Celebrate spring in the Queen City with a magnificent program that features two treasured string quintets. Join us for an exhilarating and moving musical experience to welcome the changing season.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953
Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op. 56
“Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas… After once hearing an unsuccessful piece for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet, one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes…” – Sergei Prokofiev, in his 1941 autobiography
While we may never know what unidentified “unsuccessful piece” we have to thank for Prokofiev’s inspiration, we can be certain that the result is one of the great works written for two unaccompanied violins. Written in Paris in 1932, the Sonata was a commission from Triton, a new Paris-based society dedicated to presenting new chamber music. The work concluded the inaugural Triton concert on December 16, 1932, however, the world premiere was actually given three weeks earlier in Moscow, on November 27, 1932, by two members of the Beethoven Quartet with the composer’s permission.
Characterized by Prokofiev’s son Sviatoslav as “lyrical, playful, fantastic, and violent in turn,” the Sonata is structured in the form of a Baroque sonata da chiesa, with a slow-fast-slow-fast sequence and two-part counterpoint.
The Andante cantabile is an abstract, winding movement that builds fervor and dies away several times before concluding quietly as the violins stretch into their upper registers.
The Allegro, in stark contrast, is filled with urgency, rhythm, and violence. The percussive beginning leads to a fragmented chase, interspersed with the harsh beginning opening chord, and featuring a fierce dotted rhythmic figure that builds to the close of the movement.
The lyrical Comodo (quasi Allegretto) brings delicate contrast following the aggressive energy of the Allegro, and the use of mutes on both instruments gives the music a reserved expression.
The finale, Allegro con brio, is a bright, upbeat movement in rondo form In which the violins playfully recall thematic material from the opening before dashing to a frenzied ending.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
String Quintet No. 1, Op. 88 for Two Violins, Two Violas, & Cello in F Major
Written in spring, 1882 (at the height of Brahms’ compositional powers and following three string quartets) and premiered on December 29, 1882, Brahms’ first string quintet proved to be the least popular of his chamber works. Despite this ambivalent reception, Brahms described his work to Clara Schumann as “one of my finest works,” and the String Quintet No.1 is certainly special in many ways.
Regardless of critical reception, the quintet is undeniably distinct. With more compositional freedom offered by a quintet rather than a quartet, Brahms opted for the addition of a second viola (rather than a second cello) and therefore added a richness to the texture reminiscent of the sororities of Mozart. It is his only chamber work (outside of the sonatas for solo instrument and piano) that is in three movements instead of four. Brahms was also heavily influenced by historical and folk music, and idioms from the Austrian ländler and the “style hongrois” are audible throughout this piece. Finally the use of secondary key, A Major, in all three movements is quite unusual.
Allegro non troppo ma con brio: a melodious, folk-like, and pastoral first movement, with elegant interplay between the instruments and an impressive range of textures that demonstrate Brahms’ mastery within this medium.
Grave ed appassionato – Allegretto vivace – Tempo I – Presto – Tempo I: an extremely complex movement that combines the function of slow movement and scherzo. In a sort of rondo, Brahms begins in c-sharp minor and alternates two new-baroque keyboard dances (a sarabande and gavotte that he had written in 1854) before ending in A major.
Allegro energico – Presto: a lighthearted fusion of fugue and sonata forms, with a parody of Baroque polyphonic style in the first subject area and an expansive medley in the second. The movement is very brief, which is consistent with Brahms’ later chamber works.
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97 for Two Violins, Two Violas, & Cello in E-flat Major
Spillville, Iowa may not immediately come to mind as a hotbed of musical inspiration, but to Antonin Dvorak, it was a haven filled with both American and Slovak traditions. It was here in the summer of 1893, surrounded by a small community of Czech settlers, that he wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in just over a month. The world premiere was given by the Kneisel Quartet at Carnegie Hall in NYC on January 13, 1894, and the work immediately achieved success.
The String Quartet No. 3, like the “American” String Quartet that precedes it, finely captures the inflection of Dvorak’s Bohemian idiom with Slovak folk music and American inspiration. The rhythmic profile of the quintet owes much to the influences of a traveling Native American show (from the Kickapoo tribe) of entertainment and wares that came to town for two weeks during his stay. The pentatonics that infuse the harmonies of the music are fundamental to Native American, African American, and Slovak music, while the the melodic shape is reminiscent of African-American materials (championed by Dvorak as a result of his relationship with Harry Thacker Burleigh at the National Conservatory of Music).
While the composer’s goal was to “write “something really melodious and simple,” the piece is richly-textured. The first movement, the Allegro non tanto, opens with a pentatonic melody for solo viola (Dvorak’s own instrument). The second theme, with its light, dotted rhythms, echoes Algonquin drumming patterns, and a melancholy episode between the two violins leads to a weaving of a recollection of the viola’s opening melody into the peaceful ending. The second movement, the Allegro vivo, is a scherzo and trio that also begins with the solo viola, but here is it a tricky rhythm played on a single note. The third movement, the Larghetto, is the the emotional heart of the quintet. This slow movement is a theme and set of five variations, with a subject half in major and half in minor keys. The fourth and final movement, the Finale. Allegro giusto, is a lighthearted rondo featuring contrasting episodes and a “dervish-like” finish.
By Helene Herbert