Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Trio in G Major, K. 564 (1788)
This is the last of Mozart’s seven trios. Two anomalies appear: The first trio, K. 254 he entitled Divertimento and the third, K. 498 in E-flat major, is for the unusual combination of piano, clarinet and viola. The others are each for piano, violin and ’cello. We hear in this trio that Mozart might have been satisfied producing a “sonata” for piano with accompaniment. This is the precursor to Beethoven’s great works for the three instruments. The composer employs a theme and variation for the slow movement. In each movement simplicity is the outstanding feature–may one say a resolved innocence? Each of the seven trios is inventive—teeming with grace, wit and symmetry, tonally unified and melodically pleasing. Finding one more or less perfect than any of the others seems akin to declaring a favorite season, when in fact there is some sure pleasure to be found in experiencing them all. If profundity, or the lack of it, is the issue, one need only consider his three last symphonies, written during this same period. He knew what he wanted of himself and was consistent in bringing it forth at will.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Septet in D minor, Op. 74 (1816)
This gentleman started as a successful child prodigy, when, at age 5, his father succeeded in winning Mozart’s attention to his talent. He was to spend two years living with the Mozart family while he took lessons from the master. His career spanned those of Haydn and Beethoven. Berlioz had entered the scene in 1832 with his Symphonie Fantastique and Mendelssohn was already a superstar by then. Small wonder then that when he died at age 59 in 1837, he did so in obscurity.
Yet his talent gave him command of Europe’s most prestigious courts while he headed up the musical establishment in several of them: Esterhazy (Vienna), Stuttgart and Weimar. He traveled far and wide—England and Scotland, the Benelux countries, Denmark, France, Russia and Poland. He composed and taught, played the piano and led court orchestras. None of this went to his head. Hard work was assumed to be necessary. For relaxation he took walks and gardened. He enjoyed friendships with his well-known contemporaries although relations were at times stormy with some of them. In the case of Beethoven, one has no trouble picturing that, but Hummel was beside him as the great man lay dying.
His pianism was a world apart from that of his contemporaries. He dazzled with fluid scales, double trills and arpeggios that blossomed out of nowhere—nearly all of this in his own music, as he eschewed performing the music of others. The exception was Bach, whose music Hummel felt was essential to his teaching method. And Hummel was, like Bach, reputed to be a supreme improviser. His preferred instrument was lighter than the then current standard. For a full grasp of the distinctions between instruments then and now, the best source of information I know is Robert Levin, a Founding Member of New York Philomusica, who owns a number of the eighteenth and nineteenth century instruments. He has described the amount of force needed to strike a note as on a scale of something like 7 times greater on today’s instrument. Listening to a pianist now, in light of this, makes the challenge of traversing all of Hummel’s pianistic devices an achievement all the more amazing.
The music is clearly imbued in the classicism of its era. He did not break with tradition. The few attempts to write large scale orchestral or opera works were unsuccessful. Hummel’s approach to composing simply lacked the means of grasping harmonic and structural dimensions beyond his neat and tidy classical language. This could well be the origin of the precipitous decline in popularity of his music, even before his death. Fortunate it is, both for him and for us, that he was a superb pianist, for when we hear what he wrote for himself to perform, we have a very good measure of his superb musicianship. It is formidable for any era but depends entirely on musicians capable of meeting his extraordinary demands, most especially of the pianist.
Tonight you will hear such a person—-Rieko Aizawa. She is central to the success of all three pieces on this program, but she is no stranger to the challenges of New York Philomusica’s programming.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8 (1853-54, rev. 1889)
In this first published piece of chamber music by Johannes Brahms lies the kernel of all that was to flow from his fertile brain in the decades of the nineteenth century during which he lived. Because he revised the piece extensively in 1890, you will not hear the excesses of youth that he recognized in himself, but you will hear that his exuberance was there and irrepressible. The work he composed in 1853-54 was one-third longer than the work you hear tonight. His comment in a letter to his publisher that he “did not provide the piece with a wig, but merely rearranged and combed the hair a little,” seems fair. Interestingly enough, it is only the revised version that was subsequently performed even though the first was widely played as soon as it was published and marked the coming of a great man in music.
As solid as his achievements were known to be, the composer carried with him a deep-seated reservation about the worth of his own work. His critics included some strong-minded people, especially supportive and close, but critical too. As it turns out he was able to overcome their critiques of his works and bring out what he chose in instrumentation and form. The point can be made that his critics unwittingly hardened his convictions about how to compose. Furthermore, in doing so, he took great pains to assure that he’d gotten it right. He rewrote extensively. He benefitted too from patronage that included an orchestra put at his disposal in Meiningen by its conductor Hans von Bülow, enabling him to try out passages in various sections of the orchestra and revise extensively before committing to them in publication. What a luxury, and how many others might have wished for similar largesse. Clearly his talent justified it.
There are three trios altogether, No. 2, Op. 87 in C major (1880-82), and No. 3, Op. 101 in C minor (1886), coming much later in his life. They represent solid program presence to this day, with No. 1 no less often heard than the other two, despite its having been composed early in his life. Indeed, one of his most respected biographers, Karl Geiringer, waxes rhapsodic about this piece, citing “its youthful freshness and tenderness of conception, its soft and sensual tonality, and its rich variety of moods. Even in his later days, Brahms hardly composed anything more beautiful than the broad, swinging introductory theme of the first movement, the elves’ dance of the Scherzo, the opening of the Adagio with its inspired religious pathos, and the Schubertian cantilena in F sharp major of the Finale.” That ought to tantalize you sufficiently to sit back and hear how well this description has withstood the test of time. You will probably realize too, why his music is being widely played today and Hummel’s is not. If it seems a little unfair to say that in so many words, one need only consider Brahms’ A German Requiem (the title refers to the language, not the culture), the four symphonies, a host of choral works, overtures and a great body of chamber music to appreciate that it is not. Nonetheless we enjoy each for his own achievement.
© A. Robert Johnson 2004