Upheaval engulfed Béla Bartók in 1939. The Nazis had taken over his publisher, Universal, jeopardizing his intellectual property and his income, and his ailing mother tied him to his native Hungary, despite the looming threat of war. The conductor Paul Sacher provided some welcome consolation when he commissioned Bartók to write a new work for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Sacher even offered Bartók the use of his home in Saanen, Switzerland, over the summer. Bartók accepted the commission and the vacation, and after fifteen days of composing (and avoiding newspapers) that August, he completed his Divertimento for Strings.
Bartók had written a previous work for Sacher, the stern Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). For this new commission, and perhaps owing to the surroundings in which it was composed, Bartók adopted a more carefree approach. In titling the work “Divertimento,” he made reference to a Classical form of light-hearted amusement fit for parties and other celebrations. The score’s lean ensemble and dancing rhythms reflect the divertimento tradition of Mozart and his contemporaries, while the textures owe more to Corelli, Handel, Bach and all the other Baroque masters of the concerto grosso style. As in those early concertos, this work calls out individual voices from the larger string orchestra to create contrasting colors and densities of sound.
The Divertimento’s Allegro non troppo first movement makes a study of three-note fragments drawn from a range of musical modes, many redolent of the Hungarian folksongs that Bartók studied so exhaustively. The first three melodic notes descend F – E – D, and then the next scurry down the segment E-flat – D – C. The bluesy conflict between E and E-flat and other such collisions kick off the movement’s playful manipulations of its approachable themes.
In a marked shift of mood, the Molto adagio middle movement circulates from smooth, pacing lines into a swirling cloud of trills before dissipating for a quiet conclusion. The Allegro assai finale clears any lingering angst with a playful tussle through call-and-response melodies, sudden interruptions, a pensive cadenza for solo violin, sarcastic pizzicati (plucking) and glissandi (sliding between notes), and a manic conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Brahms spent most of his twenties in the orbit of the Schumann family, and he struggled to live up to Robert Schumann’s prediction that, “When once [Brahms] lowers his magic wand over the massed resources of chorus and orchestra, we shall have in store for us wonderful insights into the secret of the spiritual world.” Brahms did go on to compose legendary symphonies, but the first didn’t emerge until his early forties. Instead, he made his first great strides in the genre of chamber music, starting with a series of seven magnificent scores composed between 1860 and 1865.
The last score from this chamber music blitz was an unlikely trio for horn, violin and piano. In the wake of his mother’s death, Brahms visited a cottage owned by Clara Schumann (Robert’s widow and Brahms’ lifelong friend) in the Black Forest of southwestern Germany. Whether he was motivated by memories of his youth — when he played a bit of horn, taking after his father — or the woodland surroundings where he loved walking, Brahms embraced the instrument’s warm, nostalgic glow and outdoor connotations in his distinctive trio.
Instead of the newly developed valve horn, Brahms called for the older Waldhorn, or natural horn. With no valves to modify the pitch, the natural horn can only play the notes of the overtone sequence in a single key, as well as some additional chromatic notes produced by blocking the horn’s bell with the hand. Brahms limited himself to the available pitches of the natural horn, and he took into account the idiomatic changes in tone between open and stopped pitches. Even when performing the trio on a modern instrument with valves, as most horn players do today, the part reflects the ingrained characteristics of the original instrument.
The Horn Trio has an unusual form to match its novel instrumentation. Rather than a proper first movement in sonata-allegro form, the opening statement is a relaxed Andante that basks in lyrical melodies traded among the three players. Next a Scherzo lightens the mood with capricious shifts of momentum, including phrases of two-beat segments stretched into the prevailing three-beat pulse. In the contrasting trio section, the music becomes slower and suddenly earnest with a new minor-key strain. Traces of folksongs appear in both the Adagio mesto (slow and sad) third movement and the upbeat finale, perhaps channeling Brahms’ childhood memories of his mother.
Aaron Grad ©2020
About This Program
With Artistic Partner and pianist Jeremy Denk, the SPCO winds show off their prowess, in a program that encompasses stylistic elements ranging from Classical through the 20th century. Beethoven’s Piano Quintet brings drama and high emotion, while Bartók’s Divertimento delivers tension and playfulness combined with elements of folk music. The sweetly sentimental theme present in the first movement of Brahms’ Horn Trio morphs into more melancholy tones in this piece, featuring three instruments the composer studied in his youth—violin, piano and horn.