By Chris Morrison
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
A biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Those biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades, his stormy love affairs, and his famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output, one of the monuments of music history. He transformed the musical forms of his day, extending the range and depth of expression available to composers. In his teens he was already composing and playing in orchestras. By his twenties, both his compositions and piano playing had garnered considerable attention. Around the age of thirty, Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness, but soon thereafter began the second, or “middle,” of his creative periods, which included groundbreaking works like the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new depth and freedom.
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”
Duration: 21 minutes
Beethoven’s evolution as a composer is clearly on display in his sixteen string quartets. But the demarcation between his “early,” “middle,” and “late” periods isn’t always so obvious. For instance, the last of the so-called “middle” quartets, Op. 95, to which Beethoven gave the title “Quartett Serioso,” is quite an experimental work. Many of its features turn up again in his even more daring “late” quartets – a more adventuresome approach to tonality, greater dissonance, ambiguous meters, sudden changes of character, a distinctive use of silence. Beethoven knew that Op. 95 was unusual, writing that it was designed “for a small circle of connoisseurs” and “never to be performed in public.”
The terse idea that opens the first movement is followed by a second, lyrical melody in the violas, soon taken up by cellos and second violins. In this shortest first movement in all of Beethoven’s quartets, he moves quickly through the initial exposition of the melodies as well as their development and recapitulation. Arnold Schoenberg pointed out that the first movement, as well as the main theme of the second, is suffused by the phrase D-flat–C–D–E, heard in many different forms.
After the energy and tension of the first movement, the second, or at least its beginning and ending, comes as a welcome respite. Beethoven here moves from the home key of F minor to distant D major. The movement is in a symmetrical AB-BA form, with A being song-like, and B a contrapuntal fugato with unusual harmonies and greater intensity. An odd chord intrudes on the conclusion, leading without pause into the third movement. While it is marked “vivace ma serioso” (“lively but serious”), the third movement returns to the fierce, unsettled tone of the first, with a dolorous march at its center.
Beethoven employs sonata-rondo form for the Finale; its ABACBA arrangement surprisingly drops the typical repetition of the A material between C and B. After the drama of most of this movement, including the wrenching slow opening and the anxiety of what follows, an even greater surprise comes with the incongruously lighthearted ending. One commentator says that the “comic-opera ending” is “absurdly and deliberately unrelated to the ‘quartett serioso’ – the true Shakespearean touch,” and another calls it “what might be the greatest musical punch line of all time.”
Born: March 11, 1921, Mar Del Plata, Argentina
Died: July 5, 1992, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Astor Piazzolla was almost single-handedly responsible for taking what was once a regional folk dance, the tango, and making it famous all over the world. Piazzolla’s family moved to New York when he was three. He grew up listening to his father’s tango records, while also encountering the city’s wide range of jazz and classical music. At eight he received his first bandoneón, the button accordion on which he became a virtuoso. After his family returned to Argentina in 1936, Piazzolla found employment in a dance orchestra. Eventually he won a scholarship that allowed him to study in Paris with famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He took to heart her advice to use his classical and jazz training to revitalize the tango, creating what came to be known as “nuevo tango.” Although his early efforts won the scorn of traditionalists, he continued to experiment, forming groups with which he recorded and performed all over the world, working with jazz musicians like Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton and classical musicians such as Mstislav Rostropovich and the Kronos Quartet, and composing for orchestras and film.
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro estaciones portenas)
Duration: 25 minutes
The Cuatro estaciones porteñas – the last word an adjective meaning “port city” (in this case Buenos Aires) – shares with Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons the concept of depicting the seasons musically in four separate works. Written over some seven years, the sections of Piazzolla’s work weren’t originally meant to be played together, but were only later combined. Alejandro Drago has described Piazzolla’s Seasons as “purely abstract music, passionate, tuneful, dark, romantic, rhythmic, imbued with the spirit of everything connoted by the word ‘tango.’”
Piazzolla originally scored his Four Seasons for his own group, a quintet made up of bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar, and bass. But he was known for rearranging his music for whatever ensemble he was involved with at a particular time. The first arrangement of his work for classical ensemble dates from 1991, Jaques Morelenbaum’s for woodwind quintet, three cellos, and double bass. There are many other arrangements, featuring solo piano, piano trio, flute and piano, orchestra, choir, and more. Perhaps the most famous is that for solo violin and string orchestra by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, commissioned by violinist Gidon Kremer in the 1990s to act as a companion to his concert performances of Vivaldi’s Seasons.
While Vivaldi’s concertos are all in the traditional three-movement, fast-slow-fast, form, Piazzolla’s Seasons are each single movements, although they encompass contrasting sections and moods. Desyatnikov wove several clever references to Vivaldi into Piazzolla’s music, which is not illustrative like Vivaldi’s, but more generally evocative of these times of year in Buenos Aires. Piazzolla’s cycle begins with summer, moves through autumn and winter, and ends with spring.
“Summer” (“Otoño Porteño,” 1969) features propulsive tango rhythms and expressive slides. Recalling that when it is winter in Vivaldi’s Italy, it is summer in Piazzolla’s Argentina, Desyatnikov alludes to Vivaldi’s “Winter” Concerto here, but only to lead into more languorous music. Dance rhythms erupt again, with slapping strings in the background, and the movement closes with another Vivaldi allusion and a long slide.
“Autumn” (“Verano Porteño,” 1964) was the earliest of these four pieces, derived from incidental music for a play. Another propulsive opening leads into a long, expressive cello solo that evolves into a melancholy song. Other solos eventually lead back to the song, turning edgy and energetic at the close.
A new, similarly melancholy song, with solos by the violin and other principals, opens “Winter” (“Invierno Porteño,” 1970). Slow and sultry, this music also provides the violin soloist opportunities for virtuoso display. Quotes from Vivaldi’s “Summer” (simultaneous with the Southern Hemisphere’s winter) occasionally weave their way into the fabric. A furious interlude leads back to the song, this time with a fuller, more polyphonic accompaniment. After a violin solo over a walking bass that gradually fills out, a Vivaldi-like dialogue acts as charming coda.
“Spring” (“Primavera Porteña,” 1970) opens with a variant of a Vivaldi tune in the form of an energetic fugue. The peaceful central section likewise evokes Vivaldi and the Baroque era. Then it’s back to the opening music. A showy cadenza for violin over stabbing accompaniment provides a brilliant conclusion. (Sometimes heard at the very end of the piece is an optional, ghostly quotation of the main tune from the first movement of Vivaldi”s “Spring.”)
Born: 1993, Atlanta, Georgia
TJ Cole has been commissioned and had her music performed by the Baltimore Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, and a host of other orchestras and ensembles. She worked with Time for Three as an orchestrator and arranger, and served as a composer-in-residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in 2014. That same year, she won an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer award. She has been involved with several music-related community outreach projects, including a year-long ArtistYear Fellowship (2016-17), with performances and workshops, with residents of Project HOME, a Philadelphia-based organization fighting to end chronic homelessness. She received her Bachelor’s degree in composition from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Jennifer Higdon, David Ludwig, and Richard Danielpour.
Death of the Poet
Duration: 11 minutes
According to TJ Cole’s SoundCloud page, Death of the Poet was inspired by the painting Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner by Conrad Felixmüller. Felixmüller (1897-1977), a founding member of Dresden Succession, a group of Expressionist artists, later became associated with the New Objectivity movement that was a reaction against the extremes of Expressionism. Among his friends was poet Walter Rheiner (1895-1925). Felixmüller had helped to get Rheiner published, and created illustrations for many of his works, When Rheiner – who had become addicted to drugs, depicted in his 1918 novella Kokain – died from an overdose in 1925, Felixmüller painted Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner. Housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, it depicts a seemingly contented man in a dark suit, blowing a kiss as he leaps from a window against the backdrop of a dark Berlin night scene in saturated reds and eerie greens and yellows. Potted geraniums are below his feet, and he clutches at the window curtains with one hand while holding a syringe (or a pen?) in the other.
Mysterious swelling chords begin Cole’s work, over which a rocking figure is introduced and expands. The tone is elegiac, the music’s intensity ebbing and flowing. A descending figure begins to dominate, repeating over a pizzicato tread from the low strings. Anguished phrases build to a climax, then subside for the work’s quiet closing moments that recall the chords of the work’s opening.
Born: September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague, Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Possibly the greatest composer ever from what is now known as the Czech Republic, Antonín Dvořák brought a distinctive, nationalistic ethos to his music, employing folk influences (melodies and dance rhythms as well as legends and stories) as inspiration throughout his considerable catalog of music, which includes ten operas, nine symphonies, thirteen string quartets, and a host of other symphonic, chamber and vocal compositions. Early on he made a living as a violist and organist, writing his first symphonies and chamber works in his spare time, but by the 1870s, with the encouragement and assistance of Johannes Brahms, he was able to devote himself almost entirely to composition. From 1892 to 1895 Dvořák, by then one of Europe’s most celebrated composers, lived in the United States, serving as director of New York’s new National Conservatory. He was inspired by the African American and Native American music he heard there to write his famous “American” Quartet and “New World” Symphony.
Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22
Duration: 27 minutes
Dvořák’s composing career was comparatively slow to develop, and he had to continue teaching as well as playing viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra, of which he’d been a member since 1861, to pay the bills. But by 1875, the year of the String Serenade, he had reached a fruitful place in both his personal and professional careers. As to the former, he married Anna Čermáková in 1873. Their first child, Otakar, was born in 1874, and their second, Josefa, the year after. Professionally, he had left the Theater Orchestra in 1871, and he and his family struggled financially until he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for composition in February 1875, which came with a significant cash stipend. Apparently the prestige that came with the Prize, as well as the additional financial security, spurred Dvořák on, and 1875 proved to be one of his most productive years, seeing him complete his opera Vanda as well as the Symphony No. 5, String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1, and Moravian Duets. Also from 1875 is his String Serenade, completed in just twelve days in May of that year and premiered in Prague on December 10, 1876.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the serenade (and similar compositions with titles like divertimento and cassation) was a popular musical form. Its sequence of lighthearted, often dance-like movements typically accompanied civic functions, parties, and other social occasions. That model gradually disappeared as the nineteenth century began, but was occasionally resurrected, as with Dvořák’s lovely work. His Serenade is in five movements, the first four of which are a simple A-B-A structure, followed by a Finale in a slightly more ambitious yet compact sonata-allegro form.
The second violins and cellos introduce the lovely main theme of the opening Moderato. After a repeat of the theme by the second violins over a pulse from the violas, a new dance-like idea emerges, before the opening music returns at the end. A slow waltz, the second movement is colored by some melancholy minor key harmonies.
The lively third movement is largely dominated by the theme heard at the beginning. This music’s high spirits are quite a contrast to the following Larghetto, flowing and wistful music that incorporates quotations of an idea from the second movement. Dvořák’s love of the folk music of his region emerges strongly in the Finale, which opens with a descending figure, leading into a call-and-response between the violins and cellos. The main melody of the preceding Larghetto appears briefly before a review of all the movement’s main melodies. After a reminiscence of the Serenade’s opening, a fast-paced coda and a trio of E major chords brings the work to a close.
Chris Morrison is Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Public Radio.