Saturday, April 30, 2011 from 7:30pm - 10pm | Austin TX
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Chamber music off the continent. Carpe Diem String Quartet and Michelle Schumann perform pieces by British composers Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Ernest John Moeran, and Sir Edward Elgar.
Synchronism Saturday, April 30, 7:30 PM at First Unitarian Church, Tickets: $25
The Lark Ascending | Ralph Vaughn-Williams (1872-1958)
String Quartet E-flat Major | Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950)
Piano Quintet in A Minor, Opus 84 | Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Moderato — Allegro
Andante — Allegro
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending
During a long career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams sparked a new Renaissance of English music. In works ranging from symphonies and concerti to operas, ballets, and hymns, Vaughan Williams blended English folk song, hymnody, and Elizabethan music with themes inspired both by classical masters such as Bach and Handel and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. His work in transforming traditional sources into modern settings led the way for later British composers such as Benjamin Britten and William Walton.
Born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams studied both in England, at the Royal College of Music in London and at Trinity College in Cambridge, and with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. A dedicated musicologist, he collected and catalogued over 800 English folk songs; this work led to his editing the new English Hymnal of 1906, to which he added several new hymns of his own. In compositions such as his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1909) and his first symphony (“A Sea Symphony,” 1910) he acknowledged his strong debt to historical sources. Yet modern events affected him as well, and his turbulent fourth symphony (1934) is generally considered to reflect his anguish at the growing turmoil during the period before the second World War. In general, his music often evokes both reverence for England’s bucolic past and a modern meditiation upon its inevitable passing.
In The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams found inspiration not only in English folk themes but in a poem by the English poet George Meredith (1828-1909). The composer included this portion of Meredith’s poem on the flyleaf of the published work:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
Vaughan Williams’s orchestral romance offers an impressionistic image of the lark’s song and the countryside, with “our valley” represented by two folk tunes. He completed an early version of the piece in 1914 for violinist Marie Hall, who consulted with him on revisions and first performed the work in a violin-piano arrangement in December 1920. The orchestral version premiered in London at a Queen’s Hall concert in June, 1921.
The formal structure of the piece is a straightforward ABA development, with each theme introduced and linked by the solo intervals. Yet within that structure, the violin solo is notable for its fluid writing and the organic way in which it emerges from and blends back into the orchestral texture throughout the piece.
The work opens with a calm set of sustained chords from the strings and winds. The violin enters as the lark, with a series of ascending, repeated intervals and nimble, then elongated arpeggios. These rise into the first theme, and the orchestra quietly enters to accompany the solo in the development of this somewhat introspective, folk-like motif. The solo cadenza is reprised, then the woodwinds, led by flute and clarinet, announce the second theme, a folk dance. The full orchestra joins in, though Vaughan Williams always keeps the orchestration restrained, never forceful. At one point the soloist pauses in a trill while woodwinds play a series of bird-like calls themselves. Then the violin soars in cadenzas over the orchestra, an effect seen by some as representing the lark flying over the countryside. Another solo lark episode leads to the reprise of the original theme, finally stated by the full strings. The work comes to a quiet close, with the soloist returning to the original ascending, repeated intervals as the lark’s song is, indeed, “lost on aerial rings.”
Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950)
String Quartet in E-flat
Born in 1894 in Heston, England, Ernest John Moeran (known as Jack to his friends) learnt the violin and piano and studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Charles Stanford and John Ireland. His studies were cut short by the outbreak of war and whilst serving in the Norfolk regiment in France he received a severe head injury, which led to a metal plate being inserted in to his skull. The injury was to affect him for the rest of his life. While recovering, he was stationed in Ireland and became particularly interested in his Irish roots – his father was Dublin born. Moeran grew very fond of the small town of Kenmare in the south west of the country, where he often went for musical inspiration.
Moeran’s Irish roots greatly influenced his music, as did landscape and folk song. These influences are apparent in this pastoral piece, which is thought to have been written early in his career, though it was not found until after his death. The manuscript of this quartet was found among Moeran’s papers in 1950. It is undated, but by the nature of its style, in Geoffrey Self’s observation, “simple, innocent and childlike”, dismissed by some commentators as an early work. Yet the two movements share similarity of form with the 1946 Fantasy Quartet.
It is now thought that this work came to be written in order to offset certain tensions that were beginning to arise in the composer’s life from 1947 onwards. The desire to make great music together with his wife Peers Coetmore had produced the stark individuality of the Cello Sonata, but it had also turned composing into an obligation. The Second Quartet is, by contrast, Moeran in relaxed mood and telling us how to enjoy ourselves – inconsistently at times, perhaps, but never worth our neglect. here is accessible music, honest, direct, and written by a man who, as a sting player himself, was often happiest in this medium, and at peace in his beloved Ireland.
The first movement, in conventional sonata form, has a very ‘English’ feel, with the clear influence of Vaughan Williams. A Celtic atmosphere pervades the second movement in particular, where echoes of Kerry songs are called to mind. Both serene and lively, a slow opening soon becomes lively and scherzo-like taking us on a musical journey to Ireland through reels, airs and the final jig, in which it is hard not to get up and dance!
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84
In a few short years after the First World War and before the death of his wife, Sir Edward Elgar realized his last important productive period as a composer. He moved from London to the Sussex countryside seeking refuge from a variety of overbearing concerns including the war, poor health, financial troubles and the loss of close friends. Inspired by walks in the woods, Elgar turned his attention almost exclusively to chamber music, composing a violin sonata, a string quartet and the Piano Quintet in A minor. The quintet joins the small group of outstanding piano quintets including those by Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák and Franck. Elgar’s quintet, though written as late as 1919, is intensely late Romantic, representing the twilight of the idiom well into the rising tide of modernism.
Passages from Lady Elgar’s diary reveal the apparent programmatic inspiration for the quintet: a copse of bare trees, sad and sinister, was associated by local legend with evil Spanish monks whose punishment was to be cast into these static forms of longing regret. At the same time, Elgar nurtured his interest in supernatural Gothic fiction. Whether or not the quintet tells a particular story, it is highly suggestive, particularly in the first movement. Given the context of Elgar’s life at the time, however, one easily wonders if the quintet was not actually based on a much more personal program of thoughts and feelings.
The first movement is the most unusual of the three. It is dark, arresting and enigmatic. It is a fitful dream episodically haunted by several recurring components: a cryptic pair of motives, a wistful sigh, a driving march and a ghostly dance. The piano intones the initial motive (broken in two groups), with agitated interjections from the strings. Close attention reveals that most of the music is derived from this pregnant beginning. The eight-note motive and its agitated reply run throughout the music: in the base line of the driving march, the rhythmic lilt of the disembodied dance and the subject of a powerful fugato at the movement’s climax. Anchored by this motivic unity, the music drifts in and out of tableaux and ends where it started, with the broken shards of the ominous motives.
The middle movement is often praised as the highlight of the quintet and Elgar’s chamber music in general. Based on a long, slow and spacious melody from the viola, it is tender, nostalgic and elegiac. But within its compassionate reflection, it drifts chromatically into the eerie suspense of the first movement and swells into a tumult of hyper-romantic angst. Ultimately a reverie, it still recalls the sharp pain of tragedy. As evidence of Elgar’s compositional skill, the textures constantly shift, highlighting the reedy song of the viola, the liquid clarity of the piano, an aching duet with the cello, the charged atmosphere of shivering strings and pizzicato. Supremely affective, the adagio brings to mind the delicacy and finesse of the French, the longing of the Viennese and the “woody, autumnal” grace of the English.
If the first movement is dark, and the second movement warm, the final movement is decidedly bright, at least in the end. Elgar begins with a direct quote of the wistful sigh from the first movement, a ghost of the past returned. Shortly, the mood is shaken and the music launches into a new 6/8 theme, recalling and developing the sweeping dance motion into a sparkling brightness. As if with a final, transfixed look backwards, the movement thins into ghostly transition and a complete recall of the jagged darkness of the original motive and its companion specters, before returning once again to the final triumph of light. The recurrence of multiple “motto” themes gives the quintet a strong cyclical unity leaving a complex but curiously singular impression.