Thoughts About the Music

Saturday, June 26

Hildegard of Bingen “O Virtus Sapiente” (arr. Marianne Pfau)

Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098 CE, was a devout Christian mystic who not only composed one of the largest repertoires in Medieval music history, but also pioneered her way through the fields of medicine, biology, herbology, theology, and much more. A scholar and abbess, Hildegard of Bingen’s works exemplify a deep spirituality all while showcasing a genius musical intuition and mastering of monophony. The work is shrouded in a holy reverence as a beautiful, hallowed melody is set to one of her own poems:

O strength of Wisdom
who, circling, circled,
enclosing all
in one lifegiving path,
three wings you have:
one soars to the heights,
one distils its essence upon the earth,
and the third is everywhere.
Praise to you, as is fitting,
O Wisdom

Robert Schumann – Three Romances for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 94

Schumann wrote these three romances, originally composed for Oboe and Piano, as a gift to his wife Clara Schumann for Christmas. While feelings of romance amorous passion are at the forefront of this work, its dark background gives it a much more profound meaning. Schumann composed his Romances in December of 1849 while suffering increasingly frequent manic episodes. Soon after Schumann finished the work, he would be admitted to an asylum where he would pass away from pneumonia before recovering from his mental illness. Despite his tormenting emotions, the three romances sound almost like a tranquil release of tension, perhaps symbolizing his solid relationship with Clara, who he referred to as his “right hand”. The piece begins with a lovely piano introduction before the clarinet presents a somber main theme and the piano slips into a more complementary role. From here, Schumann explores a wide range of emotions, from agitation to affection as the intimate singing quality of the melodies intertwine with one another before the main theme returns. The second song is structured such that it begins with bright, animated passages that slowly shift into a darker, more impassioned section before the lighter melody emerges again. The last song is structured similarly to that of the first, with swirling piano lines and a melancholy solo that grow in agitation and explore a complex array of emotional depth before becoming more lively and animated. Finally, a tender melody returns to close the romance as it began.

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Trio

This modern string trio was composed in 1989 by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina – a visionary composer whose works are fueled by a deep spirituality that finds its roots in Russian philosophy. Growing up under the final years of Stalin’s reign, Gubaidulina found solace in music and began her studies in Russia with help from Nikolay Peyko and Shostakovich. Showing aptitude for serialism and Western compositional techniques, she slowly began to find her way as a composer, even though these methods of composition gained her much criticism from her peers. After her studies, Sofia began to make a living writing film scores and did not gain much-if any-critical attention. Even after composing two promising pieces in the late 60s (Musical Toys and Night in Memphis), Gubaidulina was still largely unknown outside of Russia until nearly a decade later, when Gidon Kremer performed her violin concerto in Vienna. Since then, Gubaidulina has been regarded as an international figure in the world of composition. Her string trio, composed at the height of her career, focuses highly on the use of repetition and atonal serialism. The feelings evoked are quite fascinating, complex, and frightening at times. The opening contains a single B pitch being transferred throughout the ensemble as they become progressively further and further apart. The movement grows heavier as the ensemble shifts from whispering high notes to dark, muddy chords that build intensity until a screeching, prayerful climax. The middle movement is slower and more refined, with an intricate conversation between the violin and cello. Splattered with pizzicato lines, the viola provides a swirling, ascending harmonic backdrop. The final movement begins with rushed, anxious lines that follow separate roads, intersecting occasionally with swaying glissandos that become more amplified as the music continues. Toward the end, the violin begins to play a repeated 5-note melody that swells to the forefront of the music before fading into obscurity.

Johannes Brahms – Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Brahms was just 29 years old when he composed his first piano quartet, sparking the creation of over 26 more masterful chamber works throughout his life. For the time, this instrumentation of piano, violin, viola, and cello was quite unusual, yet this in no way halted its success at its 1862 premiere in Vienna. The first movement, Allegro, comes in the form of a sonata and sets off immediately with the main theme, an exuberant yet stately melody played first in the piano before echoing throughout the ensemble. This theme is heavily built upon and leads way to 4 more energetic themes. Brahms explores these elements with a reckless abandon of sonata tradition as the recapitulation incorporates almost all previously heard melodies before a sombre, peaceful ending. The next movement sounds almost like a tranquil scherzo if there ever was one, featuring tender, whispering progressions that sigh in relief after small builds of tension. Woven within this movement is Brahms’ “Clara motif”: a five note melody symbolizing his undying love for Clara Schumann. The third movement carries this romantic idea in its purest form, with amorous string lines that give the feeling of a slow, passionate waltz. The repeated 8th notes from the second movement make an appearance here, further linking the two in mood and thematic content. As the harmonies grow more chromatic and unstable, Brahms finds his way back to a heartful song with a touchingly affectionate end. The final movement of the work centers heavily around the music of the “Gypsy” , denoting a complex cross-cultural integration of exotic musical styles, typically associated with that of Hungarian folk music. It is well known that Brahms had a fascination with Hungarian folk music, but this “Gypsy Rondo” finds its roots in not that of Bartok or Kodaly, but the great Baroque composer Hadyn whose own “Gypsy Rondo” is widely regarded as one of his most innovative works. The energy in this movement is bursting at the seams as the piano and strings furiously and wildly dance around a simple folk melody. The virtuosity of this movement is displayed in every instrument, with the piano providing steadily running scalar figures and the strings athletically weaving complex rhythmic passages that come together in a fiery passion before the music swells down into a slow-burning lyrical section. This material escalates into an exhilarated whirlwind before a brilliant climax brings this work to a close.

©2021 Nicole Martin