Program notes by Eric Bromberger
Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, Opus 6
Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died January 23, 1981, New York City
Samuel Barber appears to have been a natural musician. He began piano studies at age 6, was composing at 7, became a church organist as a teenager, and was so accomplished a baritone that he gave recitals in the United States and Europe, made recordings, and considered a career as a singer. In addition, he studied the cello, and while he was never an active cellist, he retained a lifelong fondness for that instrument.
Barber studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from 1924 until 1932, and he composed his Cello Sonata during his final year there. But the Cello Sonata is in no sense a student work. Already Barber had developed the lyric and dramatic style that characterizes his best work, and he was in these years carried along on a burst of incredible creativity: the previous year had seen the composition of his Overture to The School for Scandal, and over the next few years would come Music for a Scene from Shelley, the First Symphony, and the Adagio for Strings. The Cello Sonata was first performed in New York City on March 5, 1933, four days before the composer’s 23rd birthday. The cellist was Orlando Cole, cellist of the Curtis Quartet, and the composer was at the piano.
Barber’s fondness for the cello is evident in the idiomatic writing throughout this sonata (he would, in 1945, also write a Cello Concerto). This sonata, which has become one of the most frequently-performed chamber works by an American, needs little detailed comment. The music’s impassioned character is made clear by Barber’s many performance instructions in the score: agitato, intenso, molto appassionato, risoluto, energico, con fuoco. This is an extremely dramatic work, and much of its power comes from Barber’s decision to keep the cello in its resonant lower register, where it can generate a great deal of power.
The dramatic first movement is built on two theme-groups. The first comes at the very beginning, where the cello soars up from the depths of its range; the second, much more lyric, is also announced by the cello. The development section is animated, and at points Barber gives the cello passages of unusual rhythmic freedom; after all the turbulence, however, the ending is quite restrained. The second movement, in ABA form, combines slow movement and scherzo. It opens with a very brief (nine-bar) Adagio; this gives way to a blistering Presto that rips along its 12/8 meter before the opening material returns to bring the movement to a quiet close. The last movement, aptly titled Allegro appassionato, opens with a piano introduction before the cello makes its impassioned entrance. This is the most animated (and loudest) of the movements, and the piano part–massive, pounding, and chordal–is unusually brilliant for chamber music.
Gaspard de la nuit
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Maurice Ravel had a lifelong fascination with magic and the macabre, and they shaped his music in different ways. While still a student at the Paris Conservatory, he fell in love with a curious book written sixty years earlier: Gaspard de la nuit, a collection of prose-poems by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). Bertrand said that these spooky tales from the middle ages were “after the manner of Callot and Rembrandt” (it was an engraving by Callot–“The Huntsman’s Funeral”–that inspired the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony), and Bertrand gave these tales a further whiff of brimstone by claiming that the manuscript had been delivered to him by a stranger: Gaspard himself, simply an alias for Satan.
Ravel composed his Gaspard de la nuit–a set of three pieces that blend magic, nightmare, and the grotesque–in 1908, at exactly the same time he was writing his collection of luminous fairyland pieces for children, Ma mère l’oye. Ravel’s completed work descends from a curiously mixed artistic ancestry: Bertrand’s prose-poems were originally inspired by the visual arts (paintings, etchings, and woodcuts), and in turn–his imagination enlivened by Bertrand’s literary images–Ravel composed what he called “three poems for piano.” This heterogeneous background makes itself felt in the music, for at its best Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit blends word, image, and sound.
Each of the three pieces in Gaspard de la nuit was inspired by a particular prose-poem, and Ravel included these in the score. But Gaspard de la nuit should not be understood as the attempt to recreate each tale in music; rather, these pieces evoke the particular mood inspired by Bertrand’s prose-poems. Still–there are moments of such detailed scene-painting that one imagines Ravel must have had specific lines in mind as he wrote.
Ondine pictures the water sprite who tempts mortal man to her palace beneath the lake. Ravel’s shimmering music evokes the transparent, transitory surfaces of Bertrand’s text, the final line of which reads: “And when I told her that I was in love with a mortal woman, she began to sulk in annoyance, shed a few tears, gave a burst of laughter, and vanished in a shower of spray which ran in pale drops down my blue window-panes.” It is impossible not to hear a conscious setting of these images over the closing moments of this music, which vanishes as suddenly as the water sprite herself.
Le Gibet (“The Gallows”) evokes quite a different world, and all commentators sense the influence of Poe here (during his American tour of 1928, Ravel made a point of visiting Poe’s house in Baltimore). Bertrand’s text begins with a question: “Ah, what do I hear? Is it the night wind howling, or the hanged man sighing on the gibbet?” He considers other possibilities, all of them horrible, and finally offers the answer: “It is the bell that sounds from the walls of a town beyond the horizon, and the corpse of a hanged man that glows red in the setting sun.” Muted throughout, this piece is built on a constantly-repeated B-flat, whose irregular tolling echoes the sound of that bell.
The concluding Scarbo is a portrait of some bizarre creature–part dwarf, part rogue, part clown–who seems to hover just outside clear focus. The text concludes: “But soon his body would start to turn blue, as transparent as candle wax, his face would grow pale as the light from a candle-end–and suddenly he would begin to disappear.” Ravel’s music–with its torrents of sound, sudden stops, and unexpected close–suggests different appearances of this apparition.
It should be noted that Gaspard de la nuit is music of stupefying difficulty for the performer, and this was by design: Ravel consciously set out to write a work that he said would be more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey, one of the great tests for pianists. He succeeded brilliantly. From the complex (and finger-twisting) chords of Ondine through the dense textures of Le gibet (written on three staves) and the consecutive seconds of Scarbo, Gaspard de la nuit presents hurtles that make simply getting the notes almost impossible. And only then can the pianist set about creating the range of tone color, dynamics, and pacing that bring this evanescent music to life.
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
As he grew older, Brahms became a more confident composer. He remained supremely self-critical throughout his life, but in his maturity he escaped the uncertainty that had led him to spend twenty years composing–and recomposing–his First Symphony. “It is wonderfully difficult to know which notes to allow to slip under the table,” Brahms is reported to have said, and there is evidence that he allowed twenty string quartets and a similar number of violin sonatas to “slip under the table” before he was satisfied enough to publish works in either form.
This self-criticism figured importantly in the composition of the Piano Quintet. Brahms began work on it in the summer of 1862, when he was 29 and still living in Hamburg, but when it was completed that fall, it was for string quintet: string quartet plus an extra cello (Brahms may have had in mind the model of the great String Quintet in C Major of Schubert, a composer he very much admired). This music, though, proved unsuccessful with the friends to whom the composer turned for advice, and in 1864 he recast it as a sonata for two pianos. Once again the work was unsuccessful. Clara Schumann’s letter to Brahms about the two-piano version offers unusual insight: “Its skillful combinations are interesting throughout, it is masterly from every point of view, but–it is not a sonata, but a work whose ideas you might–and must–scatter, as from a horn of plenty, over an entire orchestra . . . Please, dear Johannes, for this once take my advice and recast it.”
Recast it Brahms did, but not for orchestra. Instead he arranged it for piano and string quartet, preserving the dramatic impact of the piano from the two-piano version and combining that with the string sonority of the original quintet. In this form it has come down to us today, one of the masterpieces of Brahms’ early years, and it remains a source of wonder that music that sounds so right in the present version could have been conceived for other combinations of instruments (Brahms published the two-piano version, and it is occasionally heard today, but he destroyed all the parts of the string quintet version).
The Quintet is remarkable for the young composer’s skillful treatment of his themes–several of the movements derive much of their material from simple figures that are then developed ingeniously. The very beginning of the first movement makes clear the scope and strength of this music. In unison, first violin, cello, and piano present the opening theme, which ranges dramatically across four measures and comes to a brief pause. Then the music seems to explode with vitality above an agitated piano figure. But the piano’s rushing sixteenth-notes are simply a restatement of the opening theme at a much faster tempo, and this compression of material marks the entire movement–the opening theme, for example, is presented in many different guises. A dramatic development leads to a quiet coda, marked poco sostenuto; the tempo quickens, and the movement powers its way to the turbulent close.
By contrast, the Andante, un poco Adagio–in ABA form–sings quietly. The piano’s gently-rocking opening theme, lightly echoed by the strings, gives way to a more animated middle section before the opening material reappears, now subtly varied. The C-minor Scherzo returns to the mood of the first movement. The cello’s ominous pizzicato C hammers with quiet insistence throughout, and once again Brahms wrings maximum use from his material: a nervous, stuttering sixteenth-note figure is transformed within seconds into a heroic chorale for massed strings, and later Brahms generates a brief fugal section from this same theme. With the concise trio comes a moment of relief before Brahms makes a da capo repeat of the scherzo.
The finale opens with strings alone, reaching upward in chromatic uncertainty before the Allegro non troppo main theme bursts out in the cello. The movement is a rondo, but this is a rondo with some unusual features: it offers a second theme and sets the rondo theme in unexpected keys. At the close, a haunting passage for quiet strings marked tranquillo leads to the vigorous coda.