The music presented in our first performance of the season covers one of the deepest lows of Shostakovich’s life, some of the music Dvořák wrote that was most successful during his lifetime, plus a little Brahms and Monti to round out this spicy program.


Chamber Series 1 :: Gypsy Love

Folk music, in particular the Eastern European and Romani traditions, has long fascinated more mainstream European society; in the eighteenth century, classical composers turned to these exotic influences to bring an air of mystery or a tone of rustic vigour to their compositions.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is best known today for his innovative symphonies and string quartets. His String Quartet Op. 54, No. 2 in C Major is particularly adventurous for its time, exploring a wide harmonic palette. Written while he was working as Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy court, the work is one of his ‘Tost’ quartets, three sets of quartets written for Johann Tost, a skilled violinist previously employed at the Esterhazy court.

The cheerful, lively opening of the first movement explores a wide variety of key areas. The second movement, marked Adagio, opens with a graceful melody in the minor mode, followed by an extended feature of the first violin. The highly ornamented line references an earlier Baroque style of ornamentation as the other instruments continue the long-breathed melody.

The second movement moves attacca into the minuet; Haydn maximizes the contrast between the sophisticated, somewhat antique second movement and the intentionally rustic Menuetto (itself a subversion of the traditionally aristocratic minuet into a country dance). As if to mock an awkward bumpkin attempting to ape the finesse of the nobility, Haydn incorporates bold unison lines and an unexpectedly brief and abrupt end to the theme.

Returning to perfect refinement, the Adagio of the final movement features a dialogue between an elegant melody in the first violin and extended arpeggios in the cello. The following Presto is playful, avoiding a clear final cadence through unexpected rests and harmonic divergences; the Adagio then returns to close the quartet gracefully.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) spent most of his career under the oppressive Soviet regime; he wrote hisString Quartet Op. 83, No. 4 in D Major shortly after being officially denounced by the government for the second time. Written in 1949, this string quartet was one of the pieces Shostakovich wrote for his own private artistic satisfaction, hoping that one day it might be performed; these works, written ‘for the drawer’, allowed him to remain true to his musical values while still composing ‘public’ pieces of somewhat lesser musical value for official consumption.

This particular quartet, which was not performed until 1953, one year after Stalin’s death, features winding counterpoint lines typical of Shostakovich, as well as strong Jewish folk influences. Although folk influence was normally a vehicle to show solidarity with proletarian ideals, his long-standing interest in Jewish folk music became a liability as Stalin’s post-war policies became more openly anti-Semitic.

The first movement opens cheerfully in a lush, pastoral mood, an extended octave drone evoking folk instruments. The composer begins to introduce counterpoint, the texture becoming more complex and dissonant. Towards the end of the movement the music calms, ending on a more restful note, though slightly wistful. Featuring the first violin in a waltz with accompaniment, the second movement is poignant, as if the melody were a bittersweet memory of bygone days.

The perpetual energy of the third movement is propelled forward by restless staccatos; the mood is nervous and anticipatory. Adopting a folk-like melody, the composer introduces it at first in unison, then again accompanied by a more driving rhythm. Marked attacca, this movement is linked to the next by a sustained C in the viola.

The longest movement, the fourth movement also features the most obvious use of Jewish themes. A dance of lamentation, Shostakovich evokes a common feature of Jewish music, in which unspeakable tragedy is expressed through a wild, energetic dance. Typical of Shostakovich, the tone borders on the grotesque; however, rather than building to a dramatic finish, the dance fades out slowly, ending with a solemn, chorale-like passage.

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) often incorporated folk influences in his music, integrating them into a Western classical Romantic style. His music combines a gift for melody with skill in the Germanic tradition of counterpoint and thematic development. Composed in 1880, Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs set poems from a collection by Adolf Heyduk to music; the poet did his own translations.

These songs reflect a fashion at the time for exoticism; the traditionally ‘gypsy’ values of freedom, closeness to nature, and fiery passion appealed to the Romantic spirit. In his song cycle, Dvořák does not attempt to use authentic Romani music, but rather evokes an exotic mood through more general stylization. For example, the songs are largely strophic, with variations between the stanzas. There are folk elements in the rhythms and melodies, as well as allusions in the accompaniments to the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer associated with folk music ensembles.

In “Mein Lied ertönt” the singer longs for his homeland, and yet revels in the freedom of a nomadic lifestyle. Dvořák’s melody has all the charm of an authentic folk song; the mood is wild and bold, but turns soft at the mention of the singer’s homeland. “Ei, wie mein Triangel” is a passionate dance, flying in the face of looming death. Dvořák paints this defiance in the accompaniment, the cheerful ringing of the triangle mocking death’s gloomy shadow.

In the third song, “Rings ist der Wald”, inner sorrow causes the singer’s tears; the song allows the singer to share his sorrow, and thus the sorrow lives on. The composer’s setting is melancholy, and perhaps the most conventionally Romantic of the songs. By far the best known of Dvořák’s songs, “Als die alte Mutter” is a poignant text commenting on the circular nature of life and the timelessness of tradition. Set to a haunting melody and lilting accompaniment, the singer remembers his mother’s tears as he teaches his own children the folk songs of their forefathers.

“Reingestimmt die Saiten” is a furious dance, the singer urging a young man to twirl with abandon. In “In dem weiten”, the singer admires his simple clothing, which he praises as having more freedom than any rich man’s embroidered suit. The text’s smugness is evident in the composer’s playfully mischievous setting. “Horstet hoch der Habicht” is an ode to freedom, the singer rejecting a golden cage, preferring to embrace the hardships of the travelling life. The composer varies the singer’s stanzas, interspersing each reiteration with a lively interjection from the piano.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a strong champion of Dvořák’s work. He himself drew from folk material for his extremely popular Hungarian Dances, a set of pieces originally for piano; the Dances were later orchestrated, some by Brahms himself and others by his contemporaries, including Dvořák. Unlike Dvořák, Brahms drew from authentic folk material for these pieces; in fact, the famous melody from No. 5 is based on an original composition, which Brahms mistakenly believed was a traditional folk song.

In No. 5, Brahms employs strong contrasts, changing quickly between different textures, dynamics and moods. The main theme features a distinctive minor key melody. Exploring a different mood, the middle section features a cheerful major tonality and strong, pastoral-sounding chords, followed by a return of the lively first theme. No. 6 opens with a playful, lilting melody, but Brahms soon surprises with a more exuberant dance tune. Following a short middle section, more solemn in tone, the opening returns with its strong rhythmic vitality.

Ironically, non-Hungarian composers wrote some of the best-known ‘Hungarian’ music. Czardas, by Italian composer Vittorio Monti (1868-1922), is perhaps the most recognizable example of its genre, a Hungarian dance form popularized by ‘gypsy’ orchestras.

Although the Czardas has its roots in the verbunkos, a folk dance used to recruit peasants, it is not an authentic folk dance, but rather a popular form spread by the upper class’s interest in exoticism. By the end of the century it had become standardized into a slow, solemn section in duple time called the lassu, and a fast section called thefriss. Monti’s Czardas is a true showpiece. The lassu is solemn, dramatic and virtuosic, and the friss is played at lightning speed. Each section returns once more, finishing with a flourish.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers