Friday, June 10, 2016

Octets & Nonets

No. 223 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

In recent weeks, our chamber music posts have looked at small groups – duets, trios, quartets and quintets. We even had a post a few Tuesdays back when we considered sextets.

The case of the two sextets by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg were interesting because these are sometimes performed by much larger complement of players - a string ensemble - where the standard string quartet 2-1-1 layout is multiplied several times.

This takes us to an interesting place – where does ensemble music stop being “chamber” music? There isn’t a straight-forward answer to that question, but suffice it to say that we rarely see chamber works that involve more than 10 players… So this partly explains this week’s focus on groups of eight (octets) and nine players (nonets), as these are probably the most muscular configurations we will find that “stop short” of being viewed as orchestral or ensemble play.

Of the four pieces programmed this week, the best known is probably Felix Mendelssohn's Octet for stings in E-flat major. This octet is really a double string quartet (2-1-1 times two). Mendelssohn instructed in the public score, "This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character."

Considered the first (and most ambitious) of his large mature works, it was composed as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz when the composer was 16. The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer's First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe's Faust entitled "Walpurgis Night's Dream." – that same section was scored as a ballet in Gounod’s famous opera.

Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the "cyclic" technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato.

The remaining three pieces in the montage are set for wind groups. Stravinsky’s wind octet, completed in 1923, is scored for an unusual combination of woodwind and brass instruments: flute, clarinet in B and A, two bassoons, trumpet in C, trumpet in A, tenor trombone, and bass trombone.
Because of its dry wind sonorities, divertimento character, and open and self-conscious adoption of "classical" forms of the German tradition (sonata, variation, fugue), as well as the fact that the composer published an article asserting his formalist ideas about it shortly after the Octet's first performance, it has been generally regarded as the beginning of neoclassicism in Stravinsky's music.

The remaining works are Wind Nonets (Flute, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets (B), 2 Horns (low B, E), 2 Bassoons) and both are in the French tradition, composed in the late 19th century.

We already made an oblique reference to Charles Gounod, so let’s start with his petite symphonie , composed for the Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments à Vent, founded in 1879 by flautist, conductor and instructor Claude-Paul Taffanel. Gounod, as stated earlier, is best known for his great operas, but he left behind a substantial number of instrumental works, including this charming “symphony”.

Louis Théodore Gouvy was born into a French-speaking family in the village of Goffontaine, in the Sarre, a region on the France-Prussia border (now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany). This somewhat unusual circumstance (not unlike Chopin, actually, who we can argue was as much French as he was Polish) makes him a man of two cultures, divided between France and Germany, from which he drew his inspiration, his characteristics and his force.

While to a certain extent he was known and recognized in his lifetime, he fell into obscurity following his death. His contemporary Hector Berlioz wrote in the Journal des Débats "[t]hat a musician of the importance of M. Gouvy is still not very well known in Paris, and that so many gnats bother the public with their tenacious buzzing, it is enough to confuse and inflame the naive spirits that still believe in the reason and the justice of our musical manners".
Gouvy, drawn toward pure instrumental music as opposed to opera, set himself the unenviable task of becoming a French symphonist. It was unenviable because the French, and especially the Parisians, throughout most of the 19th century were opera-mad and not particularly interested in pure instrumental music.

Chamber music comprises a large portion of Gouvy's work and accounts in particular for four sonatas in duet form, five trios, eleven quartets, seven quintets, an enormous piano repertoire — for two and four hands — and for two pianos, several scores for wind instrument ensembles, from which we selected his Suite Gauloise for wind nonet.

I think you will love this music too.

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