Piano Quartet in D op. 23 Dvořák
Allegro moderato (1841 – 1904)
Dvořák, the son of a village inn-keeper, learned his first musical skills from the local school master before being sent to the Prague Organ School. He then played violin and viola in the theatre orchestra until in 1871 he devoted himself to composition. Life was hard – in 1874 he won a state prize intended to support poor, gifted musicians but it amounted only to the miserly sum of £32.50. He was forced to take piano pupils, and a post of organist at 25p a week.
The first piano quartet dates from this period, and was composed in 1875, the same year as the well-known serenade for strings. In spite of his financial difficulties, Dvořák seemed to be finding his own spontaneous voice, and the piano quartet was composed in only 18 days. Although not as fine as the much later second piano quartet, the work has considerable interest.
The long (perhaps too long) first movement is in sonata form, and shows Dvořák ‘s typical use of melodies derived from folk-song, elaborated with counter melodies, and syncopated accompanying phrases. The second movement is a set of variations, the theme dominated by the strings. The five variations are contrasted in texture and rhythm, and in the third variation the theme is inverted. The movement is very pleasant, but perhaps only catches fire in the coda. The last movement experiments by combining elements of both scherzo and finale. The scherzo is represented by a gentle waltz and a brief furiante, the finale by allegro agitato passages in common time and with longer melodic lines. These sections alternate several times before the final coda.
Last ACMC Performance: Domus Piano Quartet, October 1991
Piano Quartet “Zustände” Charlotte Bray
(1982 – )
The British composer Charlotte Bray graduated with first-class honours from the Birmingham Conservatoire, emerging as a distinctive and outstanding talent of her generation. She has since composed for many of today’s finest musicians, including Lawrence Power, Jennifer Pike and Roderick Williams. Charlotte writes:
Zustände, meaning “states”, refers to the various forms of ice that inspired this piece. Whether a lone iceberg, large chunks breaking off from the fragile edge of a glacier, or the crackle of an ice field melting in the sun, the imaginary realisation of the sounds generated by the moving ice drives the conceptualisation of the piece. Its structure arises from three photographs, taken during a recent visit to Greenland. Brittle, splintering ice is the “state” of the first movement. Focusing on colour, I reimagined the sound of the cracking ice, slowly floating from the face of the glacier. Techniques, including tremolo, col legno and pizzicato, are utilised in the string parts to create the unique texture of the material, as it slowly disintegrates in the glistening sun. Active yet muted, the music is in constant motion but at an inherently slow rate. A majestic, lone iceberg inspired the second movement, the melodic core of the work, which sees solos moving upwards through the strings, floating powerfully and majestically unaccompanied. The music is supported by a secure steady base, resonating in the chunky block chords of the piano in the later part of the movement. Varied and unpredictable, the final movement shifts between blocks of material representing different physical states. The first is bright, active and alert, the second is shockingly rigid, as if trapped in a block of ice, tight, polyrhythmic and staccato. An eerie stillness characterises the third state, as if from somewhere distant, trills and oscillations quietly fill the air, and the fourth is very lively. Each time material recurs, the order constantly varies as if heard from a different perspective.
First ACMC Performance
Tea, coffee or juice, and biscuits are available for £1
Piano Quartet in A op. 30 Chausson
Animé (1855 – 1899)
Simple et sans hâte
Unlike Dvořák, Chausson was born to wealth, his father as a building contractor profiting from Baron Haussmann’s re-development of Paris. He originally studied law, but soon enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, where after a brief spell working with Massenet, he transferred to Franck, remaining as his student for twelve years. Dogged by a strain of melancholy, and a lack of self-confidence, his output was small, and his life was ended abruptly by a bicycle accident on his estate. The piano quartet is one of a small number of chamber works. Written in 1897, but not published until 1917, it bears the imprint of Franck, and also has echoes of Wagner. It seems that in it Chausson was at last beginning to feel confident in his powers. The first movement (beginning with the marking Animé, but with many changes of tempo, as indeed recur throughout the whole work) starts with a strong, bell-like, descending theme, which is developed throughout, and a second gentler theme very reminiscent of Franck. The next movement is a long song, of which Cobbett writes: “This movement, written with consummate skill, will ever retain a poignant effect for all who have artistic sensibility”. The third movement takes the place of a scherzo, to be played simply and without haste. Although the final movement begins in an agitated mood, it grows gradually calmer, and then recalls the themes of both the second movement song, and of the first movement, to bring the work to a triumphant close. French Victorian music at its best, which we should all enjoy! First ACMC Performance