WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
PIANO QUARTET IN G MINOR, K. 478 Composed in 1785
In 1785, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was commissioned by his publisher, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, to write a series of three piano quartets. It is said that Hoffmeister, upon seeing this first quartet in g minor, informed Mozart that he would be under no obligation to finish the series of 3 quartets, and allowed him to keep the cash advance that he received for the commission. It was Hoffmeister’s view that this work was too difficult for the amateurs that played many of Mozart’s compositions, and this fear was realized, as seen in an article in the Journal des Lexus und der Moden, dated June, 1788 published in Weimar.
“(as performed by amateurs) it could not please: everybody yawned with boredom over the incomprehensible tintamarre of 4 instruments which did not keep together for four bars on end, and whose senseless concentus never allowed any unity of feeling; but it had to please, it had to be praised!..what a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed with the highest degree of accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully.”
Fortunately for us, Mozart ignored Hoffmeister’s advice and completed a second piano quartet,
K 493 which was accepted by another publisher. Up to this time, the piano trio was the preferred chamber music ensemble, and although a few attempts at writing for this instrumentation existed prior to Mozart’s completion of these works, these beautiful examples virtually established this new genre of the piano quartet. The new piano quartets were revolutionary, not only in the virtuosity demanded of the players, but in the equality of the writing for the three instruments.
Mozart employed the key of g minor in his most dramatic and emotional works, most notably, the famous Symphony in g minor K 550, and his incredible String Quintet, K. 516, and this drama is keenly felt in the opening Allegro, which is passionate and darkly dramatic.
The second movement leaves the key of g minor, where Mozart employs the relative major key of B flat major making for a calm and very elegant Andante, which is almost healing in its effect.
Mozart closes this beautiful work with a spirited and engaging Rondo in the key of G major, which sparkles in a breezy but virtuosic manner to the end.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
TRIO FOR PIANO, VIOLIN, AND HORN OPUS 40 Composed in 1865
The inspiration for one of the most glorious pieces in the chamber music literature, the Horn Trio, came during the summer of 1885 while Brahms was on retreat in the spa town of Baden Baden, surrounded by nature. The trio, originally composed for natural horn without valves, was begun that summer but finished in late November and was premiered in Karlsruhe on December 5, 1865 with Brahms at the piano.
It is said that Brahms wrote this trio in memory of his mother Christiane, whose death occurred earlier that year. It is interesting that Brahms perhaps chose to recall his childhood by writing for this group of instruments, in as much as he studied the violin and horn along with the piano as a child.
Brahms shared a love of the horn with Mozart and also the distinction of writing chamber works that feature this glorious instrument, in fact, treating the horn player as a soloist. The horn is often associated with not only the hunt, but sometimes with death, and this piece evokes images of nature along with a feeling of sad longing and warm memories.
The first movement, an Andante instead of the customary Allegro, is characterized by an intimate mood, at times gentle and soothing, and in turn, dramatic and emotional. The second movement is a stately and purposeful Scherzo, full of drama and virtuosity, but possessing more than a hint of sorrow. The melancholy third movement, Adagio mesto, quotes an old German funeral chorale “Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten” which was also used by Bach on several occasions.
The lively and galloping Finale evokes images of the hunt, which only the horn can truly convey.
It can also be looked at as a symbolic recovery from a period of mourning that is represented by the earlier movements of the trio.
ERNO DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
SERENADE in C FOR STRING TRIO OPUS 10 Composed in 1902
Erno Dohnányi was born in Pozsony, Hungary where he began his musical studies with his father, an amateur cellist and mathematics professor. He continued his training in piano and composition at the Budapest Academy and became an exceptional pianist with his amazing skill and virtuosity on that instrument winning him much acclaim after his London debut in 1898. During this time, his compositions began to be recognized by such giants as Brahms, whom he emulated and who arranged for the premier of his Piano Quintet in 1895.
At the recommendation of the acclaimed violinist, Joseph Joachim, Dohnányi was appointed to and served on the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule from 1905 to 1915, after which he returned to Budapest to take a more active role in his homeland's musical development. Most musicians left countries like Hungary for the musical centers of England and Germany to establish their careers, but Dohnányi reversed that trend and instead, chose to champion Hungarian music and the lesser known composers and friends, Bartok and Kodaly; a decision that was instrumental in changing the face of Hungarian music.
Dohnányi, while being a contemporary of Bartok and Kodaly, was neither as revolutionary nor extreme in his compositions, and instead, chose to look to German Romanticism, and particularly Brahms, as his role model.
The charming Serenade for String Trio in C, a great addition to the string trio literature, employs the use of Hungarian folk music, while being highly technically demanding and very individualistic in style. The first movement is an energetic Marcia, full of syncopated and repeating rhythms.
The second movement is at times, introspective and at times sweeping and expansive, containing some of the loveliest solos in the chamber music literature, ending with a gorgeous duet between violin and viola.
A virtuosic Scherzo follows that excites as the audience thrills to hearing the three instruments chase one another and then catch each other to play in unison. All of this activity is interspersed with a lovely broad melody that occurs throughout the movement.
The fourth movement is a Theme and Variations, which is quite dark and grim in nature, but is utterly fantastic in his use of textures to convey emotion.
The last movement is an energetic Rondo full of a variety of conflicting emotions, both jolly and grandiose and, at times, rather furious. Dohnányi ends this Rondo and this wonderful Trio by returning to the first movement theme, thereby tying the piece together in an unforgettable fashion.