German Romanticism Program Notes
Franz Schubert, Fantasy in F Minor, op. 203, D.940 for four-hand piano: In The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold Schonberg asserts that Schubert (1797-1828) “was the first lyric poet of music.” Schubert achieved no such recognition during his lifetime. He only gave one public concert, and few important works were published during until after his death. If Schubert achieved neither fame nor fortune in his 31 years, he had fiercely loyal friends who kept his music alive until “some forty years after his death … the world woke up to the fact that Schubert was one of the colossal creative figures of music” [Schonberg]. Schubert composed the F Minor Fantasy in January 1828. He and Franz Lachner, a composer friend, premiered it on May 9, 1828 at one of that year’s fewSchubertiads, musical gatherings of Schubert with and for his friends. Six months later, Schubert was dead. “Before Schubert, ‘Fantasie’ usually implied improvisatory material and structural freedom, but the F Minor Fantasie is a tightly constructed work in which four movements are fused into one played without pause” [Christopher Gibbs]. The haunting motif of the opening reappears in the fourth section and the coda. Schubert dedicated this work to Countess Caroline Esterházy, a student and daughter of his former patron, with whom he may have been in love.
Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, op. 26 for piano, violin, viola and cello: Brahms (1833-1897) completed his first and second piano quartets – opus 25 and opus 26 – in 1861 at the age of 28, while he was still living in Hamburg. The Brahms who composed these works was not the slovenly, heavy-set man with an enormous beard, whose picture we usually see, but a slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man with a high-pitched voice, who couldn’t grow a beard no matter how hard he tried. These companion quartets reflect a maturity, grace and confidence that Brahms had achieved by dedication to his craft and with no small measure of difficulty. He began to sketch Piano Quartet No. 2 shortly after Schumann’s death five years before its premiere. Music critics find many elements in this quartet – reflections of Schubert, Schumann and Vienna; a reference to a then-popular “schmaltzy” waltz in the second movement; and a “slight Gypsy tint” in the fourth [Richard Rodda, John Keillor]. But all of these elements “hang together with a loose ease that builds upon the music’s overall form with a deceptive effortlessness” [Keillor]. Brahms dedicated this quartet to his landlady.
Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, op. 44 for piano, violin, viola and cello: Schumann (1810-1856) is the second composer on this evening’s program who was not accepted as a musical immortal until after his death. “Few major composers have been so disliked in their own time, and even fewer have been as little performed” [Harold Schonberg]. What a complex man Schumann was: a man of literature as well as music, a music critic (the “discoverer” of Brahms) as well as a composer and a conductor (of sorts). No match at the keyboard for his virtuoso wife Clara, he commanded her love and devotion in a relationship that reflects as much storybook romanticism as it does ultimate tragedy. Today, Schumann would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive. He died after two years in a mental institution in the wake of a suicide attempt. Schumann was no respecter of musical forms. He created his own but – as his Piano Quintet shows – Schumann could work within older forms if they met his artistic vision. He composed his Piano Quintet at age 32 in what has been called his “Chamber Music Year.” This four-movement work was premiered in January 1843 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Clara at the keyboard.