© Susan Helpburn, 2019
Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, in E-Flat, Op. 40. . . Johannes Brahms
(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)
Almost all of Brahms’ chamber music is for string instruments with or without piano, but in the 1890s, Brahms wrote four pieces for strings with clarinet for a clarinetist he greatly admired, and well before that, in 1865, he composed this trio for violin, horn and piano. This particular unusual combination of instruments had almost never been used before Brahms’ time. This work was probably not intended for any particular occasion or any specific group of players. Brahms and two friends gave the first public performance on November 28, 1865, in the Great Hall of the Zurich Casino.
Brahms tirelessly worked and reworked some of his chamber music for different combinations of instruments. The Quintet for Piano and Strings, for example, originally took the form of a string quintet. Perhaps the most likely hypothesis to account for this work is that much of the music for this trio might originally have been conceived for another kind of ensemble in which the horn had a prominent part.
In its present form, the trio was completed in May 1865, in the village of Lichtenthal, near Baden-Baden, where Brahms spent the summer in the company of Clara Schumann and some other friends. He lived in a house nestled in the dark, heavily wooded mountains and took long walks in the Black Forest. In this environment, the opening subject of the trio occurred to him. He remembered distinctly that he was on a mountain there, and just as he stepped out from under the fir trees into a clearing where he saw the sun, the theme entered his head.
Brahms had a curiously anachronistic attitude toward the horn itself and noted that the part was written for a “natural” horn, that is a horn without valves, one on which the player could produce the notes of the natural series of overtones, and with some manipulation, certain additional notes. Very good valve horns that did not have this limitation were already in use in Germany by 1865. In fact, Wagner had used valve horns twenty-five years earlier in Rienzi, but Brahms seems to have maintained a preference for the tone of the simpler instrument until the end of his life. The horn parts in many of his later orchestral scores are written in such a way as to suggest that they were intended for the natural horn even though he knew they would be played on instruments with valves.
The Andante with which the trio begins is one of Brahms’s few departures from the classical tradition of the established structure of a work of this kind. Usually, the first movement would have been written in sonata form, but taking a cue, perhaps, from Mozart’s Clarinet Trio, Brahms organized the initial movement instead on the simple principle of alternating the sunny opening theme with contrasting episodes, somewhat in the manner of a rondo. Next comes a Scherzo, Allegro, with a rather melancholy contrasting central section. The elegiac quality of the third movement, Adagio mesto, slow and sad, may be associated with Brahms’s loss of his beloved mother three months earlier. Its one bright moment foretells the music to come in the Finale, Allegro con brio, a jolly close and a powerful change of mood after the romantic brooding of the earlier movements. Mozart established a tradition that a rondo would provide the appropriate outline in which to cast a closing movement, but here, at last, Brahms deviates from that to write a large proportioned sonata-form movement.
Quintet for Piano and Strings, in A Major, Op. 81 . . . Antonín Dvorák
(Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves; died May 1, 1904, in Prague)
The Quintet for Piano and Strings, in A Major is exemplary for its clear structure and lyrical expression and has been universally acclaimed as one of Antonín Dvořák’s finest works, and one of the finest piano quintets in the repertory. Chamber music occupied an important place in Dvorak’s life. Many of his earliest works were quartets and quintets, modeled after those of Beethoven and Schubert that Dvorák played with his colleagues and friends. Among them was an early Piano Quintet that he wrote in 1872 and called Op. 5; he felt it was clumsy in construction, as well as much too long and drawn-out, so he did not allow it to be published during his lifetime. It was published only in 1959.
This early work was to have importance in the construction of his wonderful mature quintet. It ranks with the great pieces of chamber music even though it does not make any great innovations. In 1887, Dvorák decided to revise the early Op. 5 quintet, even though, having been extremely unhappy with it, he had destroyed the manuscript soon after its premiere. He asked for a copy of that score from a friend who had held on to it, and started the work of revision, only to decide that it would only function as a catalyst for a completely new work. The masterful Piano Quintet No. 2 was written in the summer of 1887 when Dvorák was at the height of his composing skill at his country retreat in Vysoka. It was premiered January 8, 1888 at the Rudolfinum in Prague featuring some of the best musicians of his day.
In 1875, Brahms “discovered” Dvorák and helped him to establish his career as a composer. Twelve years later, in 1887, Dvorák wrote this mature quintet A-Major, which, with those of Brahms (Op. 34, 1864) and Schumann (Op. 44, 1842), forms a trilogy of masterpieces in the quintet form. This quintet is one of the finest works of Dvorák’s fruitful career, and one of his most characteristic and successful. The music flows with joyous inspiration and is brilliantly written for the instruments; the texture borders occasionally on the symphonic, and throughout, there is a wealth of inspired, romantic melody.
The first movement, Allegro, ma non tanto, is based on two Czech-inspired themes that are set in contrast, but are so related musically that elements from them are gracefully intermingled as the music develops. A feature of this movement, and to a lesser extent, the other movements too, is that the thematic statements are changed, sometimes quite completely, to fit the different contexts they find themselves in. The first theme, radiantly beautiful, is declared in the cello with a pensive and serious character and then becomes far more energetic and impassioned when the two other instruments take it up. Later the same theme takes on a purely lyrical mood. Dvorák uses the viola, which was his instrument, to introduce several main themes, its dark coloration giving the music a special sound.
The second movement, Andante con moto, is a dumka, a Slavic folksong, a lament followed by a dance, modeled after the Slavonic folksong form that Dvorák uses in much of his best chamber music. Its episodic nature, its alternation of contrasting slow and fast sections, and its abrupt changes of mood characterize the dumka as a form. In this dumka, the opening melody suggests a lament, beginning slowly with a melancholy character, but with rapid mood change, it soon gives way to a cheerful melody. The main contrast to the lament occurs in the movement’s Vivace section where the character changes. The movement’s overall design is that of a rondo, where the initial theme comes back after other contrasting sections: ABACABA. The piano introduces its nostalgic theme, with the viola responding. The second theme is a duet for the two violins.
Dvorák calls the third movement Scherzo and Furiant, which is the name of the Czech folk dance based on shifting meters to which it bears a distant resemblance, but music historians have noted that it is likea lively, vigorous Schubertian waltz, Allegro. A true furiant would instead have contrasted three against two in the rhythm, but nevertheless, Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek suggests a connection with the Czech folk song “Když jsi ty, sedláčku, pán” (“When you are, farmer, a gentleman”) Here the music includes high-spirited good humor combined with confidence.
The quintet ends with a merry Allegro Finale in which elegantly contrapuntal passages accompany the rise of the composer’s high spirits. The movement has its nostalgic theme introduced by the piano, with a serious response to it coming from the viola. The secondary theme is contrasting and made up of a duet for the two violins. With a sense of fun, in the development, the folk-like melodies are contrasted with contrapuntal devices. The coda emphasizes the exuberant main theme in its jubilant closing, making use of the rondo form.
Dvorák dedicated the quintet to Dr. Neureutter, a generous patron of music of the time. The premiere was on January 6, 1888, in Prague.