An infinite number of vibrations

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Spring is in the air. © Charles Thibo

Some hundred years separate Mozart’s String Quartet no. 7 from this mind-blowing piece. In 1887 Antonin Dvorak composed his Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major (Op. 81/B. 155), and I must tell you, the recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet and Boris Giltburg at the piano is quite a revelation. When I heard it for the first time I got really excited, and I still am whenever I listen to it. Mozart, with all due respect, wrote a nice little piece, but this quintet has emotional depth, stirring rhythms, it is incredibly dynamic and a real force multiplier. This should boost you like a Falcon Heavy rocket into spring’s orbit.

Beginning with a false start

Dvorak had a difficult start with this piece. Initially he intended to rewrite an earlier piano quintet in A major (Op. 5). He had destroyed the manuscript 15 years earlier, then changed his mind, retrieved a copy and set out to make revisions. The biographer Guy Erismann writes that at the beginning of 1887, Dvorak enjoyed a quiet time, surrounded by friends, his mind was at rest and he was willing to go back to distant souvenirs. However, and I am sure you have experienced this too, sometimes it is better to start from scratch than to try to improve something existent.

After several fruitless attempts Dvorak decided to write a completely new quintet. And I am glad he did! The Piano Quartet No. 2 is written in four movements, and Dvorak’s musical language suggests its distant origin in the works of Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert. But Dvorak had before long given his music a very individual imprint. He fused the traditional form with cultural elements from his home country – what would become Czechoslovakia in 1918 – and forges a musical style of its own.

Dumka and Furiant

The first movement opens with a lyrical cello theme, accompanied by the piano. The viola introduces a second, equally lyrical theme, but the movement picks up speed, slows down again, starts anew, all this with several dramatic  highlights. The second movement refers to the Dumka, a ballad typical for Slavic countries, and often used by Dvorak. The composer sketched a melancholic theme for the piano and the viola, broken up by fast interludes. Both movements are rather long (15 minutes) in comparison to the next two, which last 4 and 8 minutes respectively.

The third movement is marked Furiant. The term refers to a fast Bohemian folk dance. The cello and the viola alternatively play pizzicati* accompanying the main theme of the violin. The theme is taken up later, this time by the violin and the piano alternatively with an aggressive race to the finish line. The final movement is light-hearted with a fugue in the development section and a chorale-like section towards the end and again a rush to the finish line.

“Like the changing sky in spring”

Erismann quotes in his biography Otokar Sourek who has extensively researched Dvorak’s life and works: “He was apparently a very reserved man, living in his interior world, the universe of sounds, removed from daily business. He moved in the paradise of his creative imagination, sometimes struck by dark ideas or animated by joy. An infinite number of vibrations exploded in his mind, like the changing sky in spring.” There is little to add; the quintet is a true emanation of this mindset. Enjoy the quintet! Enjoy spring!

© Charles Thibo

Spring melodies from an elusive composer 

The herald and his message. © Charles Thibo

Winter apparently wants to have the last word. While I am writing this, it is snowing outside. We usually have no snow in November, December and January, but then, at the end of January and the beginning of February, it’s winter wonderland all over the country. However I am not overly impressed, the snow will be gone within a few days, the birds have been singing for weeks. My mind is focused on music introducing spring, and few composers are better suited than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Under either the pressure of his father or later the audience in Vienna he mass-produced light, joyful pieces of chamber music or piano concertos meant to please and entertain.

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A passion for birds and a message of grace

Winter warm brahms
Fragility. © Charles Thibo

Grace – this idea was at the heart of a composition of Olivier Messiaen, conceived in 1990. The French composer first considered writing an oboe concerto for his friend Heinz Holliger (born 1939). His ideas later evolved into a piece for oboe, cello, piano, harp and orchestra: Concert à 4 (Quadruple Concert). He drew his inspiration from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as from his transcriptions of bird songs, Messiaen’s trademark.

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A graceful sonata with a distinct signature

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Romance. © Charles Thibo

Man or woman? Does it matter? At the time it did. In 1843 Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847), Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, wrote an outstanding piano work, the Piano Sonata in G minor (H-U 395). But her family had made clear that her compositions should not be published and that she should not perform in public. She was meant to be a distinguished lady, a good housekeeper and a caring mother. This didn’t keep Fanny Mendelssohn from composing, nor from publishing her works for that matter and she could count on the support of another man, her husband. As much as Fanny loved Felix, she had a brain of her own and knew how to use it.

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