Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Lachrymae, Op. 48 (1950)
Allegretto, andante molto
Allegro con moto
Alla valse moderato
Naoko Shimizu, viola / Clara Bellegarde, harp
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30, No. 3 (1801-2)
Tempo di minnetto, ma nolto moderato e grazioso
Veronika Eberle, violin / Mari Kodamo, piano
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) (1978)
Naoko Shimizu, viola / Momo Kodama, piano
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 (1801)
Cho-Liang Lin, violin / Stephanie Jeong, violin
Naoko Shimizu, viola / Ellen Ruth Rose, viola
Matt Haimovitz, cello
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Lachrymae, Op. 48 (1950) (b. 1926)
In 1950, Benjamin Britten, not yet forty, was already heir apparent to the previous generation of English composers who, in the first half of the 20th century, enacted a brilliant renaissance in English musical composition. Britten helped further establish his reputation in British musical society with the foundation of the Adelburgh Festival two years prior, with his partner Peter Pears and librettist Eric Crozier.
While most of 1950 had been given over to work on the first act of an operatic setting of the novel Billy Budd, Britten nonetheless found time to compose his Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, Op. 48. Originally for viola and piano, Britten wrote the Lachrymae as a “polite bribe” in order to coax his friend William Primrose, a Canadian violist, to travel to England for the third year of the Adelburgh Festival.
The title Lachrymae is the Latin word for “tears.” The title is an homage to the work’s source material, the first eight measures of “If my complaints could passions move” by English Renaissance composer John Dowland. Though often described as a series of variations, Lachrymae is better thought of as a kind of musical metamorphosis. The main theme is initially quoted in the bass of the piano. Its shape is simple: a rising broken chord followed by a descending scale. Yet Britten exploits this simplicity and presses far beyond the confines of the “theme and variations” genre as it is typically imagined. A listener may be hard pressed to truly “hear” the theme’s presence throughout much of the work. It is not until the piece’s final passage that the theme is presented in unadorned simplicity. Thus, Britten cleverly inverts the listener’s expectations, challenging one to hear the motive in a variety of forms first, before finally arriving back at the tune itself.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 (1801)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30 No. 1 (1802)
Violin Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30 No. 3 (1802)
Though Beethoven had been in Vienna for some eight years by the year 1800, he spent the better part of that time studying with the composer Joseph Haydn and establishing his reputation as a virtuoso pianist. Following this extended period of study and maturation, the years 1800 to 1802 saw Ludwig von Beethoven the composer emerge as the preeminent composer on the Viennese musical landscape.
Thanks to his brother Carl’s shrewd business sense , and competition from an ever-growing stable of publishing houses, Beethoven was able to command increasing prices for each new work. The year 1800 saw completion of the Six String Quartets, Op. 18, his Septet, Op. 20 (one of his most popular works during his lifetime), and the First Symphony. These works were immediately followed by a new ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, a series of new and innovative piano sonatas (Op. 28 & 31), the String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, the Second Symphony in D Major, and the three violin sonatas that form Op. 30.
This prolonged series of creative and professional successes stands in stark contrast to an escalating inner state of despair and depression. Lingering issues of tinnitus and hearing loss were worsening,, and Beethoven could no longer avoid the horrifying reality that he was going deaf. He first made these fears known in a pair of long, heartfelt letters to his friends Karl Amenda and Franz Wegeler. Of his hearing loss, Beethoven wrote, “If my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?” Yet these same letters also demonstrate that Beethoven was fully engulfed in his creative work, “I live entirely in my music; and hardly have I completed one composition when I have already begun another. At my present rate of composing, I often produce three or four works at the same time.” This final statement is on full display in the sketchbooks from these years.
The String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 was composed soon after Beethoven wrote these letters, in the late summer of 1801. The work was written, at least in part, to forestall the printing of unauthorized, pirated string quintet arrangements of Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20 and First Symphony by an unscrupulous publishing house. Copyright law was practically nonexistent at the time , and such unauthorized printings were unfortunately common. For Beethoven, a composer deeply conscious of the intrinsic relationship between a work’s instrumentation and the character of its musical materials, such arrangements represented a particularly egregious affront.
The String Quintet follows the four-movement form typical of classical chamber works. While many listeners are taught to conceive of these forms (sonata-allegro, minuet, rondo, etc.) as a cut-and-dry formula, they were in fact a highly flexible framework that masters like Beethoven adapted in clever, subtle, or even striking ways to fit the musical materials of a given piece. This adaptability is on full display in the String Quintet. According to the “textbook” understanding of sonata form, a first movement set in a major key should shift to the key of the dominant, in this case G Major. Yet Beethoven chooses to modulate instead to the key of the relative minor, :A minor. This modulation (a reversal of the “standard formula” for minor key movements) would be surprising enough for listeners of the day. Beethoven further enhances the effect by putting the secondary theme in the much brighter—and considerably more remote—key of A Major, before eventually settling in A minor. Taking this tonal expansion even further, Beethoven interjects a minuet-like passage into the fourth movement, using the same striking key of A Major. Such expansions of key relationships were essential to the development of Beethoven’s musical language through this “middle period” of his output, and would point the way toward further harmonic innovations in the generation of composers to follow.
The Three Violin Sonatas, Op. 30 (the first and third of which are being presented in this festival) were composed in the spring of 1802. In Beethoven’s sketchbooks, the sonatas follow immediately on the heels of the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto. Of particular interest is the final movement of the first in the set, Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30 No. 1. Beethoven had originally composed a much different finale, but deemed it “too brilliant for this sonata,” and shelved it. That movement would instead become the finale of Beethoven’s next foray into the genre, the “Kreutzer” Sonata, Op. 47, also in A Major.
Beethoven’s public image as a performer was that of the virtuoso pianist. Yet he was also an accomplished violinist in his youth. His affection for the two instruments in consort is on full display in the Opus 30 sonatas. The musical themes are at once both lyrical and motivic, allowing Beethoven to spin long melodies with interjections that are both surprising yet welcome. Though the first edition labels the set as three “Sonatas for Piano with Violin,” it is clear to any listener that the relationship between the two instruments is far more equal than was typical of “piano with violin” sonatas of the time.
In April 1802, on the advice of his physician Johann Schmidt, Beethoven went to the resort town of Heiligenstadt in a final attempt to ward off his worsening hearing loss and other health troubles. While the resulting solitude was beneficial to creative work, it also led him to dwell on his unfortunate fate. It was during this stay the Beethoven wrote his famous “Heiligenstadt testament,” in which he confesses thoughts of despair and even suicide, yet resolves to persevere for the sake of his art. The beauty and elegance of these violin sonatas are but one enduring testament to Beethoven’s resolve to transform inner despair into works of enduring beauty.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)
Despite employing modernist and avant-garde techniques at odds with Soviet musical dictums, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s early career was one of marked success. However, by the mid 1970’s, Pärt found himself at a stylistic impasse. The modernist techniques he had favored thus far seemed empty, no more than “child’s play.” After a period of profound reflection, Pärt transformed his musical style, developing a technique he called tintinnabuli. For Pärt, this style embodied not just a stylistic simplification, but spiritual purification as well.
Spiegel im Spiegel, from 1978, is one of Pärt’s first works written in this new style. The word tintinnabuli refers to bells, and bell-like musical qualities. The simple bell-like figure of a broken tonic triad is present in the piano throughout nearly the entire work. Above this figure, the solo line melody draws long, simple figures over the same scale. Of this, Pärt writes, “this was the first piece that was on a new plateau. It was here that I discovered the triad series, which I made my simple little guiding rule." The result is a piece of serene beauty and simplicity.
The title, which translates as “mirror in mirror,” is intrinsically connected to both the aesthetic simplicity of the music and its spiritual impulse. As Pärt himself once stated, “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the “listener.”
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 (1801)
Please see “Beethoven” note above.
© 2017 Joseph Stillwell