The burst of creative euphoria that Schumann experienced in the fall of 1853—his last sustained period of composing—was fueled by a visit from the 20-year-old Brahms, who had traveled to Düsseldorf expressly to meet him. “Someone is here of whom we shall one day hear all sorts of wonderful things,” Schumann told his student Albert Dietrich. During the month that Brahms lingered under the Schumanns’ roof, the older composer worked at a feverish pace, producing an early draft of his Violin Concerto in D Minor; two movements of the collaborative “F-A-E” Violin Sonata; a set of romances for cello and piano (now lost); the Märchenerzählungen (Fairytale Narrations) for clarinet, viola, and piano; and the Fünf Gesänge der Frühe (Five Early-Morning Songs) for solo piano.
In recording the Gesänge in his composition notebook that October, Schumann alluded obliquely to Friedrich Hölderlin, the German-Romantic poet whose tragic descent into mental illness prefigured the composer’s own worsening psychosis. (Five months later, Schumann would have himself committed to a private asylum at Endenich.) The music's dreamy, poetic atmosphere recalls Eusebius, one of the dual alter egos that Schumann had invented for himself in happier days, though the impulsive Florestan puts in an occasional appearance as well. Above all, the five short pieces reflect Schumann's admiration for Brahms, whose music he extolled in a famous article published later that month: “songs, whose poetry one would understand without knowing the words [and] single pianoforte pieces, partly demoniacal, of the most graceful form.”
The first of the Five Early-Morning Songs, marked “at a calm tempo,” features a quiet, hymn-like theme in slow-moving block chords, lightly sprinkled with Brahmsian dissonances. Its characteristic intervals and contours are echoed in the lacy triplet figurations and ponderous octaves of the second piece; now and then the music breaks out in a short-lived burst of energy, only to relapse into the prevailing mode of sedate rumination. Florestan’s heroic spirit steps to the fore in the third piece, with its vigorous dotted rhythms, full-bodied harmonies, and climactic flourishes. The character of the fourth piece is restless and turbulent, the broad melody soaring serenely above cascading rivulets of fast notes in the inner voices. Eusebius and Florestan are reunited in the last piece, in which a reminiscence of the opening theme gives way to waves of rippling 16th notes.
Gesualdo exhibited a flair for drama in both his music and his private life. A titled nobleman, he earned notoriety in 1590 for the gruesome honor killing of his first wife and her paramour. His second wife accused him of neglect and cruelty. “Afflicted by a vast horde of demons,” as one contemporary put it, he spent the last two decades of his life sequestered in his ancestral palace near Naples, attended by musicians who performed for his ears only. Despite, or perhaps because of, his tormented existence, Gesualdo was one of the most adventurous composers of his time. His daring harmonies and text-painting inspired the up-and-coming school of madrigal composers, for whom, as Monteverdi put it, words were “the mistress of harmony and not the servant.” Gesualdo’s bold tonal experiments fascinated modernist composers as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and Alfred Schnittke.
Between 1594 and 1611, Gesualdo published the six books of madrigals for five voices on which his reputation largely rests. The preface to Book VI asserts that the madrigals it contained were in fact written some 15 years earlier; Gesualdo, apparently deeming them too advanced for public consumption, had intended to keep them under wraps, but the invasion of his privacy by unscrupulous plagiarists had forced his hand. In keeping with Renaissance practice, Gesualdo’s madrigals were sometimes performed instrumentally by a consort of viols. Composer Bruce Adolphe was thus continuing a long tradition when he arranged five of the Book VI madrigals for the Brentano String Quartet in 2004 under the title Oh Gesualdo, Divine Tormentor!
All but one of the five madrigals play on the familiar Renaissance trope of unrequited love. The resulting anguish was made to order for Gesualdo’s edgy, emotionally charged musical language, rife as it is with chromaticism, unprepared dissonances, and tonal shifts. In “Deh, come invan sospiro” (“Ah, how I sigh in vain”), the atmosphere abruptly darkens as a series of jolting harmonic dislocations paint the words “[you bring] death to me alone.” The ascending chromatic lines at the beginning of “Beltà poi che t'assenti” (“Beauteous one, since you are leaving”) evoke the torment of separation, just as the intertwining contrapuntal lines symbolize the union of lovers’ hearts. The unstable harmonies and sharp rhythmic contrasts of “Resta di darmi noia” (“Trouble me no more”) picture despair, while what Stravinsky called the “chromatic ecstasies” of “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (“I die, alas, from my sorrow”) powerfully suggest a mind unhinged. Only “Già piansi nel dolore” (“Once I wept in sorrow”), with its sparkling roulades and consonances, expresses unalloyed joy.
In December 1890, Brahms presented his publisher with the manuscript of his Second String Quintet, Op. 111, along with a terse message: “With this slip, bid farewell to notes of mine.” As it turned out, the composer’s valedictory was premature; he soon got a fresh wind and went on to pen some of his most beguiling music, including the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) and a series of masterful chamber works for clarinet—the fruit of his late-life friendship with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the court orchestra at Meiningen. Although he didn’t feel up to writing another major solo work for the piano, he produced four sets of piano miniatures, Op. 116 to Op. 119, in quick succession.
The six Op. 118 Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) were composed in the summer of 1893 in the Austrian spa resort of Bad Ischl, Brahms’s beloved warm-weather getaway from the hustle and bustle of Vienna. His interest in the character piece, a favorite Romantic genre closely associated with his revered Schumann, was hardly new, as his earlier Op. 10 Ballades, Op. 79 Klavierstücke, and Op. 76 Rhapsodies attest. But his intense concentration on short keyboard pieces was unprecedented, and it suggests that Brahms was not merely turning away from the long-form works that had occupied him in the past, but embracing a genre that enabled him to distill his mastery of mood, craft, and piano technique to its essence.
The shortest and most compressed of the six pieces, the opening Intermezzo in A Minor is based on a single theme, its surging phrases and rippling passagework ultimately dissolving in an A-major mist. The other five pieces exhibit the symmetrical A-B-A form that Brahms favored, with a contrasting interlude at the center. The tenderly nostalgic mood of the second Intermezzo, in A major, is dispelled by the energetic, galloping rhythms of the G-Minor Ballade, with its quiet midsection harmonized in sweet-sounding thirds. In the F-Minor Intermezzo, Brahms plays with metrical ambiguity by blurring the line between upbeats and downbeats. The last two pieces are even more unsettling, as the nobly striding melody and fantasy-like midsection of the F-Major Romanze give way to the darkly mysterious and impassioned Intermezzo in E-flat Minor.
The nonstop compositional activity that marked the last year or two of Mozart’s life was partly induced by the precarious state of his finances. Despite his poor health, he brought forth one masterpiece after another in a wide variety of genres. Così fan tutte, the last of the three great comic operas that he wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte, premiered at the court theater in Vienna in January 1790. It was soon followed by Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a Masonic morality play masquerading as a lighthearted singspiel, and his opera seria, La clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus). Somehow Mozart also found time to write concertos for piano (his last) and clarinet, three string quartets, two string quintets, a clarinet quintet, and several small-scale vocal works, not to mention the great Requiem Mass on which he was working when he died on December 5, 1791.
In his own works catalogue, Mozart recorded the completion date of the String Quintet in E-flat Major as April 12, 1791. Along with the D-Major String Quintet, K. 593, it is widely considered his crowning achievement in the realm of chamber music. Both quintets were published in 1793 by the Viennese firm Artaria, with the annotation “composed for a Hungarian amateur.” The anonymous dedicatee was probably Johann Tost, a former violinist in Haydn’s orchestra at Eszterháza in Hungary. Having married a woman of means, he had set himself up in Vienna as a patron of the arts. Mozart scholar H. C. Robbins Landon speculated that K. 614 was first performed privately at the Tosts’ Vienna residence and that the “Hungarian amateur” commissioned the two quintets as a way of tossing a lifeline to the chronically impecunious composer.
The addition of a second viola to the standard quartet ensemble greatly enriched the sonorities at Mozart’s disposal. In the opening Allegro di molto, for example, he deploys the five instruments in varying combinations to produce a dazzling array of textures. The chirping, birdcall-like theme is introduced by the violas, alerting us that much of the work's musical action will take place in the inner voices. Throughout the quintet, Mozart leavens the music with trills, grace notes, and turns, notably in the richly imaginative variations of the Andante. A rhythmically buoyant Menuetto leads to a bravura finale with a virtuosic first-violin part and a short fugal section in which Mozart shows off his “learned” contrapuntal skill. Every time the lighthearted mood threatens to get serious, however, he teasingly turns a corner and becomes playful again.