2019 Program Notes

Kaija Saariaho (born 1952)
“Tocar” for violin and piano (2010)

Kaija Saariaho is a contemporary Finnish composer now living in Paris. After studying at the Sibelius Academy, she spent time at various institutes synonymous with the post-WWII avant-garde (the Darmstadt summer courses, IRCAM) and experienced a transformative encounter with the “Spectralists.” Saariaho took up computer music as well as live electronics interacting with traditional instruments. An essential aspect of her process is the detailed analysis of the acoustic properties of timbre to produce compositional components that explore nuances of sound with extended techniques. Saariaho has created orchestral, opera, and numerous chamber music works, all with a keen and highly original sense of color, space and atmosphere. About “Tocar,” Saariaho writes:

One of my first ideas for “Tocar,” about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? Whilst composing music, I always imagine the instrumentalist’s fingers and their sensitivity. The violin sounds are created by the collaboration between the left hand and the bow controlled by the right hand. On the piano, the pianist should be extremely precise in order to control the moment when the fingers touch the keys, afterwards the sounds can be colored only by the pedals. In spite of such different mechanisms, both instruments also have some common points, purely musical, noticeably they share some of the same register. In “Tocar” both instruments move forward independently, but also keep an eye on each other. I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger – the piano part becomes more mobile – which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison. After this short moment of symbiosis, the violin line is released from the measured piano motion, continuing its own life outside the laws of gravity.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Trio Op. 9, No. 2 in D Major (1798)

Beethoven began working on his first string quartets in 1798, taking two years to produce his inaugural set, published in 1801. Before tackling this already daunting genre, Beethoven first made forays into other ensembles including the piano trio, the cello sonata and the string trio. He composed three early works for the combination of violin, viola and cello: the Op. 3 Divertimento, the Op. 8 Serenade and a truly impressive set of three string trios, Op. 9. No longer in a genre of “entertainment music,” the Op .9 trios comprise four movements each, “serious” music after the manner of his earlier piano trios and his upcoming quartets.

With a rather sparse texture of just three string instruments, the string trio offers a demanding but superbly intimate ensemble where each part is fully exposed and every note essential. Without a significant diversity of timbre or dynamics, the essence of the music rests on the ingenuity of melody, motive, figuration, counterpoint, rhythm and dialog. Like its companions, the second trio in D Major sustains a compelling musical conversation across an entire four-movement work. The first movement is a bristling sonata form; the second, an atmospheric slow movement with a serious, profound affect; the third, an animated minuet and trio; and the finale, a warm and lilting rondo. In their time, these trios enjoyed great renown before they were overshadowed by Beethoven’s emerging string quartet cycle.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky” (1891)

Like his contemporary and friend, Brahms, Dvořák composed reams of great music in all forms but especially Romantic chamber music. With an affinity for Schubert, one of his favorite composers, Dvořák wrote piece after piece full of winning melodies, ingenious color, exquisite textures and captivating rhythms. He was a professional violist and natural chamber music player, and like other noteworthy violist composers, seemed to have a special outlook from within the very heart of the music. This is evident in numerous chamber music masterworks for an array of ensembles.

Bedřich Smetana, the so-called father of Czech music a generation older, profoundly influenced Dvořák. Although an independent Czechoslovakia would not come into existence until the end of WWI, artists like Smetana and Dvořák passionately engaged in Nationalist movements throughout Europe in the 19th century where, at least artistically, one could express a native, local culture derived from indigenous folk materials. All throughout Dvořák’s music one finds Slavic elements including exotic scales, mournful ballads and energetic dances, all derived from traditions in Bohemia and Moravia. Perhaps the most characteristic is the “Dumka,” an old folk ballad originating in Ukraine and Poland but establishing a vital tradition in Czech lands. A Dumka (Dumky, plural) was multi-part ballad commemorating the heroism of a fallen warrior. The music oscillates between two poles: a mournful or nostalgic slow part like an elegy, and a lively, fast part as a celebratory dance. Dvořák employed the Dumka many times throughout his music but perhaps none more famous than his fourth and last piano trio nicknamed “Dumky.” It is a set of six Dumky, each of a unique mood and sound character but all following the pattern from slow to fast, poignant to wild; in sense, from the dead to the living.

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
“D’un soir triste” for Piano Trio (1918)

A relatively obscure composer, Lili Boulanger was the younger sister of the much more famous musical pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. Nadia lived a long and fruitful life well into the 20th century. Lili died just before the end of WWI in 1918, at the tender age of 24. Like her sister and her father, Lili was a gifted musician and composer who became the first woman ever to win the prestigious Prix du Rome in 1913 at the age of 19. As a young child, she would accompany her older sister to the Paris Conservatoire where, with fellow student Maurice Ravel, they attended the classes of Gabriel Fauré. Fauré was a close family friend who would visit the Boulanger household and play his songs for Lili to sing. Despite years of poor health, Lili prevailed, composing for the stage, choir and solo vocalist as well as a small number of instrumental pieces. Towards the end, she lost the ability to hold a pen but was able to dictate her music to sister Nadia. “D’un soir triste” was the last piece she composed in her own hand.

Among the last pieces Lili composed in 1917-1918 are a pair of works that were eventually published together: “D’un matin de printemps” (of a spring morning) and “D’un soir triste” (of a sad evening). Originally scored for violin (or flute) and piano, Lili also arranged them for piano trio and for orchestra. Conceived as a pair, they are both based on the same thematic material subject to different treatments, one suiting a bright morning, the other a dark evening. Meditative, bleak and haunting, the latter is very much at home with the music of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, yet distinctively in Boulanger’s own style. It is unlikely that it was an abstract character study: the tragedies of WWI and her own imminent mortality seem clearly expressed in this short but profound work from a highly gifted composer at the end of her tragically short life.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893)

Claude Debussy is widely credited as the first 20th century composer. He was the first to offer a fresh, original approach in strong contrast to the prevailing Austro-German tradition of the time. Though he disliked the label, Debussy’s music is often called “Impressionism” by analogy with the innovative French painters starting a decade or so before Debussy. 1894 is the inaugural date of Debussy’s musical arrival, the year he premiered the tone poem “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” It was primarily in the realm of orchestral music, opera, ballet and solo piano where Debussy achieved his most celebrated work, yet he wrote some equally extraordinary chamber music. His one and only string quartet dates from one year prior in 1893. The quartet is the only piece by Debussy bearing both an opus number and a key signature, perhaps a mildly ironic nod to the lofty legacy of Viennese invention. And, unlike nearly everything else he composed, the string quartet seems to follow convention with an ostensibly traditional layout comprising four movements with typical forms, tempi and characters. But this quartet is, in its own way, a radical break from the past.

By today’s standards, Debussy’s quartet is accessible and richly appealing as a surface of melodies, colors and rhythms that sound distinctly different than anything prior in the 19th century. On some level, it is characteristically French but with clearly identifiable influences from Spain and Asia, as well as Edvard Grieg and various Russian composers in vogue in Paris. But on a deeper level, perhaps not readily apparent at first, the quartet shows the influence of Debussy’s teacher, the Belgian César Franck. Franck pioneered the “cyclical” work where a single theme reappears in every movement lending it a particular artistic unit. In the Debussy quartet, while each of the four movements sounds distinctly different, most of the music is built from a single theme revealed at the very beginning of the first movement. The theme is treated to variation and transformation throughout, but its essential shape is retained. In this sense, Debussy’s undisputed masterpiece is both rich and diverse on one hand, but ingeniously minimalistic on the other. It is a great example of how great art always “works” on multiple levels.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 45 (1886)

Gabriel Fauré fits historically between Franck and Debussy and was one of the most highly revered French composers and teachers of the same period. He was a pianist and organist and one of the finest composers of French art songs. Fauré’s chamber music is truly impressive including duo sonatas, piano quartets, quintets, a piano trio and a late string quartet. Though perhaps less radical than Debussy, he was, nonetheless, a very progressive composer who became a major influence with his unique conception of harmony. During his own time, he was considered rather avant-garde, often to his disadvantage. Within France, he is revered as one of the greats. Outside of France, he is admired for his “Requiem,” some orchestral suites featuring a few “greatest hits,” and for his chamber music with piano.

The second piano quartet in G-minor dates from 1886 (about seven years before Debussy’s string quartet). While it sounds quite different from anything by Debussy, it shares some things in common: a “modal” sound (vs. traditional major or minor), a French sensibility with a kind of proto-impressionism, and a Franckian cyclic design where a “motto” theme recurs across movements. And, as with the Debussy quartet, there is sweeping and muscular momentum in places: the first and last movements surge with a powerful dark energy and the motoric scherzo races with punctuated perpetual motion. And yet again, as with Debussy, the slow movement is a rarefied dream of great delicacy, nuance and expression, a trait found even in the brooding Boulanger, a shared vocabulary of a specific place and time.

© 2019 Kai Christiansen and earsense.org, the chamber music exploratorium.