Piano Quartet No. 3 · Piano Quartet in C minor
Piano Quartet No. 3 · Piano Quartet in C minor
The prizewinning Copenhagen Piano Quartet presents works by composers cosmopolitan and conservative, but each brimming with charm. German-born Friedrich Kuhlau declared his Piano Quartet No. 3 ‘my best to date’, speaking of a large-scale work of drama offset by grace and highlighting the composer’s contrapuntal gift. A century later, the C minor quartet by the ‘Danish Saint-Saëns’ Otto Malling presents a perfect picture of this master craftsman’s clarity and concision while showing tantalizing signs of his sensuality too.
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Two of a Kind
by Jens Cornelius
Friedrich Kuhlau was Danish music’s most cosmopolitan personality at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He had travelled widely, had a large international network and, as an ardent admirer of Beethoven, he strove to introduce new tones into Danish musical life.
In human terms, too, Kuhlau stood out from the crowd. Not only because he was a German who never learnt to speak Danish, and only had one eye. If one reads through the convoluted accounts of the time, one gains the impression of a warm, vital, but not very conformist man with a liking for jovial company, tobacco and wine – indeed something of an alcoholic. A restless soul who did not naturally fit into the small, homogeneous Copenhagen elite formed by his audience and patrons. Instead, Kuhlau preferred to live outside the capital.
Kuhlau was born in 1786 in the northern German town of Uelzen. As a boy, he lost his right eye in an accident, but this did not prevent him from seeking to gain a future as a musician. Already as a teenager, he was active as a pianist and had his first compositions published.
In 1806, Kuhlau went to Hamburg, where he studied under the strict cantor Schwencke. That same year, the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops, and, in 1810, when the young men of the city began to be forcibly conscripted into the French army, Kuhlau left the danger zone and travelled to Copenhagen. The following year, he made his debut as a pianist in a concert at the Royal Danish Theatre and was well received as an exciting harbinger from the continent.
In 1813, Kuhlau became a Danish citizen and was granted the honorary title of Royal Court Musician, which carried with it the obligation to write official cantatas as well as an opera every second year. Among them were such milestones of Danish music: the operas Røverborgen (The Robbers’ Castle) and Lulu and the music for the national play Elverhøj (The Elf-Hill) which has over the years been performed over 1000 times at the Royal Danish Theatre.
In short, Kuhlau was a leading figure in what posterity has dubbed the Danish Golden Age: the first half of the nineteenth century when the arts and sciences saw intense development, in stark contrast with the stagnating absolutism and the general impoverishment of the country.
Outside Denmark, Kuhlau has gone down in history as a composer for the flute. He did not play the flute himself but exploited his flair for effortlessly writing reams of good-quality music for this fashionable instrument of the time. Kuhlau’s flute music, which spread across all of Europe, and the national works that became so popular in Denmark have overshadowed the rest of his production. He was in fact extremely productive and wrote excellent chamber works, including three piano quartets, of which the first two (in C minor and A major) were composed in the winter of 1820–21 and published in Germany.
From the outset, Kuhlau stated that he intended to write three such quartets, and it is possible that he also composed the Piano Quartet No. 3 that winter. We first hear about it, however, in 1828, when Kuhlau was given a commission by a Russian merchant, J.M. Witkowsky, who wanted to give his daughter a music composition as a gift. Witkowsky even invited Kuhlau to St. Petersburg to perform the new work and implied that more commission might be in the offing. But Kuhlau turned down the offer with the perfectly genuine reason that he no longer performed as a pianist, and that he was also busy composing The Elf-Hill, which had to be ready in time for the crown prince’s engagement celebrations that November. After doing this, he wrote the Piano Quartet No. 3 quite quickly – perhaps because he already had it lying finished or almost finished. In 1829, Kuhlau was able, with great satisfaction, to tell his Russian patron that the Piano Quartet No. 3 in G minor was his best to date and that the music ‘will have a brilliant effect’.
It is a large-scale work lasting almost 40 minutes. The extensive first movement opens dramatically with the main subject presented as a unison fanfare in clear-cut dotted rhythms. As a contrast, the second subject in B flat major is graceful and aspiring. The piano part dominates the movement with a profusion of arpeggios and scales that show off the pianist’s reserves of skill. The development section, however, demonstrates Kuhlau’s mastery of the fugato. A talent that even Beethoven had to acknowledge when he and Kuhlau met in Vienna in 1825. The two composers spent a couple of days together and emptied innumerable bottles while exchanging artful canons and tricky assignments in counterpoint. Beethoven jokingly – and flatteringly – referred to Kuhlau as der grosse Kanonier.
The fugato technique is also the basis for the second movement, a perky and ingenious Scherzo, the trio section of which is a humorous Ländler. The broad third movement, an Adagio in E flat major, features highly lyrical variations on the simple theme that is announced by the introductory chorale chords of the piano and the answering strings. The last movement, in a sonata-rondo form, returns to the agitated mood of the first and second movements. In yet another contrapuntal game, Kuhlau inserts half-way through the movement the choral theme from the third movement.
The first performance took place in autumn 1829, not in St. Petersburg but in Copenhagen at a soirée given by the court wine merchant and art-lover Christian Waagepetersen. Kuhlau performed the piano part. The party was held in honour of the Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles, who was visiting the city. Moscheles wrote home to his wife that Kuhlau’s new work was ‘in the grand style and excellently performed, although not free of remi- niscences’. Perhaps Moscheles, like several others, noticed a similarity between the beginning of Kuhlau’s G minor quartet and Mozart’s piano quartet in the same key signature, K. 478.
Moscheles also noted that the composer at the piano ‘was not always master of the chal- lenges presented’. For Kuhlau’s career as a musician was almost over. The same also applied to his restless life, for one cold winter’s day in 1831 his house burnt down with everything inside it, including a wardrobe full of manuscripts. Nobody knows how many works perished in the flames. Kuhlau, who was already in poor health, died a year later, only 45 years old.
When the composer Otto Malling died in 1915, he was remembered in the press as ‘one of the top people of our musical life – a name that had the rank of a high officer within Danish music’. The progressive Copenhagen newspaper Politiken nonetheless added: ‘However, he never indulged in any form of daring venture or experiment’. In a way, Otto Malling could well be called a Danish counterpart to Camille Saint-Saëns, for just like his contemporary French colleague he started his career as one of the most progressive composers and ended up as one of the most conservative.
As a young man, Malling had been in opposition to the establishment. He had refused to put up with the narrow repertoire maintained by the dominant composer Niels W. Gade in the lead- ing Copenhagen concert institution, Musikforeningen (The Music Association). Together with his colleagues C.F.E. Horneman and Jacob Fabricius, Malling, therefore, established an alternative in 1874, Koncertforeningen (The Concert Association), in order to get recent works performed. Partly their own music, but in particular the contemporary French music of Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Delibes, and Massenet.
In the 1890s, when Gade had died and Koncertforeningen had ceased to exist, Malling himself became the reticent one. He became the real successor to Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann, who for half a century had shared between them the decisive roles in Danish musical life. Malling succeeded Hartmann as a professor at the Academy of Music and as the cathedral organist in Copenhagen, and by virtue of his integrity and diplomatic skills, he also took over Hartmann’s position as an administrative key figure. In 1897, he succeeded Gade as director of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. So, Malling rose as high, as it was possible for a composer to rise in Denmark, and clearly he felt that with the important positions came a responsibility to safeguard the classical virtues.
As a composer, Malling passed through various phases. As a young man, he mainly wrote vocal music. In the 1880s, he wrote his orchestral works, including the Symphony in D minor, a Concert Overture, a couple of suites, a Concert Fantasy for violin, and the successful Piano Concerto. But conditions for orchestral music in Copenhagen were still poor, and Malling’s interest swung towards chamber music. He wrote a Piano Trio in 1889 and in the following years a Piano Quintet, a String Quartet, a String Octet, a Violin Sonata and various other works for violin and piano. The Piano Quartet from 1903 is his last chamber work.
By that time he had more or less shifted to composing only church and organ music. At the time of his death, he was best known as a composer for organ, but, paradoxically enough, it was precisely his organ music that consigned him to oblivion. For Malling’s late-Romantic, program- matic mood music was precisely what the church music reformers of the twentieth century wanted to remove from Danish churches. The reformers gained so much impetus that Otto Malling’s name completely disappeared from Danish musical life. It is only now that we have started to rediscover his music.
Malling’s charming Piano Quartet in C minor is a good example of his mature musical style. It contains more drama than the rather transparent Piano Trio but is still characterised by his decorative and artistic style. Malling formulates himself clearly and concisely, his compositional technique is masterly, and one can sense his highly knowledgeable background as a pianist and teacher of instrumentation. Harmonically speaking, there are delectable, sensual features – compared, at any rate, to his predecessors Gade and Hartmann.
And the Piano Quartet is also coloured throughout by Nordic national Romanticism. The open fifths, which symbolise something original and Nordic, can be heard from the beginning of the ear-catching opening of the first movement. To this Nordic feel Malling adds a piquant har- monic colouring which would seem to be French-inspired. The hymn-like second theme forms a contrast to the ‘wild’ main theme, a contrast that Malling’s predecessor Hartmann had also used in his overture Hakon Jarl, which dealt with Christianity versus paganism.
In the second movement, a Scherzo in G minor, Malling once again uses open fifths in the piano part, and the rhythm has been taken from the Norwegian folk dance, the Halling (Hallingdansen). ‘Norwegian style’ was extremely popular in Danish music around the year 1900. The Danish-Norwegian federation had been dissolved, but Denmark and Norway were still closely connected, and even though there were many Norwegians in Copenhagen, including the composers Grieg and Johan Svendsen, one did not have to be born in Norway to write Norwegian music.
The third movement in E flat major can be classified as a character piece, this time a nocturne. Its twilight mood combines nature Romanticism with the sensually romantic. The middle section Poco più animato strikes more tragic undertones. In the fourth movement the folk tone returns. The movement begins with a fanfare and then hurls itself into a quick, dancing main theme, once again with open fifths in the piano part. The second theme is calm and introvert, as a quiet folk song. The rather schematic course of the movement does not aspire to much more than to link the well-balanced themes closely together in a brilliant race for the finishing line. It ends with a shortened version of the fanfare from the introduction. As always, Otto Malling guarantees a fine balance between form and content.
Jens Cornelius, 2019