Human Existence
Notes on the Program

June 18, 2022

Composers exist to bestow their artistic gifts on the world, and they look forward to hearing what they’ve created in performance. Two of the titans on this program — Debussy and Schubert — were in the last year of their lives when they composed the works offered here. Although Debussy, ill with terminal cancer and in frequent pain, struggled to finish his Violin Sonata in G minor, he was present for its premiere in May 1917, a concert that would be the last he attended in Paris (he died the following March). Schubert spent what would be his final year (1827-28) riding a miraculous tidal wave of creativity that included the Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat Major, which would sit in limbo until it was published in 1836. Given the tribulations the 31-year-old Schubert endured during that last year, it is poignant to read what Robert Schumann had to say about the work: “One glance at Schubert’s Trio (Op. 99) and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again.”

How true, and not only in the case of Schubert’s masterpiece. We often turn to music to escape, however temporarily, the troubles around us. This is not the only reason music has such a magical effect: It takes us to places where sonic ideas heighten feelings from one extreme to another, as is apparent in this ChamberFest Cleveland program, “Human Existence,” with its title drawn from Schumann.

It is, of course, dangerous to read too much into the lives of composers through their music. Mozart wrote some of his sunniest works at moments of deep despair (and vice versa), and there is little in Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor, his last completed work, to suggest that he knew the end was near. In his last years, the French composer set out to write six sonatas, of which he completed only three — one for cello, another for flute, viola, and harp, and this violin sonata — all gems, and all featured by ChamberFest this year. One certainly must take Debussy’s words about the piece for violin and piano with a huge grain of salt: “This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”

The sonata’s three short movements are interesting well beyond that observation. The first movement abounds in entrancing creativity and colors typical of Debussy. Along with celestial and bold waltz-like activity, violin and piano engage in passages of wistful tenderness. The second movement, marked Intermède, finds the instruments moving nimbly and surprisingly through playful and nostalgic musings, while the Finale is a burst of artistic electricity in which violin and piano again waltz away until scurrying to a brilliant close.

Compositional brilliance appears in more somber and intricate guise in the Clarinet Trio by Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006), whose music falls into no neat category, as the Russian composer intended. Her principal teacher at the Leningrad Conservatory was her country’s most acclaimed and (from the Soviet government’s point of view) troublesome composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Their relationship was uneasy, the teacher admiring of the student and the student largely disdainful of the mentor. Ustvolskaya said Shostakovich “burdened my life and killed my best feelings,” and she bristled when anyone compared her music to his (or anyone’s else, for that matter). The percussive nature of many of her works prompted one wag to dub her “the lady with the hammer.”

Only a bit of battering can be found in the Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, which Ustvolskaya composed in 1949, and which waited until 1968 to have its premiere. Describing the music is challenging and, according to the composer, not especially helpful: “I implore all those who really love my music to refrain from theoretical analysis of it.” But let’s give it a try, without getting theoretical. The trio contains three movements of enigmatic and haunting music, with many questing moments for the three instruments. The titles of the movements provide a hint into the moods Ustvolskaya aims to achieve — Espressivo, Dolce espressivo, and Energico — without conveying the impact of the music’s mesmerizing, spare, and lonely monologues and conversations. In the last movement, the piano wields a hammer and the violin and clarinet present their own argumentative rebuttals until the keyboard has the final, bleak word.

The avalanche of masterpieces Schubert composed during his last year ranges from bleak songs (“Winterreise”) and luminous sacred works (Mass in E flat) to three seminal piano sonatas and the resplendent C Major String Quintet. And then there are the two trios for piano, violin, and cello – one in E flat and the other in B flat. The latter, on this program, confirms how Schubert the artist could transcend the trials of life and create something affirming and buoyant. All four movements overflow with unmistakably Schubertain lyricism, vitality, and charm. The music is so alluring that it’s hard to believe 40 minutes have passed since the players immersed themselves in the first movement’s exuberant opening theme.

Schumann used the phrase “heavenly length” to refer to Schubert’s C Major Symphony, known as “The Great” and nearly 20 minutes longer than the trio, but it easily could apply to many of Schubert’s late works. The composer’s imagination is as fertile in the B flat trio as in other pieces of the period. Each of the four movements finds Schubert in supreme command of thematic transformation and architecture. The first movement (Allegro moderato) unfolds with thrusting vivacity, the interplay of duple and triple rhythms adding sparkling interest to the narrative. As in many of Schubert’s creations, harmonic clouds briefly float by, but the mood is largely joyful. The tender barcarolle that sways in the slow movement is interrupted briefly by a stormy episode. No such tension inhabits the Scherzo, whose central Trio section is another one of those disarming Schubert waltzes. The Rondo finale slips seamlessly between duple and triple meters as the music moves with a grace and zest that validate Schumann’s statement that “all the world is fresh and bright again.”

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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