Australian Chamber Orchestra with Paul Lewis, piano

NEC’s Jordan Hall

The Australian Chamber Orchestra – “an orchestra that, by any standards, is one of the wonders of the musical world today” (The Guardian) – returns to Boston for the first time since the 2006-07 season with the English pianist Paul Lewis. Mr. Lewis, a can’t-miss performer in his previous solo and chamber music recitals, makes his first Series appearance as an orchestral soloist when he joins the ACO, led by Richard Tognetti, for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12.

Program

Johann Sebastian Bach The Art of Fugue: Contrapunctus I - IV | Read Notes
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K.414 | Read Notes
Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 130 (arr. for string orchestra) | Read Notes
Ludwig van Beethoven Grosse fuge, Opus 133 (arr. for string orchestra)

Runtime: approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes with intermission.

This performance is made possible in part by support from Celebrity Series LIVE PERFORMANCE! Arts for All Endowment & Innovation Funds with generous leadership support from Dorothy & Stephen Weber. Additional support provided by Oliver Radford & Stephen PerryDebra & Michael Raizman, and in memory of Blanche & George Jones.

NEC’s Jordan Hall

30 Gainsborough Street, Boston

Notes on the Program

Johann Sebastian Bach

(1685-1750)
The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus I-IV
In the year after Johann Sebastian Bach died, some of his musician-sons published an anthology of fugues that had occupied him on and off during the last ten years of his life. More than a dozen pieces are included in the anthology entitled Die Kunst der Fugue or The Art of Fugue. Each is called, in Latin, a contrapunctus, or “counterpoint,” which was how German theoreticians of that time referred to fugues. Bach planned the collection of works in the early 1740s, began composing the pieces around 1745, and had completed most of them by about 1748. During the two remaining years of his life, blinded by cataracts and plagued by other ailments, he revised and polished the collection’s contents in preparation for publication. It was his final work, and followed the traditional usual practice in Germany for composers to write cumulative compositions in which they joined together the musical reflections and achievements of their career in one piece, which they saw as a sort of summation of their life’s work. The Art of Fugue would qualify as one of those kinds of compositions for Bach; another was his Musical Offering.

The sequence in which the pieces finally appeared, and even the title of the publication, may have been his sons’ work, but Bach had sent some of the pieces to the engraver before his death. His sons appended an additional unfinished massive fugue that combined in one all the complexities of four different fugues. As if to make up for the incomplete piece, the sons also added a grand contrapuntal treatment of a hymn melody that Bach had dictated when he felt death was near, the choral prelude “Before Thy Throne I Stand” (“Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit”). His sons explained in the preface to the published work that they appended this piece at the end “to compensate the friends of his muse,” for the unfinished closing fugue.

Few copies were sold in 1751, the year after Bach’s death; as result, his sons reissued the work with a new cover and an introduction by a well-known expert (which is exactly what a publisher of our time might do) the following year. Part of the problem was that music itself was undergoing a radical change; contrapuntal style was then being used less and less frequently, while homophonic style, in particular the style galant, was employed more and more. (Style galant offered simplicity and an immediacy of appeal (rather than the complexity of counterpoint) with simpler, more song-like melodies. Style galant was more suitable for the secular occasions that were growing in demand: these took the form of concerts in the ornate homes of nobility and in royal palaces.)  

Contrapuntal style had generally been in common use in religious settings as church music. Bach, aware of the growing, new trend, had felt that his compendium of fugues constituted “his last testament,” a valedictory to the fugue as it were, and monitored the copying of his The Art of Fugue onto copper plates, ensuring that it would have the permanence a paper manuscript might lack; however, within five years, his sons had sold barely forty copies of the music. In great need of money, they disposed of the valuable copper printing plates as scrap metal. Posterity now regards this initially failed publication as a remarkable, priceless thesaurus of unmatched masterpieces in one of the highest, most complex and most difficult techniques of media or artistic expression.

The Art of Fugue is Bach at his most abstract and intellectual. For this compendium of contrapuntal techniques demonstrated in twenty increasingly complex fugues and canons, Bach, as was typical practice in his time, had left no indication of the instrument(s) intended to perform The Art of Fugue. When scored for several different instruments, listeners are aided in following distinct instrumental voices and lines and can more easily follow the fugue and canon structures including Bach’s inversions, tempo changes, more obscure harmonies and patterns. Over the centuries, performers have transcribed The Art of Fugue for all kinds of combinations, from keyboard to orchestra. When the four lines are simply and directly transferred to a chamber orchestra as you hear them in this concert, the different timbres of the instruments highlight the contrasts between the interconnected lines.

The first group of The Art of Fugue is made up of four fugues. Contrapunctus I is a straightforward, serious fugue serene and flowing in motion, based on the pure form of a single musical subject, a phrase of melody that at first seems to have no particular distinction but soon proves to lend itself to an invention, worked out in four voices.

Contrapunctus II is based on the same theme as Contrapunctus I with a slight variation in rhythm at its end. This variation with its uneasy dotted rhythms gives the contrapunctus a spirited, jumping character.

Contrapunctus III takes as its subject that of the first fugue inverted. It has a striving or yearning nature, transforming the original subject’s descent into the highest point of the new subject’s rising chromatic lines.  

Contrapunctus IV is the most elaborate piece in this group of fugues. Again based on an inversion of the theme, it too has an upwardly striving motion. Two subsidiary motives are included: one, a descending two-note motive, which has been likened to the call of a cuckoo; the other is a twisting chromatic line.  

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 12, in A Major, K.414
Mozart gave a series of concerts during Lent in 1783, when the opera and other theaters were closed, by decree, until Easter; the series was a great success. On March 11, when Mozart played this concerto, the Emperor was in his box and demonstrated his approval with what was reported to be “unprecedented, unanimous applause.”

The Piano Concerto in A Major, K.414, is the second of a set of three concerti Mozart composed in Vienna; it is a work of distinctive richness and beauty that lends itself to greatly varied characterizations. Critics have found in it qualities as different as melancholy lyricism and sunny Tyrolean gaiety. In performance, too, individual interpretations vary over a very wide range. Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style, notes that this work is “more lyrical and more broadly conceived than its companions.” Rosen attributes this to the wealth of melodic material Mozart introduces in the first movement.

The concerto's rich and expressive first movement, Allegro, is indeed especially remarkable for its extraordinary wealth of themes. Mozart lavishes a large number of melodies on a musical structure that conventionally required and usually received no more than two themes. There are actually six major subjects in the first movement, two of which appear for the first time in the development. In this section, the soloist displays his virtuosity against an impassioned dialogue with the strings. Rosen says that here “Mozart uses melodies at once so complex and so complete that they do not bear the weight of [further] development.” And yet, the themes are all completely regular, made up of eight-measure phrases, with the second phrase beginning exactly like the first, but Mozart is able to write this music without any dramatic surprises in such a masterly way that it is a complete and unusual tour-de-force.

The slow movement, Andante, is one of Mozart’s greatest lyrical masterpieces. It begins with an uncharacteristic solemnity, in sonata form, and its main subject is a quotation from a Johann Christian Bach overture written for Baldassare Galuppi’s opera La calamità de’ cuori (“The Calamity of the Hearts”), an opera Mozart attended at its London premiere when he was a boy. Mozart may have used this quotation to honor Johann Christian Bach’s death as Bach befriended him and taught him and had died only months before, on January 1, 1782.

The finale, a rondo, Allegretto, is a brilliant movement of unambiguous good spirits, no less genial for being gentle, with a refrain built on three motifs. Mozart’s contrapuntal complexities blend in effortlessly because of the delightfully light exterior. Throughout the concerto, Mozart placed cadenzas from which the soloist may choose. He wrote two for each of the movements.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 13, in B-Flat, Opus 130 (arr. for string orchestra)
Grosse fuge, Opus 133 (arr. for string orchestra)
Beethoven wrote the String Quartet Opus 130 in 1825 and 1826 as the third in a group of three quartets dedicated to his faithful supporter, Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, who had organized the first performance of the Missa Solemnis, Opus 123, in St. Petersburg, a year earlier. Since then, Galitzin’s fortunes had begun to fail, and he paid for only one of the quartets. The interesting correspondence of this period between the two tells us a great deal about their relationship. It was no ordinary thing, in those days, for a mighty Russian prince, even one on the decline, to address a commoner as this one did when he wrote to “Dear and Respected Monsieur van Beethoven.”

The six-movement form of this quartet has sometimes been compared to that of the old divertimento of a generation earlier, but the resemblance is purely fortuitous. No divertimento could have had a finale like the one Beethoven originally wrote for this quartet and, at the suggestion of his publisher and friends, replaced during the following year. The original is now known as the Grosse fuge (“Great Fugue”), Opus 133, one of the most forceful movements in all of his work. In this quartet, Beethoven does follow the slow-fast alternation of movements usual in the era of Classical music, but unlike traditional four movement quartets, this one has two extra movements, an extra scherzo and then an extra slow Cavatina, placed before the Allegro finale.  

The spacious first movement of Opus 130 is a complex structure in which fragmentary materials from the slow introductory Adagio, ma non troppo, and the quick Allegro are intimately intermingled. One of its most startling features, however, is the key Beethoven chose for the second theme, a subject that appears in one key in the exposition and another in the recapitulation; both are very remote from the home key. This choice gave an indication of how far afield Beethoven might venture in later movements.

The second movement is a short scherzo, Presto; it has a contrasting Trio. This very condensed movement with its short phrases is the antithesis of the one that precedes it. Barry Cooper, in his book about Beethoven, explains that the well-delineated sketches Beethoven left indicate that Beethoven did not have a good idea of what would follow, except that the third movement would be slow. Not even the number of movements was settled initially. Cooper says, “The quartet was thus being created as a kind of narrative, rather than a canvas where the overall outline is clear from the start. The later movements could be moulded to suit the earlier ones, but the earlier ones were in no way fashioned as preparation for what follows.”   

The third, a miniature sonata movement at a calm tempo, Andante con moto ma non troppo, to which Beethoven added the indication poco scherzoso (“somewhat playful”), begins with a quote of the first two notes of the first movement, before the viola presents the main theme. The movement seems light, yet the themes are decorated with complex and elaborate accompaniments.

The fourth movement, Alla danza tedesca, Allegro assai, is a kind of German minuet or waltz. It was originally intended for the Opus 132 String Quartet, where the great “Song of Thanksgiving” replaced it. Its dance rhythms make a strong contrast to the music of the preceding movement although it, too, is a light movement, much like the dances of the divertimento.

The following Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo, is one of the most moving slow movements in the quartet literature. The title, Cavatina, refers to a kind of slow, expressive, operatic aria, and here the first violins are the soloists throughout, while the other instruments have an unobtrusive accompaniment to the solo line. Beethoven once said, referring perhaps to the middle section, which he described as beklemmt (“anguished” or “oppressed”), “My own music has never before made such an impression on me. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.” Cooper commented, “The melody, though seemingly simple, was so skillfully created and thoroughly sketched that it is actually highly original and almost entirely unpredictable, with subtle irregularities of phrase structure that neatly contrast with the rigidity of the preceding dance rhythms. Its broad, carefully arched lines seem filled with intense longing….”

For his original finale, Beethoven took up the thematic idea he had originally conceived for Opus 127, transposing it and shortening it. It developed into the Grosse fuge, perhaps conceived as a tribute to the work of Bach. After the first performance of the work, when the first five movements were successfully received, the massive finale was found to be problematic. Some rejected it as the confused ramblings of a deranged man, and some actually sensed that it was a masterpiece, but thought it one not fitting as the final movement to this quartet. Even though it took up and resolved ideas from earlier movements in the quartet, Beethoven became uneasy about it, and his publisher, Artaria, agreed it did not fit in scale or style. Eventually Beethoven was convinced to write a substitute finale and to publish the Grosse fuge, as it came to be called, separately. The new Finale, the very last music that Beethoven completed, takes up ideas from earlier movements, but it is lighter, smaller and more optimistic than the Grosse fuge. A bustling Allegro movement, it combines characteristics of the rondo and sonata forms. As Cooper says, “It seems at times to recall the eighteenth century, leading back to normality after the extraordinary profundity of the Cavatina. Yet it is of considerable size and contains many subtleties typical of Beethoven’s finales.”  Its principal subject is very much in the character of a Russian dance perhaps in honor of Galitzin.

The Viennese Schuppanzigh Quartet premiered the quartet on March 21, 1826, and introduced the new finale in December 1826. The Schuppanzigh Quartet also played the first performance of the newly revised quartet on April 22, 1827, almost a month after Beethoven’s death.

© Susan Halpern, 2019