Concerto in E minor, Op.10 No.5 for Violin and String Quartet
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)
A central figure in the French Baroque violin tradition, Jean-Marie Leclair was the son of a Lyonnais master lace maker. He studied both violin and dance as a young man, and traveled to Turin, Italy in 1722 to further his career, apparently as a ballet master. The prominent Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Somis convinced Leclair to focus on violin.
Somis himself had studied with Arcangelo Corelli, and his own music was an important link between the Baroque and Classical styles in Italy. During his study with Somis, Leclair absorbed some Italianisms. His best music merges the melodic lyricism of Italian song with the mannered elegance of the French style. From 1728, Leclair lived primarily in Paris, where he performed at the Concert Spirituel and was eventually appointed to the Chapel Royal. He later served as principal violinist and director of the Duc de Gramont’s orchestra.
Although he wrote many stage works, Leclair's most significant contribution is in the violin repertoire. His 49 solo sonatas, violin concertos, and dozens of trio sonatas are of uniformly high quality. The concerti are especially significant because Leclair was the first French composer to write concerti for violin, publishing two sets of six. The first group was issued in 1737 as Opus 6 (five of the six are for violin; one is an oboe concerto); the second set – all for violin, strings, and continuo – followed in 1745 as Opus 10. Both collections were published in Paris.
The concerto that opens this evening’s program is representative of Leclair’s mature style, which favors Italianate structure. The three movements are arranged fast-slow-fast, an order that Vivaldi had standardized. Leclair’s scale is somewhat larger than Vivaldi’s, however, with extended solo episodes that expand the length of both outer movements to approximately six minutes.
Syncopations drive the principal idea of the opening Allegro ma poco, and Leclair adheres to the Italian habit of the first solo episode echoing that main idea. He soon imprints his own violinistic personality on the solo part, adding double and occasional triple stops, arpeggiated flourishes, and rhythmically complex variants.
Though marked Largo, the slow movement is in siciliana meter. Elaborate embellishments inbue this Italian dance with a distinctly French flavor. A lively Allegro concludes the concerto, dominated by its bold opening rhythmic idea. The violin’s initial solo episode takes a nod to the tutti idea, enriched with double stops and flashy commentary. Episodes in major mode provide variety, while return nods to the opening phrase unify the movement. Leclair’s supporting music – here performed by quartet – has ample substance, but he reminds us repeatedly that this work is really all about the solo violin.
String Trio (1933)
Jean Françaix ( 1912-1997)
Jean René Françaix was born into a world of musical privilege. His father Alfred Françaix, also a composer, was director of the Conservatory in Le Mans; his mother was a professor of voice there. Not surprisingly, the boy manifested great aptitude early on. Maurice Ravel was an early admirer who urged the parents to nurture young Jean’s gifts. The boy began his musical training at the Le Mans Conservatory, continuing in Paris, where he was one of Nadia Boulanger’s best students. Indeed, Françaix was one of her few French protégés to fulfill his early promise under her tutelage. (Most of Boulanger’s great students came from abroad, and particularly from the United States.)
He began working with Boulanger in the early 1920s, impressing her with his ability to sightread, learn new music quickly, transpose from one key to another, and improvise with ease. (Françaix was an excellent pianist. As a student of Isidor Philipp, he won first prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1930, when he was eighteen.) Nadia Boulanger continued to champion Françaix long after he had graduated from student to colleague. She introduced his music at the Princesse de Polignac’s salons in the 1930s, and conducted the première of his Symphony for String Orchestra in London in 1949. He remained one of her favorites until her death in 1979.
Although Françaix was a prolific composer of chamber music, this is his only piece for string trio. It was his first composition for any combination of three instruments, and although he later composed a Divertissement for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1947), a Trio for flute, harp and cello (1971), a Piano Trio (1986) and a Trio for clarinet, viola and piano (1990), he never returned to the combination of string trio.
As was the case with many of his chamber works, Françaix wrote with specific players in mind. In this case it was the Trio Pasquier: Etienne Pasquier, violin; Pierre Pasquier, viola; and Jean Pasquier, cello. Françaix toured extensively with the Trio, playing piano quartets. He dedicated this score to them, and they played the first performance on 15 June, 1934. The work remained an anchor piece in their repertoire for decades.
Françaix’s musical style is variously described as witty, acerbic, clever, graceful, and spontaneous. He is frequently compared to Ravel, whose style certainly influenced him, and to Poulenc. The latter comparison makes somewhat more sense, both in terms of pungent, distinctly French harmonies and the saucy humor that spikes both their music. Poulenc and Françaix also share a love of woodwind instruments and a flair for orchestral color in their chamber music as well. Françaix does not attain the depth of Poulenc’s better works, however, and his music tends to come across as opaque, as if he did not wish to admit the listener to the interior of his soul.
All the same, Françaix had a flair for melody, and his better compositions have undeniable charm. The closest parallel of all may be drawn with yet another Frenchman, Jacques Ibert, the composer of Escales. Ibert’s lighter works, many of which are for chamber ensemble, would surely have been known to Françaix and are plausible precursors to Françaix’s original music. This String Trio consists of four movements in a conventional layout -- unlike many of his French contemporaries, he favored traditional forms --with the exception that the Scherzo occurs second. The Trio takes approximately twelve minutes in performance.
Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody for Violin and Piano
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel was a frequent visitor to England, where he regularly attended musical events of all types. According to his biographer Arbie Orenstein, Tzigane had its origins in, of all the unlikely locations, a private British musicale. On the evening in question, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi (coincidentally, a grand-niece of the great 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim) performed Ravel's violin/cello sonata with Hans Kindler. Taken with her playing, the composer asked d'Arányi to perform some Gypsy melodies. She complied, and Ravel grew increasingly absorbed in the unfamiliar scale patterns and compelling rhythms of the Eastern European tradition. Fascinated by what he heard, he encouraged her to continue until the wee hours of the morning. By then, he had resolved to compose a violin work especially for her.
Fully two years later, the piece took final shape. Ravel only completed it days before d'Arányi premiered it on April 26, 1924. In the interim, he had drawn further inspiration from the virtuoso music of Paganini and Liszt. Tzigane, his synthesis of Gypsy flavor with 19th-century virtuoso technique, is a landmark in the violin literature. This work admirably demonstrates Ravel’s uncanny ability to assimilate and process the musical style of another country, as he had already done so successfully with Spanish music.
Tzigane opens with an extended, dramatic introduction. Ravel’s structure is episodic, as the subtitle "Concert Rhapsody" implies. Despite its dazzling difficulty, the piece is remarkably well written for violin, presenting formidable challenges with pizzicati, quadruple stops, virtuoso figuration, and a concluding perpetual motion clearly related to the finale of Ravel’s Violin Sonata (1923-1927).
Ravel orchestrated Tzigane several months after he completed the original version for violin and piano. In that form, it is the closest he came to composing a violin concerto. He also arranged Tzigane in a fascinating third version employing an early type of prepared piano using an attachment called luthéal, which was intended to make the piano approximate the sound of the cimbalom [a large hammer dulcimer used in Hungarian Gypsy and popular music]. We hear it in the version that was his first inspiration.
Concerto in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op.21
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
The term ‘Renaissance man’ was inspired by extraordinary figures such as Leonardo da Vinci who were well-versed in many of the arts and sciences. Ernest Chausson was such a man, compressing a remarkable amount of intellectual and artistic activity into his brief 44 years. From childhood, he was keenly interested in the visual arts and literature as well as music, but took a law degree to placate his father.
Beginning in the 1870s, Chausson frequented Parisian salons, developing friendships with such important figures as the painters Odilon Redon and Henri Fantin-Latour. Countermanding his father’s wishes for his career, Chausson sought out Jules Massenet for composition lessons at the Paris Conservatoire in 1879. He fell under the Wagnerian spell in 1880 and soon determined to devote himself to music. Eventually he became host to a brilliant salon in Paris, assuming an important role in the city’s intellectual life and artistic circles. Many poets, artists and musicians gathered at his residence. Claude Debussy, Isaac Albéniz, the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe were all regular visitors.
Ysaÿe (pronounced Ee-ZYE-ee) is particularly important with respect to the work we hear this evening. Chausson dedicated the Concerto in D to him, and Ysaÿe played the première in Brussels in March 1892. His advocacy of this work was a big plus. Chausson had focused on ambitious stage works early in his career, with limited critical success. Before this work, his reputation was still tenuous. The Concerto in D was a turning point.
So why is it titled ‘concerto,’ when it appears to be a chamber music sextet? Chausson’s title is Concert en Ré majeur. “Ré” is the French orthography for ‘D’ (think do-re-mi). The French word concert (pronounced cone-SARE) is generally translated as ‘concerto,’ but actually means harmony, agreement, or concord. Chausson was thinking in terms of a Baroque concerto grosso: smaller forces collaborating harmoniously as an ensemble, with cameo roles for more than one soloist. The violin and piano are often spotlighted when they play with the anchoring texture of the string quartet. In many places, piano and violin dominate the texture. At least once in each movement, they are the texture. They tend to function as a pair and the string quartet functions as a separate, complementary blocked ensemble. Sometimes the two blocks of sound are in opposition; more often, they complement one another.
If Chausson borrowed from Baroque heritage in his conception of the relationship between and among instruments, his harmony and melodic language are entirely late romantic. Listeners are unlikely to know other music by Chausson except, perhaps, his lovely Poème for violin and orchestra. Not surprisingly, his style derives from his principal teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, Jules Massenet and César Franck. Like many late 19th-century French composers, Chausson was also influenced by the rich sonorities and chromatic progressions of Wagner’s operas. Franck left the strongest imprint on this work, which adopts a cyclic structure [using similar or identical thematic material in more than one movement].
At about fifteen minutes, the first movement is the longest by far. It opens with a slow introduction, an imposing statement in octaves of the dominating motive, echoed in unison by viola and cello. Chausson has thus announced that this motive will be important.
Its initial development, with broad, arpeggiated figures from the piano, leads to the violin solo, declaiming a long lyrical expansion on the same theme. Momentarily, the string quartet has dropped out and the piano/violin duet takes center stage. While these two disparate entities occasionally overlap at climactic moments, Chausson is very careful in his allocation of material. The occasional passage for piano solo usually serves as a bridge for a modulation to another key.
The Sicilienne opens with full ensemble. Chausson unfolds a ternary movement as concise as the opening movement was expansive. Despite its brevity – at four minutes, it is the Concerto’s shortest movement – it deploys the full sextet resources most evenly. Even so, the close is an 8-measure coda for violin and piano, joined only in the final chord by the quartet. The spirit of Gabriel Fauré is more present in this movement than any other.
Chausson’s tragic Grave opens with another duet for violin and piano, now in the dark tonality of F minor. This is a splendid late romantic slow movement that builds twice to an agitated climax. In each case, the piano texture thickens and grows more demanding. Although we hear duets with violin and piano again, the string quartet gets its share of the lyrical and dramatic moments. Chausson manages his ensemble effectively, subduing the full sextet at the close to a level even quieter than the beginning.
Piano gets the initial statement in the Finale. The strings, dominated by solo violin, soon take up its material. For the first time in this work, we hear dance-like music. In a series of variation-like episodes, Chausson moves us through multiple key changes, ultimately settling on a chromatically-induced D major. This Finale is the most homogeneous movement for all six players in terms of the balance of material. It also links the entire Concerto by quoting and varying themes introduced in earlier movements
Chausson was not present when the first performance was in preparation. His colleague Vincent d’Indy oversaw rehearsals and intervened when the pianist balked, declaring that the keyboard part was too difficult. A substitute, Auguste Pierret, was called in from Paris, and the Brussels première took place as scheduled on 4 March, 1892 with Pierret and Ysaÿe as soloists, collaborating with the Crickboom Quartet. Maurice Kufferath of Le Guide Musical deemed Chausson “an ingenious inventor of new sonorities.” Such warm words must have been balm to the composer whose music had been greeted with acerbity by the Parisian press. Brussels proved to be a happier venue for Chausson’s music than the French capital.
Chausson’s career was cut short by a bicycling accident in early summer 1899. Who knows what he might have accomplished had he been granted a few more years.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017