13th March at 3.00pm

Leon McCawley: a selection of solo piano pieces

Gál’s Piano works span the whole of his composing career, from the Three Sketches, Op.7, composed in 1910/11 to his Twenty Four Fugues, composed in 1980.

His Sonatina No.1, composed in 1951, is a relatively calm companion to a much stormier B minor Sonatina from 1949. It is dedicated to the Countess of Rosebery, (herself a keen pianist who took piano lessons from Gál – and a redoubtable ally in the formative years of the Edinburgh Festival). The first movement is a fully developed sonata form, gentle in overall character, as the moderato e cantabile designation implies; Its texture is predominantly legato and the part-writing particularly transparent. The second movement, by contrast, is a scherzo, sempre staccatissimo, senza pedale, and very characteristic of Gál’s chromatic harmonic idiom and play with dissonances. The 3rd movement is lively and rhythmically energetic, with displaced accents, but also has a calmer contrasting middle section.

Gál’s Twenty Four Preludes Op.83 owe their origin to a fortnight’s stay in hospital in 1960, during which time he wrote one prelude every day, “so as not to get out of practice”, as he jokingly put it. “What was begun under such unusual circumstances was continued in the following months, developed and revised. Several pieces were replaced by others, so that few of the original ‘hospital pieces’ are contained in the final version”. After completing the whole work, Gál expressed the view that “if Bach had in his day composed the Well-Tempered Clavier in order to demonstrate that one could still compose in all keys (which was by no means taken for granted at the time), then it was time to demonstrate that one could still compose in all keys today.”

Of the work itself Gál said: “The Preludes were a [70th] birthday present for myself. They are studies in piano sound, piano technique and concentrated miniature form. Each of these three elements is for me an area of inexhaustible possibilities, and as I wrote the pieces I had the feeling that I could have written 24 more without repeating myself, in view of the unbelievable variety of what can take place between the black and white keys. All the Preludes are as concise as possible in order to shape a thought with precision.”

Also a birthday present to himself – but this time for his ninetieth birthday – Gál wrote Twenty Four Fugues for Piano, Op.108. The 24 fugues are a masterly culmination of Gál’s lifelong engagement with counterpoint.

The Three Preludes, Op.65, composed in 1944, are described by Lloyd Moore as “among the most striking of Gál’s works for piano”. The first Prelude, marked vivacissimo, is technically brilliant, with densely chromatic textures; the second, in total contrast, is poignantly melodic; and the third sports Gál’s quirky humour and a playful touch. All three are quintessentially characteristic of his keyboard idiom.

Fraser Kelman & Sarah Beth Briggs: Sonata for Oboe & Piano

The Sonata for Oboe and Piano was composed in 1965, hot on the heels of a Sonata for Clarinet, composed in the same year. They are both very much works of Gál’s ‘late’ period, which saw a particular focus on chamber music and generally music of a more intimate, reflective character. The oboe clearly has a pastoral character for Gál, and this is central in this sonata as a whole, as is absolute clarity of texture. The piano part is, as always with Gál, considerably more complex than it sounds, alternately in a supporting and a leading role, often with several independent melodic lines, as opposed to a simple chordal accompaniment.

Gál wrote of the work: “in an animated dialogue of the two instruments the lyrical character of the oboe is largely predominating, although not without some lively contrapuntal confrontations, especially in the development section of the first movement. The second movement is a pavane, a slowish, stately kind of dance. In the Finale, in rondo form, the basic tonality (C sharp minor) is opposed by the key of a playful episode (A major), which in the end prevails, arriving at a quietly contemplative conclusion”

Although the only other chamber works specifically for oboe are the Divertimento for Winds from 1924 and Trio for oboe, violin and viola, from 1941, the oboe is particularly featured as a concertante soloist in a number of Gál’s larger-scale works: the Cello Concerto is at times almost like a double concerto for oboe and cello, and the oboe is also a principal player in the Violin Concerto, as in so many of Gál’s orchestral works.

Judy Brown and Sarah Beth Briggs: Five Songs for Middle Voice and Piano

The five Songs, published in 1929 as Op.33, were in fact composed considerably earlier, 1917-1921. Between 1910 and 1916 Gál wrote about one hundred songs, but all of these were later discarded. The lied is clearly a genre which interested him intensely, but of his huge output only these five solo songs survived (although he wrote extensively for voice). They bring together a sequence of texts taken from sources as disparate as the 17th century German Baroque, Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), and two adaptations from the Chinese.

Vergängliches is about nostalgia for a time of love and joy, contrasting past happiness with present suffering. The syncopated, harmonically complex accompaniment gives the song a heightened emotional charge, reaching a climax in the octave leaps in the melody. Der Wiesenbach is perhaps the most melodious of the texts. Gál preserves this in the simplicity of his melodic line, while the triplet accompaniment, with its gently dissonant passing notes, evokes the continuous movement of the stream.  The other Morgenstern poem, Vöglein Schwermut, has a quasi-mediaeval, folksong quality which belies its more sinister undercurrents; the bird of melancholy is a harbinger of death, allowing Gál scope for a more multi-facetted setting, both in the high, right-hand motif representing the bird and in the rich syncopated harmonies which take over the melodic line in the piano in the middle section depicting midnight, when it ‘rests on the finger of death’.

Drei Prinzessinnen  and Abend auf dem Fluß  are written for piano or harp, their more ‘neutral’ accompaniment giving greater primacy to the texts. The former is a poignant ballad about waiting in vain for the gods while life wastes away, whilst the latter is a beautiful evocation of an evening scene with the moon rising, a song of pure serenity.

Mark Bailey and Sarah Beth Briggs: Suite for Cello and Piano

Gál clearly had a particular love for the cello. Although he was principally a pianist, he did play cello himself for some years and evidently felt very much at home on the instrument. The Suite for Cello and Piano, Op.6, dating from 1919, is the earliest of his published works for solo cello, which span 63 years and include the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1944), the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1954), and a Concertino for Cello and String Orchestra (1966).

The Suite stems from the period immediately after the First World War, when Gál was back in Vienna, where he was to stay for the next decade, until he took up his post as Director of the Conservatoire in Mainz. Whereas the vast majority of the works composed before the War were subsequently discarded by him, including the Symphony for which he had been awarded the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1915, most of what he now composed was published more or less immediately, as was the case with the Suite, the first of his works to be published by Simrock in Berlin (the original publishers of Brahms and Dvorák); Simrock was to become his main publisher in the 20s, from 1924 even paying him a salary in return for first refusal of any new works.

The Suite is representative of Gál’s early style, not only in the piano texture, which is fuller than in his later, more pared down, writing, but also in its characteristic harmonic idiom and genial tunefulness. But it also has features generic to the Suite as a form, based traditionally on a succession of contrasting dance movements, and relatively light in character.

All today’s pieces by Hans Gál are first ACMC performances

Monday 14th March 7.30pm

The Edinburgh String Quartet

The two Gál works to be heard tonight span 60 years and stem from very different periods of Gál’s creative life.

Hans Gál: Quartet no. 1 in F minor op. 16

Moderato ma con passion
Molto vivace
Allegro energico

The First Quartet was composed in 1916, while Gál was serving in the Austrian army during the First World War. Thanks to his poor eyesight (as he was fond of joking) he was kept well away from the firing line. The quartet was written while he was posted in Belgrade, where he also composed his very popular ‘Serbian Dances’ for piano duet. This quartet was, in fact, his third, but its two predecessors were discarded, along with the vast majority of his early work. It was published in 1924 as his Opus 16. The work has a youthful vitality and rhythmic energy that are characteristic of the early Gál, and it is deeply rooted in the Austro-German tradition. Indeed, it was hailed by a contemporary critic as “one of the few creations of recent date which really breathes something of the spirit of Schubert”. The slow movement is, as so often in Gál, the emotional heart of the work, with a deeply expressive intensity. Although much of the work belies the turbulent time in which it was written, one can feel in this slow movement a profound sense of loss.

Last ACMC Performance:  the Edinburgh Quartet, November 2005


Hans Gál: Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello op. 106

Moderato quasi andantino
Allegro con spirito
Poco andante

The String Quintet was written in 1976/77, when Gál had already been living in Scotland for almost 40 years. The Quintet has a clarity of texture and refinement of the palette that are characteristic of the late Gál. It was followed shortly by a Clarinet Quintet, and Gál very much regarded these ‘late flowerings’ as his last substantial works and as a conclusion to his life’s work as a composer (though he was still to produce 24 Fugues for Piano in 1980 – ‘as a ninetieth birthday present’ to himself – and works for unaccompanied cello and for unaccompanied recorder in 1982 and 1983).

His creative energy seems to have been powerfully stimulated by a summer holiday on the coast of Wales, with some magnificent cliff walks. Walking in nature had always been a major source of inspiration for him, but this holiday in particular must have felt like a new lease of life, following a serious fall and fractured hip the previous December, at an age when full recovery is rare.

Gál describes both quintets as “results of an intense interest in the unlimited possibilities of a five part texture”. Over the course of seven decades Gál wrote for virtually every chamber combination. Indeed, chamber music is quintessential to Gál’s compositional style – even in larger genres.

First ACMC performance

Dvořák: Quintet in E flat major, op. 97                                                                                        

Allegro non tanto
Allegro vivo – Un poco meno messo
Finale: Allegro giusto

At the height of his powers, Dvořák arrived in New York in 1892 to take up the post of Director at the National Conservatory of Music.  At once he was thrilled by the musical possibilities of the new country, but he soon became homesick for his native Bohemia, and it was with joy that he spent the summer of 1893 in the quiet Czech settlement at Spillville, Iowa.  The cross-pollination of American and Czech ideas led to some of his greatest music, the New World Symphony op. 95, the string quartet op. 96, now known as “the American”, and this string quintet op. 97.  Cobbett compares the two chamber works: “the quintet differs from the quartet … the atmosphere is more exotic, the form broader, the working of the themes more complex, and the dexterity of its polyphonic structure greater.”  It is interesting to speculate on Dvorak’s reason for including a second viola in the ensemble: was he inspired by the great works of Mozart, or by the two Brahms quintets for the same combination, or was it perhaps that he himself was a viola player?  Certainly, the treatment of the ensemble is masterly.  As in all his chamber music, the secret is the way in which the melody can belong to any player, and here he often treats the two violas as melodic equals of the violins, to marvellous effect.

The quintet opens with a solo viola stating a theme using the pentatonic scale (i.e. in a major key omitting the fourth and seventh notes), which is typical of the music of the American Indians, who had visited Spillville and performed their songs and dances for Dvořák.  This rather melancholy theme combines with a second, based on dotted quavers followed by a falling phrase, heard well on the second violin.  The second movement, most clearly influenced by the American Indians, begins with a pervasive little drum-like motif on the viola, followed by dry staccato crotchets.  In contrast, the dreamy middle section is a solo for the viola in the minor key.  The third movement is set of five fine variations on a lovely pensive theme, stated on the lower strings, with a minor section suggestive of suffering, and a major section showing new confidence.  The finale is a jolly rondo, bursting from the first with high spirits, and reaching a triumphant conclusion.

                                                                         Last ACMC Performance:  the Guarnerius String Quintet, January 1969.

March 13th & 14th Programme Notes