By Paul Schiavo
Franz Schubert’s single-movement Notturno may be music originally intended for his ambitious Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898. Its opening and closing sections justify its title, with lilting rhythms and slow harmonic movement that convey a nocturnal atmosphere. The central episode is based on a melody that may be from a workers’ song Schubert overheard.
Thomas Adès, who occupies The Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2007–08 concert season, is one of the several most accomplished and exciting young creative musicians in the world today. His Piano Quintet presents a turn-of-the-millennium gloss on classical chamber music, with melodic, harmonic, and textural gestures that seem redolent of the 18th or early 19th centuries transformed into something quite novel through Adès’s remarkable imagination and compositional technique.
Schubert wrote his Octet, D. 803, in response to a commission that specified a piece in the same vein as Beethoven’s popular Septet, Opus 20. Schubert fulfilled that request splendidly, with a piece whose instrumentation, light character, and format of six movements evoke the tradition of the Classical-period serenade, just as Beethoven had in his Septet.
Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna; died there November 19, 1828.
Composed in 1826 or 1827, Schubert’s Notturno in E-flat Major, D. 897, received its Carnegie Hall premiere on March 5, 1987, with the Raphael Trio: Charles Castleman, violin; Susan Salm, cello; and Daniel Epstein, piano.
Scoring: violin, cello, and piano.
The provenance of Schubert’s Notturno for Piano Trio, D. 897, is uncertain, despite much musicological investigation and the survival of the composer’s manuscript. Two traditions place the creation of this work in 1826 or 1827. The first tradition, among Schubert scholars, assumes that the piece was originally written as the slow movement for the Piano Trio in B-flat, D. 898, then replaced with another one that better pleased the composer. The other tradition originates from the Austrian spa town of Gmunden, where Schubert spent six weeks in 1825. It is said that while there the composer came upon a group of pile drivers and used the work song they sang in time to their hammering as a theme in this composition.
The title “Notturno” appears nowhere on Schubert’s manuscript, though it was with that appellation that the music was first published, in 1845. It is not inappropriate to the piece, whose slow tempo and lilting rhythms impart the character of a nocturne. Schubert casts his piece in a broad A-B-A format, a design he favored for the slow movements of his instrumental works late in his career. The melody of the central section is the putative workers’ song from Gmunden.
Born March 1, 1971, in London.
Adès wrote his Piano Quintet in 2000 and played the keyboard part in the work’s first performance, given with the Arditti Quartet, in Melbourne, Australia, on October 29, 2001. The work received its Carnegie Hall premiere on August 20, 2003, in Weill Recital Hall with Louis Lortie, piano; James Ehnes and Mira Wang, violins; Ulrich Eichenauer, viola; and Jan Vogler, cello.
Scoring: 2 violins, viola, cello, and piano.
During the last decade and a half, Thomas Adès has generated the kind of excited attention that the music world has not bestowed on a composer in a very long while. Born in London in 1971, Adès burst upon Britain’s music scene in what can only be described as meteoric fashion. In 1989, at age 18, he won second place in the BBC’s prestigious Young Musician contest. Four years later, after completing studies at Cambridge, he was appointed Composer in Association to the Hallé Orchestra. Since then, Adès’s music has been commissioned and performed throughout his native country as well as in continental Europe, the US, Australia, and Japan.
The response to Adès’s work has been little short of ecstatic. Andrew Porter, the esteemed former critic of The New Yorker, declared: “Everything I’ve heard of his … has provoked something like awe at invention so personal, technique so refined, and emotion so keenly molded into music.” In 2000, Adès received the Grawemeyer Prize, the most prestigious award available to composers. And he has been appointed to The Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2007–08 season, in which capacity he will appear as composer, conductor, and pianist in a number of concerts.
Although very much of our time, Adès’s work often evokes the musical past. (This is, of course, a venerable modern tradition, one practiced by Stravinsky, Berio, and other composers of the last century.) His string quartet Arcadiana, for example, includes references to Mozart, Schubert, and other bygone masters. In his Piano Quintet, composed in 2000, Adès pays homage to the Classical tradition and its great chamber-music repertory. The scoring of this piece—piano plus string quartet—replicates that of the piano quintets of Schumann and Brahms. Those works, in turn, built on the examples of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (which uses a slightly different instrumentation) and Mozart’s piano quartets.
The musical substance of Adès’s Quintet also references the past. This single-movement piece begins with violin sounding an ascending three-note figure—do-re-mi—that appears prominently many times in music from the 18th and 19th centuries. (To cite a pair of familiar examples, Bach builds the gavotte movement of his “Wedding” Cantata, BWV 202, on precisely this figure, and Weber uses it, in a rhythmic variation, as the principal motif of his Oberon Overture.) But almost immediately Adès begins to subvert the Classical character of this figure, extending it with a descending “tail” that ventures into surprising tonal terrain and altering its harmonic and rhythmic profile in original ways. This process continues, indeed accelerates, as the piano and other string instruments join the discourse.
The procedure established in these opening measures continues throughout the piece. Melodic, harmonic, and textural details allude to the musical language of the classical past but are refracted through the prism of Adès’s own late-modern sensibility, with harmonic and metrical complexities casting the material into strange and surprising light. The result is a highly imaginative re-working of a familiar idiom, comparable to Stravinsky’s transformation of old Neapolitan arias in his ballet Pulcinella, though here the metamorphosis is far more thorough and radical.
Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna; died there November 19, 1828.
Composed early in 1827, Schubert’s Octet, D. 803, was first performed on April 16, 1827, in Vienna, at a concert organized by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. (There had been a private reading of the piece about a month earlier.) The work received its Carnegie Hall premiere on December 24, 1968, with Alexander Schneider and Isidore Cohen, violins; Samuel Rhodes, viola; Robert Sylvester, cello; Julius Levine, double bass; Harold Wright, clarinet; Myron Bloom, French horn; Elias Carmen, bassoon.
Scoring: 2 violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.
“I have written very few new songs, but instead I have tried my hand at several kinds of instrumental music and composed two string quartets [and] an octet ... The latest news in Vienna is that Beethoven is giving a concert, at which his new symphony, three selections from the new Mass, and a new overture are to be performed.”
So wrote Franz Schubert in a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser on the last day of March 1824. The passage is significant on two counts. First, it announces the creation of one of the most enduringly popular of the composer’s works, the Octet in F Major, D. 803, begun in February and completed on March 1. Second, it attests Schubert’s ongoing interest in Beethoven, who was then approaching the end of his career. (The works whose performance Schubert alluded to were the recently completed Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and the Consecration of the House Overture.)
These two points are not unrelated. It is no secret that Schubert’s instrumental music bears a conceptual kinship to that of his older contemporary. While the two men had quite different musical personalities—at the risk of an overly broad generalization, Schubert was given to more lyrical expression, Beethoven to a more restless and protean harmonic motion—there can be no doubt that Schubert’s conception of compositional form and texture, some of his ideas about thematic development, his harmonic palette, the scale of his works, and other details were indebted to the innovative music of Beethoven’s middle years. Nowhere is that debt more clearly apparent than in the Octet.
Schubert modeled this work expressly on Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, which then enjoyed enormous favor among the musical amateurs of the Austrian capital. Although this resemblance reflected the younger composer’s general admiration for the older Beethoven’s music, it was also a contingency of the commission he had received to write it. Schubert had received a request for a new work from Count Ferdinand Troyer, an accomplished clarinetist and deputy to Archduke Rudolf, son of the Austrian emperor and Beethoven’s patron and one-time student. In commissioning a composition from Schubert, Troyer stipulated that it be just like Beethoven’s popular Septet.
The composer obliged to a remarkable extent, following Beethoven’s example not only in terms of the generally light tone of his piece but in matters of instrumentation and form as well. His scoring closely resembles that of the Septet, adding only a second violin to the forces Beethoven had used. Both works follow a six-movement format derived from the Classical-period serenade. Within this scheme, the first and last movements in each piece are prefaced by introductory passages in slow tempo, and the middle movements include a minuet, scherzo, song-like slow movement, and theme and variations.
We do not know how Count Troyer received this piece, though he played in the first performance, which was given at his home. On this occasion, the ensemble was led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the famous Viennese violinist and friend of Beethoven. Schuppanzigh subsequently led a second performance of the Octet during a public concert in April 1827. Thereafter, the work suffered the fate of so much of Schubert’s music: it languished, little known and seldom performed, through most of the 19th century. Only in 1889 did the entire piece appear in print. Since then, it has taken its place beside the work that inspired it, Beethoven’s Septet, as one of the most appealing of all compositions for large, heterogeneous chamber ensemble.
Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Paul Schiavo writes frequently on music and is the program annotator for the Seattle Symphony and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation