Piano Quartet in A minor (1876)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler was almost exclusively a composer of symphony and song, often for monumental performing forces. With the exception of the Lied – voice and piano – the intimate forces of chamber music held no interest for him during his adult career. That is the reason that this single-movement for piano quartet – his only surviving chamber music – holds such an unusual place in the chamber literature.

Mahler probably composed the movement in 1876, at the age of 16. His Quartet won a prize at the Vienna Conservatory. Marked Nicht zu schnell [Not too fast], it is a sturdy sonata form structure, with three identifiable musical components. The first is a vaulting sixth that resolves down a half step. We initially hear it in the pianist's left hand, then the strings take it up. The second component is a series of pulsing triplets that runs through the movement, primarily in the keyboard part. The third is a Schumannesque second theme that descends a full octave in a single measure. Mahler brings all three elements together in his coda, preceded by a brief, impassioned violin cadenza.

Trio in E-flat major, Opus 40 for French Horn, Violin, and Piano
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Throughout his life, Brahms had an intense interest in the horn. Solos for the instrument abound in his orchestral music. Its rich, mellow, dark-hued timbre fascinated him among wind instruments, much as viola did in the string family. Because of Brahms's affinity for horn, a chamber work featuring it is not in and of itself singular. What makes the so-called Horn Trio, Op. 40 unique is that Brahms composed it for the Waldhorn, a simple hunting horn without valves. This primitive instrument could only produce pitches in the natural harmonic overtone series. Thus a composer writing for Waldhorn was restricted to a limited number of pitches: in ascending order, E-flat, B-flat, E-flat, G, B-flat, D-flat, E-flat, F, G, etc.

Although the Waldhorn was already becoming obsolete in Brahms's day, he adopted the instrument's limitations in the trio, allowing them to govern much of the music's form, key structure, and atmosphere. For example, all four movements are in E-flat; the slow movement shifts to E-flat minor, but remains within the horn's tonal capacity. The pitches within the Waldhorn's purview gave it an unusual capacity for blending in its lower and middle ranges. Brahms capitalized on this advantage. The result, in addition to being an absolutely glorious piece of chamber music, is one of the most spiritually and atmospherically unified compositions in all of Brahms.

The first movement is Brahms's only departure from sonata form in his major instrumental compositions. Using an alternating form that is related to a rondo, the Andante's structure is A-B-A-B-A. Its themes are broad and song-like, exploring the horn's noble and lyrical side. This tentative, introspective character returns for the third movement Adagio mesto (mesto means `sad' or `mournful'), which is the most emotionally charged movement in the trio. Brahms composed this work in May 1865, just a few month's after his mother's death. Historians have traditionally viewed the slow movement as an expression of his grief. E-flat minor is a tragic key for any instrument or group of instruments. In the context of Brahms's personal circumstances at the time, it takes on an even darker hue.

Both the second and fourth movements are quite different in character. They are scherzi, emphasizing the horn's hunting heritage. The finale is also a full sonata form structure, lending weight and closure to the entire work without compromising the excitement and high spirits of the hunt.

Sextet in C major, Op. 37 for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960)

In today’s world, the surname Dohnányi is justly celebrated because of the music director emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi. There is, in fact a relationship: the composer of tonight’s Piano Quintet, Ernst [Ernő in Hungarian] von Dohnányi, was the conductor’s grandfather. The senior statesman of this gifted family was also one of the last century’s most gifted pianists, and a major figure in Hungarian composition. Although Dohnányi’s music has been overshadowed by that of his slightly younger Hungarian contemporaries Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, he remains an important composer and a key stylistic link between late German romanticism and the twentieth century.

Because Dohnányi was a virtuoso pianist, most of his chamber music includes piano, and in the earlier works he focuses on the keyboard role almost at the expense of the other instruments. The Sextet we hear is a mature work, in which the balance among instruments shows Dohnányi’s growth as a composer. That growth manifests itself in the distribution of musical material. In terms of harmony, however, he remained a staunch conservative.

In 1935, the year that Dohnányi composed this unusual sextet, Paul Hindemith had just composed Mathis der Maler; Stravinsky had completed Persephone, Bartók was at work on his Fifth String Quartet, and Arnold Schoenberg was embarking on his Violin Concerto, Op. 36. Thus Colin Mason’s decree in “European Chamber Music Since 1929" that Dohnányi “broke no new ground” in his sextet is certainly justifiable. The piece is traditional, tonal, overtly romantic, and could plausibly have been composed thirty years prior. But other works contemporary with the Sextet include Franz Lehár’s Giuditta, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Clearly Dohnányi was not the only composer of his time looking back over his shoulder toward a bygone era, and wholeheartedly embracing tonality.

This work is scored for piano, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, and violoncello. That distinct combination allows the composer a number of coloristic possibilities: piano quartet, string trio, woodwind duet, horn trio (the Brahmsian combination), or any of five instrumental solos accompanied by piano and the rest of the ensemble. Dohnányi explores them thoroughly, taking full advantage of the variety available to him.

Like his two Piano Quintets (Opus 1, composed in 1895, and Opus 26, from 1914), this Sextet is subtly unified through its four movements, with the finale bringing back the sweeping main theme of the first movement. The most unusual characteristic is perhaps the dramatic funeral march of the slow movement, preceded by an intimate string trio-cum-piano with more than a passing connection to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The variations in the Allegro con sentimento are also a delight. They lead without pause to Dohnányi’s sprightly finale, which unites elements of Hungarian dance tunes with Viennese café music of the 1930s.

By Laurie Shulman © 2019

First North American Serial Rights Only