Notes for July 31 concert by the Wister Quartet and Cynthia Raim, pianist
Antonín Dvořák, Romance in f minor, B. 39
Dvořák was a musician of wide and eclectic background. As a teenager he played in the Prague conservatory orchestra when it needed augmentation for big works like Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and then began his career as a fervent Wagnerian. In 1863 he played under Wagner in a concert that, among other things, introduced the preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger to Prague.
The term “romance” (Spanish: romance/romanza) has a centuries-long history. Applied to narrative ballads in Spain, it came to be used in the 18th century for simple lyrical pieces not only for voice, but also for instruments alone. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Music, “romance” implies a “specially personal or tender quality,” hence we found it most suitable for our “Summer of Love.”
Dvořák wrote this Romance for Violin and Orchestra for Josef Markus, leader of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in Prague to play at the annual concert of the orchestra at Žofín Palace. He derived the work from the slow movement, Andante con moto quasi allegretto, of his String Quartet No. 5 in f minor, composed in 1873 before he was widely known. Adolf Čech conducted the first performance of the Romance in December 1877. The quartet was neither performed nor published in his lifetime.
The version of the Romance in F minor for violin and piano, dedicated to the violinist František Ondříček, was also not published in Dvořák’s lifetime. It is in sonata form: a graceful melody leads to a theme of similar character in a contrasting key, followed by a more restless theme and eventually to an episode of strident chords. The original calm mood prevails and the themes return before the work ends in F major.
Herbert Murrill (1909 - 1952), String Quartet
Herbert Henry John Murrill, an English composer with a distinctive and versatile voice, had wide-ranging musical sympathies and a far greater output than the tiny amount so far performed or recorded might suggest. His untimely death from cancer led to neglect during the latter half of the 20th century, as was true for several other British composers who, through war or ill-health, died young: Browne, Butterworth, Coles, Farrar, Hurlstone, Kelly and Whitlock, to name a few. Recent research and publications by Michael Barlow and Relf Clark may help to rehabilitate Murrill’s reputation.
Son of a “cork merchant’s clerk,” Murrill was born in London and attended Haberdasher’s Aske’s School in Hatcham before his musical talents won him a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music. He gained a similar award to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied for three years with York Bowen (for piano), Alan Bush (for harmony) and Stanley Marchant (for organ and choir-training). In 1928 Murrill ‘went up’ to Worcester College, Oxford as organ scholar. Several early songs survive from his Oxford period. He took a full part in the musical life of the University becoming President of the University Musical Club. On leaving Oxford he served as organist of Christ Church, Lancaster Gate and St Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, London.
The immediate pre-war period seems to have been a time of personal turmoil for Murrill, judging by the emotional outpouring of this four-movement String Quartet (1939). As Robert Schumann dedicated his string quintet (see below) to his wife Clara, Murrill dedicated his to the Leighton Quartet and its cellist, Vera Canning, whom he married in 1941. The opening Allegramente is cast in a minor. The heart of the work is the sinewy slow movement, Andante molto moderato, marked at its climax con intensiti, that Murrill requested to be played at his funeral.
Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
In January 1842 Schumann went into one of his recurrent depressions. “I’m very bad with Clara… Much drinking…. Always sick and melancholy… Still sick [14 February].” These symptoms may have been associated with Clara’s preparations for a long concert tour. Schumann had agreed to go with her, but he really wanted to stay home and compose. After returning alone from the trip in March—their first separation since getting married—he worked on counterpoint exercises and fugues, something he often did as therapy when he was depressed and thinking his life was “miserable.” He also studied quartets of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, but by April still depressed and “drinking too much” he couldn’t compose. Fugue exercises with Clara near the end of May seemed to help.
Just before his 32nd birthday in June ideas suddenly began to flow. He composed daily for two weeks and finished three(!) string quartets on June 22. To Clara he announced, proudly, “three children, barely born, and already completed and beautiful.” That was a stunning achievement.
Though exhilarating, the achievement left Schumann feeling exhausted and drained, in “gloomy melancholy.” He had moved into a “quiet little nook” of his apartment in order to work undisturbed. In August he recuperated during a brief vacation with Clara in Bohemia where they visited Austrian Chancellor Metternich in his castle. Schumann was in such awe of the “great man . . . his big, wise eyes, his firm robust stride, and above all that clear, distinct voice,” that when Metternich offered his hand, he was “too embarrassed to take it.”
After this holiday Clara reported herself pregnant again (“hopefully”). Schumann responded with “a bad hangover” on her birthday. Psychiatrist Peter Ostwald continues: “Whether these announcements were directly related is unclear, but his feeling of simultaneous elation and depression seems to have generated a composition that has become one of the pivotal chamber music works of the 19th century, the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op.44.”
Written for Clara and dedicated to her when eventually published in 1843, the quintet is like a small piano concerto. Clara could perform it at home in the typical chamber music drawing-room or in a medium-sized hall like ours for the public, without need for a symphony orchestra. The combination of piano and strings was not new, but earlier similar works by Boccherini or Schubert had included a double bass. Schumann’s combining the piano with a string quartet served as a model for later works by Brahms, Dvořák, Elgar, Goldmark, Spohr, Thuille, Reinecke, Taneyev, d’Indy, Franck, and other composers.
While finishing the piano quintet, Schumann began to feel ”melancholic” again. He may have had “seasonal depressive disorder” (SAD), and after a few “dreadful sleepless nights” he rapidly gave birth to another giant in the chamber music canon, the Quartet for Piano and Strings, op. 47, also in E-flat major. No wonder we call 1842 Schumann’s “chamber music year.” And you can see why the connection between madness and creativity can be so intriguing.