Romance, Old & New Programme Notes

A little something classic, a little something new, and a rollicking good tune…

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Chamber Series 2 :: Romance, Old & New

String Quartet Op. 44 No. 1 in D Major
Like Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a child prodigy – although unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn’s parents avoided pushing him into a performing career. However, the Mendelssohns were a wealthy and prominent family, and their son performed during salons at his parents’ home in Berlin, which were frequented by the most distinguished artists, musicians, and intellectuals of the time. The young Mendelssohn studied piano and composition, focusing on Baroque and classical repertoire.

As he grew older and embarked on a career, Mendelssohn became both a prominent conductor and performer. One of the first to consistently conduct with a baton, he was the director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, as well as a founder of the Leipzig Conservatory. Mendelssohn travelled widely in his work; he and his music were particularly well received in England, where audiences appreciated the elegance and good taste of his compositions.

Although Mendelssohn is considered part of the Romantic movement, he remained a musical conservative throughout his life; his compositions stay close to the formal structures of the classical era. He actively promoted the revival of historical masterpieces such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn’s own output includes symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, concertos, overtures, and many pieces for solo piano.

In another parallel to Mozart, Mendelssohn died young. His health deteriorating from travel and overwork and his spirits broken by his beloved sister Fanny’s death, Mendelssohn died from a series of strokes at age thirty-eight. His String Quartet Op. 44 No. 1 in D Major was composed in 1838, when the composer was twenty-nine. The quartet is one of a set of three written during Mendelssohn’s honeymoon and first year of marriage to his wife Cécile, and one of only six published during the composer’s lifetime.

The first movement in particular showcases the composer’s gift for the traditional art of counterpoint. His use of sequencing and motivic development creates a tight-knit composition with a wide emotional range. The same compact musical materials are in Mendelssohn’s hands at one moment lively and joyful, the next stormy and agitated, the next calm and elegant, then again carefree and playful.

A graceful minuet, the second movement is lush and restful after the complexity of the first movement. The trio features the first violin with a solemn melody, the rest of the ensemble accompanying with long sustained chords. The other instruments then adopt this virtuosic line as a subject in counterpoint.

Mendelssohn explores another textural possibility in the third movement, using pizzicato accompaniment in the two lower voices with a running staccato line and mournful melody in the violins above. As the lower voices return to bowing the texture fills out, becoming more complex. The movement is brought to a close by the first violin’s unaccompanied cadenza, the long final trill calling the other instruments to join in.

The fourth movement is a perfect example of the buoyant spirit of Mendelssohn’s musical genius; the lightening-fast triplets of the effervescent melody build tension before relaxing into a more graceful, lyrical section. As the finale nears its close the texture becomes very complex and contrapuntal, combining several different motives.

«Entr’amis» Variations for String Quartet and Piano
Canadian composer Stewart Grant (b. 1948) was born in Ontario and raised in Québec. After completing his studies as an oboist at McGill University and the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, he performed with such ensembles as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company, and the National Ballet. In 1978, Grant became the Music Director of the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for sixteen years.

During his time in Lethbridge, Grant established the resident professional ensemble Musaeus; for his work he received the Heinz Unger Award from the Association of Canadian Orchestras. He has composed for many prominent Canadian artists and ensembles, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Chamber choir, and contralto Maureen Forrester. The piece «Entr’amis» Variations for String Quartet and Piano was inspired by the suggestion of the composer’s friend, violinist Luis Grinhaus, that he compose a piece for Musica Camerata Montréal.

Grant writes, “The centrepiece of this work consists of a set of variations on an original theme in which each variation focuses on one of the instruments in the ensemble.” Following a short introduction, the theme is presented as a tango featuring the two violins. At turns mysterious and dynamic, the dance winds through many twists and turns before the viola takes up the theme for the gentle, dreamy second variation. Suspended above soft sustained chords in the other strings, the viola floats as if outside of time.

Featuring the piano, the third variation is lively and energetic, with jazz-influenced, lilting rhythms. The cello is featured with a lyrical, melancholy line in the fourth variation. A bright, spirited fugue, the final variation brings together all of the instruments as they enter with the subject one by one.

Quintet in A Major Op. 81 for String Quartet and Piano
The music of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is a good example of the Nationalism that swept Europe during the Romantic era. Along with his predecessor Bedřich Smetana, Dvořák founded a Bohemian tradition of composition at a time when Bohemia and Moravia were under the power of the Austrian Empire. Dvořák’s compositions mix folk materials with the Western classical traditions of motivic development (in the tradition of Brahms), and harmonic expansion (in the Wagnerian style).

Best known for his symphonies and concertos, his opera Rusalka, and his cycle of Gypsy Songs, Dvořák also composed in the genre of chamber music. His Quintet in A Major Op. 81 for String Quartet and Piano, written in 1887, draws on the styles and forms of Czech folk music, but does not include any authentic folk melodies.

The first movement begins with a lovely melody played by the cello, and a serene accompaniment in the piano. This tranquil theme is interrupted by a second, more agitated theme, introduced by the other strings, which calms momentarily in the development section as the piano and strings trade phrases back and forth. The influence of folk music becomes very clear as the music gains momentum, rushing towards the recapitulation.

The second movement is a Dumka, a folk song form featuring a slow, sorrowful refrain with more cheerful interjections. The pensive main theme is introduced in the piano, and then taken by the viola as the other instruments join in. A lively theme with pizzicato accompaniment presents a contrast to the slower Dumka refrain. Each time the Dumka returns, Dvořák varies the texture, changing the mood.

Dvořák’s folk roots appear most clearly in the third movement, which takes the form of a Furiant, a wild Bohemian folk dance. The movement begins with the string quartet playing unaccompanied, highlighting the strong folk influence. Throughout, the instruments trade phrases: first the violin takes the melody, then the piano, then the cello is featured, and the piano once again.

The Finale is a lively polka, featuring energetic piano lines. Following the more lyrical second theme, Dvořák employs fugal techniques in the development section – this mixing of folk-like materials and traditional Western compositional methods is typical of Dvořák’s music. Introduced by the strings, the animated fugue subject is passed from instrument to instrument, the texture becoming more complex. In the coda Dvořák introduces a serene chorale – actually a clever treatment of the main theme in augmentation – but then speeds to the finish.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers