- Quartettsatz in C minor for Strings, D. 703 (1820)
Escher String Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd, violin • Pierre Lapointe, viola • Brook Speltz, cello)
—INTERMISSION (Q&A with the artists)—
Franz Schubert (Vienna, 1797 – Vienna, 1828)
Schubert had a long history with the string quartet. In his teens, he played viola in a family quartet with his father on cello and his brothers on the violins. He composed for the ensemble with his usual prolificacy, writing more than ten complete quartets plus single movements and assorted fragments. He then spent a few years focusing on other genres—especially songs—and when he returned to quartet writing in 1820 with this piece, he had made a major leap forward. This work, coming just after the Trout Quintet from the year before, shows a new, mature approach to chamber music with sophisticated themes, dramatic contrasts, and expressive harmonies. However, like many of his earlier efforts, the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) is incomplete. He composed the first movement and started the second movement before inexplicably breaking off. Schubert went on to complete three mature quartets, two in 1824 (“Rosamunde” and “Death and the Maiden”) and one in 1826.
Schubert wrote the Quartettsatz during a major upswing in his life. His song “Erlkönig” was performed at a house concert in December 1820 to great acclaim—it would go on to become his first published work and his most famous piece during his lifetime. He composed this movement right after that premiere, possibly thinking he would try to parlay his fame as a song composer to the more ‘serious’ genre of string quartet. Though it was written at one of the few truly happy times in Schubert’s life, the movement doesn’t sound that way—it is driving and tonally unstable. In the opening, a lyrical theme is sandwiched between two fiercely energetic, forceful motives and the C minor tonality is repeatedly undermined by surprising D-flat chords. The energetic string writing continues to the end for a rousing finish worthy of a finale movement.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Kamsko-Votkinsk, 1840 – St. Petersburg, 1893)
Tchaikovsky wrote this trio after the passing of Nikolai Rubinstein, the composer’s champion and friend. Rubinstein, who founded and directed the Moscow Conservatory, recruited Tchaikovsky to teach there in 1866. Over the next 15 years, he frequently performed Tchaikovsky’s piano works and conducted many of his orchestral works, including the first four symphonies. Rubinstein was a tireless champion of the composer and Tchaikovsky valued his opinion, though Rubinstein’s initial harsh criticism of the First Piano Concerto in 1874 was a major stumbling block in their relationship. They patched things up and Rubinstein performed the concerto the following year and received the dedication to the Second Piano Concerto just before his death. In total, Tchaikovsky dedicated seven works to Rubinstein. He began this trio after learning of Rubinstein’s passing on March 23, 1881 of tuberculosis and dedicated it ‘In Memory of a Great Artist.’ The premiere took place in Moscow on the one year anniversary of Rubinstein’s death.
The trio is in just two expansive movements, allowing Tchaikovsky substantial time to develop his ideas with no need for breaks, contrast, or filler to lighten the mood.
The trio is in just two expansive movements, allowing Tchaikovsky substantial time to develop his ideas with no need for breaks, contrast, or filler to lighten the mood. The first movement, titled Pezzo elegiaco, begins with the elegiac theme that will dominate the piece, an expression of Tchaikovsky’s grief. When the theme returns after a searching, nostalgic development, it is much slower, less passionate, and more contemplative. By the coda, the theme has denatured into a set of characteristic notes, its rhythmic drive dissolved into acceptance. The second movement is a vast theme and 12 variations that feature the piano, Rubinstein’s instrument. The piano gives a straightforward presentation of the theme and then the variations highlight each instrument in turn, a nod to the balance and symmetry that one would expect from a composer like Mozart. However, starting with variation six, a waltz, things start growing and expanding, spinning out into longer elaborations in more diverse styles. Variation eight is a dark, heavy fugue; variation 10 is a mazurka in the style of Chopin. The final variation is its own substantial section—a triumphant closing in A major as if everything has been resolved. But of course it hasn’t. The elegiac theme from the first movement returns, first riding high over a bravura piano accompaniment, and then dying away accompanied by a funeral march. Death wins in the end, taking a formidable pianist, influential teacher, gregarious Muscovite, and true friend at the age of 45.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio ‘In Memory of a Great Artist’ inspired a handful of similar tributes from later Russian composers.
Most notably, Rachmaninov wrote his Trio élégiaque in D minor to honor Tchaikovsky after his death in 1893, also dedicating it ‘In Memory of a Great Artist.’ Tchaikovsky had encouraged the 20-year-old Rachmaninov, helping to arrange the premiere of his opera Aleko and praising his symphonic poem The Rock. Rachmaninov’s trio was directly inspired by Tchaikovsky’s, with a large-scale first movement and a set of variations for the second movement. Instead of Tchaikovsky’s lengthy coda, Rachmaninov wrote a short but stormy third movement. He completed it in five weeks, saying, “While working on it, all my thoughts, feelings, powers, belonged to it…” Later, Arensky and Shostakovich continued the tradition with piano trios in memory of artists they admired.
Notes by Laura Keller, CMS Editorial Manager
© Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center