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Grand Tour

Grand Tour

Friday April 21 at 12:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | Free admission

Program Notes

Welcome to Staunton Music Festival’s Springfest 2023! The focus of this weekend is European music from around 1750 to 1800, an important and transitional time in Western music. On the way out, generally speaking, are forms and mannerisms of the High Baroque: strict counterpoint, sacred passions, dance suites, and the harpsichord. In their place will emerge a new language of musical expression largely based on melody-plus-accompaniment structure, the sonata-allegro form, and the rise of the pianoforte. For the years we celebrate in these concerts, the Baroque is still with us. But the newer Classical era (also referred to by contemporaries as the stile galant or “galant style”) is taking rapid strides to become the prevailing language of European music.

During this period European cities are becoming more cosmopolitan, and this change in lifestyle will be reflected in the stile galant. Unlike many composers of previous generations, such as J. S. Bach, who lived and worked within a very small orbit his entire life, musicians growing up after 1730 showed a greater willingness to move. This generation is also breaking free of the patronage system – slowly at first – and creating the initial outline of a “free artist.” Today’s concert highlights the music and domestic situation of three figures living through these transitional years.

Joseph Bologne (1745-1799), le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is one of the most colorful and underestimated figures in music history. Naturally gifted and thoroughly at home in the European galant idiom, Bologne has been compared to Mozart. A closer parallel would be Alexander Hamilton. Born in 1748 in the French Caribbean to a white landowning father and an enslaved African mother, Bologne sailed for Paris at age eleven to complete his schooling. By all accounts his abilities in swordplay and horsemanship had already emerged. This gifted musician earned acclaim as a genuine Musketeer and was soon without equal among European fencers. At the same time, he began formal violin studies with the famed Jean-Marie Leclair. By his twentieth year, Bologne had achieved preeminence in a Parisian orchestra, which afforded him opportunity to perform his own compositions in public.

Around the time Mozart was writing his early string quartets, Bologne published his own Opus 1: six string quartets (1773), among the first composed by a Frenchman. From this set we hear the String Quartet No. 3 in G Minor. His grasp of the vernacular style may not always reach great heights of expressive intensity, but Bologne’s melodic sense and rhythmic vitality are beyond reproach. The opening movement demonstrates the “concertante” approach, a term borrowed from the older concerto form in which a solo instrument leads the conversation, joined by various others providing harmonic support. Until later quartets by Haydn, Mozart, and eventually Beethoven, it will be the first violin that carries all melodic interest. The lower three strings (second violin, viola, and cello) use repeated or sustained pitches to fill out the tonal palette, occasionally and delightfully taking their own brief moments to echo virtuosic figures stolen from the first violin. The second movement, a Rondeau, seems more egalitarian, but its very brevity – the entire quartet lasts roughly five minutes – leaves one longing for more from this marginalized master.

When Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, he was neither the most famous nor the most successful member of the clan. Those honors fell to his son, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). Born in Weimar, where his father served as court organist, Emanuel was the fifth child of Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. Emanuel grew up in a bustling household, as Sebastian supplemented his income by taking on private organ students. Emanuel’s first teacher was his brilliant father, thus making the “nature versus nurture” question something of a moot point. He developed quickly in his musical activities, though he entered university ostensibly to study law. (University education in some more “respectable” profession offered musicians a bulwark against being regarded as a mere servant.) He completed this degree via studies in Leipzig and Frankfurt, though he never practiced law.

Immediately after graduation, Emanuel was summoned by Prussian crown Prince Frederick to join his retinue, which put the young composer alongside some of the most respected men in European culture. Two years later Frederick became King and moved to Berlin, where Emanuel served as the royal harpsichordist. At this time he began composing influential sonatas for solo keyboard, pieces that were highly experimental in both form and content. Emanuel developed a lasting reputation for the bravery and idiosyncratic nature of his use of dissonance, chromaticism, and quicksilver key changes.

Like his father, Emanuel Bach contributed substantially to most major genres. However, in his output, one can already sense a shift (perhaps dictated by his employment situation) toward instrumental chamber music and concertos over sacred masses and motets. He did compose several dozen solo songs; in German these are known as Lieder, and they draw on texts from some of the most acclaimed poets of the age. Emanuel collected 20 together for a published set, Wq. 199, of which we hear three today. “Der Morgen” (Morning) wonderfully showcases the charms of the genre. Its text, set out in six stanzas, unfolds over six identical repetitions of the same music – a form called strophic. The music is gracious and uncluttered, moving quickly from the home key (A major) to the dominant key (E), passing briefly through B minor to round back in the home key. Much the same impression is made by “Der Traum” (The Dream). By contrast, “Der Stoiker” (The Stoic) unfolds in fragmented gestures, as beginnings of melodic lines are broken by pauses or rapid piano figuration. The unrelenting minor mode contributes a weighty pathos to this 90-second dramatic monologue. Listeners who adore the lieder of Schubert may be surprised to hear how far the genre had progressed a half century earlier in the hands of Sebastian Bach’s second son.

The name of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) hardly needs an introduction among classical music lovers. His most important works (including the late quartets, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9, many of the beloved piano sonatas) are accorded unequaled status in the pantheon. But most of these works appeared following a period of turmoil, despair, and self-discovery, during which the eventual transformative outcome was hardly a foregone conclusion. The young Beethoven endured a difficult childhood in his native Bonn, picking up musical instruction from various teachers including his domineering (and probably abusive) father. Fortunately the boy’s obvious talent allowed him to receive tuition outside the toxic home from Christian Gottlob Neefe, and this begins a period of more mature composition. Ludwig had ambitions to study with Mozart in Vienna, but the death of his mother in 1787 and his father’s debilitating alcoholism necessitated the teenager stay home to help raise his siblings. By the time Ludwig was ready to begin formal studies with Mozart, the latter himself had succumbed in 1791. With the help of several important patrons, a passing acquaintance with Haydn developed into a formal plan: Beethoven would move to Vienna in the early 1790s to study with the elder master. It was not always an easy relationship, but the musical fruits it bore stand without qualification.

Beethoven clearly had written numerous compositions before he ventured to publish anything. Thus when one is confronted by the fit and finish of his three Piano Trios, Op. 1, these works must be understood as the culmination of all he had learned in his first 20 years. During his first three years in Vienna, Beethoven actually spent more time building his reputation as a pianist and performer. Privately he worked with Haydn on more subtle aspects of composition: counterpoint in particular, as well as symphonic orchestration and mastering the pacing of sonata-allegro form. In 1795, following a successful public debut, he brought forth his Piano Trios for public consumption.

Each of the three trios is a substantial and highly competent work, though the laurel should perhaps be hung upon the final work in the set, an inspired Piano Trio in C Minor. Much has been written about Beethoven’s so-called “C minor mood,” the sense in which compositions in that key seem to draw the best from him (e.g., the “Pathétique Sonata, Symphony No. 5, the final piano sonata, Op. 111). Here is the earliest published work to show that spirit. The Allegro con brio opens with a brief introduction based on a turn figure, before the galloping main theme takes off. At every moment we sense this is decidedly not the work of a talented youth; this is the developed, confident utterance of a seasoned artist. The tonal moves are striking and full of color, the piano writing is bold and predominant, the phrases are expansive without losing momentum. For instance, the first section of the first movement (the “exposition” of the sonata form), is – when the repeat is taken – already as long as Bologne’s entire G-minor string quartet. Length translates into a growing sense of musical journey or narrative.

The second of four movements is a tender theme and variations. The theme itself is nothing more than a simple chord progression leading from the tonic to the dominant in E-flat major, played by solo piano, answered by the strings. Subsequent variations grow more elaborate in rhythm and texture, as when the two strings offer counterpoint to one another in Variation II. The fourth variation turns to a lugubrious E-flat minor, followed by a blithely chromatic variation for piano and reposeful coda.

In third position Beethoven places a lively Minuet and Trio. Tonal contrast between the sections (the central Trio is in C major) adds welcome color to the pairing. Each section features scale runs and arpeggios, familiar decorative gestures found in the contemporaneous Piano Sonatas, Op. 2. The impact, however, is felt most fully when those same rising and falling gestures become the hallmark of the brilliant Finale. As can be heard in other early sonatas, Beethoven seems to have had no trouble composing final movements that equal or outshine his opening movements. This was something of a challenge for later composers, who seemed to exhaust their ingenuity in opening movements and hence produced finales that felt lightweight by comparison. Beethoven clearly relished the dynamic energy that kept a structural balance firmly toward the later movements. For this reason he is sometimes regarded as the most teleological composer in music history. Coming down from such heights, however, let us simply marvel at his command of motivic development, blistering transitions, and the rumble of his “Alberti bass” piano accompaniment, sounding like the relentless thrust of a locomotive.

© Jason Stell, 2023

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