Benjamin Britten (1913–76)
Simple Symphony, Op.4
I. Boisterous Bourrée
II. Playful Pizzicato
III. Sentimental Saraband
IV. Frolicsome Finale
Such was the young Britten’s precociousness that even his earliest works could provide ample material for this alliteratively titled later one. Completed by the time he turned twenty and first performed in 1934, the symphony for string orchestra is as Britten notes ‘entirely based on material from works which the composer wrote between the ages of nine and twelve’. The work is dedicated to his childhood viola teacher Audrey Alston who also introduced him to Frank Bridge, the dedicatee of his next string orchestra work some three years later.
Once the tonality of the Boisterous Bourrée is beyond doubt following the opening repeated cadential figure, Britten begins a spirited and baroque-like exploration of counterpoint upon a theme in D minor from his first Suite for piano (1926). A sweeter second subject in the relative major key follows and then a yet more inventive development of the first material ensues, of which Boyd Neel said: ‘much is compressed into a few bars, and there is not a superfluous note’. With the return of the second subject in a glorious D major, a short coda recapping the initial material comes whose final bars recall the work’s introductory cadences, yet played gradually quieter they lay the ground for the following music.
Its title really tells us all about the second movement. To be played ‘presto possible pizzicato sempre’ (as fast as possible, always pizzicato), its primary section is taken from a Scherzo for piano (1924). A slowing of tempo and strummed strings introduces the second theme. Although this theme is taken from a Britten song of 1924, listeners might note its curious similarity to the melody of ‘Barwick Green’ of the same year by Arthur Wood. Of course, the latter is better known as the theme of the BBC Radio soap opera ‘The Archers’!
Almost as long as the other movements combined, the Sentimental Saraband is the heart of the work and returns us to the Baroque mode of the Bourrée with a pedal G underpinning an aching melody from Britten’s Suite No.3 for piano (1925). The B-section of this ABA movement offers more graceful music taken from a waltz for piano of 1923 that fades to nothing before the stricken opening material surges back. At once, this music looks back to earlier English string music from Henry Purcell right up to Edward Elgar, whilst all the while seemingly prophesying so many moments in Britten’s later output.
Two early piano sonatas provide material for the Frolicsome Finale. Though it shares much with the Bourrée in terms of design, Britten brings to it the exuberance of the second movement to make for an especially thrilling close. Beginning with an upwardly thrusting sequence and swiftly moving to a bounding first theme with syncopated accompaniment, it is with the triumphal recapitulation of the second subject that the work reaches its definitive climax before a swift coda recalling the opening completes the work.
The symphony’s title as good as suggests it to be merely a modest flight of fancy, but as Michael Kennedy noted: ‘This is engaging music in every sense, and deeper than perhaps Britten himself admitted.’
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op.19
I. Allegro con brio
III. Rondo: Molto allegro
Perhaps the first thing worth knowing about the work is that its composition predates the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op.15 by a number of years. The composer’s constant revisions to the earlier work between the late-1780s and 1801 meant simply that the more flamboyant Concerto in C was published first and so received the earlier opus number. However, its eventual premiere during his Viennese debut in 1795 helped, along with the Op.15, establish the young Beethoven’s reputation as both pioneering composer and virtuoso pianist in his new home.
Beethoven scholar Leon Plantinga describes the first movement as ‘essentially an exercise in the lingua franca of the Classical style, a style in which the young Beethoven sometimes seemed not perfectly comfortable’. Being one of the composer’s first large-scale works, a sonata form is employed of contrasting musical subjects within an exposition–development–recapitulation. However, within the relative security of this, he employs surprising shifts of tonality and phrase of the kind that became such a hallmark. One pivotal moment comes at the close of the recapitulation where the final orchestral tutti is left hanging having been interrupted by the contrapuntal lilting introduction of the pianist’s cadenza. With the cadenza having propelled the movement’s musical subjects through copious tonal areas, it is with a spiralling passage back in the home key of B-flat major that the orchestra is recaptured, who then proceed to close the movement.
With the ebbing, stirring passage that opens the Adagio we are somewhere else entirely. It was not just a conventional classical exposé of the pianist’s abilities; the cadenza was a journey to Vienna. Where it is in Beethoven’s early chamber works that the hand of Haydn can be most easily detected, here the influence of Mozart is clear although one senses it is almost coming to be surpassed. The dialogue between the reflective soloist and more agitated orchestra seems won by the latter as the movement draws to a climax, but with the final section serenity returns. The piano’s poise reaches a peak of introspection that brings the orchestra soon with it in a transcendent few passages anticipating the Adagios of the later concertos for piano and violin.
Those ethereal final bars of the central movement leave the music little place to go but to a spritely Rondo (ABACABA) to close. The opening piano figure serves as the returning ritornello material about which the youthful yet unmistakably Beethovian B-section interjects, surrounding the almost Turkish-style middle section. With the triumphant final coming of the ritornello, quickly the piano softens, trills, and seems about to fade away, until the orchestra interjects with a final closing passage.
Gerald Finzi (1901-56)
If we can accept ‘English’ as not too thorny a descriptive term for a sound, then perhaps the music of Gerald Finzi fits it as well as any. Born in 1901 and a student at the Royal College of Music during the 1920s, Finzi figures strongly within that English musical renaissance of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. He is perhaps best known for his music for voices, his cantata Die Natalis, Op.8, and the concertos for cello and clarinet. He is less well known as becoming, after moving from London to Wiltshire in 1933, quite the authority on English apple varieties, many of which he saved from extinction.
Written in the late-1920s, revised in 1952, and named posthumously by his publisher, the Eclogue (noun. ‘a short poem, especially a pastoral dialogue’) was originally intended to be the slow movement of a piano concerto that went unfinished. The composer Edmund Rubbra had anticipated it to be music of ‘the same untroubled serenity’ as the earlier Introit, Op.6 for violin and orchestra, yet ‘untroubled’ it hardly is.
The piano’s graceful first passage in F major speaks as much of Bach as it does Finzi’s peers Howard Ferguson and Ivor Gurney and it soon becomes something of a returning ritornello figure. The composer’s biographer Diana McVeagh talks of it ‘moving with quiet grace in baroque pattern-making: almost predictable, but constantly evolving, and so lyrical that it sounds self-communing’. Soon this introspective music is then offered to the accompanying string ensemble. Initially, the two seem to share the same sentiment yet increasingly they evolve. As the once solitary opening piano figure returns many times throughout the work, there is a sense that after each conversation with the strings it has grown, becoming more complex and seasoned though somehow more resolute. Once the dialogue between piano and ensemble has reached an impassioned climax, an A-flat major middle section in 12/8 begins that with its lightness of touch clearly leans on moments of Die Natalis.
As the work draws to a close after the dialogue, the opening material returns more or less intact but it soon darkens. Stephen Banfield writes that this ‘gives a distinctive emotional curve to the work, one that proposes the pursuit of serenity for as long as possible, since it prove elusive and clouded on recapture.’ Despite this waning with low strings repeating an ominous two-note figure, at what seems the last possible moment for resuscitation the piano manages to summon a lone yet hopeful F major chord to close.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550
I. Molto allegro
III. Menuetto: Allegretto
IV. Allegro assai
If one instance within it were to stand for the whole symphony it might be that the first written ‘forte’ occurs on a diminished chord. What the conductor Charles Hazlewood describes as ‘the ultimate angst-ridden chord in music’.
Written in 1788 and the centrepiece of Mozart’s final trilogy of symphonies, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor is one of those rare works whose inner workings are so clear yet whose effect remains still so enigmatic. With this, its interpretation differs between listeners vastly; where Robert Schumann noted its ‘Grecian light-ness and grace’, the great scholar Charles Rosen called it ‘a work of passion, violence and grief’. And, whilst it fits the conventional sense of ‘the classical symphony’ – all movements in a sonata form but the third in ternary form (ABA) – we could list endlessly the internal oppositions at work; that passion and grace, darkness and light, violence and resolution, and so on. It is a work formed absolutely out of the heat caused by the friction between opposites.
The symphony’s unease is apparent from the outset. We might quickly recall in our mind’s ear that restless melody but we tend to miss that the accompaniment in the lower-strings actually just gets the shortest of head starts on it. Within that very first moment a ‘sturm und drang’ (storm and stress) that sets the symphony on its journey has been conjured. Soon the mellower second subject in the relative key of B-flat major comes and the music surges forward again. The subsequent development section is one of the most remarkable passages of the composer’s output. It begins in the remote key of F-sharp minor, echoing and expanding on the same downward move from G to F-sharp of the bass in the first few measures. Then is set in motion a series of dramatic shifts and slides in tonalities that on paper look impossibly extreme yet somehow are effortless and organic to the ear.
The grand Andante then takes its lead from the old courtly dance form of a ‘siciliana’. However, where there would typically be two beats to the bar with each beat divided into three, convention is broken. Two-note phrases immediately pass over bar lines and these soon become the movement’s most decisive material. Although the symphony has taken a gentler turn, this is far from dancing music.
Where a third movement of a minor-keyed symphony might offer some respite, this one does little but increase the sense of agitation. The militaristic yet often mis-stepping minuet section leads on to the trio section in G major. However, almost perversely, this middle section of the ABA form being in a brighter key far from lightens the mood. It is music struggling within its setting and so just adds to the unease. In fact, it almost seems ironic.
It is the famous ‘rocket figure’ that begins the Finale. A gracefully ascending string passage instantly finds itself wrestling with an ardent orchestral tutti that confronts head on the oppositions in the work. It launches the symphony toward its conclusion. Although a conventionally formed Classical final movement it is, there are astounding moments. For example, within an eight-bar passage at the beginning of the development section, save for the work’s tonic note of G, every single note of the chromatic scale is employed. And, this section that almost reaches a breaking point ends just as remarkably with its final chord being the first movement’s most decisive sound; that ‘angst-ridden’ diminished chord.
As with the Symphony No. 39 that preceded it, the work ends hastily and inconclusively, and arguably remains as elusive as its opening passage. In the end we are left to wonder whether the true resolution to this centrepiece of Mozart’s final symphonic trilogy might not be its next and final member: the ‘Jupiter’.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor
Although he had moved there from St. Petersburg to continue his piano studies, in 1888 the young Rachmaninov took Anton Arensky’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatory. Until this point his explorations in writing music had been kept relatively secret but quickly his output grew to a point where by 1891 he had written the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1. Soon after, his piano teacher left the Conservatory and rather than find a new one his prodigious talent allowed him to take exams a year early, graduating with the Conservatory’s Gold Medal in Composition. Keen to then make his name he put on a number of concerts throughout 1892, including one on 11th February that included the first performance of the Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor; a work written over just three days that January.
Quite after whom the elegiac nature of the piece comes is unclear. The composer had lost a number of relatives and friends in recent years, most notably his sister Sofiya and the composer Nikolai Rubinstein, after whom Tchaikovsky had written his own Trio élégiaque in 1882. This brings about the observation that both of Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaques (1892 and 1893) were both written seemingly in communion with Tchaikovsky. This first is clearly inspired by the elder composer’s – not least in Rachmaninov’s four- note opening figure recalling, in reverse, the opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (1874-75) – and his second being dedicated to Tchaikovsky and begun, by all accounts, the day he died.
The work’s single movement takes the form of a sweeping sonata, opening with lugubrious, murmuring strings supporting the piano’s exposition of the first theme. The strings then each take this theme on until a more animated second subject, as Rachmaninov’s biographer Max Harrison writes, ‘lets a little sunshine into what is mainly dark and emotional music’. Yet, as quickly as the light came, the clouds return. The marking ‘appassionato’ signals the coming of the development section that, just working with the first subject, brings the work to its climax. The music now only has one way to go. Its closing section sees the opening theme return in its original form, though this time in the strings with piano accompaniment. Solemn and march-like the work ends, perhaps referring to a similar shift to the funereal to be found in Tchaikovsky’s own elegiac trio a decade before.
Anton Arensky (1861–1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32
I. Allegro moderato
II. Scherzo: Allegro molto
III. Elegia: Adagio
IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo
Like Rachmaninov’s, Tchaikovsky’s Trio élégiaque is a clear influence on Arensky’s Trio. And similar to Tchaikovsky’s, it is dedicated to a departed friend, the cellist Karl Davydov who had been principal of the St. Petersburg Conservatory whilst Arensky studied there. Though a noted figure during his lifetime, following the giants of Russian music Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky and then being quickly overshadowed by his own precocious students Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Glière, his music has received less attention than it might. However, works such this and his Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky (1894) are rightly finding their place in the modern repertory.
With a pulsing piano opening, the trio’s initial thematic material is introduced by the violin and soon passed to the cello. The strings together take forth this material, wrapping around each other until an almost prancing passage clears a path for more simple and elegant melodic material to grow. Being in a sonata form, the two main thematic areas are reheard after a spirited development section after which a more adagio coda gives the movement an earnest conclusion.
A fast scherzo re-energises the atmosphere after the first movement’s stately close. The impatient and plucky first section sees episodes of string dialogue injected by frenetic cascading piano figures. The exuberance continues through the middle section with a buoyant waltz that via a stuttering transition passage brings us back to the material of the first section.
Whilst the cello is especially prominent throughout the work, it is in the elegiac third movement that the dedicatee is most sombrely acknowledged. The cello lets flow a profound melody that bleeds into the violin. The cello then offers responses atop of the supporting harmonic shifts in the piano; the mood is set. With the strings converging in a soaring unison, the piano guides us through the middle section. Despite more expansive harmonies being touched, the shape of the wistful opening melody is always there, almost a ghost. With a nostalgic return to the first section, the piano draws the music to a sensitive, though somehow inconclusive, finish.
The eruptive finale primarily takes forward material from the first movement and the preceding Elegia. Set in a ‘rondo’ form where after each excursion the music returns time again to a steady idea, the atmosphere is impetuous, going between episodes of restlessness and calm. Eventually the piano brings things under control with a sweet, almost child-like texture. Taking a lead from this, the violin and then cello momentarily recall the work’s opening material before a fast and brief coda section brings the work to a climax.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65
I. Allegro, ma non troppo
II. Allegretto grazioso
III. Poco Adagio
IV. Finale. Allegro con brio
Where the influence of Tchaikovsky hangs over the preceding works, here it is that of Johannes Brahms. Owing to a letter in 1877 from the German composer to his publisher Fritz Simrock that urged for Dvořák’s works to be published, the young Czech’s international career was made. By 1880, works such as his Stabat Mater (1877) and Sixth Symphony (1880) left concert halls from Budapest to New York reverberating with the sounds of Bohemia. Yet, with this came a feeling in the composer that he must try to progress from the carefree, folk-derived music such as the Slavonic Dances and Slavonic Rhapsodies (1878) that had been so commercially successful and develop for a more dynamic and impassioned language. Whilst this new approach would find its first large-scale expression in the Symphony No. 7 of 1885, it was the Piano Trio No. 3 of two years prior that exhibits the clearest early embodiment of this.
The very opening passage of the Trio illustrates this evolution wonderfully in moving from the first theme’s pianissimo entry to an intense fortissimo in merely the first six bars. After much dynamism attention turns to a second subject first played by the cello that, though offering a short period of respite as convention prescribes, is so pregnant with energy that it soon turns the music as turbulent as that which preceded it.
A scherzo-like second movement similarly contradicts our expectations from the outset with an opening string figure whose pulse is immediately confounded by the piano’s melody being in a cross-rhythm to what the strings had laid down. Soon the roles of melodist and accompanist are flipped and the strings bring the themes to a new plane of intensity whilst the piano supports with thrusting arpeggios. The middle section turns to the tonic major key and a more lyrical journey ensues with the violin and cello often in an interweaving dialogue. Following a four-bar transition section where the opening material is recalled in a much sweeter fashion than originally – with roles again flipped – we embark on a recapitulation of the first section proper to complete the movement’s ternary (ABA) form.
That the composer’s mother had died two months before writing the work might suggest a programme for the stately slow movement. Its simple, stepwise thematic material is at once reflective yet somehow still grand with the piano providing a lilting harmonic background to the soon interweaving strings. After a brighter middle section that brings about what might be the entire work’s apotheosis, the intensity lessens returning us to a more world-weary recollection of the initial material.
In the work’s spirited Finale the restlessness Dvořák seems to have tried to keep in check throughout the earlier music finally discharges, but it never loses focus. Though having wished to move away from cordial folk-derived sounds, the composer nonetheless does recall a Czech dance; the furiant! Invoking the crossing rhythms of the second movement, this music is tempestuous and dynamic. Like Arensky’s trio, material from the preceding movements gradually draws in and intersperses with a sweeter waltzing second theme. Undergoing much development, it eventually gives way to the coda. The penultimate passage takes nostalgic look back to the first movement’s sweeping opening theme before it is itself swept away by a swiftly rising cadential figure. As quickly as the work’s opening had surged from a modest pianissimo to intense fortissimo in its first few bars of existence, the work as a whole is forced to its conclusion.
Copyright © 2015 Luke Lewis