Last night’s student String and Piano Chamber Music program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music could be said to consist of three standards. It began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 387 string quartet in G major (probably as familiar to chamber music lovers as the K. 550 G minor symphony is to orchestra concert-goers). This was followed by the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 1 piano trios (in E-flat major); and the program concluded with Robert Schumann’s E-flat major piano quartet, Opus 47.
However, while it may have been an accident of coincidence, the arrangement of these three works in chronological order provided some interesting insights into how the making of music progressed from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth. This is not to suggest that there is a “manifest destiny” theory behind the history of Western music. It is more an illustration of Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor that ideas spread in the same way that one candle serves to light another, which tends to work rather well in terms of that light passing from Mozart to Beethoven to Schumann.
What made this program particularly effective is that, in formal terms, all four works consisted of four movements; and one could track that passing of the light through each of the respective movements of each of the compositions. Thus, all four works begin with the usual “sonata form” movement; but there is a shift of attention as the light is passed, particularly where the recapitulation is involved. For Mozart the recapitulation is just that, a return to the familiar material that introduced the movement following the development of some of the component elements of that material. Even in Opus 1, however, Beethoven is getting adventurous with his development; and he establishes a rhetoric through which the recapitulation is more assertive. This comes to a head in Schumann’s Opus 47, whose development becomes a wave of accumulating energy that finally breaks and washes over into the recapitulation.
Mozart’s second movement is marked Menuetto, but it is clear than any reference to the dance form is a mere formality in declaring the ternary form. For one thing it is hard to imagine anyone accustomed to dancing the minuet being able to keep up with his Allegro tempo; and anyone trying to follow the off-beat accents of the opening theme would be sure to break an ankle. One might say that inside this “Menuetto” is a scherzo trying to escape; and Beethoven’s Opus 1 is solidly in scherzo territory, taking a new set of liberties with games that Mozart had already been playing. Schumann then takes off in a different direction, with a much more intense Molto vivace that shadows the sense of play with a much darker rhetoric.
Particularly interesting is that all three of these works give the tempo for the slow movement as Andante cantabile, and each definitely has its own way of singing. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has his pet theory that all of Mozart’s music is operatic; and there is certainly a serenity to this movement that would eventually find its way to the vocal terzettino “Soave sia il vento” in the K. 588 opera Così fan tutte. In Beethoven’s case the song is less a blending of voices and more a contrasting of moods, cast in a ternary form whose light may well have inspirited Franz Schubert when he was working on his intermezzo collections towards the end of his life. For Schumann, on the other hand, songs are dramatic; and this one is particularly dramatic in the way in which the listener encounters it as if it were already in progress and leaves it with the first suggestion of a fugue subject about to be developed.
Here the historical continuity is not quite as smooth. Both Mozart and Schumann use fugue as the driving force behind their respective final movements. As the student who introduced K. 387 observed, the fugue subject anticipates the subject of Mozart’s final symphony, K. 551 in C major (“Jupiter”). Schumann pursues the imitative devices of fugue with considerably more intensity, however, often piling stretto upon stretto with that same wave-like energy that propelled the development section of his first movement. Sandwiched between these two intricately structured movements, however, we have Beethoven the comedian: the student of Joseph Haydn well aware of the master’s capacity for wit and determined to do him one better. The Presto that concludes Beethoven’s trio is a brilliantly choreographed unfolding of slapstick pratfalls. In Jefferson’s metaphor this is a candle that may well have brought the light to Charlie Chaplin.
All lessons in music history should have this excellent blend of information and entertainment.