Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18 (1887, 28 minutes)

While orchestral music and opera dominated Strauss’s extensive compositional output, he also produced a number of lovely chamber compositions, especially early in his career. Strauss was a very talented prodigy: at the age of sixteen he was labeled “by far the most striking personality since Brahms” by the famous conductor Hans von Bülow, and by twenty Strauss had already produced over seventy compositions, including two symphonies and concertos for violin and horn.

But of all the music he wrote after 1900, only six pieces are for chamber ensembles, and those are mostly arrangements or miniatures. His last major chamber work is the Violin Sonata, roughly a contemporary of his famous early symphonic poem Don Juan. During this same time Strauss was also in the process of falling in love with singer Pauline de Ahna, whom he wed seven years later, and it isn’t much of a stretch to hear both some of those feelings of love, and some of Don Juan’s swagger, in portions of the Violin Sonata. There is a rhapsodic feeling and heroic stride to the opening theme of the first movement. Two other lyrical ideas are presented by the violin, but most of the movement is dedicated to that opening idea. The second movement carries the appellation “Improvisation,” and there is a feeling of spontaneity in the movement’s elegant, flowing song. The violinist performs with mute in part of the movement’s central section. Beginning with a few bars of slow introduction from the piano, the Finale moves forward with energy, virtuoso display, and an almost symphonic breadth of argument.

Zemlinsky: Trio in D minor for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, Op. 3 (1895-96, 28 minutes)

Among Alexander von Zemlinsky’s early teachers was Anton Bruckner, and both Brahms and Mahler championed his music, which encompasses operas, orchestral and chamber music, and songs. Zemlinsky also befriended and taught counterpoint to Arnold Schönberg, who later married Zemlinsky’s sister. Berg, Webern, and Erich Korngold were also among his students. Zemlinsky held conducting posts in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin, but in 1938 World War II forced him to move to the United States, where he spent his last years.

Brahms, who had himself composed a work for clarinet, cello and piano just four years earlier, was particularly impressed with Zemlinsky’s Trio, even asking his publisher Simrock to prepare a printed edition. According to the score, the main theme of the substantial first movement is to be played “Mit Schwung und Wärme” (with swing and warmly). By turns forceful and pensive, certainly Brahmsian, that theme is followed by a melancholy second melody, both of which are developed at some length. After a dramatic climax, melancholy wins out in the movement’s final moments. Opening with a gentle, extended piano solo presenting a theme that is soon taken up by the violin in its upper register, the second movement soon turns dark and dramatic in a rhapsodic central section before the opening music returns. Likewise dramatic in spots is the fast-paced final movement, which seems to derive its main theme from the Brahms Trio in A minor for the same instruments mentioned above. Often dancelike and playful, the music also features some laid-back interludes before the work ends with three abrupt chords.

Chadwick: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (1886-87, 34 minutes)

George Whitefield Chadwick, one of the most prominent American composers of his day and known during his lifetime as the “dean of American composers,” studied at the New England Conservatory. After teaching briefly at Olivet College (and founding the Music Teachers National Association), Chadwick decided to continue his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory. His compositions soon won attention throughout Europe. After completing his studies, he returned to the United States in 1880, eventually becoming director of the New England Conservatory where he taught for 33 years.

Generally busy during the school year, Chadwick did most of his composing during the summer months. Such was the case with his Piano Quintet. The first two movements were composed in 1886 in Nantucket. “The second theme of the first movement,” he recalled, “I worked out while dangling my legs over the end of old Constitution wharf.” The remainder was completed in 1887. Mostly an organist, Chadwick made his public debut as a pianist in the Piano Quintet’s premiere, played in front of a “very swell audience” on January 23, 1888. The piano initially takes the lead in the first movement with a dramatic theme. A second idea, also in the piano, features a lyrical viola solo. Both themes are worked out elaborately. The second movement, writes The Chamber Music Journal, “is gentle and its roots can clearly be found in the music of the late 19th Century Central European era.” The rather Brahms-like Intermezzo frames a passionate central theme with more lyrical music. A moto perpetuo from the piano opens the exciting fourth movement. Short lyrical sections and a fugue only briefly slow the momentum that carries through to the work’s vigorous conclusion.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison