July 9 2024 : Dohnányi, Beethoven & Schumann

May 8, 2024

Ernst von Dohnányi, Sextet in C Major
Ludwig van Beethoven, Duet with two Obligato Eyeglasses for viola and cello in E-flat Major WoO 32

Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47

Ernst von Dohnányi
Sextet in C Major

Sometimes dubbed the “Hungarian Brahms,” Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) dominated the Hungarian musical landscape between World War I and II. He served as chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, music director of Hungarian Radio, and director of the Academy of Music, in addition to be a brilliant concert pianist. It is true that his musical language contains echoes of Brahms, but with a decidedly eclectic, idiosyncratic twist. 

The Sextet, Op. 37, was Dohnányi’s last substantial chamber music work, written while confined to bed for several months in 1935 with thrombosis. Cast in four substantial movements, it covers a broad range of moods and deftly exploits the expressive potential of the six instruments: piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and horn. 

The first movement, in sonata form, echoes and condenses the symphonic language of Gustav Mahler, spiced with some dazzling piano writing. The following intermezzo is more unusual, with a menacing, funereal march dominating its middle section. After more nostalgic reminiscences of Brahms and Mendelssohn in the lyrical third movement, Dohnányi ends the piece with a boisterous finale that pays homage to ragtime rhythms. Though the coda brings us back to the spirit of romanticism, Dohnányi suddenly upends the finale with a sly twist: a scamper into a remote key. 

Ludwig van Beethoven, Duet with two Obligato Eyeglasses for viola and cello in E-flat Major WoO 32

For all of Beethoven’s reputation as a dour, temperamental firebrand, he also possessed a freewheeling sense of humor. Case in point: the Duet with two Obligato Eyeglasses for viola and cello in E-flat Major. Also known as the Eyeglass Duo, the title started as something of a joke between the composer and his patron, Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. A bureaucrat in the Hungarian chancellery, Zmeskall was someone Beethoven turned to when he needed things, from fresh manuscript paper to quill pens. He was also an accomplished amateur cellist, and this work was to be a duet between the two men.  

Beethoven gave it the funny title after realizing that both he and his patron needed to wear glasses while playing. In one of his letters the composer teases Zmeskall for his short-sightedness, saying, “I am most obliged for the weakness of your eyes.” Two movements of the score survived, the first a buoyant Allegro and the second a minuet with a jovial trio. Likely intended for a purely domestic performance, together, the two movements reveal the young Beethoven at his most gracious and affable. 

Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47

Robert Schumann was clearly thinking of his wife, the brilliant pianist and composer Clara Schumann, when he wrote his Piano Quartet in 1842. But the piece is dedicated to another musician of the day: Count Mathieu Wielhorsky, a cellist and impresario from St. Petersburg who entertained the couple on their visit to Russia. Together, Clara Schumann and Wielhorsky premiered it in Leipzig alongside two heavy-hitters of the era: violinist Ferdinand David (the dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto) and violist Niels Gade. 

The quartet stems from a chamber music-filled summer that also yielded three string quartets, a piano quintet, and a piano trio. Yet for all of Schumann’s productivity, he struggled emotionally, experiencing lengthy bouts of depression. Evenings spent looking over musical scores with Clara seemed to offer some solace. 

While Mozart invented the genre of piano quartet (violin, viola, cello and piano) Schumann revived it with a certain Beethovenian edge. He set his quartet in E-flat Major, a key linked to heroic landmarks such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Emperor Concerto. Clara described the piece as “a beautiful work, so youthful and fresh,” as heard in the chorale-like introduction. This grows into the main theme of the exhilarating first movement, though in typical Schumann fashion, he brings the introductory material back at key points in the movement. 

The second movement is a scherzo recalling the effervescence of Mendelssohn’s “fairy music,” the piano and strings echoing one another. In the third movement, a surging melody rises and falls in big, sighing gestures—an expression of pure yearning—though interrupted briefly by a chorale-like middle section. Using the final gestures of the third movement as a springboard, the brisk finale is a blaze of activity, with dense counterpoint building to a grand, richly layered coda. 

—Brian Wise

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