In Search of the Sublime Program Notes

The earliest works for piano, violin, and cello were, in essence, keyboard sonatas with string accompaniment—just like the earliest violin sonatas.  In trios, the cello would often merely duplicate the bass line already present in the left hand of the piano, and the violin would offer little more than some ornamental commentary on the piano melody.  

In Mozart’s five mature trios, written between 1786 and 1788, this is definitely not the case.  Although the piano still predominates, the strings make extremely important contributions.  Mozart displays the three instruments in ever-changing combinations that represent an entirely new approach to scoring in chamber music.  The participants engage in musical conversation; they constantly listen and respond to one another, continue one another’s thoughts and raise new ideas at the appropriate moments.

The Trio in B-flat is as rich in ideas and as profound in its emotional world as anything Mozart wrote during those years, when he was at the height of his creative powers.  The opening theme, played in sweet parallel thirds, also functions as the movement’s second theme—an example of the ‟monothematic” construction that Mozart’s friend Joseph Haydn was especially fond of.  This particular construction serves to enhance the motivic unity of the work and to provide a gentle surprise; at the moment when a cultivated audience would expect a new theme, a new version of the old one appears instead.  Variety is supplied in other ways:  in the instrumental combinations already mentioned, and in the new theme that does eventually materialize, in the movement’s central development section.

In Mozart’s music, the tempo marking Larghetto always indicates a slow movement of great emotional intensity.  K. 502 is no exception.  It is a deeply expressive statement that takes the form of a rondo.  In between returns of the extraordinarily beautiful main theme, new ideas emerge and explore both sides of the movement’s central tonality of E-flat major: up a fifth to B-flat and down a fifth to A-flat.  The sonorous low notes of the cello add a whole new dimension to the lyrical exchanges between the piano and the violin.

The brilliant last movement follows a special hybrid design known as the ‟sonata-rondo” that combines the light-heartedness of the rondo with the more intellectual world of the sonata, with some rather extensive thematic transformations in the central development section.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Did the 31-year-old Schubert know in the summer of 1828 that his time was running out?  With his health seriously compromised—it is no secret that he was suffering from syphilis—he composed at a feverish speed, producing a body of work in the months before his death on November 19 that is unmatched even in terms of sheer quantity.  The last three piano sonatas, the monumental Mass in E-flat, and the fourteen songs later published as Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”) were all written during this period.  What is more, each of these works is a masterpiece of the very first order, richer in both form and expression than anything Schubert had ever written.

The Quintet in C, perhaps the crowning achievement of Schubert’s last year, is a composition like no other in the literature.  The vastness of its concept, the extraordinary rhythmic drive and lyrical intensity place this work in a class all by itself.  By adding a second cello to the string quartet (and not a second viola as Mozart and Beethoven had done), Schubert gave extra weight to the bass register, increasing the resonance and creating an almost orchestral sound in the most powerful passages.  (It is often remarked that Italian composer Luigi Boccherini had written many quintets with two cellos before Schubert; but in fact, Schubert has little in common with Boccherini in either form, sound, or the handling of the instruments.)

The wonders of the Schubert quintet begin right at the outset, with an opening that gathers its momentum gradually, rising by almost imperceptible degrees from the somewhat hesitant first measures to the great explosion that soon follows.  The second theme, with its unspeakably sweet parallel thirds, is another wonder, as are the successive waves of rising and subsiding tension in the central portion of the movement.  

And what is one to say about the serenely floating opening melody of the slow movement, with its pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment, a single and seemingly endless melodic line that projects a beguiling image of peace and harmony (though not without a tinge of sadness)?  A great surprise awaits, however, in the form of a passionately dramatic middle section, whose key, rather unusually, is a half step above the movement’s initial key (F minor as opposed to E major).  When the opening melody returns, the first violin adds some exquisite melodic filigree that enhances the excruciating beauty of the melody even more.

The third movement is a greatly expanded Scherzo with dance elements and highly innovative harmonies.  As before, contrast is maximized in the middle section, an almost independent slow movement that strikes a tragic tone in a distant key (once more emphasizing the half step above the main key, D-flat against C).  

Contrast and ambiguity continue in the finale, which is ostensibly a cheerful rondo; yet it begins in the dark key of C minor, which keeps intruding throughout the movement.  At the end of a spirited coda, when one would think that all the tensions have finally been resolved, the dramatic juxtaposition of D-flat against C returns to conclude the quintet in a truly startling manner.  © 2023 Peter Laki



Carlos Simon, Lickety Split

As a young boy, I worked with my grandfather during the summers paving driveways in Rocky Mount, Virginia. He was a task master. Things had to be done the right way and with haste when he asked for it in his own playful way. He would say, “Pull those weeds up lickety split!” or “Shovel that dirt lickety split!” It was tortuous work during the hot summer days but ultimately proved quite lucrative at the end of the day when my grandfather paid me for the day’s work.

This piece, in its whimsical character, draws on inspiration from that colloquial phrase, Lickety Split, coined in the 1860s. It meant to do something quickly or in a hurry. I used the rhythmic syllabic stresses of the phrase as a main motif for the piece. (li-ke-ty split) To create a playful mood, I used bouncing pizzicato lines in the cello part over wildly syncopated rhythms played by the piano. Harmonically, the central idea moves in parallel motion in thirds between the voices. As the piece develops to an agitated state, both instruments relentlessly rhythmically drive to a climactic ending – done so in a lickety split fashion…  © Carlos Simon