Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- Duo in G, K. 423, for violin & viola
Mozart’s relationship with the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, was never a cordial one. The Archbishop regarded court musicians as members of his household staff, obliged to serve at the whim of the master. Mozart, feeling increasingly resentful and constricted, finally submitted his resignation in 1781. Afterwards, he wrote to his father, “I am no longer so unfortunate as to be in Salzburg’s services – today was that happy day for me.” The tense relationship between the composer and the prince ended ingloriously; the archbishop’s chief steward, Count Arco, dismissed the unruly musician with a “kick in the behind,” as Mozart reported to his father.
In the summer of 1783, Mozart returned to Salzburg for the first time since his break with Archbishop Colloredo. It was a nervous visit for Mozart, who was bringing his new wife, Constanze, to meet his father for the first time. In a letter he expressed concern that the archbishop might have him arrested. While in Salzburg, Mozart found the court music director, Michael Haydn (the younger brother of Joseph), suffering from a protracted illness and unable to complete a commission from the Archbishop for six duos for violin and viola. The impatient Archbishop had threatened to cut off Haydn’s salary until the two remaining duos were complete.
As a favor to his old friend, Mozart composed the missing duos and gave them to Hadyn to pass off as his own. The two resulting works, in G and B-flat major, received more praise than the other four. It must have given Mozart an ironic pleasure to know that his old enemy Colleredo was unwittingly enjoying the music of his despised former employee.
Mozart was a skillful player of both instruments, although his preference was for the viola. The Duo in G reflects this preference, as he treats the lower instrument as a full partner in the musical discourse, rather than relegating it to its more familiar role as an accompanying voice. The first movement features a sparkling interchange between the two instruments. The lyrical slow movement is built on an aria-like main idea, reflecting Mozart’s lifelong love of opera and the human voice. The liting Rondo is a movement of great charm and virtuosity. Although composed in a lighter vein, as befit the style of his older musical colleague, Mozart’s effortless mastery shines through at every turn, often bringing to mind the writing in his earlier masterpiece for solo violin and viola, Symphonie Concertante.
Edvard Grieg – Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, for cello and piano
Arguably the most popular composer ever to emerge from the Scandinavian peninsula, Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1843. He received his formal musical education at the Leipzig Conservatory, but he did not find his unique musical voice until returning to Scandinavia after his graduation. There, Grieg was strongly influenced by Rikard Nordraak, the composer of the Norwegian national anthem. Nordraak’s obsession with the sagas, fjords and music of their homeland inspired Grieg to believe that a form of national music was also possible. He studied and drew inspiration from Norwegian folk music and is today considered a leading musical voice of Norwegian nationalism. Nevertheless, Grieg wrote that "music which matters, however national it may be, is lifted high above the purely national level." Indeed, his music was admired by many of the most respected composers of his day, including Franz Liszt and Peter Tchaikovsky, both of whom offered their encouragement and approval.
History has branded Grieg as a composer of delightful miniatures, owing largely to the popularity of such well-known works as his Holberg Suite and incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. This impression, however, is belied by the massive scale of his cello sonata, one of the most passionate and expansively Romantic sonatas ever composed for the instrument. Grieg dedicated the piece to his brother John, an amateur cellist with whom he had not been on a good terms for some time. Unfortunately, there was no reconciliation, and it was another cellist, Ludwig Gritzmacher, who premiered the work with Grieg at the piano on October 22, 1883.
Perhaps reflecting the pain of the brotherly separation, the first movement begins with a brooding, agitated theme, which quickly dissolves into a tender second theme more characteristic of Grieg – warmly lyrical, very Norwegian. The movement has a wide emotional range, heightened by the unusual inclusion of a mini cadenza for the cellist.
The lyrical Andante draws its opening theme from an Homage March composed by Grieg as incidental music to a play about King Sigurd Jorsalfar of Norway. (The march was originally scored for four cellos.) There is a stormy middle section before the processional theme returns at the end of the movement.
The final movement begins with a brief recitative-cadenza for solo cello, which ushers in a vigorously rustic folk dance. As in the first movement, the finale traces a huge expressive trajectory. Although the sonata has no known extra-musical program, it creates a strongly narrative impression and represents Grieg at his most intense and passionate.
Robert Schumann – Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, for piano and strings
Schumann tended to explore specific musical genres extensively before exhausting the possibilities and moving on to other compositional styles. For instance, the years 1831-1839 were devoted almost exclusively to piano music, while in 1840 he composed over 160 songs, inspired by his happy marriage to Clara Wieck and their new life together in Leipzig. In 1841 he shifted his attention to large orchestral works, composing the first of his symphonies and his piano concerto. The year 1842 is often called Schumann’s “Year of Chamber Music.” In a six-month burst of creativity, he composed six major chamber works: his three string quartets, Op. 41, the Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, the Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, and a Piano Trio in A minor, later to be published as Fantasiestücke, Op. 88.
The Piano Quartet in E-flat was composed between October 25 and November 26, 1842. Dedicated to Count Matvei Weilhorsky, an amateur cellist, it features prominent solos for that instrument, especially in the lyrical third movement. Schumann’s true source of inspiration, however, was the brilliant piano playing of his beloved wife, Clara. Throughout the work, the piano is kept constantly in the spotlight. Clara was delighted by the quartet, writing in her diary, “[It is] a beautiful work, so youthful and fresh, as if it were his first.”
A model of concision, the quartet blends Schumann’s deeply Romantic spirit with his fascination for the contrapuntal techniques of his Leipzig predecessor, Johann Sebastian Bach. The first movement begins with a mysterious, floating, four-note figure, which is suddenly transformed into a crisp, forward-moving gesture that permeates the remainder of the movement. This compact motive combines with a flowing, linear melody in the piano that interacts conversationally with the three string instruments.
The Scherzo is nimble and hushed, emulating the atmosphere of the scherzos of Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Leipzig friend and colleague. Two contrasting trios are laced with elements of the initial Scherzo, giving the short movement a seamless, unbroken motion.
The song-like third movement is the emotional high point of the quartet, beginning with a sweetly yearning cello melody that evolves into a tender duet with the violin. A chorale-like middle section forms a bridge back to the initial melody, now heard in the viola and surrounded by a filigree of violin figuration. The ethereal coda features a sustained “pedal” B-flat in the cello, which, unusually, requires the cellist to stealthily tune the instrument’s low C string down a whole-step.
The Finale demonstrates Schumann’s skill as a contrapuntalist. Clara and Robert often enjoyed analyzing Bach’s fugues together. In the early 1840s she wrote in her diary, “Our fugal studies continue. Every time we play one it becomes more interesting for me. Such great art with such a natural flow.” The final movement of the Piano Quartet reflects their passion for Bach, beginning with a vigorous fugue subject in the viola, which is then taken up by the piano and finally the violin. (The absence of a cello entrance of the fugue subject may be intended to give the cellist additional time to retune the lowest string.) The polyphonic writing quickly gives way to freely lyrical and syncopated passages that recall themes from the earlier movements. The final movement displays Schumann’s unique blend of Romantic and Baroque textures and brings the work to an exuberant conclusion.
- Michael Parloff