The Romantic Spirit

Sunday, January 19, 2020 @ 3:30 PM

We open the season with Canadian composer Christine Donkin’s Piano Trio, an expressive work of sparkling clarity and romantic in spirit. Turning to the 19th Century, we’ll hear Edvard Grieg’s Violin and Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 45, sweet, soulful and rich in Norwegian folk elements. Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60 closes this concert, written on a grand scale and considered one of the greatest chamber works of the Romantic era.

Piano Trio
by Christine Donkin (b.1976)

  • Expressive, animated
  • Peaceful
  • Light, delicate
  • Playful, agitated

Award winning Canadian composer Christine Donkin grew up in Alberta and studied composition at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, and currently resides in Victoria. She has composed piano, choral, chamber and orchestral works for all levels ranging from beginning student pieces to larger scale works that have been performed by various prestigious groups such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Elektra Women’s Choir. Her work is promoted by several publishers across North America. Her Piano Trio was commissioned for Cadenza Summer Music Week in Winkler, Manitoba in 2014. She composed the first movement which was performed that summer. In the fall, she composed the rest of the trio, and it was premiered in its entirety in Ottawa in the spring of 2015. Her musical style catches something of the expressivity of the Romantic age, her sonorities are somewhat reminiscent of French predecessors of a century ago, yet there is so much that is all her own.

The first movement, Expressive, animated, is a light and lively movement of varying textures with much wandering motivic exploration of the main lyrical theme introduced first by the piano. The second movement, Peaceful, is slow and contemplative. It explores the far reaches of each instrument’s range. The faster middle section features an ethereal-sounding layered sonority of rippling figures that rise and fall. The third movement, Light, delicate, is whimsical in character with melodies laced in triplets. Occasional contrasting surges of passion erupt with music of denser textures. The first theme from the first movement emerges again towards the end. The outer sections of the fourth movement, Playful, agitated, are strongly rhythmic with energy that propels the music forward -- a spirited frame for the gentler lilting central section.

Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, Op.45
by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

  • Allegro molto ed appassionato
  • Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza
  • Allegro animato

1864 was a pivotal and formative year for Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. By this time, Grieg was a well-established musician with a career as a pianist/ composer nicely launched in his home town of Bergen. He was in love, newly engaged, and ready for new ideas. It was at this point that he embraced, influenced by his artistic contemporaries, the trend towards nationalism. He vowed to incorporate folk elements into his writing. Grieg wrote, “Suddenly it seemed as if a mist fell from my eyes and I knew what I wanted.” In the following years, Grieg wrote three sonatas for violin and piano; all draw on his folk heritage. His third much later work for this combination, the Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, Op.45, was written in 1886-7 when Grieg was a the height of his powers; it is considered the most sophisticated of the three. The piece is written in classical sonata form imbued with a Romantic temperament and peppered with folk elements.

The first movement, Allegro molto ed appassionato, presents a passionate sweeping first theme that contrasts with a warm and heartfelt second theme. The piano opens the second movement, Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza, with a melody of beautiful simplicity that later passes to the violin. Perhaps it calls to mind the clear open air and beauty of a Norwegian fjord. The faster central section offers dance-like music with impish charm. The finale movement, Allegro animato, has a main idea full of frolic and fun embedded in a rippling triplet piano configuration. Its middle section is slower and soulful, and as it rises in register, the music mounts in intensity.

Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op.60
by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

  • Allegro ma non troppo
  • Scherzo: Allegro
  • Andante
  • Finale: Allegro comodo

Johannes Brahms was a master composer of the Romantic era who wrote in most genres, and was seen as a natural heir to Beethoven. He was a perfectionist who destroyed many of his works and re-wrote others. The Piano Quartet in C minor, Op.60 was just such a revised work. It was first conceived in 1855, then thrown into a drawer, and not touched for twenty years. Brahms had become friends with Robert and Clara Schumann as a young man, and by 1855 he had moved into the household to help during the agonizing weeks of Robert’s mental collapse and final illness. During this time, he fell in love with Clara, though it seems doubtful that his love was ever realized in a romantic relationship with Clara. This intense piano quartet is sometimes called the “Werther Quartet” after Goethe’s novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a story of a hero’s tortured and unrequited love, because Brahms made reference to the novel on more than one occasion in relation to his piece; apparently, he identified with Werther. When he re-wrote the piece in 1875, he dropped the key from C sharp minor to C minor, Beethoven’s favourite key for expressing passionate, heroic struggle.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with a bare octave in the piano part followed by a repeated, throbbing, descending semitone idea in the strings that soon slides into the motive E flat-D-C-B-C. This is the “Clara motif” that Robert Schumann employs in various compositions, here used in various guises by Brahms as a motto throughout the movement. The second movement, Scherzo, is a ferocious gallop, this time featuring a rising semitone motif from which the first theme is derived. The second theme is presented by the strings playing a rising line accompanied by the piano in triplets and only contrasts in material rather than mood. From the first notes of the glorious cello solo at the opening of the third movement, Andante, the music speaks straight from the heart. As the sublime music slowly unfolds, it seems to embrace the listener in a transcendent message of peace and acceptance that stands in total opposition to the fury and pathos of the outer movements. The Finale begins with the violin introducing the main melody above a restless piano accompaniment figure. Both ideas are developed throughout with intense rhythmic activity amongst all four instruments. Yet it is primarily the piano part that drives the entire movement with relentless pulsating energy -- right to its dramatic conclusion.