An acquaintance of mine
is fond of remarking that “chamber music is musicians’ music” and while I
think I know what he trying to say, it implies that chamber music is too
refined for most listeners to grasp. This of course is utter nonsense.
Honestly, he needs to be poked with a pointed wooden stick for saying such
daft things. If I had one, I’d do it myself.
Needless to say, his
own preference runs to massive orchestral works, grand opera and other
gut-busting stuff. But you know, some of the finest, most expressive and
most enjoyable music was written for just two or three instruments. A few
monumental classics, such as Bach’s cello suites and his violin sonatas and
partitas were written for only one. And so, were the countless memorable
works for solo piano.
The expression “chamber
music” implies something written for relatively few instruments which can be
accommodated in a room rather than a concert hall. Technically speaking,
it’s often defined as music in which each instrument has an individual part.
For this reason, most musicians enjoy playing chamber music because unlike
playing in an orchestra, they have complete artistic control over what
they’re doing. To my mind the delight of chamber music is that every
separate part is distinct, the harmonies shine more brightly and the
counterpoint, when melodies are set against each other, is crystal clear.
A trio for example, can
consist of any three instruments you care to name but over the years,
several standard combinations have emerged. These include the String Trio
(for violin, viola and cello) and the oddly named Piano Trio which is not,
as some people might reasonably assume, music for three pianos. It’s nearly
always for piano, violin and cello. Mozart wrote over twenty of them, and
Haydn wrote forty-five. I have all Haydn’s on a set of CDs in the car,
because with a total of ten hours playing time, there’s more than enough to
help me endure the worst traffic jams that Bangkok has to offer.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1803): Piano Trio No. 44 in E major Hob. XV:28. Van
Baerle Trio (Duration: 18:05; Video: 1080p HD)
Haydn, always one to be
original, begins the work with piano and pizzicato strings, an unusual
harp-like effect which recurs several times during the lyrical first
movement. This three-movement trio was written in 1797 and is noted for its
especially wide expressive range as well as its virtuosity. Although firmly
rooted in the classical tradition, to my mind the first movement seems to
look ahead to the romantic ideals of the approaching new century. In
contrast, the second movement turns the clock back and sounds a bit like a
passacaglia in which the mysteriously creeping bass part on the piano
supports weaving melodic parts above. It sounds almost Bach-like. The last
movement is more familiar ground - Haydn at his most elegant with playful
and characteristic cross-rhythms intended to perplex and delight the ear.
This is a rewarding
work; chamber music at its most intimate and satisfying and given a
sensitive and telling performance by these fine Dutch musicians.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon.
Henri Sigfridsson (pno), Rachel Bullen (ob) and Etienne Boudreault (bsn)
(Duration: 12:34; Video: 1080p HD)
Looking through my
database for this column I was surprised to find that I haven’t told you
about this work before. I discovered it when I was a music student back in
The Old Country and it’s always been one of my favourites.
(POO-lank) grew up in a musical household he was largely self-taught at
composition. He later fell under the influence of Erik Satie and was one of
the French composers collectively known as Les Six, a title that
hardly requires translation. He’s probably best known for his Concert
Champętre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra and the Gloria
(1959) for soprano, choir and orchestra.
This trio was composed
at Cannes in 1926, and dedicated to the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla,
who evidently enjoyed it. The work begins with a series of serious-sounding
chords on the piano, but soon the oboe and bassoon introduce an amusing
scampering melody which forms the basis of the lively movement contrasted
with typical Poulenc moments of soul-searching lyricism. The second movement
is a beautifully-crafted piece that radiates tranquility and always reminds
me of the pastoral river-side scenes in the classic book Wind in the
Willows. It’s splendidly performed too. The colourful last movement is
almost like looking through someone’s family photograph album, with its
images of joy, fleeting glimpse of sadness, flashes of joyous hilarity and
sudden moments of heart-tugging melancholy.
Do you ever have that
curious experience in which a word or phrase inexplicably floats into your
mind without warning? It happens to me quite often but I have no idea what
triggers these lexical arrivals. Sometimes they are trivial, like the brand
name of some product or other, sometimes they are titles of books or songs
and sometimes they are words I have rarely heard before. It happened again a
couple of days ago when I was pottering about in the kitchen making food for
the dogs. Suddenly, the words “Flow gently sweet Afton” drifted into my
mind. The words didn’t seem to have an obvious connection with dog food.
If you are au fait
with Scottish literature you’ll realize instantly that Sweet Afton is
a poem written in 1791 by Robert Burns. The poem was evidently inspired by a
small river in Scotland, the River Afton also known as Afton Water. My
Scottish grandmother used to claim that she was a descendant of “Robbie”
Burns as he is affectionately known to the Scots. I later discovered that
nearly all Scottish grandmothers think they are descendants of Robbie Burns.
My grandmother also
claimed that she was psychic. It’s possible that I’ve inherited her psychic
powers, which explains why I can predict winning lottery numbers with such
uncanny accuracy. Of course, I never actually do the lottery. When
you know the winning numbers in advance, it takes all the excitement away.
Now then, where were we? (I was beginning to wonder myself - Ed.)
Oh yes, the poem by
Robbie Burns is a lyrical, pastoral piece and interesting in that there are
exactly eleven syllables in every line of the poem. It was set to music in
1837 by a Kentucky lawyer and amateur composer named Jonathan E. Spilman who
perhaps was also attracted by the riverine theme. Laura Gilpin once wrote,
“A river seems a magic thing … a magic, moving, living part of the very
Now you might recall
that Laura Gilpin was an indefatigable American pioneer photographer. On the
other hand, you might not. But she is remembered for her expressive
portraits of Native Americans and for her strangely haunting photographs of
south-western landscapes. “Life is like the river,” wrote Emma Smith,
“Sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of
nowhere.” Comparisons between rivers and human life are hard to resist. Some
composers have been inspired by rivers, too.
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava.
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelík (Duration: 11:11; Video:
In the 1870s Smetana
wrote a set of six symphonic poems collectively entitled Má Vlast
(“My Homeland”). One of the works is called Vltava and it’s a musical
description of the Vltava (VULL-tuh-vuh) River also known by its
German name Die Moldau. The “journey” begins at the river’s source in
the Bohemian mountains and passes through the countryside to the city of
Prague and beyond. The Czech name probably comes from an old Germanic
expression wilt ahwa, meaning “wild water”.
The work begins with a
musical impression of springs and bubbling water. It leads to the main theme
of the work which is probably Smetana’s most famous melody, an adaptation of
a Moldavian folksong which bears more than a striking resemblance to the
Israeli National Anthem. There are musical snapshots of a hunt in the forest
(02:40); dancing at a peasant wedding (03:39); water-nymphs in the moonlight
(04:51); St John’s Rapids (08:07); the triumphant arrival at Prague (09:51)
and the concluding section in which the river flows away into the distance
(10:41). This work normally runs for about fourteen minutes but Rafael
Kubelík belts through it in just over eleven minutes at this exhilarating
al fresco performance in Prague.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Dawn on the Moscow River.
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, cond. Pavel Smelkov (Duration: 06:21; Video:
This evocative piece is
the introduction to Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina which he began
in1872. He didn’t live to finish it, but Rimsky-Korsakov later completed,
revised, and re-scored the entire opera. So many cuts and alterations were
made that it was virtually a new work. In an attempt to recreate something
closer to the original, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the work in 1959 using
Mussorgsky’s original vocal score. This is the version that’s usually
performed these days. Dawn on the Moscow River is often performed as
a stand-alone piece. Like the Smetana work, it begins quietly and contains
some lovely music and captivating melodies before eventually fading into the
silence where its musical journey began.
Oh yes, I’ve just
remembered that Sweet Afton was also a brand of Irish cigarettes
named after the Burns poem. They were made in Dundalk and introduced in 1919
to celebrate the somewhat tenuous link between that town and Robert Burns.
The brand was reputed to be the favourite smoke of the French philosopher,
playwright and novelist, Jean-Paul Sartre.