Notes on Romantic Gems

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The Noree Chamber Soloists's season finale program of Romantic Gems features music from the early, middle, and late Romantic period.


Schumann Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Opus 80
Schubert Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major D.438 
Grieg String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 27 

Schubert’s Rondo for Violin and Strings in A major D. 438 was composed in 1816, just a few months before the completion of his other chamber work, Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F major for piano quartet, D. 487. Schubert did not compose any full-scale concerto during his career, and these two works, each highlighting the violin and the piano, come closest to concerto among Schubert’s works. Why he did not engage with concerto is not clear, but one may speculate that Schubert never felt ready during his short life to meet the demands of the form perfected by his Viennese predecessors Mozart and Beethoven, just as he once did with symphonies and piano sonatas. We can only imagine what we would have been gifted with had Schubert lived longer.

In 1816, the last of his “miracle years,” the three years of his exceptional creativity and prolificacy, Schubert composed more than 110 songs, the Mass in C, a three-act opera, two symphonies (D. 417 and D. 435), and String Quartet in E (D. 353). He also wrote a number of works featuring a solo violin, including the three sonatinas (D. 384, D. 385, and D. 408) and the Konzertstück in D major (D. 345). It is possible that Schubert wrote the Rondo for Violin and Strings in A major for either himself or his brothers to play. (Violin was Schubert’s primary instrument; within the family quartet he played the viola, his brothers Ignaz and Ferdinand the violin, and his father the cello.)

The Rondo that follows an extended Adagio introduction unfolds with bravura, weaving through three main themes -- a cheery dance theme, a folklike second theme, and a closing theme that dramatically shifts from minor to major -- that serve as the backbone of the rondo form. Schubert’s idiosyncratic emphasis on the third interval relationship is highlighted here as well, reaching a climax in F major (which, incidentially, is the key of Adagio and Rondo Concertante from the same year). Structured as a single multi-tempo movement with two distinct sections, this early work of Schubert is an example of a free form that set him apart from the Viennese composers of the classical era.

Schubert was a main influence on a younger German composer, Robert Schumann. Throughout his career, Schumann looked to the elder composer’s music as a post-Beethovenian model for chamber and larger-scale works, as well as an inspiration for melodies. In particular, Schumann was fascinated by Schubert’s piano trio in E-flat major (as well as Mendelssohn’s D minor trio and Beethoven’s B-flat and D major trios), calling it “the most masterly trio” of its time. At the same time, it is well-known that Schumann focused on specific genres at various points during his career: He started with piano music during 1833-1839, moved on to songs, symphonic music, chamber music, oratorio in each of the following years, focused on contrapuntal forms in 1845, created dramatic music in the next two years, and then turned to church music in 1852. Given this chronology, and considering that 1847 was not a particularly prolific year for Schumann, it is notable that he composed his Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, and Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80, in rapid succession (the third one, trio in G minor, Op. 110, comes from 1851). It is likely that he was inspired by his wife Clara’s piano trio in G minor -- considered one of her finest compositions -- that was written in 1846 and premiered to acclaim the following year. Schumann described his own second piano trio as having a “friendlier and more immediate impression” than the first. Although less intense than the first trio, the second is more experimental in its harmonic scheme. For example, the first movement emphasizes the key of D major, a remote key from F major. The first movement, marked “Sehr lebhaft” (Very lively), begins spiritedly but soon becomes reflective. The relaxed second movement has a prominent contrapuntal texture, perhaps a result of the study of counterpoint that Clara and Robert Schumann together undertook in 1845. The third movement is a scherzo with a rondo section of intimate cell-piano exchanges. The ebullient finale finishes the work on a triumphant note.

The legacy of Robert and Clara Schumann reached the young Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in the early 1860s, when he was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory. He studied with E.F. Wenzel, who, being a close friend of Schumann, instilled lifelong admiration for Schumann’s music in Grieg. Also around this time, he heard Clara Schumann play her husband’s Piano Concerto at one of the Gewandhaus concerts. When Grieg returned home in 1862, he gave a public concert featuring his piano pieces Op. 1 and Schumann’s Piano Quartet. Grieg was also part of the Scandinavian Romantic school, which had connections to Schumann and Mendelssohn. The influence of Schumann in Grieg’s music is palpable, especially in the latter’s early vocal music from the 1860s. Over time, Grieg actively incorporated Norwegian folk music into his compositions, inventing a distinctive harmonic language. By the time he wrote his String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 (1877-1878), he was beginning to develop an interest in the so-called impressionist musical style, which became more prominent and daring in his compositions during the 1890s. The String Quartet exhibits strong chromaticism, non-functional parallel chords, dissonances, static harmony -- all of which foreshadow Debussy.

Throughout his career, Grieg was more akin to smaller musical forms, such as miniature songs and piano pieces, than large-scale works. His self-contained melodies did not lend easily to thematic development, a foundational technique for larger-scale compositions in the style of the German romantic composers such as Schumann and Schubert. Yet the String Quartet in G minor was a significant and deliberate change in terms of Grieg’s formal approach. He wrote about the string quartet: “It strives toward breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written. I needed to do this as a study.” In this “study,” he achieved cohesion through thematic links not only within each movement but among the four movements. Yet, even when cast in the large-four movement following the German traditions, and imbued with French impressionist harmonic languages, the explosive power of Greig’s melody remains unhindered in this string quartet.

-Jung-Min Mina Lee, Ph D., Resident Musicologist

Yoon Lee