By Abigail Fine
Greetings from Dr. Abigail Fine, Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of Oregon. Thanks to all those who attended my pre-concert lecture on Sunday, and for the interesting conversations after the talk.
At the start of my lecture, I described an intriguing piece of furniture: a nineteenth-century quartet table housed in the library of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. During several weeks of archival research, I sat at this very table, thinking it was just an ordinary old thing, until one day a string quartet ensemble burst into the archive and unfurled it into this:
What you see here are four music stands and drawers that include cupholders (!). The purpose is clear: to gather friends in a living room, play through some string quartets, eat, drink, and be merry. Today, we hear chamber music performed onstage in large halls, which can obscure its origins in casual music-making with a mix of amateurs and professionals. (But interestingly enough, the backstory of the Chamber Music Amici is straight out of the nineteenth century, hence their name, “Amici”!)
By the time Brahms and Dvořák were composing, chamber music had started to be performed in concert halls as well, and this meant that composers could move between different modes: the leisurely lyricism and conversational exchanges that characterized music for the home vs. the vibrant virtuosity and cerebral counterpoint that revved up listeners in the concert hall. The result is that both pieces on the program play around with venue—and if you attune your ears to the styles associated with different venues, you can gain a new dimension of listening enjoyment.
Here are just a few examples of many: In the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, we are enfolded in a warm, rich, pastoral world of Austrian Ländler (a country dance turned elegant when brought indoors); the faraway pastoral chords of the secondary theme yearn for the countryside in urban Hamburg, where Brahms composed the piece. But when we arrive at the development section, we hear each instrument speak in turn, engaged in a musical conversation that was typical of music written for amateurs. Brahms’s second movement changes venue from warm conversation to an eighteenth-century aristocratic court, with a chord pattern called the “folia,” a Spanish dance. His galant third movement bridges eighteenth-century elegance with the nineteenth-century parlor, and by the final movement he lands back in the living room, fondly remembering the theme of his first movement—a warm nostalgia for friends and conversations past.
Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, likewise, moves between venues: he starts off with a tender art song (with a cellist playing the role of baritone), but in a flash, the movement explodes onto the concert stage with what’s called the “brilliant” style. In the second movement, the Slavic genre of the “dumka” (an epic, melancholy ballade) invites us into old-world storytelling, with the antiqued voice of the viola bridging the Slavic and Germanic, a mirror of the Austrian Empire. (If you doubt this movement is Germanic, compare it with the slow movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet!) Dvořák shows us another glimpse of the living room in his final movement: even as he flexes his composerly muscles by giving us counterpoint and fugue, the very end of the movement surprises us with a poignant return to art song, to graceful simplicity, a memory of the past.
It is no coincidence that both pieces end with memory. In the nineteenth century, friendship and memory were closely intertwined, especially in the common practice of keeping a friendship album, an older form of what we today recognize as a scrapbook. If you attune your ear to contrasts in venue—from the living room to the concert hall to the palace and back—you can hear chamber music through nineteenth-century ears.
For more on music in the living room, I highly recommend a book by the brilliant musicologist Marie Sumner-Lott, who is a professor at George State University. Her book, The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, taught me to hear this repertoire with a newly attentive ear—and it’s a delightful read, to boot!