joachim—but found little enduring success.

            Farrenc’s Nonet may be one of the many pieces inspired by Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, op. 20. Like Beethoven’s work, it is a light-hearted piece in E-flat major for a large mixed ensemble, including two more instruments—flute and oboe—to make a complete wind quintet. Farrenc’s work has four movements rather than Beethoven’s six but shares an unusual feature in a chamber piece: both the first and last movements have slow introductions.

            The first measures of the introduction to the first movement sound like some half-forgotten passage from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Farrenc’s work has a charm and polish reminiscent of the earlier master, even if her musical language is closer to that of Beethoven and Schubert. Farrenc gives every instrument in the ensemble a chance to shine, with some short display passages for the violin. The main section of the first movement is lively and cheerful. The second movement is a theme and variations, and the third is a somewhat mysterious scherzo with a calmer trio. After its brief introduction, the finale ends matters on an upbeat note.