Sounds of Spring Program Notes

The piano duet is one of the most intimate forms of chamber music.  Two players sharing the same instrument have to sit pretty close to one another on the bench to reach all the necessary notes.   In the early 19th century, piano duets were particularly popular in Vienna, since there were many accomplished amateurs who enjoyed playing such works at home.  It was an area where Schubert was greatly successful during his lifetime, and he wrote more piano duets than almost any other great composer.  Yet his four-hand works are significant not only because of their quantity but also because of the great care he lavished on them.  One can say that he plumbed the emotional depths of the piano duet more than anyone else.

The present rondo dates from the last year of Schubert’s life and was published the year after his untimely death.  Its gorgeous main melody undergoes a number of subtle transformations and alternates with some slightly more animated episodes that, however, never seriously alter the serene mood of the composition.

What can we say about Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, except that it is a happy day when we get to hear it?  The nickname is not by the composer, but it is entirely appropriate, because of the special warmth and serenity the work projects in all four of its movements.  Beethoven the lyricist sings in a voice that, in its gentleness, is no less powerful than the thundering outbursts of his heroic period; his unmistakable personality is present just as strongly in this gentle sonata as it is in the great dramatic works.  

The sonata opens with one of Beethoven’s most endearing and most unforgettable melodies.  Subsequent themes in the movement show a little more musical “muscle,” but it is more like a soft breeze rustling the leaves than a strong wind, let alone a storm.  

The second movement Adagio is based on a single melody of rare delicacy, played in turn by both instruments.  The third movement Scherzo is definitely Beethoven’s shortest sonata movement:  it fits on a single page in the score.  It grows from a simple rhythmic idea, repeated constantly by the piano, with a characteristic off-beat response from the violin.  The movement’s Trio (middle section), which takes only about twenty seconds to play, is a continuous rush up and down the scale, in the form of two highly condensed musical phrases.  

The melodious rondo theme of the finale is followed by an equally lyrical first episode.  It is the central second episode that provides the main contrast, as it is the only extended minor key section in the entire sonata.  It features some dramatic syncopations, excited triplet figures, and some expressive chromatic inflections in the melody (with half steps not normally part of the scale).  However, these tensions prove to be only temporary, and the peaceful earlier themes return.  The short coda only confirms the joyful and sunny atmosphere that has prevailed throughout the entire composition.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Mozart used the combination of piano and three string instruments only twice, but in those two masterworks (K. 478 and K. 493) he invented a new genre that found many followers in the 19th century.  During his years in Vienna, he liked to play chamber music on the viola; that may be the reason why he chose to expand the familiar piano-trio format to include his favorite instrument.

The G minor quartet, written in 1785, has received particular attention on account of its opening key, which Mozart always reserved for works in a dark, passionate, proto-Romantic tone.  The opening movement of the quartet is no exception; it is one of Mozart’s most turbulent and emotionally charged Allegros.  The lyrical second movement and the final Rondo continue in a different vein: they are both graceful, melodious, and firmly anchored in the major mode.

This work was one of three piano quartets the Viennese music publisher Hoffmeister commissioned from Mozart.  But since it didn’t sell well, Hoffmeister canceled the commission.  The second quartet was eventually published by a different publisher; the projected third quartet, alas, was never written.