PROGRAM NOTES

 

JEAN-MICHEL DAMASE
Trio for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano
Composed 1983
Duration ca. 20 minutes
Scored for trumpet, trombone, and piano

The French composer Jean-Michel Damase was born into a musical family. (His mother was a renowned harpist who had given first performances of works by Faure, Ravel, and other composers.) Damase learned music early and became an outstanding pianist. He also was composing by age nine. Over the course of a long career he produced a substantial body of music in a style that adopted certain modernist innovations while remaining firmly rooted in tradition.

Although he wrote orchestral works and vocal pieces, Damase was most prolific in the field of chamber music. Among his small-ensemble pieces are ten trios, nine of them including the composer’s own instrument, the piano. One of these, scored for trumpet, trombone, and piano, opens our concert. Written in 1983, it is cast in two movements.

The first unfolds in a leisurely moderate tempo. In the initial moments, Damase establishes two contrasting compositional ideas: broad melodic statements from the two brass instruments, which answer and echo each other in a pleasant contrapuntal dialogue; and crystalline interjections by the piano, its brief phrases suggesting recollections of a children’s song. The composer maintains the discourse of these distinct elements through the first portion of the movement. Soon the music grows animated as the piano introduces a second theme, the brass player picking it up quickly. The central part of the movement finds the dialogue among the instruments growing increasingly vigorous — the rhythms more lively, the statements more urgent, as the music builds toward a climax. That event is reached with a return of the broad initial theme, sounded by the trumpet in elongated. From there, the energy slowly dissipates, and the movement closes with a varied reprise of its opening material.

The second movement uses an old compositional format, the passacaglia, in which a short repeated theme provides a scaffold on which to build an ever-changing sequence of counter-melodies. Here, in the opening moments, the passacaglia theme is presented in short, staccato notes by the three instruments playing in unison. The first repetition of the theme is assigned to the piano while the brass instruments play new material in counterpoint to it. The players then switch roles, the piano spinning delicate musical filigree over the passacaglia theme intoned by its partners. From this point, the generative theme is rarely heard but always implied, its phrase structure and harmonies underlying the remarkable variety of invention Damase creates in response to it.

 

ANTONIO VIVALDI

Stabat mater, RV 621
Composed early 18th century
Duration ca. 20 minutes
Scored for voice, strings, and continuo

Antonio Vivaldi’s many concertos, especially the quartet of violin concertos collectively titled The Seasons, are among the most popular works in the vast literature of what we call “classical music.” His sacred music remains far less familiar to the listening public. Nearly all of the Venetian composer’s church music lay unknown until the 1920s, when the dramatic discovery of a large cache of 18th-century manuscripts in an Italian monastery brought hundreds of his works to light. Among the compositions recovered through this lucky find was the setting of the hymn Stabat mater we hear now.

Practically nothing is known of the particular circumstances attending the composition of Vivaldi’s sacred works. The composer was never employed as a church musician per se, but he spent most of his career as maestro de’ concerti at the music conservatory of the Pio ospedali della Pietà, a remarkable boarding school maintained by the city-state of Venice for orphaned and illegitimate girls. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, musicologists assume that the composer wrote all of his church music for the Pietà’s chapel concerts.

Vivaldi cast his setting of the Stabat mater as a solo cantata for soprano and strings. Written in the 13th-century, possibly by the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi, the text offers a meditation on the suffering of Christ’s mother as she witnesses the crucifixion of her Son. It is the most sorrowful of all major Christian litanies, and it traditionally calls for music of poignant character. Vivaldi fulfills this customary requirement admirably. In different ways throughout the work, minor-key harmonies, suspended dissonances (whose notes seem to strain against each other), and descending melody and bass lines combine to convey a doleful spirit.

The composition unfolds in nine brief movements. These yield an unusual structure, however, in that the music of the first three movements returns in sequence, movements 1 - 3 repeating with different verses as movements 4 - 6. In the first and fourth movements, plaintive melodic phrases and chains of suspended dissonances, impart a bittersweet tone. After each of these movements comes a recitative of extraordinarily simple texture, the vocal line arching over a restrained and rhythmically unvaried accompaniment. The third and sixth movements are more elaborate and entail a sturdy ritornello theme, a signature melodic idea that recurs between episodes devoted to more free-flowing developments.

Whereas the central movements reprise the opening portion of the composition, the last three movements bring new music. Vivaldi’s settings of the verses beginning Eja mater, fons amoris, and also Fac ut ardeat cor meum, show his penchant for obsessively reiterating accompaniment patterns. Above them, the soprano spins exquisite lines whose winsome contours do not preclude occasional surprising turns of harmony. The resulting texture is one heard often in the slow movements of Vivaldi’s concertos, which these movements resemble to a considerable degree. The composition concludes with a contrapuntal Amen — another bow to tradition — with a surprising turn to the major mode at the very end.

 

 

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK

Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87
Composed 1889
Duration ca. 35 minutes
Scored for violin, viola, cello, and piano

“Do you want to know what I’m doing? My head is full of it ... I’ve now finished three movements of a new piano quartet, and the finale will be done in a few days. It came easily; the melodies just surged upon me.”

We can readily believe Antonín Dvořák’s account, written in August 1889, of the fluency with which he composed his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. Dvořák generally wrote quickly and with little effort once he had embarked on a new work, and the composition he would publish as his Opus 87 is imbued with appealing melodic ideas. It also reveals two aspects of the composer’s music that came to define his mature style: first, an affinity for classical principles and compositional design; and second, but no less importantly, his appropriation of aspects of Czech folk music.

In the first of these matters, the E-flat Major Piano Quartet follows a four-movement plan that had served Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and other composers. It consists of a strong initial movement in fast tempo, followed by a slow movement, a quasi-scherzo, and an animated finale. Within this venerable framework we find the sophisticated handling of harmony, thematic development, and instrumentation characteristic of Dvořák’s best music. This piece also carries a distinctly national flavor, especially in its third and fourth movements, where folkloric elements come into play.

The composition begins with an arresting gesture: the three string instruments playing in unison a thematic fragment built upon the strong four-note motif with which it begins. The piano answers with proud figures in martial rhythms. Dvořák now extends the contention between these distinct ideas by, ironically, compressing them — the strings restricted to the initial four-note motif, the piano’s imperious answers also shortened — until a cascade of scales brings the players to a full-throated statement of the theme that so far has only been suggested.

Soon a prancing figure leads to a more gentle and lyrical second subject. Dvořák gives its presentation to his own instrument, the viola. (Early in his career, the composer supported himself in part by playing viola in theater orchestras and cafes in Prague.) As pleasing as this new theme is, it has a relatively limited role in the adventurous developments that follow. Instead, Dvořák concentrates on his first theme, whose constituent motifs, especially the signature four-note figure, furnish material for inventive musical discourse.

The second movement begins with a soulful melody intoned quietly by the cello over a restrained accompaniment. This opening promises a gently meditative interlude, and much of what follows is just that. But after touching on several more melodic ideas, the ensemble suddenly launches into a vehement episode replete with thundering octaves in the piano and impassioned phrases from the string trio. This outburst, however, subsides as quickly as it had arisen, and the players move on to a glittering melody over lilting accompaniment figures from the strings. When it has run its course, Dvořák embarks on a varied repeat of all we have heard so far, then winds down the movement with a dream-like coda passage.

In place of a typical scherzo, which we would expect as the composition’s third movement, Dvořák gives us a lilting dance whose harmonies and instrumental figuration again impart a dream-like quality. Its second theme strikes an exotic note, using a scale found in Moravian folk music. The central episode offers strong contrast, with robust music in the manner of Czech folk dance. Dvořák provides another folkloric evocation in the lively theme that launches the final movement and dominates its proceedings, some lyrical secondary material notwithstanding.