December 14th, 2017 at 1:30 pm
FRANK ALMOND, violin
WILLIAM WOLFRAM, piano
W.A. Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Sonata in A Major, K. 526, for violin and keyboard
– Molto allegro
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20
Amanda Maier-Röntgen (1853 – 1894)
from Six Pieces for Piano and Violin
– Allegro vivace
– Allegretto con moto
– Allegro ma non troppo
César Franck (1822 – 1890)
Sonata for Violin and Piano
– Allegretto ben moderato
– Ben moderato: Recitativo – Fantasia
– Allegretto poco mosso
Mozart: Sonata in A Major K. 526
In 1787 Mozart was enjoying the height of his popularity in Vienna. His immensely successful Marriage of Figaro had appeared just a year earlier. Sandwiched in between the composer’s ebullient serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) and his most somber opera, Don Giovanni (K. 527), this sonata was written just three months after the death of his protective but difficult and controlling father, and reflects the emotional orientation of both masterworks. Mozart actually delayed finishing Don Giovanni, ignoring rigorous deadlines, completing both the sonata and the serenade before the opera.
Mozart’s first sixteen sonatas for violin and keyboard were youthful works, more for the keyboard with violin accompaniment, sometimes indicated as “optional.” After a 10-year hiatus, he began to write more equally for the two instruments, and with heightened technical requirements for both, developing the form in depth and complexity. K. 526, his second-to-last of 36 violin/keyboard sonatas, finds Mozart in his glorious maturity.
The outer movements of K. 526 offer the sunny cheerfulness of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, while the middle movement is more akin to the dark drama of Don Giovanni. Speaking of this movement, Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein wrote, “It attains an equilibrium of art and soul that is as if God the Father had brought all motion everywhere to a momentary halt, so that man might savor the bittersweetness of existence.”
Chopin: Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20
It was Beethoven who made familiar the term “scherzo” when he incorporated an updated version of the traditional “minuet” into his symphonies. The word itself translates as “joke,” and in its musical version had previously implied some degree of playfulness and humor. Chopin, in his four scherzos for solo piano, had a very different idea. In three of these expanded, stand-alone works, there is little lightheartedness, and in Op. 20, the first of the four, there is much dramatic passion. Robert Schumann’s reaction to this piece: “How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself, if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils?”
There was reason for Chopin’s dark mood. He had left Warsaw in 1830, to return to Vienna for the second time. His first visit had been quite successful, but this time the Polish insurrection against Russian oppression had begun very shortly after he arrived. The Viennese were not welcoming, and Chopin went into a deep depression. He considered his options: to return home, or proceed to another major European city, finally deciding on Paris in 1831. Here he quickly achieved acclaim as one of the finest musicians in France, both as piano virtuoso and composer.
During his time in Vienna in 1830-31 he composed very little, but he did create the Scherzo Op. 20. Even at the age of 21 he was determined to explore a far more adventurous style than his earlier “salon” pieces, including waltzes, mazurkas, and nocturnes. The middle section, however, tones down the fiery drama, offering a lovely theme derived from the old Polish Christmas song “Sleep, Baby Jesus.”
Maier-Röntgen: Six Pieces for Piano and Violin
The Swedish violinist Amanda Maier studied violin, organ, piano, cello, composition, and harmony at the Royal School of Music in Stockholm, the first woman to graduate from that institution. She continued her studies in Leipzig, where she wed the pianist and composer Julius Röntgen, son of her violin teacher, Engelbert Röntgen. The Leipzig Röntgens were related to the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, of X-ray fame: Engelbert’s and Wilhelm’s grandfathers were brothers.
In 1875, at age 22, Amanda successfully premiered her violin concerto. She had already toured extensively as a concert violinist, and had composed two piano quartets, two string quartets, and a piano trio. But after her 1880 marriage, in the manner of the time, her career ended. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 41.
César Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano
In 1858 César Franck promised to write a violin sonata for Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima von Bülow, who had married the conductor Hans von Bülow the year before. (She would later become Richard Wagner’s second wife, following a scandalous affair that resulted in the births of three children out of wedlock.) For unknown reasons, the writing of the sonata would be put off for 28 years, when Franck finally presented it to his fellow Belgian, the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, as a wedding gift.
Ysaÿe received the work on the morning of his marriage to Louise Bourdeau, on Sept. 26, 1886. He performed it, after a hasty rehearsal with the pianist, at the wedding breakfast. The public premiere came on Dec. 16 of that year, at the Museum of Modern Painting in Brussels, at the end of a long recital that started at 3 PM. The composer Vincent d’Indy, in the audience, described the unusual event:
“It was already growing dark as the Sonata began. After the first Allegretto the players could hardly read their music … Museum regulations forbade any artificial light whatever in rooms containing paintings; the mere striking of a match would have been an offense. The audience was about to be asked to leave, but, brimful with enthusiasm, they refused to budge. At this point, Ysaÿe struck his music stand with his bow, demanding, ‘Let’s go on!’ Then, wonder of wonders, amid darkness that now rendered them virtually invisible, the two artists played the last three movements from memory with a fire and passion the more astonishing in that there was a total lack of the usual visible externals that enhance a concert performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the blackness of night. The miracle will never be forgotten by those present.”
A late bloomer and not a prolific composer, Franck waited until he was 66 before writing his only symphony, three years after the Sonata. It was not until the last year of his life that he enjoyed his first major public success: the performance of his String Quartet in D at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on April 19, 1890. For most of his career he was known principally as organist and virtuosic improviser at the Sainte-Clotilde church in Paris, and professor at the Paris Conservatory. The recognition he achieved as a composer so late in life was due in large part to the impassioned support of such eminent musicians as Ysaÿe. Over the next 40 years the violinist performed it often on worldwide tours, delighting his audiences with the comment that he played it “con amore,” since it was a wedding present.