Beethoven’s ability to let music overpower formal convention makes him the first Romantic composer of note. Brahms takes over this struggle between musical clarity and sonorous sensitivity, while Britten, rooted in the twentieth century, recalls the exquisite melancholy of the late Renaissance.
When the virtuoso pianist Beethoven, not yet 25 years old, appears as a composer, he chooses three piano trios as his opus 1. They display far more than mere comprehension of the style of the day: Beethoven documents the fact that he has his own voice. This is particularly apparent in the third trio in C minor, which his mentor Haydn advised him not to publish. He risked setting the complexity of the music too high for his audience to be able to grasp – piano trios were at the time considered entertainment music. However, the young Beethoven was already convinced that the beauty and truth of art is related to the more profound and complex aspects of life. In Beethoven’s opus list the key of C minor is an arena for existential unrest and struggles with destiny (his fifth symphony must be the best known example of this). Furthermore, Beethoven adds extra weight by adding a fourth movement; until now piano trios were restricted to three. A serene second movement and a playful and amusing (in Beethovenesque mood) third lead up to the sombre and robust fourth movement. This finale forms a frame for the composition by resuming and developing the deep unrest of the first movement, with the insistent hammering of chords at the same time as a preview of the mature composer he is to become.
Flow My Tears
The focus of the Romantic era on matters dark and mournful was nothing new. Many earlier musical styles had delved into the depths of humankind, occasionally with an overwhelming range of emotion. The English Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563–1626) was a master of melancholy, a matter he flirts with in the title of one of his collections: Sempre Dowland, Sempre dolens – Always Dowland, always dolorous. The title of Britten’s Lachrymae … for viola and piano continues with ‘reflections on a song by Dowland’. In the course of ten variations Britten interprets and develops the love lament ‘If My Complaints Could Passion Move’ from Dowland’s collection Lachrimae, or seven tears. He dissects Dowland’s melodic lines and moves the focus to the sensitive chord progressions, which he interprets anew in the light of the expressive harmonies that his own era had inherited from the Romantic composers and further developed. In the sixth variation Britten quotes from another well-known Dowland song, Flow My Tears, but he concludes by allowing free range to Dowland in the entire song with its original harmonisation. By giving the tune to the viola, he awards the music the opportunity to dwell on and expound the moods of mournfulness and longing in which Dowland excels.
A Goodbye and a new start
Robert Schumann had a decisive influence on Brahms’s career. He declared publicly that the young pianist-composer he had met was the future of German music. Brahms remained a close lifelong friend of the Schumann family, and when Robert Schumann’s health was failing and it became clear he would not recover, he moved into the Schumann residence for a while in order to be of help and support. The quartet on the programme was composed at a crossroads in Brahms’ life. A few years after Schumann’s death Brahms moved from Hamburg, where he grew up, to a new career in the musical metropolis of Vienna. In many contexts Brahms has been regarded as Beethoven’s musical heir. He was however inspired by a variety of composers and musical traditions in his works. At the same time as he was writing this quartet (op. 26), he used a theme by Schumann in opus 23 and constructed opus 24 as variations on a theme by Handel. In the delicate second movement we observe how Brahms enters Schumann’s world of sound, as a reflective gesture to his late mentor and friend. The first movement is inspired by the melodious tunes of Schubert, a kind of house-welcoming present to his new city of residence, while the marked rhythms and compact texture of the final movement recall the gypsy music which is also an important part of the rich Viennese legacy.