Chamber Classics Programme Notes

There are classics among the repertoire that simply stand on their own. They are beloved, and more popular than most people expect. But how did they get there, and do they have something say? They were modern once; did the composers’ contemporaries immediately embrace their works? We twist back to the here and now with the Canadian premiere of a new work by someone in our own backyard.

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Chamber Series 5 :: Chamber Classics (with a twist)

A native of Montreal, Brian Black studied music first at McGill University, then at the Guildhall School in London and finally returned to McGill, where he earned his PhD in Musicology with a dissertation on the early string quartets of Franz Schubert. He is presently associate professor of musicology at the University of Lethbridge.

The idea for his string quartet first came to him after reading the Diary of Anne Frank in the early 1970s. He did not write out the work until 2011-2013 in Lethbridge. Originally the quartet was to end positively with a lullaby for the girl, but the continuing cycle of violence in the interim with the Rwandan genocide and the massacre of Srebrenica caused him to rethink the work’s ending.

The quartet consists of four movements contained in one. It begins with a lament for the viola depicting Anne’s yearning for spring while in hiding. Here the music rises out of the darkness three times to increasingly agonized climaxes, the last of which is swept away by an aggressive fugato/scherzo for the destructive forces surrounding the Frank family. The music then subsides into a hollow chant conveying the echoing voices of the victims, which still haunt the landscapes where they perished.

This dirge in turn warms into a lullaby for Anne, wherein the most agonized ideas of the opening lament are recalled and washed clean of suffering. But the music subsequently spirals downwards to the yearning of its beginning, ending with a gesture of protest that subsides into the quartet’s opening viola lament. Now what was originally associated with Anne conveys the grief of a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre over the slaughter of his family. “How not to cry? And when I think of them, it is as if I see them all, their faces and images going through my head. How can a man not burst into tears?”

Programme Note by Brian Black

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was an important figure in the musical shift from the Classical to the Romantic era. Published in 1801, his String Quartet Op. 18, No. 6 in B-flat Major clearly falls within a more restrained, Classical style. The first set of string quartets published by the composer, Op. 18 underwent a long process of revision before being issued. Faced with a genre dominated by Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven wanted his first offering to be of the highest quality in order to compete.

The first movement opens with a lively conversation between the violins and cello, a prominent turn figure and cheerful ascending arpeggios adding character to the first theme. After a shift to the minor mode, the second theme becomes more solemn, with dotted rhythms imparting a ceremonial air.

The first violin begins the second movement with a pensive melody; slurred pairs of sixteenth notes evoke an air of elegance. An ominous unison line in the cello and first violin propels the music into a new section in the minor mode; Beethoven plays with the expressive sighing figure from the first theme, adding expressive accents and rests. Near the end of the movement the ominous unison line returns, but is swiftly negated by a more cheerful passage in major; the final notes are a major-mode echo of the same unison line.

Syncopated sforzando accents give the third movement an energetic, topsy-turvy feel. Like many of Beethoven’s scherzos, it has a somewhat rustic edge, with hemiola affects adding to the rhythmic charm. The middle section, or trio, features the first violin with an angular, athletic line, while the lower instruments play a smooth, lush accompaniment.

Titled ‘La malinchonia’ (melancholy), the fourth movement was one of the most harmonically adventurous pieces of its time, exploring both the extreme sharp and flat sides of the tonal system. The first theme features an expressive turn figure that gives the music a feeling of longing. A gentle half cadence gives way to an effervescent, dance-like section in a cheerful major key. The two tempos alternate, the faster, dance-like theme infected by the minor mode before finally returning in the original major for the exuberant Prestissimo close.

Incurably ill and aware of his impending death, near the end of his life Franz Schubert (1797-1828) became fixated on ideas of darkness and the beyond; this translated into a more profound depth and solemnity in his compositions. The String Quintet in C Major Op. 163 was the last work of chamber music written by the composer, completed mere months before his death. Although the work was not performed until 1850, it is now often considered one of his best.

Typical of Schubert’s late works, the String Quintet is constructed on a very large scale, and also fearlessly explores harmonically adventurous territory. The scoring calls for an extra cello to be added to the string quartet instead of the more conventional second viola. The first movement builds in intensity until a more rhythmically driven theme bursts through with restless energy and lively triplets. Schubert includes two subordinate themes: the first a lyrical melody, which appears (surprisingly in E-flat major) as an elegant duet between the two celli, the second more animated in G.

The development seems at first to allude to material from the opening of the quintet, but quickly moves on to the lovely melody of the first subordinate theme. Later, adopting the first theme’s restless triplets, Schubert moulds a new, lyrical theme for the first violin, accompanied by a thick cushion of harmony. However, the lush peacefulness is interrupted by interjections of a more aggressive and jagged nature. At the end of the recapitulation, Schubert recalls the contemplative opening bars before ending on a blissful tonic pedal.

The second movement begins in E major, the first violin’s delicate dotted rhythms floating pensively above the lush harmony of the interior voices. A unison trill heralds the arrival of the stormy middle section, in the unexpectedly distant key of F minor; the relationship between tonic and flat supertonic, most often found in classical music in the form of the Neapolitan chord, is extended far beyond its usual scope. The storm eventually calms in preparation for the return of the first melody in a decorated form. In the last few bars Schubert magically mixes the movement’s two keys.

In the third movement Schubert uses the open strings of the celli to make the texture sound fuller and more orchestral. The mood is that of an energetic country-dance, but the music is far from simple; many surprising harmonic twists and strong dissonances colour this rustic movement. The slower middle section is in the distant key of D-flat major, but the shift back to C major for the return of the scherzo is handled expertly; to avoid an abrupt transition Schubert uses a repeated G-natural as a pivot.

The fourth movement’s folk-like ‘Hungarian’ styled main theme, a sonata-rondo form, returns throughout the movement. The lively, agile melody mixes major and minor with charming nonchalance. In the contrasting sections between returns of the main theme, Schubert chooses a smoother texture, beginning with triplet figuration in the violin. The movement gains speed to the end; Schubert finishes with a daring unison statement of D-flat leading to the tonic C, emphasizing the Neapolitan relationship he explored earlier in the Quintet.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers