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Morpheus, for viola and piano (1917; premiered 1918.) Rebecca Clarke

Joël Belgique, viola            Jean-David Coen, piano
Shortly after Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was born in Germany, her American father and German mother moved to England.
She enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music, London, in 1903, as a violin student. Her harmony teacher, Percy Miles, fell in love with her and proposed marriage in 1905; her father, whom she described as cruel in her 1973 memoir, pulled her out of school because of it. (Decades later, when Miles bequeathed Clarke a Stradivarius violin.) In 1907, she returned to RAM, as the first female allowed into the composition class of the famed Charles Villiers Stanford. Again, her father forced her to drop out, this time by kicking her out of the family home.
At Stanford’s suggestion, she switched to viola and began her long career as a freelance musician. In 1912, she became the first woman to win a job in the fully professional Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In 1916, she visited her brothers in America and toured the country as a soloist and recitalist. During this period, Clarke composed Morpheus, a seven-minute reverie named after the Greek god of sleep and dreams, with the tilt toward the dreams. Its drifting, gauzy harmonies bring Debussy to mind.
Clarke played the premiere at Aeolian Hall in New York on Feb. 13, 1918, on a bill with cellist May Mukle and pianist Katherine Ruth Heyman. That program lists one Anthony Trent as the composer of Morpheus. Clarke often used that alias; she found critics more favorably inclined toward male composers, even fictional ones.
Tom Strini. Historical sources: The Rebecca Clarke Society website.

Clarinet Trio in B-flat, Opus 11  Ludwig Van Beethoven

Abby Raymond, clarinet            Noah Seitz, cello            Jean-David Coen, piano
Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the 22-minute clarinet trio early in his career, in 1798. He had arrived in Vienna from Bonn, his home town, in 1792, equipped with huge talent and a reputation for piano virtuosity and improvisation, but not all that much technical training in composition. He arrived, really, as a student, first of Haydn and then of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.
In those early days, Beethoven avoided the string quartet and the symphony, forms in which he would dwell in the shadows of Mozart and Haydn. His first string quartets, the Opus 18 group, and the Symphony No. 1 both arrived in the break-out year of 1801. Prior to that, he wrote a good deal of wind music, for which a ready market existed. Tunes from operas, arranged for winds, sold especially well.
Beethoven based the theme and variations in the finale of Opus 11 on Pria ch’io l’impegno, a jaunty tenor aria from Joseph Weigl’s nearly forgotten but once enormously popular comic opera, L’amor marinaro. According to early Beethoven biographer A.W. Thayer, a local clarinetist asked Beethoven to include variations on that theme, and the young composer obliged, with nine variations and a developmental coda. Beethoven set both the opening allegro and the central adagio (in E-flat) in sonata forms that are conventional except for a sly misdirection to a false second theme in the former and a highly ornamented recapitulation in the latter.
The clarinet might have spurred the composition of the piece, but it’s not the most important thing, here. Beethoven provided an alternative version for violin instead of clarinet, for one thing. For another, the piano rules this trio. Beethoven certainly wrote the part for himself, and he no doubt reveled in the virtuoso keyboard fireworks in the finale.
Tom Strini. Historical sources: Charles Palmer’s AllMusic article on the trio; The Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on Beethoven.

Piano Quintet in A minor, Opus 84 (1918)   Edward Elgar

Sunghee Kim, piano           Erik Peterson, violin           Inés Voglar Belgique, violin
Joël Belgique, viola             Noah Seitz, cello
In 1919, Elgar (1857-1934) wrote to a friend about this quintet: “It runs gigantically and in a large mood.” To say the least. The quintet, though in just three movements, is big music. Its emotional, structural and sonic heft burst against the seams of its 35-minute length.
The Quintet packs such an emotional charge that it begs the listener to jump to conclusions about authorial grief over World War I. But we won’t, because good evidence indicates that some legend about a local outpost of Spanish monks struck by lightning likely inspired Elgar.
Whatever. Just listen.
Those gruff introductory rustlings, the quiet lamentation of descending minor seconds in the violins, and the poignant upwelling of a cello arpeggio to a major seventh (A to G-sharp) command attention. Do remember them; they recur at key points in all three movements, and thematic ideas often turn out to have some unexpected relation to them. They help hold the piece together, and the ast
onishing amount and range of material calls for some serious binding.
The intro ideas recur, for example, between the stern 6/8 march that is the principal theme of the first movement and the air-headed 2/4 tea dance tune of a second theme. About the time you wonder what Elgar could have been thinking with that second theme, it begins to morph into something complex and troubled. As it evolves, it reveals its hidden relation to that gruff stuff in the introduction.
The 6/8 march and the 2/4 dance tune (now given a surreal klezmer cast through a flatted-second scale) tear at each other through most of the development. Elgar, not content with repetition, re-composed all the material and intensified its emotional character in the recapitulation.
An elegiac chorale in C-sharp minor opens the astonishing middle movement. A long, poignant, Romantic theme follows. It soon mutates into something restless, even tortured, as Elgar runs it through key after key. He allows it no rest, no settling onto tonic. A little breather, in the distant key of F major, proves a mirage, as turbulent C-sharp minor again disturbs the peace.
That rising cello arpeggio returns to open the finale. Here, it grows into an elaborate theme before giving way to a crazed 6/8 melody that bounds ahead with reckless energy. Elgar displaces it in the meter to make the ride even bumpier. It dissolves into a murmur that introduces a surreal, Gothic chorale, which gives way to a surreal, Gothic, off-kilter waltz that advances in fragments, as if not so much heard as half-remembered.
Violent syncopations cut against the force of a wild rush to the end, like a driver violently and futilely jabbing at the brakes before speeding over a cliff.
Notes: Tom Strini