Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Opus 66 Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

From its opus number, one might think the Twelve Variations were composed around 1807–08 along with Symphonies 5 and 6 (Opp. 67 and 68, respectively). But the work is actually the product of Beethoven’s concert tour of Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin in 1796. Mozart had traversed precisely the same northern route only seven years before, and Count Lichnowsky, who had accompanied Mozart, went along for the first stages of Beethoven’s journey. The Berlin itinerary included appearances before King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, with Beethoven playing his new Opus 5 cello sonatas with Duport, the king’s brilliant first cellist. The Magic Flute was still new music, having opened only five years before, on September 30, 1791. That was just a year before Beethoven had arrived in Vienna to “receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn,” as Count Waldstein had promised.

Beethoven composed two sets of variations on themes from The Magic Flute; both are tunes sung by the bird-catcher Papageno. Beethoven scholar Louis Lockwood tells us that the opera “reverberated in Beethoven’s consciousness, musically in both direct and indirect ways, and philosophically as a tract on human brotherhood.” One must also wonder if Beethoven identified with Papageno, the unattached music-man with a big heart. 

“Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” comes from Act II of the opera. Papageno has been told by a voice that he will never enjoy the pleasures of the elect. When asked what he would like instead—aside from a glass of wine—he hesitates: “I would like… I wish… a sweetheart or a little wife!” He breaks into song, accompanied by a keyed Glockenspiel. In Beethoven’s Variations, piano states the theme and takes the first variation. The finale brings three surprises: a shift to 3/4; a brief but bracing side-trip into D major, and a most delicate, pianissimo ending.

Grave: Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano (1981) Witold Lutosławski (b. Warsaw, 1913; d. Warsaw, 1994)

Witold Lutosławski was the most important Polish composer of the twentieth century, and one of Europe’s most eminent musicians. His effect on the international scene was as considerable as his boundless curiosity and creative courage. The first period of his career ended brutally with the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. In fleeing the city, the composer was only able to take half a dozen works with him. The rest were destroyed. After the war, he explored folk materials, which influenced the powerful Concerto for Orchestra (1950–54), but he rejected the idea that he was a folklorist. During the late 1950s and early 60s he introduced aleatory (chance) procedures into the performance of works like Jeux vénitiens, the String Quartet and the Cello Concerto, often refining their application by conducting them himself. But Lutosławski later became dissatisfied with the avant-garde, saying: “One should concentrate effort on creating work that might stand a chance of a longer existence and function independent of immediate historical context.”

Lutosławski characterized two types of composers, using the French authors Balzac and Flaubert as exemplars. He called Tchaikovsky a “Balzac-type” of composer: “His creative process reminds me of a tap, a tap that is always turned on; running out of this tap is now an elixir, now water. [He] could not stop working. I respect him for his excellent qualities, such as his phenomenal gift as a melodist (there is hardly anyone to touch him as regards this gift, even on a world scale.) Then there is Flaubert. “His works show a fantastic mastery in respect of form and style. He won’t say anything unless he’s got a thing to say. A kindred spirit. He produced nothing but chefs-d’oeuvre.” Debussy was a “Flaubert-type.” So was Chopin. So, one concludes, was Lutosławski.

Along with the Epitaph for Oboe and Piano, Grave (pronounced Gràh-veh) marked a new direction and a late style period for Lutosławski. He cut back on the use of chance techniques and returned to conventional meter. Harmony, though still atonal, became simpler and more transparent. Melodies, often developed from limited sets of intervals, grew more lyrical and expressive. Not surprisingly, he began to compose more quickly in this new style. The title reflects both a tempo and a mood. Grave means “serious” in French and Italian. A standard tempo indication in the Baroque, it often appears at the head of the French overture, signifying a dignified, slow tempo.

Lutosławski’s Grave is dedicated to the memory of Stefan Jarociński, a Polish patriot and Debussy scholar, who died on May 8, 1980. Jarociński was Lutosławski’s advocate; he wrote the first book about the composer’s work.  Recalled the composer: “The very fact that Stefan devoted so much time in his life to Debussy meant that he was especially close to me, because in my personal life Debussy also played a very important role. So I considered it appropriate to use the first four notes from Pelléas et Mélisande at the beginning of my piece, the four notes becoming the point of departure for the melody in the cello part. 

Initial quotation aside, the work is not thematic. Its most noticeable characteristic is its rhythmic quickening. The notes proliferate like cells undergoing mitosis. (Grave is thus linked to another Lutosławski work, Musique funèbre (1961), the second section of which is also called Metamorphoses.) The four notes from Pelléas return at the end. Lutosławski also made a version for cello and strings.

“To live in the world of sounds is happiness,” said Lutosławski at the end of his life. “This world is detached from politics, from all the troubles of current events. Only occasionally does one return to the routine of everyday life, with its disturbing atmosphere. One returns to it only to leave it again for the world of music, a world where ideals are being eternally searched for, a world of dreams and hopes.”

Sonata in C minor, Opus 6 (1932) Samuel Barber
(b. West Chester, Penn., 1910; d. New York, 1981)

Samuel Barber was blessed with talent, intelligence, drive—and connections. His aunt was Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer; his uncle was the composer Sidney Homer, who guided young Barber’s development and offered much sage advice. Barber entered the newly-founded Curtis Institute in 1924, where right off he met Gian Carlo Menotti, his future companion and a creative force in his own right. 

“By the time Barber wrote Opus 6 he was thoroughly familiar with the two cello sonatas of Brahms and had performed many of his piano works in recital,” notes Barber biographer Barbara Heyman. During summer vacations in Cadegliano, Italy in the years 1928–32, Barber played chamber music with Menotti’s brother Domenico, who would come from Milan over the weekends and brings his cello. “We just finished playing Brahms and Beethoven cello sonatas, and although his technique is hardly impeccable, we enjoy ourselves immensely,” wrote Barber to his family. 

The Cello Sonata belongs to a rich time in Barber’s early career, as success followed success: publication by G. Schirmer; a one-hour NBC Music Guild broadcast featuring Barber as composer, pianist and singer; an invitation from RCA Victor to record his Dover Beach, singing the baritone part himself; a Pulitzer traveling scholarship; the Prix de Rome. Few American careers have begun with such promise. But with the significant exception of his many songs, the String Quartet, Opus 11 and Summer Music, Opus 31 for wind quintet, there is little chamber music by Barber, though one of his first prizes was for a now-lost violin sonata. 

The Cello Sonata was conceived in the summer of 1932, after Barber and Menotti hiked from Innsbruck to the Italian border and made their way to the Menotti villa in Cadegliano. By Christmas it was finished. Barber’s published score bears a dedication to Rosario Scalero, his composition teacher at Curtis. But the piece really belongs to Orlando Cole, the cellist who first played it. Cole taught at Curtis for 75 years, and died only in 2010 at the age of 101! 

Poulenc famously said that “there’s room for new music that doesn’t mind using other people’s chords.” Barber’s early music abounds in major and minor chords, but in new guises and relationships. The harmony, though accessible and full of feeling, doesn’t always move in traditional ways. Among the influences, two are exceptional for an American in the 1930s: Brahms and Sibelius. Uncle Sidney was a Brahms advocate. The sympathy with Sibelius went two ways. Though they never met, the Finn wrote an enthusiastic endorsement of Barber’s music in 1937. “Skyscrapers, subways, and train lights play no part in the music I write,” Barber told the Philadelphia Bulletin. “Neither am I at all concerned with the musical values inherent in geometric cerebrations.”

Three great swells, made of wide leaps carrying the cello over nearly three octaves, open the Sonata. When this theme returns, it will be quiet, stretched out, adorned with piano filigree. An elevated second theme in A-flat takes a decidedly Sibelian turn. The middle movement nests a Presto—in Barber’s School for Scandal vein—between strains of a heartfelt Adagio. It features a tricky rhythm that could only have come to Barber on the march from Innsbruck. Sibelius is felt again in the stormy clouds of the Allegro appassionato, a rondo with piano interludes. The middle statement of the theme is disguised, scherzando. As you enjoy this passionate, virtuoso work, remember that you’re listening to the music of a 22-year-old.

Sonata in G minor, Opus 19 Sergei Rachmaninoff
(b. Oneg, Russia, 1873; d. Beverly Hills, 1943)

The humiliating public premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 plunged Rachmaninoff into a depression from which he took three years to emerge. There’s no need to diagnose mental illness in the wake of profound disappointment. Whether it was therapy with Dr. Nicolai Dahl, the challenge of a new career as an opera conductor, or simply the effect of cuing great singers like Chaliapin, Rachmaninoff rose from his torpor with renewed energy, conviction, and a warm, singing style that has engaged listeners ever since. 

The Sonata for Piano and Cello in G minor was composed in the last half of 1901, shortly after the beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 and at the beginning of a sixteen-year creative streak. It is dedicated to Anatoly Brandukov, who played the premiere. (Brandukov would later be the best man at Rachmaninoff’s wedding. In marrying his own first cousin, Natalya Satina, Rachmaninoff gained access to Ivanovka—the huge country estate where he would write most of his music for the rest of his life. 

There is no easy Rachmaninoff, and the Sonata is a challenge even for two virtuoso players, but it is also a sonata of memorable melodies. Every movement has at least one, and each is far more than a tune, unfolding with its own logic in an individual setting. And the singer is perhaps the most persuasive of all instrumental voices. 

A series of sighs and a starched rhythm—dot-dot-dash—launch the movement, which has five distinct tempos. Cello has the first theme, while piano presents the melancholy second subject alone. Note the narrow compass of this idea in which even a little leap of a third becomes an event. In developing the material, first the second subject, then the opening half-step are featured. A kind of piano cadenza, the first of several references to concertante style, precedes the return to the main theme. 

The scherzo is a night ride, furtive to begin with, but with occasional shouts and two long-breathed melodies on the way.

Before anyone in the European world had heard of the blues, Rachmaninoff was singing them. Is the Andante’s horn-signal theme in major or minor mode? It’s hard to say which of the sonata’s melodies is most beautiful, but with its carefully-crafted shape and wonderfully delayed pay-off, this one may take the prize. At its height, the glow of Chopin’s Nouvelle études suffuses the texture.

The flexing metrics of the finale’s heroic main theme are soothed by an equally stirring, but gentler baritone song. Big bell-sounds in the piano—another Rachmaninoff hallmark—prepare us for a poetic close. “The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know—Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow,” Rachmaninoff recalled. “They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian.” Rachmaninoff originally ended the piece poetically on a sustained low G. But on second thought, he added a coda, considered by one Englishman “a regrettable lack of taste.” So instead, we are rushed, breathless, to the double bar. What do you think?

Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas (