Duration ca. 15 minutes
Scored for oboe, bassoon, and piano
Jean Françaix typifies the kind of composer the French refer to as un petit maître, “a small master,” an artist of relatively modest ambition and attainment but whose work is pleasing and impeccably crafted. Active through much of the last century, when modernist upheavals were reshaping musical thinking in dramatic fashion, Françaix avoided experimentation and controversy, writing in an idiom intended to please himself and his listeners.
Born in Le Mans, in 1912, Françaix studied at the Paris Conservatoire and privately with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, and many other prominent composers. He came of age musically in the 1930s and, like his somewhat older compatriots Françis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Jacques Ibert, developed what was essentially a light neo-classical style, one that accommodated elements of popular music, and in which a certain distinctly French insouciance held sway. Although he lived to witness the high-modern abstraction epitomized by another Frenchman, Pierre Boulez, Françaix retained his own compositional style throughout his long career.
As evidence for this last point, we have the work that opens our program, the Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano. Written in 1994, it sounds much like the music Françaix was composing half a century earlier. Formally, in unfolds in a classical design of four movements, the first prefaced by a short introductory passage in moderate tempo, with a scherzo, slow movement, and finale completing the sequence.
The composition opens with a languorous duet for oboe and bassoon. Quickly, however, Françaix launches into the main body of the first movement, a swiftly coursing allegro whose initial theme features jaunty phrases traded among the three instruments and much other contrapuntal interplay. A second theme begins with tango-like rhythms from the piano. Over this, the two woodwinds spin lyrical lines that are variants of the duet melody from the introduction. The development of these ideas requires virtuosity from all three players, as often in Françaix’s work.
This is true, also, of the ensuing Scherzo, whose music is close in sound and spirit to that of the preceding movement. By contrast, the Andante that follows presents a broad song tinged with a feeling of nostalgia. But the finale returns to Françaix’s favored mode of effervescent gaiety, with a fleeting recollection of the third movement’s melody just before the close.
Broad and Free
Duration ca. 10 minutes
Scored for violin and piano
Caroline Shaw has distinguished herself in three spheres of musical activity, her achievements in any one of them being amply rewarding in themselves. An accomplished violinist, she is at home with both new and old music, having performed as soloist and with top-flight ensembles devoted to contemporary music (including Alarm Will Sound, American Contemporary Music Ensemble), as well as with the Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble, the Yale Baroque Ensemble, and others. At the same time, she is active professionally as a singer, most notably with the brilliantly innovative vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.
But even while remaining busy as a performer, Ms. Shaw has emerged as one of the most skilled and inventive members of the new generation of American composers, a status confirmed with her receipt of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for composition. Her music has been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion, American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Brentano Quartet, and at the Music Academy of the West. (Her viola-cello duo Limestone and Felt was presented here last summer.) She has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Carmel Bach Festival, the Cincinnati, Baltimore, and North Carolina Symphony Orchestras, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and the Folger Library, and she has collaborated on recordings with rapper Kanye West. Ms. Shaw was the first musician-in-residence at the Dumbarton Oaks estate, near Washington, DC, and has served as composer-in-residence with the Vancouver BC concert series Music on Main.
At the time these program notes went to press, last spring, Ms. Shaw had not yet composed the work we hear this evening. She knew with certainty little about the piece at that time, other than that it would be scored for violin and piano and performed by Kathleen Winkler, who had been Ms. Shaw’s teacher at Rice University. That association gave special meaning to the project. “I really wanted to write this piece because it’s for Kathleen Winkler, my former violin teacher,” the composer said. “But it’s also incredibly intimidating. I studied with her for four years, and she gave me so much insight into the music of Brahms, Schumann, and other composers important to the violin, music we discussed often.”
Accordingly, Ms. Shaw anticipated that the new work might attempt to look at the music of those composers through a new lens. She has used comparable procedures, refracting the sound of older music through a post-modern sensibility, in a number of her compositions, including the Pulitzer-winning Partita for Eight Voices. Given her past success with this approach, it will be fascinating to discover how Ms. Shaw might apply it to the present work.
Trio in E-flat Major for Violin, Horn, and Piano, Op. 40
Duration ca. 30 minutes
Scored for horn, violin, and piano
Brahms wrote his Trio for violin, horn, and piano, Opus 40, in 1865, during a somewhat unsettled period of his life. Having been passed over as a candidate for director of the Philharmonic Society in his native Hamburg three years earlier, the composer had left that city for Vienna but was not yet firmly established in the Austrian capital. Meanwhile, he spent much of his time traveling and giving concerts. Among the more successful of these presentations were performances of his First Piano Concerto with the orchestra of the German city of Karlsruhe. That ensemble enjoyed the services of a fine horn player, and it was with this musician in mind that Brahms a trio featuring the instrument, along with violin and piano.
The horn occupied a special place in the minds of nineteenth-century composers, who associated its sound with nature, heroism, and the realm of the spirit — in short, with the fundamental passions of Romanticism. Weber’s use of a horn call to conjure a magical world in his opera Oberon, and Wagner’s to indicate Siegfried’s boldness in the operas of the Ring cycle, are telling in this regard. Even without such manifestly dramatic purposes to fulfill, the horn solos that open Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto launch those works on a decidedly Romantic note, and the instrument imparts its distinctive quality to numerous passages in orchestral compositions by Schumann, Dvořák, Bruckner, and many of their contemporaries.
The character of Brahms’s “Horn Trio” similarly stems from the instrument. The theme that opens the first movement, although begun by the violin, is perfectly suited to the wind instrument, its first two notes intimating a horn call. (It should be noted here that although valved horns, with their greater agility and repertory of notes, were in use by the 1860s, Brahms wrote his Trio so that it could be played on the “natural” horn, which relies solely on changes of air pressure, embouchure, and hand position to achieve different pitches.) Even the form of the movement must be attributed to the natural properties of the horn. In place of his usual sonata-form opening, which would require movement through tonal areas inhospitable to the valveless horn, Brahms simply alternates his initial idea with a second subject, whose quicker tempo and minor-mode harmonies set it off from the first. Each theme is heard twice, with the initial idea recurring briefly a third time to conclude the movement.
The second movement brings a robust scherzo. Its outer paragraphs are enlivened by the occasional grafting of duple rhythms onto the prevailing three-beat pulse, while the central section is a wistful Ländler, a country-cousin to the waltz. Brahms’s minor-key harmonies give this dance a melancholy tinge in a way that recalls examples by Schubert. More somber still is the ensuing slow movement. Brahms’s biographers are virtually unanimous in attributing its dark tone to the death of the composer’s mother early in 1865. Supporting that idea is the quotation here of a folk song, In den Weiden steht ein Haus (“In the Meadow Stands a House”), which Brahms had known as a boy and may have heard his mother sing.
Most German and Austrian compositions featuring the horn conclude with a “hunting finale” — Mozart’s horn concertos provide obvious examples — and Brahms’s Trio is no exception. The theme that launches this movement was presaged briefly during the quiet adagio; Brahms then presents it boldly and without apology for its rustic character. Much of the horn part here is confined to two-note signal calls (the chief melodic interest lies with the violin), yet these provide most of the movement’s hunting flavor and a good deal of its momentum.