Friday, August 6, 2010

Many Legacies

It is no secret that one of the pleasures I enjoyed while working at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory in Connecticut was the opportunity for rather regular trips to Paris. Since this was a time when I had a voracious appetite for the piano repertoire, both two-hand and four-hand, one of the pleasures of Paris was shopping for music that was not easily found in the United States. On one of those trips I picked up a pile of reprints of four-hand transcriptions of chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms.

All of this material has received very (extremely?) gradual attention. When I was working in Marina del Rey, I had a four-hand partner with whom I finally got around to exploring the four-hand transcription of Schubert's D. 956 string quintet in C major. In its original form the quintet had all sorts of effects that were impossible to render on piano (beginning with the crescendo on a sustained note in the opening measure); but it was still a great adventure to explore what made this music tick. It definitely made me a better listener whenever I had the opportunity to hear it performed by a "real" string quintet. Similarly, one of the first pieces I explored upon my arrival in Palo Alto was the transcription of the Brahms Opus 25 G minor piano quartet, this time working with an old friend with whom I had played a fair amount of music composed for four-hand performance. Here at least the piano was part of the equation, and the strings were given as much justice as a keyboard could muster.

Recently I turned my attention to the volume of Mozart string quartets. In this brave new world of IMSLP, my current partner was able to download her own copy; and we have been working on K. 387, the G major quartet, which is the first of the six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn. I am writing about this because this has been a really fun visit into Mozart's "engine room," as Peter Grunberg has put it. There are all sorts of grammatical and rhetorical gestures that give clear signs that Mozart was paying attention to what Haydn was doing in his own string quartets and could come up with a "How do you like them apples" response! There are also ways of approaching this score in terms of suggestions that Beethoven was influenced not just by Haydn but also by Mozart-influenced-by-Haydn (which should attract some attention in the social network theory crowd); and from there we can move on to Beethoven's influence on Brahms. It thus may not be out of line to suggest that this one string quartet constitutes a significant seed for thoughts about composition throughout the nineteenth century. This may be a slightly hyperbolic claim; but it is likely to have an impact on the heavy amount of nineteenth-century listening that my duties require of me.

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