Stefan Jackiw has given a good deal of thought to the relationship between Brahms and his contemporaries, as well as Brahms’s impact on later composers. Anchoring each half of his program is a Brahms violin/piano sonata, paired with another work: one by Brahms’s close friend Clara Schumann; the other a relatively new piece by a rising young American, David Fulmer.
The sonatas we hear could not be farther apart in mood and temperament. “The Third Sonata finds Brahms at his stormiest and most dramatic, while the First reveals his most intimate, reflective side,” explains Jackiw. “The Brahms D minor sonata is the centerpiece of the first half. I open with Clara Schumann’s Three Romances. Clara was particularly fond of the Third Sonata. Between our performance of the Schumann and the Brahms, I will read excerpts from letters between Clara and Brahms, which movingly capture their affection and mutual admiration, and specifically discuss Clara’s feelings about this sonata.
“The second half explores artists’ use of rain to evoke longing and bittersweet nostalgia, in music and poetry,” Jackiw continues. “Brahms based the finale of his G major sonata on an earlier song, “Regenlied” [Rain Song]. Both the song and the sonata movement feature running fast notes in the piano that mimic the patter of raindrops.”
That song is about wistful longing for the past. “By paraphrasing it in the violin sonata, Brahms’ retrospective nostalgia becomes intensely personal, even autobiographical,” says Mr. Jackiw. “David Fulmer took his inspiration for They Turn Their Channeled Faces to the Sky from the Brahms ‘Regenlied’ Sonata, embracing the melancholy nostalgia of rain in his own work.”
Fulmer’s title is a line from the English poet James Fenton’s “Rain.” Mr. Jackiw will recite the Fenton poem from the stage before playing the Fulmer.
Three Romances for violin & piano, Op. 22
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
So you thought Robert Schumann was the composer in the family! His wife, the eminent pianist Clara Wieck Schumann, was encouraged by her ambitious father to compose, while he was directing her career as a young instrumental prodigy. Starting in 1830, when she was 11, he found composition teachers in Leipzig for her. Clara retained a strong interest in composition and new music her entire life.
After her marriage to Robert Schumann in September 1840, the couple took pleasure in studying the chamber works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven together, but Clara found composition difficult to pursue. Robert could not be disturbed while he was composing. Their quarters were small enough so that Clara's practicing, let alone composing at the piano, became a problem. Her responsibilities as mistress of her new household increased with the arrival of their first daughter, Marie, in 1841. A second daughter, Elise, followed in 1843 and a third, Julie, in 1845. In 1846 Robert and Clara became parents to their first son, Emil (who unfortunately died the next year). By 1853, she was mother to six surviving children on top of an extensive performing career; a seventh would follow in 1854. It is understandable that she composed little music during these busy years.
That changed in 1853, when a new friend in the Schumanns’ lives catalyzed a resurgence in Clara’s composing. They met the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim that May, when Robert conducted Joachim’s performance of the Beethoven Concerto at the 31st Lower Rhenish Music Festival. That first encounter rapidly developed into a strong friendship.
After a hiatus of nearly seven years, Clara resumed writing music. In short order, she completed a set of piano Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20; Three Romances for Piano, Op. 21, Six Songs from Rollet’s Jucunde, Op. 23, and Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22. We have Joachim’s artistry to thank for these attractive, lyrical character pieces. Clara dedicated them “To the illustrious musician and friend Joseph Joachim.”Each of the Romances is in ternary form with a contrasting middle section. The thematic material and rich piano textures are reminiscent of Robert Schumann (no surprise there!) but Clara clearly had absorbed harmonic and expressive ideas from many other mid-19th-century contemporaries. The capricious G major section of the Second Romance shows an unexpectedly sprightly sense of humor. Clara’s pianistic style is most evident in the Third Romance, varying texture and technique in each of its sections.
The Op. 22 Romances were Clara Schumann’s only chamber music other than a Piano Trio, Op. 17 – and her only compositions for violin and piano. She composed nothing after the 1853 pieces, though she lived for another 43 years.
Sonata No. 3 in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 108
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms spent three summers on holiday in the Swiss village of Thun, from 1886 to 1888. The mountains and stunning natural beauty always inspired him to a high level of productivity. These three vacations were no exception, yielding a number of remarkable compositions ready for publication at the conclusion of each summer. Both the Second Violin Sonata in A major, Op.100, and the Third Sonata on this evening's program were composed at Thun. Brahms sketched the D minor work during summer 1886, then set it aside for a while. He completed the piece in summer 1888, and played the first performance on 21 December in Budapest with the Hungarian violinist Jenö Hubay. His publisher Fritz Simrock issued the score the following year. Brahms dedicated the sonata to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow.
Like so many of the later Brahms works, Op.108 transcends the specifics of circumstance and envelops us in its grandeur and warmth. "There is a romantic melancholy about the Allegro of the D minor Sonata," biographer Peter Latham has written.
It starts with a great sigh and ends with an even greater one. In between there is considerable variety of mood, but the brooding element predominates, especially in the ruminating development.
Foregoing the customary repeat of the exposition, Brahms focuses attention on this extraordinary development. Rather than exploring a number of distant key centers in expounding on the expository material, the music holds fiercely to a dominant pedal -- for an astonishing 45 measures! Shifting the formal organization of the sonata form in this manner requires balance elsewhere. Brahms makes his adjustment by providing unexpected harmonic exploration in the recapitulation. By means of an extended coda, he resolves the pedal point of the development.
Tender and intimate, the slow movement is the closest Brahms came to composing a Mendelssohnian ‘Song Without Words.’ Only in this Adagio does he relinquish the fiery, stoic approach that characterizes the outer movements. For much of this Adagio, the violin plays largely in its lowest register, evoking a darker sound and a warmth more generally associated with viola.
Un poco presto e con sentimento, though not specifically marked a scherzo, has the same eerie character as the scherzo movements of the two mature piano trios, Op. 87 in C major and Op. 101 in C minor. Hovering between the whimsical and the spooky, the third movement is a foil of restraint, sometimes delicate, other times passionate. Brahms thus makes an effective transition from the profoundly human slow movement to the agitation of his finale.
Full of broad gestures and sweeping melodies, the last movement links the sonata more closely with the Second Cello Sonata, Op. 99, than with its companion piece, the A major Violin Sonata, Op. 100. No wasted breath extends this compact movement, which is a masterpiece of economy. Bold harmonic exploration and insistent syncopations endow it with musical and rhythmic energy that carry it to its dramatic close. As biographer Karl Geiringer has so eloquently written:
The impetuous Finale, with its fiery brilliance, borne onward by intense emotion, is so richly endowed with structural and intellectual values that it is able to hold its own with the first movement, and indeed almost to surpass it. Perfect as each movement of the three violin sonatas is, they seem, in this last movement, to have reached their culminating point.
They Turn Their Channeled Faces to the Sky (2012)
David Fulmer (b.1982)
It is a rare privilege to hear a relatively new piece of music performed by the artists for whom it was composed. Carnegie Hall commissioned They Turn Their Channeled Faces to the Sky in 2012 for Stefan Jackiw and Anna Polonsky. The two have featured David Fulmer’s piece regularly on recitals since then. This five minute piece makes a striking complement to Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, whose finale adapts the music and pianistic textures of an 1873 song about rain and its connection to sadness and childhood memory. Mr. Fulmer also found his catalyst in poetry. He elaborates in his composer’s note.
Having “rain” as the conceptual starting point for this new work, I used an inspiring poem by English poet James Fenton. Fenton sent me the new poem nearly a year before the commission came about, though when Stefan and I discussed thematic ideas for the work before I began writing, I knew that the poetry would serve as the emotional and structural backbone of the musical fabric. The fleeting gestures of the violin – often including extended techniques of articulation and timbre, race rapidly through the entire range of the instrument, while the piano delicately traces over the contours. The primal sound of rain can be heard in both instruments as they explore percussive articulation as the work comes to a close.
The work is dedicated to Stefan, Anna, and James, with tremendous gratitude to Carnegie Hall.
Fulmer’s music is ephemeral, alive with understated, gossamer dialogue between the two instruments. Visually-oriented listeners may be reminded of canvases by J.M.W. Turner and the French Impressionists, depicting grey, overcast seascapes. We are transported by the subdued patter of rain falling on sand and water, perhaps punctuated by occasional gull calls, but unsullied by the sounds of civilization. Listeners who know the music of Japan’s Toru Takemitsu will sense a connection to his Waterscape series pieces, which in their turn are indebted to the music of both Debussy and Messiaen. Fulmer’s music is an extension of that proud legacy. Absent of conventional melodies, harmonies, or rhythmic order, he has written music of atmosphere and mood, music that connects directly with Nature and humankind’s relationship to the great outdoors.
A Juilliard graduate, Fulmer is active as a composer, conductor, and violinist. His Violin Concerto (2010) garnered international attention, including performances with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Matthias Pintscher and Fulmer’s debut at Tanglewood as soloist. Fulmer stays busy fulfilling commissions from an array of major international ensembles and festivals, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Ensemble Intercontemporain Paris, Alte Oper Frankfurt, and Salzburg Foundation. He is currently working on a commission for the New York Philharmonic.
Fulmer performs and records regularly with prominent new music ensembles and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, most recently a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship. This season he is making several important conducting debuts, leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain, South Netherlands Philharmonic, Wroclaw Philharmonic, and Asko Ensemble.
* * *
The sweet rain falls on the sea
Far from the land.
They stretch a torn sail taut between torn hands
To fill the pail.
They turn their channeled faces to the sky
And the sweet rain runs in their eyes
And on the channeled sea.
– James Fenton
Sonata No.1 in G major for Piano and Violin, Op.78 ("Regenlied")
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Musicians hold a special place in their hearts for Brahms. His music is equally rewarding to practice alone, rehearse with others, or perform for an audience. Legions of Brahms lovers treasure the First Violin Sonata in particular. It has exerted that gentle power since it was composed in 1879. Consider the following remarks about Opus 78, from three of the composer's closest friends and colleagues.
Many others could perhaps understand it and speak about it better, but no one could feel it more than I do.
-- Clara Schumann
For me the Regenlied Sonata is like a dear and true friend whom I would never forsake for anyone else. In its soft, contemplatively dreaming feeling and its wondrously consoling strength, it is one of a kind.
-- Eduard Hanslick
Of course you are aware that no one can help loving it more than anything in the world, and that one becomes addicted to it by just studying and understanding it, by listening to it as in a dream, and by becoming completely absorbed by it. . . . When I play the last page of the E-flat major Adagio, . . . I always think to myself that you can only be a thoroughly good-hearted man.
--Elisabeth von Herzogenberg
The Sonata was not Brahms's first essay for violin and piano; however, he destroyed earlier efforts except for the single movement Sonatensatz. This was the first complete violin/piano sonata that met his extraordinarily high standards. Opus 78 is one of three works signaling Brahms's full maturity; the others are the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto. He worked on all three during the summers of 1877, 1878 and 1879, while on holiday in the mountain resort town of Pörtschach-am-Wörthersee. The beauty of the Carinthian countryside must have imparted a rare peace to his existence there, if the overall character of these compositions is any indication. Particularly in the Sonata, a gentleness of spirit prevails.
By placing the piano first in the title, Brahms was adhering to classical models. His players are fully equal partners, however, and the marriage is eminently successful. Time and again violin takes the lead, singing forth with a succession of glorious melodies. Brahms seems to revel in the violin's cantabile character, providing it with intensely vocal line throughout. Indeed, Brahms adapted a song he had written in 1873 to form the textural and melodic basis for the finale. "Regenlied" ("Rain Song," published as Op. 59, No. 3), has lent its name as the subtitle often applied to this entire sonata. The dotted eighth note that forms the rhythmic pattern of its melody is directly related to the opening motive from the first movement. In subtle yet perceptible ways such as this, Brahms ties his sonata together in ways that touch the heart even more than they engage the mind.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2016