Sunday, June 12, 2016

Project 366 - A Few Friends

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


We spent the last two installments of this project discussing music performed by a solo instrument. Now, we should look at the most common form of intimate recital music – music for two, three or four players.

Like painters, composers want to exploit as large a palette as possible. This palette, as we saw in our earlier illustrations, consists primarily of tonal colours and stylistic or virtuoso colours like dynamics.

Where much can be said and attempted with a single performer, much like in the case of “the one man show” in theatre, a composer is limited to a single voice, a single line. This is precisely why performing music with more than one musician is a logical progression – we can now not only increase the tonal palette by adding instruments that extend the range of tones, we can also use these instruments to convey concurrent themes, that serve to enhance the musical message.

Musical Democracy

But like any great idea, there are drawbacks, and the main drawback here is “playing together”. 

Music now becomes a democratic endeavour, where the ideas of more than one performer now need to coalesce into a singular vision of the piece. It makes intuitive sense that a small group of performers (two, three or four) is an environment where this level of harmony and cohesion is most easily achievable.

Case in point: the most common form of musical duo (or duet) follows the formula “piano and (your instrument here)”. And with that, we launch into a new discussion on “democracy at work”, and it has to do with who gets “top billing” – are these works “for instrument with piano accompaniment”, works for “piano featuring an additional instrument” or pieces where the instruments are true equals?

In principle, the idea behind having two performers is that they are assigned different “roles” and different “lines”. The device that we recognize most often – from our experience with songs – is that one role provides the main message, whilst the other is confined in a supporting or background role. In the case of a duet featuring, say, piano and violin, we can readily imagine the violin playing the dominant musical idea – it has, after all, the higher pitched voice – with the piano playing a complimentary role, providing the “baseline”. There are indeed many pieces of the repertoire where this is exactly what happens.

More often than not, however, a duet is about “passing the baton” in some sort of “relay” scenario. At times, the violin plays the principal theme seconded by the piano, and at other times the piano carries the load with the violin emphasizing certain passages or enhancing them with its own colours.

The best duets are therefore the ones where the load is shared equally, where the emphasis is on piano “and” instrument, and it matters little whether it’s “cheese and macaroni” or “macaroni and cheese”.
We may call them duos and duets, but the bulk of music for two performers of significance are rightly called sonatas, and like we saw when we analyzed Mozart’s Turkish Rondo piano sonata, a sonata is a piece made up of several movements of alternating and contrasting character.

This is not to say that the duo repertoire is exclusively made up of sonatas, but these are the pieces you are most likely to encounter in recital or in recordings.

Duo combinations are, well, as varied as there are combinations of instruments – they can be two of the same instrument, or two different instruments. They can exploit the same range of tones, or different ranges. It’s really up to the composer to “pick and choose” what makes most sense.

The piano duet is a particular example that has this unique twist – two pianists can be playing on the same instrument (what we call “piano 4-hands”) or they can be playing on two different pianos (or, aptly, “two pianos, 4-hands”).

Three’s Company

They were three of the world’s most formidable musicians, and in 1949 they were invited to perform together during a series of four concerts in Chicago. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and violinist Jascha Heifetz drew great crowds, and the newly-formed threesome was so successful that one critic referred to them as “The Million Dollar Trio.”

Rubinstein reported later that Heifetz was particularly perturbed by the billing in the concert programs because Rubinstein’s name always came first, followed by Heifetz and then Piatigorsky. Heifetz wondered why the billing couldn’t rotate so that each of them would be mentioned first at one time or another.

Rubenstein apparently said that he didn’t mind, but as far as he knew, all trios are written for piano, violin, and cello, and traditionally one advertises the names of the players in exactly that order. As Heifetz insisted, Rubinstein lost his temper, “Jascha,” he shouted, “even if God were playing the violin, it would be printed Rubinstein, God, and Piatigorsky, in that order!”

So much for democracy!

When Rubenstein says that trios are mainly scored for piano, violin and cello, he’s not strictly right, though the vast majority of trios written in the classical and romantic periods have done just that. However, since any combination of three instruments can be featured in a trio, we have great examples of works that feature a wide range of instruments and colours. Brahms wrote a late trio for piano, clarinet and violin that is quite exquisite!

Another form of trio, that is most common in jazz, is what we’ll call the rhythm trio: piano, bass and drums.

Unlike in the case of duos or duets where works that adhere to the sonata formula are called sonatas and not duets, sonatas rarely retain that name when we have three performers – they are called trios.

Four is a Magic Number

Have you heard the term “magic number”? Magic numbers are quite the rage in professional sports – people who follow team standings as seasons near completion figure out how many wins are needed to “clinch” first place or a spot in post-season play. That’s one form of magic number.

In Physics, magic numbers have to do with atomic configurations, and how many electrons are needed to fill up a particular energy level.

There’s something about “magic numbers” – they seem to indicate the “right number” It’s the “Goldilocks” principle – not too much, not too little, just right.

I can’t rightly explain why four is the “magic number” of performers you need to create music. It just is.  Quartets are the epitome of chamber music combinations, providing the right number of individual voices to perform a work of music, the right number of people to have in a group to still achieve “democratic results” without the need for coercion or persuasion.

The prevalent combination for a quartet is what we’ve come to call a string quartet – two violins, a viola and a cello. From a tonal perspective, this combination achieves breadth and balance. From a harmony perspective, it provides so many possibilities – concurrent lines, alternating voices at different registers. No wonder so many composers – from the Classical all the way to Contemporary, have penned so many works for that combination!

Joseph Haydn, the great master of the Classical era, is often called the “father of the String Quartet”. He composed 83 and perfected the genre, I suspect his studies in quartet harmony informed his symphonies (he wrote 104 of those!) as well as vehicles for private performance by the “academy musicians” that were under his charge in the court of Esterhazy.

Haydn isn’t alone – Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak and Shostakovich are but a few of the composers over the ages that have contributed to the genre (all four combined, however, didn’t compose as many as Haydn…).

Johannes Brahms wrote string quartets too, but he also composed piano quartets – where he adds a viola to the standard piano trio. In fact, those three piano quartets are probably performed more often than his string quartets!


Again, we rarely talk of sonatas for quartet – they are just quartets. There are, however, a curious set of pieces that the great Italian opera master Gioacchino Rossini (then a teenager) write for two violins, cello and double bass which he called sonate a quattro

Exploring the chamber repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #11 - "Piano, Piano": Our look at duets begins with some works for two pianists. Works by Busoni, Arensky, Schubert and Bartok. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #184 - 6 Feb 2015)


Listener Guide #12 - "Mozart, Mozart (... and Barylli & Badura-Skoda)": Violinist Walter Barylli and pianist Paul Badura-Skoda perform selected sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart (Once Upon the Internet #34 - 17 Feb 2015)


Listener Guide #13 - "Franck & Fauré": Our look at duets turns now to sonatas by French masters Franck and Faure. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #204 - 26 June 2015)


Listener Guide #14 - "Leopold Wlach Plays Brahms": Duos and trios by Brahms are next, meant for the clarinet, and featuring Leopold Wlach. (Once Upon the Internet #43 - 12 Jan 2016)


Listener Guide #15 - "Trios élégiaques": Trios by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov written in memory of lost friends. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #147 - 14 Mar, 2014)


Listener Guide #16 - "Night Train - Oscar Peterson Trio": For your listening pleasure, I chose to program the 1962-63 Verve release Night Train, which is considered one of Peterson's most commercially successful recordings. (Vinyl's Revenge #13 - 26 Jan 2016)



Listener Guides #17 & 18 - "The Aeolian String Quartet Plays Haydn": Violinist Johann Tost led the second violins of Haydn's orchestra at Esterháza from 1783 until his departure for Paris in 1788. In Paris, Tost sold some of Haydn’s compositions, and Haydn in gratitude dedicated the Op. 64 set to Tost. (Vinyl's Revenge #4 - Dec 09 2014)

L/G #17 - Part 1
L/G #18 - Part 2

Listener Guide #19 - "Quartets": Quartets by Dvorak and Borodin meet works by Aldo Forte and Robert Schumann, all featuring different combinations of four instruments. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 222- 27 May 2016)