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Suite for two violins, cello, and piano left-hand

February 12, 2023 – Gloria Chien, piano, Benjamin Beilman and Alexi Kenney, violins, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, Mihai Marica, cello

Erich Wolfgang Korngold showed an incredible gift for composition at an early age. Upon hearing him play his cantata Gold in 1907, Gustav Mahler proclaimed him a genius and recommended that he study with Alexander Zemlinsky at the Vienna Conservatory. At age eleven he composed a ballet, Der Schneemann (The Snowman), that was so impressive that Zemlinsky orchestrated and produced it at the Vienna Court Theater in 1910 to sensational acclaim. Richard Strauss was deeply impressed by Korngold’s Schauspiel Ouvertüre (Dramatic Overture, 1911) and Sinfonietta (1912), as was Puccini by his opera Violanta (1916). The pinnacle of Korngold’s early career came at the age of twenty-three when his opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) achieved international recognition. By 1928 a poll by the Neue Wiener Tagblatt considered Korngold and Schoenberg the greatest living composers.

In 1934 director Max Reinhardt took Korngold to Hollywood where the second phase of his career began. There he composed some of the finest film scores ever written—nineteen in all, including such classics as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); he became Hollywood’s highest paid composer at that time. Yet he was caught between two worlds and two eras. He was criticized in some quarters for selling out to Hollywood and for ignoring modern trends in music; in Hollywood he was criticized for writing scores that were too complex.

The Suite, op. 23, was written in 1930, several years before Korngold left for Hollywood and while he was under contract with the Theater-an-der-Wien as an arranger of operettas. His wife Luzi worried that his operetta work would lead to his abandonment of serious music, yet it was that work that had provided a steady enough income for him to marry. He did continue to compose serious works, though in fact their number was dwindling. The Suite, for the unusual combination of two violins, cello, and piano left-hand was written at the request of Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I, and whose financial status enabled him to commission left-hand piano concertos from many of the world’s leading composers. Though the Ravel Concerto has remained the best known, works by Prokofiev, Britten, Richard Strauss, and Franz Schmidt were also commissioned by him. And perhaps more to the point, Korngold had already written a remarkable left-hand Concerto for him in 1923. Though Wittgenstein was often known for his temperamental criticisms and rebukes, he performed the Concerto in 1924 and must have admired it enough to want Korngold to write him another piece.

Korngold opted for “Suite” as a fitting title for a work of more than four movements, some of which are dance-related. He may also have liked its Baroque associations, for the work begins with a prelude and fugue. The harmonic and rhythmic language, however, displays its Romantically tinged twentieth-century orientation. The piano plays almost the entire Präludium alone, until the strings enter in unison toward the close, introducing the Fuge, which follows without pause. The fugue subject is presented by the cello, followed by the piano then the first violin. The second violin is not given its own fugal entry until the cantabile middle section. The Präludium returns to close the movement.

The second movement consists of a waltz, played muted at the beginning and end. A more animated central section provides contrast.

The third movement with its main theme of jagged, chromatic broken thirds is labeled “Groteske.” It functions much like a scherzo and trio, but contains intriguing metric shifts between 4/8 and 3/8. Following the Trio, which opens with an extensive piano solo, the “Groteske” is repeated. The Lied brings a singing and introspective contrast, again highlighting the piano at the outset, in an ingenious combination of melody and accompaniment all played by one hand.

The Finale is a compositional tour de force, combining rondo and variation form. Introductory piano octaves preview the theme in diminution, whereupon the A theme is presented by the cello and piano, then put through a series of developing variations—developing in the sense that succeeding variations vary what has already been varied, becoming further and further removed from the theme. Korngold’s sophisticated variation techniques include diminution, augmentation, inversion, and retrograde. Episodic material leads to a B theme, which is also treated in a series of variations. The episodic material and the B theme are also closely related to the second section of the A theme, showing Korngold’s fascination with motivic unity. When the A theme returns, as in rondo form, it is in an altered minor key variation, which again leads to more “A” variations. Another set of B variations and another set of A variations bring on the coda—a wistful recall of A similar to its opening guise and a brilliant close.

By Jane Vial Jaffe

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