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Sunday June 30, 4:00 pm • Festival Concert • Ashbrook School Theater

Hindemith Scherzo for viola and cello

by Tom Strini

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963): Scherzo for Viola and Cello (1934): How good was Paul Hindemith, as both a composer and a violist?
Well, in 1934, he was at Abbey Road Studios (yes, that Abbey Road) with cellist Edward Feuermann, a colleague in the Amar Quartet, recording his Sonata for Viola and Cello, as part of a massive, multi-album Columbia Records History of Music Series.
After they had recorded the sonata, the engineers realized they were one 78-rpm side short of a full load. No problem, said Hindemith. The next day, he rose at 5 a.m. By 8:20 a.m., the Scherzo was complete. He and Feuermann recorded it that day, as Side 11 of a 16-disc set, which Columbia finally released in 1939. A 10-inch set released in Germany earlier disappeared; Nazis, you know.
You can hear Hindemith and Feuermann play the Scherzo on YouTube. Their version zips by at a brisk 3:24, the fastest I found.

musical passage

The music reflects Hindemith’s singular take on tonal music. Key centers, yes; diatonic scales and chord progressions, no. He opens with a dense, rhythmic cell culminating in a stop sign of a dissonant chord (See musical example, above.) Highly chromatic scales race away from that stop sign; the viola and cello take turns hot-rodding and serving as punctuating speed bumps.
Six versions of that opening idea – same rhythms, different pitches and harmonies – launch new episodes of hot-rodding before the motor shuts down and the Scherzo rolls to a gentle stop.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel Quartet in E flat

by Tom Strini

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847): Quartet in E-flat (1834): Despite the restrictions on women in careers of all kinds, Fanny Mendelssohn led an artist’s life. She composed and performed even after marriage, a rare feat, one abetted, though, by her husband, Wilhelm Hensel. He was an aspiring painter when they met in the 1820s. Her wealthy, cultured, progressive parents looked askance at him, because he was so much older than their daughter and a man of modest means. When he won an appointment as court painter, the Mendelssohn family found him more acceptable. They married in 1829, collaborated on many projects, and led lively artistic salons in their home. Their Sunday Musicales could be large affairs, with full orchestras and opera productions. Mendelssohn Hensel composed the Quartet in E-Flat for such an occasion.

Fanny Mendelssohn, 1829 drawing by Wilhelm Hensel.

Fanny and famous brother, Felix, grew up together as prodigies and were very close throughout their lives. In adulthood, they sought each other’s advice and criticism. They were frank in their criticisms, but took them in stride. Felix held Fanny back, by discouraging her from publishing her work under her own name, in the belief that doing so would damage her respectability. When she met with success late in
her life, he relented on that point. When Fanny died of a stroke, Felix wrote his String Quartet No. 6 in tribute. A stroke claimed him a few months later.
She composed over 460 works, including a great many songs, several cantatas, abundant chamber music, piano solos, an orchestral overture and an oratorio. When her music saw print, critics took her seriously. They typically noted her imaginative, unpredictable ways, as in this bit from the German Musical Times, quoted in a 2015 essay by Stephen Rodgers:
Mendelssohn’s manner of expression is highly precise, he would rather say too little than too much, he always builds [his compositions] on one idea and rounds out the whole in a way that is easily apprehended. Frau Hensel’s Lieder [ohne Worte] are more complicated; here fantasy is permitted freer reign, the form is applied in broader strokes, and not infrequently a greater variety is achieved by means of a contrasting middle section.
She mostly wrote on a small scale. The E-flat quartet, at 22 minutes in four movements, is among her heftiest compositions. It bears out the critic’s comment above. It starts not with the usual Allegro, but with a dreamy Adagio. Larry R. Todd, an expert on the music of both Mendelssohns, has called it more of a fantasy than a sonata form. A swift, substantial, yet playful ? dance follows; note the astonishing fugal rave-up in the middle section. Another slow movement (Romanze) throbs with feeling as the main theme clashes poignantly with the underlying harmony. The closing Allegro introduces itself with exuberant bursts of virtuosity from all four instruments. Just when you think the music will settle down into some normality, Mendelssohn Hensel takes that opening material on a wild ride beyond all expectation.

Brahms Sextet No. 2 in G Major, op. 36

by Craig Leman

During the five years between his first and second sextet Brahms produced a variety of masterpieces: many piano works including the monumental sets of variations on themes by Mandel and Paganini, two piano quartets, a quintet, a cello sonata, many songs, the horn trio, and most of his German Requiem. Me had spent time in Hamburg, Vienna, and Zurich where he finished this work, directly after completing his quintet for strings.

In The Comoleat Brahms published this year by Leon Botstein, Brahms scholar Jan Swafford traces the origins of this sextet. In 1859 Brahms had become engaged to a young woman named Agathe von Siebold and had broken the engagement. Five years later he revisited Gottingen where they had known each other, learned that she had felt impelled to leave and was working as a governess in Ireland We can imagine his thoughts as he revisited their old haunts.

Brahms returned to his summer home at Baden-Baden and immediately produced a set of Lieder.Opus 32— (he words of one of them: “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to Ive for you, with you, and never die.” The same month, he wrote the first three movements of this sextet, which he completed a few months later, in May 1865.

The first movement builds to a magnificent climax, which introduces a theme that relates the music to Brahms’ inner life. Jan Swafford explains: “In fact there is a secret behind that climax, those particular notes: the pitches spell out Agathe von Siebold’s name. This procedure of spelling words with notes had for centuries been a means of evoking things symbolically in music. Brahms perhaps learned it more directly from Robert Schumann… the pitches of Brahms” melody are A-G-A-O-H-E (H being the German name for the note B). The missing letter T is represented by the suspended D that comes in under the melody At the same time, the D forms part of another word, made of the second A of the upper melody, the suspended D, the E of the next melody pitch The other word is ADE. Agathe, Farewell. By this work,’ Brahms told friend Josef Gansbacher, 1 have freed myself of my last love.”

The second movement, marked as a scherzo, is not very fast and is in 2/4 time; the theme came from a gavotte for piano Brahms had written ten years before. The trio of this movement is marked Presto giocoso and is in 3/4 time. The third movement consists of variations on a (heme that Brahms had written ten years earlier. This movement really sent Donald Tovey, who wrote (hat the sextet is “penetrated by sunshine, which the shadow of the unearthly pathos of the slow movement eclipses only
to reveal the corona and the stars”

Succeeding generations of British musicologists invoke the heavens in extolling this sextet In his 1990 biography Malcolm MacDonald praises the last movement Tor all its vibrancy and gladness this is a stately dance, appropriate alike to self-aware players of life’s tragi-comedy, and to the stars in theircourses.”

This was the first Brahms work to be premiered in the United States On October 11,1866 the Mendelssohn Quintet Club performed it in Boston.