Program Notes for NORTHERN EUROPE
Front Range Chamber Players, December 10, 2016
Passacaglia in G Minor on a Theme by Handel by Johan Halvorsen
Renowned throughout Europe as a virtuoso keyboardist on both organ and harpsichord, George Friederic Handel was recognized for his brilliant improvisations. He also set down in manuscript innumerable works for harpsichord - suites of dances being his particular specialty. Many of Handel’s harpsichord suites contain a passacaglia movement. As a form, the passacaglia probably originated in a Spanish street dance. During the Baroque era such composers as Bach, Couperin, Handel, and many others developed it in music featuring a repeated theme and a set of variations over an unchanging group of chords, usually moving at slow pace. In the case of Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G Minor, the sixth movement is a passacaglia comprised of eight chords that are repeated and varied with ingenious resourcefulness – the complexity of the variations contrasts sharply with the simplicity of the melodic kernel.
The Norwegian violinist, conductor, and composer, Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was conductor of the Christiana National Theatre Orchestra of Bergen for thirty years, directing both opera and symphonic music. Married to a niece of Edvard Grieg, and influenced by his illustrious in-law, Havorsen composed three symphonies, orchestral suites on Norwegian themes, and a violin concerto. Today he is chiefly remembered for his virtuoso arrangement of Handel’s Passacaglia, adapting Handel’s keyboard material to the stringed instruments, and adding material and variations of his own for extra fireworks.
The “theme” is a brief four-measure sequence of eight chords, with a characteristic dotted rhythm. This generates a series of sixteen thrilling variations in a tour de force of musical invention. The spare resources of violin and viola require numerous double and triple stops –multi-note chords on each instrument – to create a full four-part harmony. Many of the variations take an alternative approach, using swift melody lines that create a linear harmonic effect over time. The result is scintillating dialog for two master players, frequently expanding to four and five simultaneous parts. The composer freely departs from the Baroque style, using all the possibilities of advanced string techniques, plus rich ornamentation and dramatic juxtaposition of styles, with optional repeated passages left up to the performers. Also the tempos are dramatically varied; with opening slower ones gradually increasing through the first ten variations, then reverting to a slower andante (again chordal) followed by another gradual increase of tempos in succeeding variations, culminating in a thrilling accelerando, a final allegro con fuoco, and triumphant return to the theme’s opening chords. by Robert Molison
Fantasy Quartet For Oboe And Strings by Ernest Moeran
Ernest Moeran (known to his friends and associates as “Jack”) was an English composer who spent much of his youth in a small town on the coast of Norfolk. His father was an Irish-born clergyman and had a parish in Norfolk. He studied violin and piano as a child. For five years, beginning in 1908, he was enrolled at Uppingham School, where his music teacher was very supportive of his emerging talents. After that he attended the Royal College of Music as a student of piano and composition. Everything changed with the onset of the War. Moeran enlisted in the Norfolk regiment, eventually receiving a commission. Sent to France in 1917, he was severely wounded, spent months recovering and was then sent to garrison duty in Ireland. This time influenced his later compositions, as he became enthralled by the beautiful landscape and learned more about his Irish roots. Early in 1919 he received a disability discharge and returned to England to teach briefly at Uppington, his old school. In 1920 he returned to the Royal College of Music to study under the well-known composer John Ireland. The period 1920-1923 saw his most creative output, resulting in works for chamber ensembles, piano, orchestra and more. At this time he began collecting folk songs (he visited the pubs regularly) mostly from Norfolk and Suffolk. He set the folksongs to his own arrangements with various accompaniments.
In the middle 1920’s Moeran became a friend of the composer Philip Heseltine (also known as Peter Warlock) and, with a third man, shared a house in Eynsford, Kent. It is apparent that some wild times with these three men produced a problem of alcoholism for Moeran, and his output of music declined considerably. The alcohol problems plagued him for the rest of his life, but he was looked on with affection by his friends – many of them the locals at the pubs. Moving on to the small town of Kenmare in county Kerry, Ireland, his work received the inspiration previously inspired by his times in that country, leading him back to his compositions.
Moeran married the cellist Peers Coetmore in 1945, and he wrote several cello works in her honor. Soon after he resumed work on a second symphony, piano-orchestra rhapsody, serenade and on sketches he had made for a piece for the well-known oboe player Leon Goossens, requested by the oboeist. Returning to old haunts near Norfolk in the Spring of 1946, he wrote to a friend “In the evening I go out rowing on these lonely waters – this reedy neighbourhood seems to suggest oboe music.” That atmosphere inspired work on the oboe piece, evolving into a quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello – this Fantasy Quartet.
The quartet is a single movement featuring the oboe in the main melodies, but featuring the accompanying strings in various (virtuoso) sections. There are frequent changes of tempo and snatches in two sections of a Norfolk folksong. The premiere performance – well received – was on December 8, 1946, featuring its dedicatee Leon Goossens and the Carter String Trio.
Moeran did not complete some of the planned works – his health deteriorated. In 1950 he died suddenly, probably from a cerebral hemorrhage, in Ireland. In subsequent years many of his manuscripts were bequeathed by his widow to the University of Melbourne, her home late in life. There has been more recent interest in some of Moeran’s works – particularly some less-known songs – and he is known now to musicologists as a member of the genre of inventive 20th century composers, as opposed to the English Pastoral School.
by Roberta Mielke
Phantasy-Quartet, Op. 2, for Oboe and Strings by Benjamin Britten
The Phantasy Quartet, written in 1932, brought the eighteen-year-old Benjamin Britten fame beyond his homeland; it was to stand out as one of his first great achievements. Its title deserves some explanation. This Phantasy was written according to the suggestions of a well-known English businessman and chamber music enthusiast of the time, Walter Willson Cobbet, who wished to revive interest in the viol fantasias once popular in the reign of Elizabeth I. These fantasies often combined in one piece several completely separate episodes, each in its own tempo and time signature. Cobbet proposed a modern variant of this genre and called it a phantasy. In 1905 he established a prize to be awarded for the best composition in the ‘phantasy’ genre: in its first year for a string quartet. The prize was won by Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, in 1907, for a string trio. Britten himself won it while still a student at the Royal College of Music, for his Phantasy in F minor for String Quintet. Obviously he liked the ‘phantasy’ genre, because he immediately set to work on his next piece, Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings. The work was completed in October of 1932 and had its premiere on a BBC broadcast in 1933. The oboist was the internationally renowned Leon Goosens, principal oboe of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to whom the piece was dedicated, along with members of the International String Quartet. This teen-ager aimed high!
The phantasy form suggested by Cobbet is clearly present in the episodic and contrasting nature of the various sections (especially in the “framing” aspect of the opening and closing sections) but it has been modified. The work is really built as an arch form, comprising, within the frame of the arch, a sonata form of development and recapitulation; the development section (in a very slow tempo) occupies the central position of the arch. It displays a very inventive form executed with considerable technical skill, while never sacrificing expressivity.
A set of unifying motivic cells serve as building blocks. The opening cello solo shows the first one: out of a repeated note, the interval of the minor third. This expands into a little march for strings that soon serves as background for the oboe’s opening lyrical, arch-shaped theme. The end of this opening Introduction is set off by string trills and an excited oboe flourish. The quartet’s formal exposition section begins with a principal theme in the violin, a compact motive that returns to its starting note, followed by a group of scurrying downward scales. The other strings and finally the oboe take up this theme. The second subject brings not a distinct melody, but new motives: snapping pizzicato notes in violin and viola, cryptic trills in the cello, and arpeggios in the oboe. Soon the oboe develops a new theme. Eventually a climax of intensity is reached, and subsides. The development section treats the principal theme first, and then, in slower tempo, the oboe’s melody from the introduction. The phantasy aspect is clarified in an expressive, sharply contrasting “slow movement” for strings alone. In the recapitulation the oboe returns with an elaboration of the introduction’s theme and a condensed one of the principal theme. The postlude clearly recalls the introduction, returning to the little march that soon fades away to the cello solo recalling the opening interval.
Harmonically, this piece is very forward-looking. Britten is looking for new, but not radical departures from the traditional tonal system: a random chord may be selected and both melodies and harmonies constructed from the chord’s intervals. He allows the oboe’s tendency to dominate string harmonies its full freedom, and the player and audience are rewarded with an interesting and engaging piece of music.
by Robert Molison
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 13 (1888, rev. 1897) by Carl Nielsen
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Finale: Allegro (inquieto)
Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s most renowned composer, was born in a rural area on the island of Funen (Fyn), which was also the birthplace of author Hans Christian Andersen. Even after Nielsen moved to Copenhagen to attend the Royal Conservatory of Music, he retained a deep love for his country homeland and its town bands and folk music. Later on, he incorporated some of the folk music style into his compositions. He composed some 300 songs based on Danish poetry, many of which are still learned by Danish schoolchildren. Apart from the songs, he is best known for his six symphonies and his woodwind quintet.
Nielsen wrote the G Minor Quartet near the end of his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen. He revised the work ten years later, and public performances of it in 1898 helped launch his career as a composer. His style, especially during and after World War I, became notably acerbic, but in this early work his language is rooted firmly in Grieg and Brahms, whom he knew and admired. Some elements of the G Minor Quartet reach back even further, to the quartets of Haydn – in the adherence to standard musical forms, the predominance of the first violin part, and above all the largely cheerful, even boisterous, demeanor. Nielsen achieves this in part by shifting frequently between minor and major keys, not allowing the minor mode to dominate. He injects a lot of forward motion into the writing, as the movement titles suggest: energico (energetic), allegro molto (very quick), inquieto (restless). Even the slow movement contains a significant agitato (agitated) section.
The first movement starts with a bold, upward-sweeping line in the first violin. A short-long rhythmic motif in the melody is soon taken up by the other instruments. A jagged motif of doubled notes leads the transition to the second theme announced by the cello. Near the end of the exposition of the two principal themes, the momentum halts, and the four instruments share a brief moment of drama, with unison rests and a curiously lopsided set of accents. A more strident version of the same halt comes at the end of the recapitulation, just before the extended coda section that closes the movement.
The second movement starts with a gentle melody in B flat major. As in the first movement, the melody rarely stops, and when it does you know that Nielsen is up to something. Here, the first violin finishes the main theme, leaving the other instruments carry out a rather precipitous transition into the minor agitato section. Interestingly, at the end of the minor section the first violin alone is responsible for the transition back to the main theme.
The third movement crashes in with dotted rhythms and triplets, but the propulsive rhythms are often interrupted by, or played simultaneously with, more lyrical lines. The timing and interweaving of these contrasting moods is part of the genius of the movement. At the end of the first section, Nielsen uses rests and a kind of rhythmic modulation to move from triple meter to duple meter. The middle section is remarkable for its folk-like fiddle tune and drones, a sound reminiscent of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.
The final movement presents new music and also recalls themes from the first and third movements, employing the cyclic principal of composition. The mood of disquiet is promoted by numerous changes of key, and rests are judiciously applied. As Nielsen later wrote, the rests “are just as important as the notes. Often, they are far more expressive and appealing to the imagination.” The movement ends with the main theme from the first movement, now in a brilliant G major. by Charles C. Tucker
Program notes draw on open-access web resources.