Stravinsky once famously said, “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.” Today we’ll listen to works by two composers who stole from themselves. “Meditation” began its life as the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, but was rejected and re-cast as the first movement of his Souvenir d'un lieu cher for violin and piano, and finally extracted and published separately, as it is performed in this recording. Dvorák’s String Quintet was originally written as a five-movement work, with an Intermezzo as the second movement, as we hear it performed on this podcast. That movement, however, was cut from the final version of the quintet, and it has had several lives in other arrangements.
Today, we will hear two pieces by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, beginning with his Terzetto for two violins and viola from 1887. Besieged with commissions after several very successful trips to England, Dvorák wrote this piece in just one week! Unapologetically melodic, the Terzetto’s themes dovetail and layer between the instruments, always containing a hint of wistfulness. The piece is far more rich, dramatic, and complex than either its title or its simple instrumentation would indicate. One of Dvorák’s earlier works, his Serenade for Winds and Strings, was written over the course of two weeks in 1879, during another period of increased demand for his compositions. Scored for a large ensemble of winds, brass, cello and bass, it nonetheless maintains a simplicity of line and texture. The work’s solidity of sound and honesty of expression convey an integrity that is present in much of Dvorák’s music, especially fitting for a composer who always placed family, homeland, nature, and music above all else.
Works for voice, piano, and string quartet performed by Jeanine De Bique, soprano; Warren Jones, piano; and the Borromeo String Quartet.
Some composers distinguish themselves in a single genre: Hugo Wolf, for example, whose brilliant lieder are like mini-monodramas, containing a whole world of feeling in less than two minutes of music. We’ll start with a selection of six of Wolf’s songs. But our main order of business on this podcast is a composer who can’t be bound by one signature form: Beethoven. Though published as number three in his first set of string quartets, the D Major quartet was in fact the first string quartet Beethoven wrote. Beethoven had waited about eight years from the time he arrived on the scene in Vienna before trying his hand at string quartets; some have postulated that this may well have been due to the shadow that his own teacher at the time, Haydn, cast over the form. When Beethoven finally published the set of six quartets from which this piece hails, he did it right. These quartets aren’t yet the work of a revolutionary, but they demonstrate Beethoven’s complete command of the form, and they clearly positioned him as one of its greatest living proponents. It was an important turning point: in 1802, Haydn fell sick. Though he battled his illness for several more years, he wouldn’t live to complete another quartet. The quartet, it seemed, had a new king.
Works for string quartet and string quintet performed by Musicians from Marlboro.
Much of Dvorák’s music—including the piece that he’s perhaps best-known for now, the New World symphony—inhabits a sort of cultural limbo. In the case of New World, it’s a musical homage to popular and folk tunes of America, but it’s written by a Czech composer, and at times Dvorák’s own background comes through. Today’s podcast features another of Dvorák’s “American” works, the string quintet in E-flat Major, inspired by the composer’s first long vacation in the States. As the story goes, Dvorák was immediately taken with the simple, pentatonic folk songs he heard during his time in Spillville, Iowa, and this delightful string quintet does indeed sound distinctly “American” from the start, despite its foreign authorship. We’ll set the stage for this piece—which makes up the bulk of today’s program—with another example of Dvorák’s cross-cultural explorations, this one with a more distinctly Slavic accent. The two waltzes, opus 54, apply Dvorák’s sensibility to that classic Austrian form: the waltz.
Works for voice and piano performed by baritone Randall Scarlata, soprano Jennifer Aylmer, and pianists Jeremy Denk and Laura Ward.
Today’s podcast features a wonderful bouquet of American song—beginning with selection by Charles Ives, and then moving onto works by Tin Pan Alley composers. Though at first blush they may seem like odd bedfellows, it’s important to remember than many of the Tin Pan Alley greats were contemporaries of Ives. The context was certainly different—Ives is often thought of as an under-appreciated (and commercially unsuccessful) pioneer, while the writers on Tin Pan Alley were employed by music publishers, and as such their work was expected to have commercial appeal. But both were masters of their respective domains. We’ll begin with 8 selections by Ives, performed by baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Jeremy Denk. Ives is a master of setting the scene, of evoking a time and place with just a few minutes of music. He does so here with great skill. Scarlata then joins soprano Jennifer Aylmer and pianist Laura Ward to perform 11 tunes from Tin Pan Alley—some familiar, some less so, but all delightful.
Works for mezzo-soprano, strings, and piano performed by Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Musicians from Marlboro.
The two works on today’s podcast share a common inspiration: Romantic literature. First on the program, we’ll hear Respighi’s Il Tramonto, or The Sunset, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet or orchestra. Respighi was in his early 30s when he wrote the piece, working on it simultaneously with what was to be his career’s watershed composition, The Fountains of Rome. The work hinges on its text—a 19th-century poem by Percy Shelley that brims with the unfulfilled love and longing that characterize much poetry of the era. The second piece on the program, Brahms’ third piano quartet in C minor, is inspired by another tale of star-crossed lovers: Goethe’s famous Werther. Brahms gave the quartet the subtitle “Werther” himself; apparently, he thought the first movement embodied the protagonist’s sorrow and desperation in finding that his beloved has married another. Interestingly, this piece, like Respighi’s, was an early composition: Brahms began work on it as early as 1855, when he was in his early twenties.
Works for solo piano and string quartet performed by Charlie Albright, piano, and Musicians from Marlboro.
For most of his life, Haydn enjoyed a level of stability and comfort most contemporary composers would envy. For about 30 years, he was resident composer to the Esterhazy court, where he wrote musical works by the dozens and was given his own orchestra to perform them. Although much of his output was dictated by his employer’s needs, some works in his catalogue seem to have been personal projects, or at least destined for players beyond the palace walls. Haydn’s dazzling, ambitious Piano Sonata No. 62 was written for a close friend who was a virtuoso pianist in London, and is designed to show off not only her skill, but also the capabilities of the new, powerful English pianos. There’s no evidence that the second piece on today’s program, Haydn’s String Quartet in C minor, was ever played at the Esterhazy court. Haydn’s quartets were, however, performed in Vienna, where they were apparently a hit with audiences, according to contemporary critical accounts.
Works for solo piano and string quartet performed by Seymour Lipkin, piano, and the Belcea Quartet.
Once you get to podcast 131, we figure you earn the right to repeat yourself. And we’re doing just that with this encore performance of one of the great string quartets: Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” In contrast to certain other titled works, which were appended with descriptive names by publishers trying to sell sheet music, the title “Death and the Maiden” was given, in this case, by the composer himself. It was very much intended as a descriptive, alluding not just to Schubert’s quotation of his own song of the same title (which appears in the second movement), but to the thematic content of the entire piece. Written at a time when Schubert was suffering from a prolonged battle with syphilis, many scholars have suggested that the quartet exposes his own longing for the relief of death. Before jumping into this work, we’ll hear Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat Major, a brief keyboard work written a few years after “Death and the Maiden,” near the end of Schubert’s life.
Works for solo piano performed by Cecile Licad.
Perhaps no composer was more skilled than Liszt in his painterly use of the piano, deftly evoking a wide range of images and emotions. We begin this episode with the composer’s Two Legends, both based on the lives of saints. In the first—St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds—swirling, shape-shifting flocks are evoked by high tremolos in the piano. The second Legend tells the story of St. Francis of Paola walking on the water. In a clever musical counterpart to the first, Liszt again uses swirling textures, this time in the bass, meant now to depict rolling waves. Next on the program is a selection of movements from Liszt’s three-volume Années de Pèlerinage, or Years of Pilgrimage. Spanning three hours when performed in full, the pieces range from evocations of the sculpture, poetry, music, and landscapes that Liszt encountered in his journeys to more abstract spiritual meditations. We’ll hear three selections from the first book, about his travels in Switzerland.
Works for violin, cello, and piano performed by the Claremont Trio.
The piano trio—an ensemble of violin, cello, and piano—was one of the great innovations of classical and Romantic chamber music. Before that time, composers wrote for similar groups of instruments, but the pieces rarely gave equal prominence to the three players. Classical and Romantic composers shifted the balance of the trio by giving equal weight to all three players and putting equal thought into each instrument’s part. In fact, Mendelssohn made extensive revisions after completing the first draft of his Piano Trio No. 1, adding more elaborate and technically challenging passagework to up the ante for the pianist. Mozart was a true father of the piano trio genre, and his B-flat trio is considered one of his best contributions, chock full of tuneful melodies arranged with grace and balance to show off all three members of the trio to their best advantage.
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