Thoughts About the Music

Thursday, June 24

Ludwig van Beethoven – Magic Flute Variations in E flat major for cello and piano

This cycle of a theme and seven variations, subtitled Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen or “In men, who feel love” was published in 1802, and was based on the Mozart aria of the same name. The piece was dedicated to, as Beethoven put it, “the first patron of my muse”, referring to Count Johann von-Brown Camus. The seven variations showcase a perfect fusion of Mozart’s playful elegance with Beethoven’s dark-humored intelligence. The opening comes as a grand Eb Major chord followed by the Allegretto theme — a soft dance-like melody. This opening is quite similar to that of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, which also happens to be in Eb major. From there, the first variation begins, and the instruments perform a vivaciously animated dialogue with one another like characters in an opera. The second variation is opera buffa (comedic opera) in style, and the humorous, creative nature of both Mozart and Beethoven comes to the forefront with swift, plucky runs and sarcastic undertones. The next variation highlights Beethoven’s introspective nature, with a sweet and gentle Pastorale melody. In the fourth variation, a surprising shift to E minor is embellished with eerie, ominous harmonies. The light reemerges in the fifth variation with a return to the major key and with spirited Scherzo-like qualities, featuring hushed yet energetic music that evokes a mystical, fairy-like aura. The sixth variation slows the energy to a burning passion as a romantic duet comes to fruition, moving seamlessly into the final variation where the original dance-like theme returns only to be interrupted with a blazing, turbulent coda. These fiery passages suddenly vanish from existence as the final Eb melody triumphantly — and rather humorously — saves the day.

Bedřich Smetana – Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15

Smetana wrote only one piano trio. While he did not write anything to describe the nature of the work, he did dedicate it to his oldest daughter, Bedřiška, who had recently died of Scarlet Fever at the age of four. Smetana had been working as a music teacher for children since he was 20 years old, in which he found great joy. Therefore, when his daughter began to show signs of incredible musical talent, the bond between her and her father grew to be unbreakable. After her death, Smetana was devastated. Even though Smetana left no program notes regarding his piano trio, the grief in which the piece is shrouded is unmistakable. However, despite it’s dark content, the trio shines as a beautifully passionate expression of the purity of love. The first movement begins with agonizing, broad gestures that slowly begin to accelerate, boiling to an unhinged intensity. Peeking its way out from this texture comes sweeter, more lyrical music that Smetana based on one of his daughter’s favorite melodies. These two forces, death and daughter, weave amongst one another until the piano builds up to a panic with intense octaves and a booming cello line. The middle movement consists of a scherzo with two trios that show a much less manic personality than the first movement, yet still containing a feeling of unsettledness. The first trio’s music is ethereal yet worried with a whispering, dance-like melody. The second trio is a march that ranges widely in its styles, going from dazzling and wistful to stately and reflective, and finally emerges into a shining light that is both majestic and devastating. The last movement is quite lively and complex, featuring brilliant rhythmic energy in the piano coupled with plucky string lines that are interrupted from time to time with a gentler melody, reminiscent of Bedřiška. This animated dynamic does not last long, however, as the cello leads the ensemble into a mournful procession and the piano embellishes the texture with the tolling of funeral bells. Smetana could have easily ended the music here, but instead makes one final effort to overcome his grief, with a beautifully passionate, rather optimistic coda. Perhaps the goal was purely to end the piece in this flourishing way for compositional reasons, however there is a sense that Smetana was asserting all that death could not take from him.

Felix Mendelssohn – String Quintet No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 87

This work is one of the last composed by Mendelssohn, who was 36 years old at the time, just a year before he would compose his famous Elijah oratorio and two years before his death. At the time, Mendelssohn was quite occupied with musical duties around the world, including teaching at the Leipzig Conservatory, which he founded, along with a multitude of other obligations in London and Berlin. It was at this time that Mendelssohn decided to take a holiday to write music uninterrupted, which he referred to as his “happy days”. During this time, his second String Quintet was composed, showcasing Mendelssohn’s evolution in style and technique. Mysteriously, Mendelssohn himself chose not to publish it, stating that the work was not good enough for his standards. Instead of reaping the benefits of his work, he left it on a shelf to fade into obscurity. However, the quintet was performed soon thereafter and, despite Mendelssohn’s feeling towards it, cemented itself as a staple of the repertoire. One of the many appealing aspects of this work is its fiery, energetic nature where we see Mendelssohn utilizing his gifts for classical counterpoint, but breaking their confines through unbridled passionate expression. The first movement opens with a stunningly vibrant violin melody that is supported by buzzing tremolos in the rest of the ensemble. Mendelssohn explores a wide variety of textures thereafter, with a gentler second theme introducing itself supported by intricate harmonies and winding rhythms that all flow seamlessly into one another. The skill and inventiveness of the first movement is only exceeded by the second, Andante Scherzando, in which Mendelssohn recalls the wistful, spirited nature of his Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a feeling of eerie dim-lit mischief as the violin leads with a dance-like melody that is built upon by the rest of the ensemble. The Adagio e lento has an orchestral feeling to it at times, with a begrudging cello line accompanied by a wide expanse of chordal atmospheres that all lead up to a mystical, alluring coda. The finale is a burst of obsessively rapid lines across the ensemble with the captivating development of a single melody, all players heroically racing to the end.

©2021 Nicole Martin