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 Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, Opus 2  ………. Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Andante a la marcia – Allegro giusto – Andante (played without pause)

The remarkably gifted young Britten wrote songs at age 8, received formal instruction in composition from Frank Bridge from age 12, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London with John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin.

Winning an award for free study abroad with the musician of his choice, Britten chose Vienna and atonalist heavyweight Alban Berg, dismaying his professors who connived with Britten’s family to thwart this venture. Years later Britten remarked of his aborted sabbatical: “It might have taught me to unlock gates I did in fact have to climb over.”

Although Britten was trained primarily as a pianist, his works reveal mastery of the techniques of other instruments as well as the piano. At age 19, just before the aborted pilgrimage to Vienna, Britten wrote this Phantasy which he dedicated to the celebrated virtuoso oboist Leon Goossens who played in its debut.

Britten scholar Peter Evans writes that the quartet

forms a single arch in which the germinal theme, a lyrical impulse neutralized by cryptic march accompaniments… frames an epic sonata design, but also flowers into an eloquent slow movement between the sonata’s development and restatement. Britten’s title acknowledges the currency given in England to composite forms of this kind by Cobbett’s vision of a synthesis of the proud native traditions of the consort Fancy and the Romantics’ cyclic modifications and conflations of sonata practice.

Although the piece is played without pause, there are indeed three clearly contrasting sections. Themes introduced in the first section are developed in the middle part and reappear as accompanying figures in the concluding section.

Britten expressed his musical credo: “Music for me is clarification…. My technique is to tear all waste away. To achieve perfect clarity of expression; that is my aim” At age 50, he declared that he could not tell whether he represented a “wave or a ripple” in musical history. We are left to wonder whether, had he been exposed to the genius of Berg and Schoenberg on their own turf in his late teens, would he have achieved his goals differently?

Craig B. Leman, for the first Chintimini festival, June 15, 2001. Tonight’s oboist Lara Wickes and violist Phillip Stevens are the same who performed it then.

Halvorsen: Passacaglia for Violin and Viola (after Handel)

We remember Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), a Norwegian conductor, violinist and composer widely celebrated in his day, mainly for the present “Passacaglia,” from 1894. Halvorsen borrowed its structure and its basic building block – the stern, descending bass line played by the viola at the start – directly from the first of six movements of G.F. Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G-minor. Halvorsen also echoed Handel’s grave, dotted-rhythm opening. Beyond that, Halvorsen’s seven-minute piece has little to do with Handel. This seven-minute work is a composition, not a mere arrangement of the four-and-a-half minute source.

In a passacaglia – already a venerable form in Handel’s time – the bass line, usually with a set of attendant chords, repeats again and again beneath a set of variations (numerous but very brief ones, in this case). Halvorsen takes liberties with that idea, in the interest of creating spectacular virtuoso flights for both violin and viola. Sometimes, he subtly weaves the crucial passacaglia pitches (looped in the score below) into the most fantastical figurations or rapid scales. Sometimes, he leaves them out altogether, but continues to harmonize the treble lines as if the bass line were churning away. I played the bass line along with a recording of the piece. It works in every bar until the final episode, in which Halvorsen briefly breaks the passacaglia’s chains before surrendering to the inevitable, final G-minor chord.music

Tom Strini. Source: earsense.org.

Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings

Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) grew up in Bacton, in the fen country of Norfolk, England. He returned there in 1946, to compose the present Fantasy. The place influenced the music.

“I board and lodge in this little pub overlooking Rockland Broad,” Moeran wrote, in a letter to Dick Jobson, his friend and physician. “In the evening I go out rowing on these ‘Lonely Waters’… this reedy neighborhood seems to suggest oboe music.”

This 13-minute work, in a single movement, abounds with modal, pastoral melodies of an English folk type. They suit the oboe very well. But this sophisticated work comprises more than pretty tunes. All five parts challenge and engage their players. Their subtle, syncopated rhythms mesh cleverly. The harmonies hold considerable interest. In one passage, the oboe plays in E minor/G major, the violin and viola in F minor and the cello in E major. The result is mysterious and ambiguous rather than jarring, and it neatly summarizes vertically the horizontal key plan of the whole work.

A melancholic yearning hangs over this piece, as it hung over Moeran’s life. He left music school to become a motorcycle courier in World War I, and got a piece of shrapnel through his skull and a metal plate to patch the hole for his trouble. He had a long stretch of wild and largely drunken fun in the company of Peter Heseltine (a.k.a. composer Peter Warlock). But the war wound, alcoholism and a troubled marriage took their toll and led to an early death.

Tom Strini. Source: www.moeran.net

Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 15 …..Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
(Composed 1876-1883)

Allegro molto moderato S
cherzo (Allegro vivo)
Allegro molto

Although most of Fauré’s male ancestors were butchers, his father was school administrator in the town of Pamiers. Gabriel, youngest of six children and apparently not very welcome in the busy household, was packed off to the care of a nurse in another town till he was four years old. When he rejoined the family, he did not quite fit in. “According to my parents, I was silent and bound up in myself as a child.” An older brother once threw a plate of spinach in his face to “wake him up” from a daydream.

At age nine he was sent to a music academy in Paris, where he found the training “excessively rigorous; we were not allowed to play Schumann or Chopin – not suitable for young people.” Fortunately, the urbane, versatile Saint-Saëns became his teacher and his life-long friend.

Till he was thirty, Fauré wrote vocal music, and only then he began composing instrumental music – the reverse of Schumann, who had written only for piano before age thirty and then turned to Lieder and, eventually, other forms. This piano quartet was the first in the French literature. Fauré had just written his first violin-piano sonata when he began this quartet. It was a trying time for him – a double jilt, first by his beloved sweetheart and then by a publisher who rejected this quartet. Fauré picked himself up, married another woman, and found another publisher.

His letters reveal that he agonized over the last movement. Three years after the first public performance, in which he played the piano part in 1880, he completely rewrote the finale and only then delivered the entire work to his new publisher. There was an other-world aura about Fauré that is reflected in his music. As he wrote to his son, “For me, art, and especially music, exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.”

Craig B. Leman for the Nov. 6, 1989, Friends of Chamber Music performance by the Quartetto Beethoven di Roma