IN A CENTURY AND A DAY
This CD is a double journey through time. On one hand, the three pieces selected span a century in the history of the Viennese piano trio; Hummel’s work, composed in 1799, keeps a foot firmly in the classical era; Brahms’ second piano trio, written in 1882, is a crown jewel of Viennese romanticism, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is a perfect example of the atmosphere that reigned in the city at the turn of the century. In addition, the three works mirror the intensities of the day. Hummel’s light and sparkling trio evokes the morning, Brahms’ resplendent and well-worked piece represents the afternoon and evening and Schoenberg’s composition, as the title already indicates, relates to the dark, moonlit night.
MORNING – Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 22
Hummel is almost an exact contemporary of Beethoven; born eight years his junior (1778), he died ten years after him (1837). Like almost all of his contemporaries, it was almost impossible for Hummel to escape Beethoven’s overwhelming domination. However, Hummel was already very well known in Vienna before Beethoven made his breakthrough there. He already had the reputation of being the first great child prodigy after Mozart (from whom he received lessons for a time) and had built a very successful career as a pianist in Austria and abroad. He was also a respected composer who held important positions. In 1804, for example, he succeeded Joseph Haydn at the famous Esterhazy court. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he had dedicated his Piano Trio Op. 22 to the princess of Esterhazy five years previously.
If Hummel was never able to emerge from Beethoven’s shadow, it’s in great part due to his mainly conservative compositional outlook. Even if his works suggest a dawning romanticism, his great affinity with the transparency of the classical style shines through. Stylistically Hummel’s compositions are comparable to later works by Mozart and Haydn, or those by a young Beethoven. But unlike the latter, Hummel never felt a need to follow a more radical route. This is probably also the main reason for which Hummel receives little or no attention in the majority of books on music history, even though within their genre, many of his compositions are of exceptional quality.
This is certainly true in the case of the Piano Trio Op. 22, which is a truly ‘classical’ work. The form of the composition is clear, and the themes are a model example of balance, balance that we encounter throughout the series of movements. The first movement is dominated by lightness, and the second, a series of variations, has a natural lyricism. For the third movement, Hummel chose a cliché very popular in Vienna; that of Turkish music; as had been done by Mozart in his famous Rondo alla Turca. Here, the predominant style is somewhat brutal and primitive; the hammered rhythms and grumbling bass notes nip any real melody in the bud. These melodic ghosts swirl without end.
AFTERNOON AND EVENING – Johannes Brahms, Piano Trio Op. 87
Brahms’ second piano trio catapults the listener into a completely different universe. Although numerous classical techniques are still present in Brahms’ writing, his music shines in a totally different way. This is clear from the opening bars of the first movement, where a strict regularity immediately makes way for natural development processes which are both natural and totally unpredictable. The music slows then accelerates, opens up, restarts, swells and subsides, all effortlessly and smoothly. Brahms constantly weaves multiple developmental layers together; rhythms and bars interlock rather than confirming each other, ensuring a sound world that is both dense and intense. It is remarkable, however, that in many places, Brahms treats the two string instruments as a single unit (as much in the first as in the latter movements); very often, the violin and cello have the same rhythms, sometimes even the same notes, giving the impression that the piano is their common ‘rival’ and that a natural game takes place between the two sides.
The second movement is a series of variations. The phenomenal style shift that we see between the young Hummel and a fully-mature Brahms is perhaps nowhere clearer than here. Whereas Hummel’s variations all start over from the original theme and each time demonstrate a new variational technique, Brahms’ series of variations is a continuous process; each variation leading to the next one, as if the repeated motif were secondary compared to the dramatic build-up.
After the drama of the first two movements, the third comes as a refreshing change. The Presto is a fizzing and happy piece, which Brahms seems to have based on the brilliant scherzos by Mendelssohn.
Part of this exuberance is kept for the last movement. The mere indication of this in the title, Allegro giocoso, is a once-off for a final movement in Brahms’ chamber music, and is therefore significant. By Brahms’ standards, one could say that in this finale, the sun is shining like never before.
NIGHT - Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (arrangement) Op. 4
In Verklärte Nacht, the sun is definitely gone, but Brahms’ influence is not. Brahms was one of Schoenberg’s great role models, visible in the way he constructed a coherent mass of sound in which each instrument retains its own identity. The work is originally a string sextet, arranged by Schoenberg’s pupil Eduard Steuermann for piano trio, and on which members of Trio Khaldei, in turn, have made their mark. This arrangement was born from Schoenberg’s famous Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), whose aim was “to give artists and art lovers a precise knowledge of modern music.” The concerts, which were out of bounds to journalists and the non-initiated, were dedicated to new developments in international music; both premières and arrangements of existing repertoire were performed there.
For his string sextet, Schoenberg was inspired by a text by the 19th-Century German poet, Richard Dehmel (1863-1920). The poem consists of six stanzas of unequal length. The first of these paints the picture of a cold moonlit night. In the second and third verses, a woman confesses to her beloved that in her impatience to experience motherhood and to bring sense to her life, she has been intimate with another man shortly before their meeting and is carrying his child. The woman pours out her regret and laments her sin. After another short verse dedicated to the surrounding nature, her beloved responds consolingly; the particular warmth that unites them will transfigure (verklären) the child of the stranger (fifth and sixth verses). The final stanzas bring the listener back to the atmosphere of the night, where this time, it is no longer a matter of cold, but of clarity.
Schoenberg is rather ambiguous about how his music makes sense of the text. In 1951 he wrote in no uncertain terms that “it is programme music that paints and expresses Dehmel’s poem.” But shortly after, he wrote “that his music could also be appreciated as ‘pure’ music, and it is therefore not possible to leave out the poem.” And to confuse matters even further, the composer next presents a musical analysis in which he explicitly matches the different motifs from the score to the content of Dehmel’s text. From this analysis it is clear that Schoenberg has indeed followed the structure and content of Dehmel’s poem quite strictly.
As far as the music is concerned, the work comes both literally and figuratively on the eve of musical modernism. Schoenberg pushes back the limits of romanticism. At numerous moments breakpoints are announced, giving resonance to the emotions that he describes. But at the same time, they show that the music, at least in the composer’s eyes, was gradually reaching its limits and would soon have to explore new sound worlds.
Text Pieter bergé
Translation Moya Gorman