Featuring scintillating musical gems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Waltz King Johann Strauss II, and imitator extraordinaire Fritz Kreisler, this concert brings a slice of Vienna coffeehouse culture to Southern Alberta. Add an additional spring to your step with an evening of classics presented by perennial favourites Musaeus string quartet, with guest Gabriel Kastelic on viola!
If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).
Extra C – Kaffee Konzert
Johannes Brahms – String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111
Johannes Brahms had a diverse musical upbringing, having been a dancehall pianist and a protégé of Robert Schumann before establishing himself as a composer. Early reception of his work was mixed, as some considered it too old-fashioned, but by the end of his life he was widely recognized as one of Europe’s greatest composers. Brahms became a Viennese celebrity after moving there in 1862, so much so that local press would often report visits to his favourite tavern and his mannerism of walking with his arms behind his back.
By the time Brahms decided to write his second string quintet he was tired of composition. Intending the piece as his swan song, he sketched it out as a grand fifth symphony, but then reworked it as a quintet. After finishing in 1890, he was wooed back to composition by clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose characteristic playing proved inspirational for the remainder of Brahms’s output. Though his retirement lasted less than a year, the quintet has all the grace and depth one would expect of a giant’s grand finale.
The original symphonic intent of the piece is apparent in the first movement’s soaring cello line and shimmering higher parts. Its energy is cooled in the second movement, which embraces a deliberate and tense Adagio tempo. High violin lines in the following movement give us no respite, though it ends tranquilly. The final movement presents a mysterious character contrasted by a reassuring return to the tonic key, a definitive Brahms device of dual character that ushered him into short-lived retirement.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – String Quartet in D Minor KV 421
Few names are as synonymous with the brilliance of classical music as Mozart’s. After holding a court position with Salzburg’s Archbishop, he relocated to Vienna after a harsh falling out with his employer. Despite prolific output and popular acclaim there, he could never establish financial security or steady patronage, dying after ten years in the Austrian capital at age 35.
This String Quartet is the second of six Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn. It is the only one of them written in a minor key, this having to do with Mozart’s personal circumstances during its conception in 1783. At the time, Mozart’s wife Constanze was in the throes of labour with the couple’s first child, a son who died in infancy. As though channeling the agony of his wife and the grief of losing a child, Mozart indulges in much gloomier sonorities than is typical for his music.
A steady pulse of repeated notes compliments the crying of the violin in the first movement, while the bounce of the minuet gives the third movement an edge, tempered by the trio’s cheerful pizzicatos.
Franz Schubert – String Quartet in A Minor D. 804
Though poor finances and health, and a string of failed stage works hurt his spirits, 1824 was a difficult yet productive year for Schubert. Nicknamed the Rosamunde after a failed play for which he wrote incidental music, a theme from that score serves as the basis for the melody in the quartet’s second movement.
The third movement of the quartet also quotes heavily from a previous work. Its initial descending dotted rhythm parallels another such motif found in Die Götter Griechenlands, a lied whose sad, nostalgic lyrics by Friedrich Schiller likely appealed to Schubert’s embittered state of mind. The minuet’s melody unfolds along two registers, alternating in call and response between upper and lower voices. The trio’s opening repeats the opening motif in inversion, this time ascending as the piece moves to the parallel major. The melody is spelled out in the violin’s flowing eighth notes, with the lower voices providing harmonic support in longer tones before returning to the minuet.
Fritz Kreisler – Liebesfreud & Liebesleid
The magnitude of Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler’s talent enabled him to practice his craft across several frontiers, though he encountered many challenges early on. After touring America at 13 with only mild success he gave up the violin with the intention of pursing medicine. He studied for five years before dropping out and returning to the violin with renewed vigour. Amazingly, he didn’t need to work too hard to reignite his career, as he had an ability to play the most demanding repertoire with little to no practice; a skill that won him significant acclaim. Brief residencies in New York, Berlin, and Paris preceded his permanent relocation to the first, where he would die an icon for twentieth century violinists.
Kreisler’s oeuvre was a sore point for critics in his lifetime. Much of his work imitated the writing of past composers so well that he successfully passed off several of his pieces as originals of earlier masters. This was much to the ire of academics, whose efforts at serious research he frequently befuddled.
Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy) and Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) are two of his most famous imitations, credited to the early nineteenth century waltz composer Joseph Lanner. The pieces contrast one another, presenting an unabashed celebration of love’s triumphs in the former and a pining waltz in the latter.
Johann Strauss II – Wiener Blut
As the son of one of Vienna’s star composers, one might expect that Johann Strauss II would face little opposition in continuing the family legacy. Surprisingly, the biggest hurdle to his career was his father, whose insistence that his son should pursue the stable field of banking sidetracked the composer in his youth. Despite excelling at finance, Strauss was always more firmly invested in music, eventually returning to its court, where he would be dubbed the Waltz King.
Strauss composed Wiener Blut in 1873, by which point his work had become the crowd-pleasing playlist of dancehalls across Europe. This work, however, is a very local affair, with its title (Viennese Blood) proposing itself as the life source of his home culture. The piece’s premiere also marked Strauss’s debut performance with the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic, likely encouraging him to further capture the City of Music in moving triple meter.
A highly ornamented introduction invites us to the dance as the tempo is quickly established. The piece’s heavenly bliss is refreshingly light, rousing simple pleasure from its familiar meter. Strauss ends the waltz in a fury of speed, as though demanding the dancers hasten the inevitable and bid goodnight to an evening of revelry.
Notes by Zain Solinski