2015 Arcadia Event 5 - programme notes

7.30 pm Saturday 3rd October at St Michael and All Angels, Kingsland HR6 9QW

Dohnányi Serenade for string trio op 10

Somewhat like Spohr, Dohnányi’s music and reputation have suffered at the hands of history and historians who routinely point to Bartók and Kodály as the direction in which Hungarian music is seen as progressive and therefore interesting. Always something of a conservative in matters of style, he perhaps tellingly, always used the Germanic form of his name - Ernst Von Dohnanyi.  His music changed little in its orientation towards form and harmony through his long and very creative life.  Receiving early blessings from Brahms he was yet still active as a composer at the time of his death in 1960.  He was a formidable pianist giving huge numbers of concerts and he held important positions in Budapest as well as conducting and teaching. He in turn gave early support and endorsement to the works of both Kodály and Bartók.  His reputation foundered after the Second World War on the basis of completely false accusations of Nazi sympathy though in 1953 and at the age of 76 he made a remarkable and triumphant ‘re-debut’ at Carnegie Hall to dispel these shadows and relaunch an extraordinary career.

This Serenade was written in 1902 and is a masterful treatment for an ensemble which has produced a mere handful of masterpieces.  The atmosphere is set by the opening rousing March and each succeeding movement is as beautifully characterized - most touching of all perhaps the viola solo to finish the theme and variations 4th movement.  The impression created throughout is of a variety of tone, colour and weight which seem far wider and bigger than a mere three instruments should produce.

Suggested further reading:

Ernst von Dohnanyi: A Song of Life
Ilona von Dohnanyi
Edited James A Grymes
Indiana University Press
ISBN: 978-0-253-34103-7

Brahms Clarinet quintet op 115

Though only 57 at the time of writing this quintet Brahms was becoming much occupied with his own mortality.  Indeed, already upon completing his string quintet op. 111 in 1890, he declared it his final work and seemed to want to lay down his composing pen for good.  Many of his close friends were becoming ill or dying and for a man such as he – gregarious and sociable with those of whom he was fond – this was not a happy time.  However, the playing of a clarinetist roused him again to composition. On a visit to hear the court orchestra in Meiningen he was deeply struck by the beauty, refinement and expressive quality of Richard Mühlfeld’s playing.

Mühlfeld’s role in the four works that emerged over the next couple of years is rather similar to that which Anton Stadler played to Mozart.  The two men became friends and there was much discussion of the instrument and its expressive possibilities. 

The quintet op 115 is full of autumnal beauty though a more bitter and even desperate sadness is somewhere beneath the surface.

The first movement material is brought back at the end of the last movement and the listener will feel that there is significance in this cyclical utterance.  Is this a bitter farewell?

The slow second movement is in the character of a lullaby though in its central section Brahms allows himself to visit for the last time the world of gypsy music – something which had fascinated him all his life.  The third is of the type of Intermezzo movement which again had been a signature throughout his life; the last is a set of variations.  Like all late Brahms the work has a special tautness and density in its construction. This, allied to the prevailing wistfulness in the surface expression gives an impression of receiving deeply private, sometimes despairing thoughts, though gently and confidingly said.

Perhaps this letter of a couple of years later written by Brahms to his old friend the violinist Joseph Joachim is worth quoting.  He had just heard that Clara Schumann, his closest and dearest friend and a woman with whom he had fallen deeply in love in his twenties, had had a stroke;

‘The thought of losing her cannot frighten us anymore, not even me who is so lonely and to whom so little is left in the world’.

Suggested further reading:

Johannes Brahms Life and Letters
Styra Avins
ISBN: 0199247730

Spohr Grand Nonet op 31 

It is hard to find a composer whose star has fallen so sharply as that of Louis – or Ludwig, as he was called until he changed his name – Spohr. To be sure history still gives him the honour of inventing the violinist’s chin rest and also, though more contentiously, the conductor’s baton - and even the humble but essential rehearsal mark.  And his reputation as a violinist of the very first rank is assured.  But aside from a handful of works from his prodigious list of compositions – concertos, oratorios, opera, symphonies, songs and huge amounts of chamber music - his place in the pantheon of ‘greats’ has been almost expunged from history.  I remember reading as a youth something about the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim in which he declared mid-career that from now on he would not be playing music by lesser composers and leaving the empty virtuoso style behind him – to concentrate only on the work of truly great composers – Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Spohr and Beethoven.

Spohr’s problem is really the Ludwig that his name change sought to give him distance from – Beethoven.  Spohr wrote ten operas – none today are regularly produced: Beethoven one, and Fidelio is never away form the list of productions for more than a few years.  Spohr wrote 18 violin concertos and beyond one of these – the rather original eighth – none is played today. Beethoven produced a single concerto for the instrument that today must receive more performances in a few weeks than all of Spohr’s output put together.    

Both men had huge facility as composers. But whereas Beethoven worked endlessly to slow himself down in order to write things of significance - like the two opening chords of E flat major which open his Eroica Symphony, or the staggering challenge of the opening of his fifth symphony, Spohr never seems to have wanted to write anything that was as world-shattering. Instead he simply enjoyed and employed his amazing talent and craftsmanship to produce a seemingly endless stream of music that is in many ways a continuation of the aesthetic of Mozart.  And as the slow release of Beethoven’s genius and the steady realization that nothing could ever be the same again has gone on so Spohr’s position has been steadily eroded until he now seems entirely marooned like a great terminus on a little used branch line. That his music never hits one in the face, or shocks one to bring those moments of revelation about the human condition, is only noticeable - because Beethoven’s does.  

But I think that we do ourselves out of much fun, enjoyment and enrichment if we consign him to the neglect he has suffered - as long as we don’t find in him an unfulfilled or inadequate Beethoven. 

This Nonet is a joy of invention, of humour and of deliciously concealed art.  (It is amazing how much of the work is really based on the five notes one hears at the beginning of the piece.)  Yet this need not bother the listener as music that is by turn serious, witty, charming and downright funny emerges in the most natural and pleasing way.

Suggested further reading:

Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography
Clive Brown
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0521239907

Louis Spohr’s Autobiography
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9781108011723