Flute Quartet in D Major, K. 285
Despite living only 35 years, Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is almost universally regarded as the preeminent composer of the pre-Beethovenian classical era. Art, architecture, literature and music in this period were inspired by the proportion, elegance, and balanced expression of ancient Greek Art. His music exemplifies these qualities, but with a depth and range of expression that reach far beyond those tenants. As pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen wrote: ‘It is only through recognizing the violence and sensuality at the center of Mozart's work that we can make a start towards a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence.”
Mozart was, of course, prodigiously talented, writing pieces from the age of five, his first symphony at eight, all the while mastering the violin and piano. He was also driven mercilessly by the ultimate stage-parent. Leopold Mozart, a minor composer and violinist who carted the young Mozart (along with his sister) around Europe to perform party tricks for royalty. Mozart suffered serious physical ailments during these trips and throughout his short life, as well as the consequences of quackery offered by the doctors of the time, including mercury treatments and bloodletting.
Mozart was an exceptionally prolific composer, somehow managing to write 600 works, including symphonies, operas, concertos, and full choral works while performing and teaching as well. (Along with writing many, many, very naughty letters.) Though purportedly not a fan of the flute, he wrote several works for the instrument that are among his most delightful. The adagio of this flute quartet is particularly poignant, with the plucked notes of the strings creating the effect of a guitar accompanying the flute’s, longing, melancholy serenade.
Sonata No. 5 in G Major – L’aurore
Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was a Belgian violinist, composer, pedagogue, and conductor. He was, along with Fritz Kreisler, the last of the great violinist composers. He wrote each of his six solo sonatas for one of his violinist friends, composed with the individual’s personality and violinistic style in mind. Remarkably, not one of the sonatas was ever actually performed by the violinist for whom it was written, possibly because of their astonishing difficulty. The sonatas employ a range of pyrotechnics to create both virtuoso and coloristic effect, including ponticello, (playing next to bridge to create a spine-tingling, icy sound some may find reminiscent to fingernails on the chalkboard.) double, triple, and quadruple stops, (playing lots of notes at once), and generally anything one can come up with to make life complicated for the performer
This sonata was written for Ysaÿe’s student Mathieu Crickboom, with whom he premiered Claude Debussy’s landmark String Quartet. One can hear references to Debussy’s impressionist style, as well as all kinds of cool violinistic effects, like bowing and plucking at the same time and every combination of double-stops imaginable. L’aurore translates to sunrise or daybreak, and the movement starts serenely, as if the first hints of light are flirting with the horizon. Incrementally the intensity and virtuosity of the piece builds, culminating in a glorious cascade of double stops and arpeggios as the sun rises to its full opulence.
Caprice No. 13
Nicolo Paganini embodied the stereotype of the romantic artist. A violinist and composer of unparalleled ability, he brought about the age of virtuosity and highly influenced composers from Schubert and Schumann to Liszt and Berlioz. He had a tumultuous personal life, which was sensationalized by the press, and was continually dogged by health issues exacerbated by inept medical care. Tall and gaunt, there was a diabolical element to his appearance and musicianship that intoxicated his audiences. Though many of his pieces are but superficial showpieces, (including Scena amorosa, where the G string and E string imitate the bedroom groans and sighs of two lovers.) he was as much renowned for the poetry of his playing as for its virtuosity. The 24 caprices are to this day among the most difficult pieces in the repertoire and inspired composer as varied as Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslowski to base compositions upon their material. The thirteenth indeed starts capriciously, with a playful, lilting theme evoking the sounds of laughter. The following moto perpetuo is impetuous and stormy, as if another resented being mocked.
Quartet in C Major, Opus 59 #3, IV
Ludwig van Beethoven was likely the most influential composer in the history of western music. Though others such as Mozart and Mendelssohn were more prodigiously gifted, none revolutionized the progression of musical composition as did Beethoven. He ushered in the romantic era by composing works of massive scale, dynamic contrast, and overt mercurial expression.
Beethoven wrote his Opus 59 String Quartets soon after he had written his landmark “Eroica” Symphony. Like the Symphony, the quartets are longer and more difficult than any quartet written before. The fourth movement is among the most famous in the quartet literature, a fugal moto perpetuo, as infectious as it is challenging for the performer.
String Quartet in B-flat
Johannes Brahms idolized Beethoven and in many ways modeled his life after his. Like Beethoven he was a lifelong bachelor, casting aside his love for Clara Schumann to devote himself entirely to his art. Highly self critical, he destroyed much of his work, but what he did allow to be published is some of the most fastidiously crafted music ever composed. A composer of the romantic era, the lush textures and soaring melodies belie the complexity of his music.
His B-flat String Quartet is the third and last quartet Brahms would write and is among the most daunting in the repertoire. The slow movement is largely serene and intimate, essentially a first violin aria cushioned by a rich, luxuriant accompaniment only Brahms could create.
George Frideric Handel was one of the greatest composer of the Baroque era, best know by the general public today for his Messiah. Johan Halvorson was a Norwegian violinist and composer best known today for this very piece. A Passacaglia is a dance formed that originated in seventeenth-century Spain and essentially means variations on a bass ostinato, usually in a serious character. Halvorson takes Handel’s theme and thrusts it into the virtuoso era, creating an ideal medium for a virtuoso to illustrate their coloristic palette and technical acumen.
Cello Quintet in C Major
There could not be a more appropriate composer to be featured in an intimate venue than Franz Schubert. In his lifetime, Schubert’s music was most often performed in “Schubertiades”; house concerts hosted by Schubert’s supporters, with anywhere from a dozen to one hundred guests in attendance. Though Schubert lived only 31 years, he was, like Mozart, incredibly prolific. (Though his life was cut tragically short, he was fortunate as compared to his siblings, nine of the fourteen having perished in infancy.) In the year 1815 alone, he wrote over 20,000 bars of music. Unlike Mozart, Schubert did not enjoy widespread public acclaim, and many of his most celebrated works today were never performed in his lifetime.
Thomas Mann wrote that the String Quintet is “the music one would like to hear on one’s deathbed”, and it’s hard to imagine Schubert not considering his own mortality while composing this sublime masterpiece; he would die just weeks after its completion. Unusual in form, instrumentation, length, and in its extraordinary breadth of expression and color, it is universally regarded as one of the greatest chamber works ever written.