St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble – Program Notes

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Divertimento in D, K.136/125a (1772)

By the age of 16, when he wrote this D major Divertimento, Mozart had already spent over two years away from his home town of Salzburg. He had lived in London and Paris and travelled throughout Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. In addition to giving concerts at court in order to fill his family’s pockets with gold rings, snuffboxes and watches, he met many of the famous musicians of the time and had opportunities to study and hear their music. Musical styles and traditions were different in every country and Mozart’s early compositions are often case-studies in where his travels had most recently taken him. He wrote the three Divertimentos, K.136-8 in Salzburg, after the second of three extended trips to Italy. A final trip to Italy was already in the planning and the Italian influence on Mozart’s writing is strong. We can’t be certain whether he wrote the Divertimentos for a specific occasion and even the title ‘Divertimento’ was added by another hand, probably that of his father, Leopold. The three divertimentos are published in the complete Mozart Edition as a sort of appendage to the string quartets and their performance either by a one-on-a-part string quartet, as today, or by a larger string ensemble, work equally well. The three-movement structure follows the pattern of the Italian Sinfonia, while the writing also nods in the direction of the widely respected Joseph Haydn and Johann Christian Bach – whom Mozart had met in London and whom he regarded as both friend and mentor. The sparkling violin virtuosity of the opening movement is deftly drawn. The slow movement unfolds gently with the melodic interest more equitably shared between the violins. The finale has a playful spirit even in the central development when Mozart shows off his contrapuntal skill.

— Program notes © 2015 Keith Horner. Comments welcome:

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949), arr. Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970)

Till Eulenspiegel – einmal anders!, for violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass (1894-5/1954)

Till Eulenspiegel is the eternal joker of German folklore, constantly at war with pompous authority. Sometimes he is the irrepressible underdog, sometimes the unfeeling practical joker. Till Eulenspiegel is Strauss’s fifth orchestral tone-poem, written at the age of 30. In it, Strauss’s Till sails too close to the wind. He’s punished on the scaffold, with a savagery reflective of late 19th century Wilhelminian Germany. The orchestral work’s first performance in Cologne in 1895 was a great success and it has remained the most popular of the composer’s tone-poems ever since. Strauss writes for a large orchestra that includes quadruple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets and much more. He casts his 20-minute piece into a closely-knit rondo, with a short introduction and an epilogue.

The humor of the version of Till Eulenspiegel to be played today is captured in the einmal anders! (‘with a difference’) of its title and in the subtitle Grotesque musicale lurking inside its cover. Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) was the practical joker who scaled down Strauss’s huge orchestral tone poem to just five instruments, at half its original length. Little-known beyond this witty deconstruction of Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, this Viennese composer came by his craft the honest way, with a thesis on the piano music of Czerny and a portfolio of symphonies, concertos, chamber music and songs. His score ingeniously preserves the humor of Strauss’s mediaeval prankster and was published in 1954. It was first performed by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

— Program notes © 2015 Keith Horner. Comments welcome:

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1798-1828)

Octet in F, for for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and bass, Op. 166, D.803 (1824)

When Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the portly Viennese violinist whom Beethoven called ‘Falstaff,’ brought together eight musicians to give the première of Schubert’s Octet, he chose much the same group who gave the première of the Beethoven Septet almost a quarter century earlier. The clarinetist, however, was now Ferdinand, Count Troyer, who is reported to have commissioned the Octet from Schubert with the stipulation that it closely resemble Beethoven’s Septet – that composer’s most popular work during his lifetime. Both works are in the divertimento tradition, with six rather than four movements and an overriding feeling of well-being and relaxation. Schubert maintains a similar key relationship between movements to those in the Beethoven. Like Beethoven, he includes both scherzo and minuet (though reversed in order) and choses a theme and variations as the fourth movement. He follows Beethoven’s lead by including a slow introduction to both first and last movements. Schubert does, however, add a second violin to Beethoven’s single violin, completing the string quartet foundation to the ensemble of mixed strings and winds.

Schubert took the month of February 1824 to fulfill the commission, delivering a work designed to appeal to its listeners yet, despite its outward resemblance to the Beethoven Septet, still speaking with his own voice. Imitation here is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery. (Schubert worshipped Beethoven and – like Schuppanzigh – was to be a pallbearer at his funeral in 1827). Both works open with an 18-measure Adagio introduction to the opening movement. Schubert builds anticipation for what is to follow and adds unity by incorporating a short dotted figure in both sections. Indeed, the dotted rhythm continues to bring a feeling of unity throughout each of the movements of the Octet. The luxuriant, seamless melody that opens the first slow movement is given to the clarinet. The modulations that ensue could only have come from Schubert’s pen. An exuberant scherzo follows, rustic and unbuttoned, maybe even a little prophetic of Bruckner. The melody of the variation movement that Schubert provides next is shared by both violin and clarinet and is drawn from a love duet from his comic opera Die Freunde von Salamanka (The Friends from Salamanca). Schubert here provides seven variations to Beethoven’s five. A graceful minuet then leads to the somber, mysterious introduction to the finale. This culminates in a vigorous march-like theme which is given a thorough working through. It’s a fitting conclusion to a piece that is conceived on a symphonic scale yet which maintains the cheerful grace of a true piece of chamber music played among friends.

— Program notes © 2015 Keith Horner. Comments welcome: