Alexander Borodin:

String Quartet No. 2 in D Major

The development of Russian music contemporary with Tchaikovsky was almost entirely in the hands of “amateur” composers. Primary among this generation were the famous “Mighty Five,” consisting of Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Cui. Nearly all these men conducted active careers outside professional music. Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), for example, was one of St. Petersburg’s leading research chemists and professors. His musical activities were sandwiched between professional commitments, and often publication of his music had to wait years — after his death in some cases. Such was part of the story of his String Quartet No. 2.

The work appears to have been written in a rare, uninterrupted period in the summer of 1881. Borodin dedicated it to his wife, Catherine, a woman of deep sentimentality. Although Borodin revealed no known extra-musical program for the quartet, its writing coincided with the 20th anniversary of their falling in love. The work is a nostalgic emblem of that first happy time that the couple spent together, shown in the very lyrical nature of the quartet.

Alexander Borodin

The sensuous sound of the cello in its high register dominates some important moments in the quartet, such as the opening theme of the first movement. Answered immediately in the first violin, this theme leads into and controls the entire movement. The opening movement — and, indeed, the first three movements of the work — hold few surprises in form. It is music to be enjoyed from moment to moment. The middle movements of the quartet contain the “hit tunes” used in the 1953 Broadway musical, Kismet. The main theme of the Scherzo became the song, “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” and the opening theme of the Notturno (again, a high cello part) was adapted as “This Is My Beloved.”

If the quartet is “about” young Catherine and Alexander, then the most obvious expression of that program lies at the beginning of the Finale. There, in the Andante introduction, we can hear each of their “voices”: first hers, high and diatonic (violins I and II) followed by his, low and sinuously chromatic (viola and cello). Immediately, the two motives combine as theme and accompaniment in the Vivace. This movement has been underrated; it contains some of the most solidly significant and stirring moments in the entire work.

Ludwig van Beethoven:

Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

By the end of 1803, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was exhausted from intensive composing, chiefly the ponderous and emotionally draining “Waldstein” Piano Sonata (Op. 53). He managed to reach summer and the end of the Vienna “season,” when he repaired to the countryside for some rest and “light” composing. His focus continued to be on piano sonatas, and the first one he composed was indeed “light”: that in F Major, Op. 54. (Beethoven Photo)

The F-minor Sonata, Op. 57 w s a different matter. Its fast movements were indeed passionate, however, the composer pointedly ignored the Appassionata nickname applied to the work by its publisher.

The first movement has the straightforward shape of a sonata form with engaging and emotionally touching themes and development. However, to the listener, undoubtedly the most engaging feature is the short rhythmic idea: …— (di-di-di-dah), that forecasts the main idea in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, completed about four years later.

The slow movement is in a Beethoven genre called “hymn-like.” This refers to the chordal theme stated at the opening. Then three variations on the harmonic pattern follow, the series based on an increasingly faster right-hand speed with each variation. Following a partial reprise of the “hymn,” a few chords lead us away from its meditative atmosphere and into a fast, frenetic finale in a passionate mood that counterbalances the first movement.

We are fortunate to have an eye-witness account of Beethoven’s initial creative impulse of composing this movement, told by his close friend and student, Ferdinand Ries, with whom the composer took long walks through the countryside that summer. Late during one of these,

. . . he had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. In answer to my question what it was, he said: “A theme for the last movement of the sonata [in F Minor] has occurred to me.” When we entered the room, he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat…. Now he stormed for at least an hour with the beautiful finale of the sonata. Finally, he got up . . . and said [to me], “I cannot give you a lesson today; I must do some work.” (Translation by Alexander Wheelock Thayer)

Beethoven wrote down some of these ideas in one of his notebooks. Thus was born the sonata’s stirring finale.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Michael Puchberg

Wolfgang A. Mozart:

Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat Major, K. 563

The year was 1788, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was entering the saddest period of his life. His music being out of favor with the Viennese public and Mozart having only a tiny regular income, he went into debt. In June, he began to borrow money regularly from his brother in Freemasonry, the well-to-do merchant Michael Puchberg. Frequently, from that time until April 1791, Mozart would beg money from this always-generous friend, making blue-sky promises of repayment once his fortunes in music improved. Mozart’s lodge-brother probably never expected to see the money again.

Puchberg was not entirely without recompense, however. In September 1788, Mozart dedicated to him something unique in his output: his only complete work for string trio. It ran six movements, including two minuets: a divertimento. Mozart must have been proud of the E-flat Divertimento, for he performed it in Dresden in 1789 (on his way to Berlin), and again in Vienna a year later. Divertimentos were usually light-hearted, but Mozart sometimes violated that tradition. As it turns out, the first half of this work has a serious tone, while the latter half is blithe.

We may be astonished by the plethora of musical ideas in the first movement’s exposition. However, in the development, Mozart chooses to focus on a motive from the second theme group for serious contrapuntal treatment.

The gradually swelling passion of the Adagio falls outside the realm of divertimento tradition. Its development goes far afield harmonically before returning to the home key for an elaboration of each theme.

In the first Menuetto, Mozart’s theme features cross accents of 2+2+2 beats within the space of 3+3 beats. Development is again the guide, as ideas grow in the second portion. The Trio section stresses equality among the three string parts in the form of alternating solos.

The Andante now places us squarely in the traditional divertimento domain. Here is a carefree, walking theme. The following variations become progressively more decorative or rhythmically dense until the quasi-Baroque minore variation. Bursting back into the major mode, Mozart now demands non-stop passagework from the players until the music unwinds in the coda.

Truly entertaining, the second Menuetto has some comic overtones. Both Trios are in Ländler rhythm (forerunner of the waltz) and flavored with the spirit of the Viennese public dancing parties for which Mozart wrote his German Dances

The final Allegro balances the seriousness of the opening movement with a complete relaxation of mood. The recurrent main theme is a playful peasant dance capped by a little drumming fanfare. Even the semi-serious counterpoint in the middle section is not long lived. As a coda, the little fanfare takes over, bringing to an end what Alfred Einstein termed “the finest, most perfect trio ever heard.”

Epilogue . . .

We might call this program of works a “slice” of Music History (though performed in reverse order). Historically, beginning with Mozart, one of the greatest composers of the High Classic Period (alongside Haydn), we are treated to a “Divertimento,” a later relative of the Baroque dance suite. All is balance and controlled expression with a variety of tempos and rhythmic impulses. In some ways, the best music of the time (Mozart and Haydn) reflects the 18th-century’s intellectual interest in logic and balance from “Classical” Greece.

Beethoven’s youthful music (late 18th century) emulates this esthetic, and while the music shows growth and is of high quality, it offers few surprises. However, in his “middle” period (mostly the first decade of the 19th century), Beethoven invents Romanticism in music, infusing many of his instrumental works with emotions and “feelings.” This new expression in music influences nearly every European composer from Schubert, through the generation(s) of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and their followers.

In the late 1800s, especially in Eastern Europe’s non-Germanic countries, the spirit of Nationalism arose and flowered. In Finland, Sibelius dedicated much of his energy to shaking off Russian encroachment by reviving Finnish folklore, including stories and folk music. In turn, Russia itself produced a circle of Nationalist composers, “The Mighty Five,” who promoted Russian folklore and indigenous music. Although Rimsky=Korsakov was the only professional musician among them, the Mighty Five had enormous influence in the face of imported French and German influence, which colored the aesthetic of Tchaikovsky, the most celebrated Russian composer of his day. The music of Borodin has been among the most durable in popularity.

The nationalists of Europe had an influence on music lasting into the 20th century. We might mention Bartók (Hungary), Vaughan Williams (Great Britain), or Copland (U.S.A.) to illustrate. Thus, significant composers of one period deeply influenced (or sometimes played a part in) the music of the following period.

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink