Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – Trio for Piano, Flute and Bassoon, WoO 37

Most of Beethoven’s chamber works for winds were written for a specific occasion or pretext. The Trio in G major, WoO 37, for flute, bassoon and piano, written sometime around 1785-1790 while he was still in Bonn, was published posthumously and received very little acclaim in its time. The trio was presented most likely as a gift for another ‘family’ trio much like the Bagers: the family of Count von Westerholt, a bassoonist; his son, a flutist; and his daughter took piano lessons from the fifteen-year old Beethoven. She must have been an exceptional student, as Beethoven wrote a formidably difficult part for the instrument. The composition is in three movements, the first of which (Allegro) you will hear this evening. The style definitely reflects the classical elements taught to him by Haydn and Mozart but there are elements of the emerging headstrong Beethoven, Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) dynamics, and arching melody lines building the this movement to its climax.

It is thought that Beethoven withheld the score to this composition throughout his life, and he probably might not have been too pleased to have it published!


Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata no. 30, opus 109 in E major

In 1820 Beethoven had started work on not only the Ninth Symphony and the Diabelli Variations, but the Missa Solemnis as well. During this period of creative magnificence he also produced his three final piano sonatas, each an experiment in form, a fascination with intricate counterpoint, and including rich harmonic architecture. This is the first of the three.

Throughout the history of music there has been much philosophy and speculation about the character of the individual keys. In Beethoven, E major (frequently described as bright and radiant) and E minor (sad, lamenting) often appear together, as in two of his other piano sonatas (no. 9, Op. 14 No. 1; and no. 27, Op. 90) and his second Razumovsky string quartet. The combination has been said to mitigate both the light and the dark aspects of the music.

In one masterclass session, the celebrated Franco-Swiss piano legend Alfred Cortot discussed this sonata, and began by playing three chords: E major, E minor, E major. In his analysis, this is the essence of the Sonata — this motion, eventually, back to E major.

The sonata has three movements:

· Vivace ma non troppo / Adagio espressivo, E major,

· Prestissimo, E minor

· Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. (Songfully, with utmost feeling) Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo, E major

Although written in three movements, it feels more like “two balanced movements”, since the first movement is linked to the scherzo-like Prestissimo by holding down the pedal.

Its focus is the third movement, a set of variations that interpret its theme in a wide variety of individual ways, and ends not with a bang, but a sigh.

In the words of Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, in this composition, Beethoven was “clearly preoccupied with the Baroque era. With its shifting moods and tempi, the opening movement almost seems to hearken back to the free organ fantasies of Bach and his predecessors, while the last movement could almost be called Beethoven’s Goldberg Variations.”


Ludwig van Beethoven – Variations on Folksongs Op. 107

Between 1809 and 1820 Beethoven composed settings for 179 folk-song melodies. He wrote these variations for money, and the impulse came from Scottish editor, George Thomson, an amateur collector of folk songs. Thomson’s anthology was conceived in a different way, not as a record of the folk song, but as a collection of specially commissioned compositions based on folk material. Therefore such poets as Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott were contracted for the lyrics part of the project and music was composed by, among others, Ignaz Pleyel, Joseph Haydn and Beethoven.

Thomson advised Beethoven in a letter: “You must write the variations in a familiar, easy and slightly brilliant style; so that the greatest number of our ladies can play and enjoy them.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly to us today, Thomson complained later that Beethoven “composes for posterity … he has been too learned and eccentric for my purpose.”

The value of these collections comes mostly from the variation form, of which Beethoven was a master. The arrangements focus on the piano part, as was the norm, while the flute (suggested by Thomson) provides the accompaniment. It is worth noting that these collections were composed just a few years before the ultimate Op. 120 (Diabelli Variations), and it seems that Beethoven experimented here with many of the compositional strategies he used later.

The bassoon part has been added here by Jonathan Bager, doubling notes in either the flute or piano from the original score.


Michael Tippett (1905 – 1998) – Sonata no. 2 for Piano   

Sir Michael Tippett’s Second Piano Sonata was composed in 1962. The piece derives its compact one-movement form from the fantasy procedures beloved of English composers from Byrd to Purcell, while its mosaic-like architecture reflects the strong influence of Igor Stravinsky on Tippett, which had been evident since his Second Symphony (1957).


Carl Reinecke (1824 – 1910) – Sonata for Flute and Piano “Undine” Op. 167

This sonata for flute was written in 1882, and is based on the novel Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The story also became the inspiration for ballets, plays, art and poetry.

The tale revolves around the water spirit Undine, daughter of the King of the Sea. Mermaids are lovelier and longer-lived than their mortal counterparts, living peacefully in deep underwater crystal palaces. The one thing they lack, and Undine longs for, is an immortal soul. The only way she can gain this is by uniting in love with a mortal.

The first movement of the sonata portrays Undine in her underwater world. She leaves it in search of love with a mortal and is discovered as a child on the seashore by a fisherman and his wife, who raise her as their daughter.

The second movement conjures a picture of Undine’s life on terra firma. It begins with a musical chase between the flute and piano which seems to subside only when the flute “gives in,” only to start up again in the same unpredictable way. The piano’s carefree folk-like solo section may be interpreted as her foster parents’ bewilderment and acceptance of Undine’s impulsive actions.

In time, Undine finds love when she meets knight Hulbrand, who seeks shelter with her and her parents from a fierce storm. The wonder surrounding Undine’s awakening to love can be heard in the relaxing flute melody inserted before the final burst of energy in this movement.

Following her wedding night, Undine confesses her water spirit identity to her new husband. Hulbrand swears his eternal love. This is the subject of the beautiful third movement (Andante). Unfortunately Undine’s mortal-distrusting uncle Kuhleborn visits and warns Undine that if Hulbrand ever raises his voice against her, the pride of the water spirits will not let her continue her life with him, and if his love ever strays from her, he must die. This threat is clearly heard in the disruptive whirl of notes inserted towards the end of the third movement, which gently returns to the mood created before the interruption.

Undine’s innate goodness permits her to trust Hulbrand’s jealous former lover Berthalda and take her in as their guest in their castle at Ringstettin. Hulbrand is seduced back to Berthalda, and upon her instigation, loses his temper with Undine and she is forced to return to life in the sea.

The finale movement is the most theatrical and incorporates Hulbrand’s scolding, Undine’s vain pleading, and the fury of the water spirits. Despite her protests, Undine must herself be the vehicle of their retribution. At the wedding of Hulbrand and Berthalda, Undine sadly appears and gives Hulbrand a fatal kiss. At his funeral, Undine secretly joins the mourners. She then vanishes and in her place appears a spring of water from which two small streams encircle the new grave. The return of the earlier “Undine and Hulbrand love theme” wistfully ends the sonata.


Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) – Trio for Piano, Flute and Bassoon in F major

Donizetti is most renowned as an operatic composer, but he did write orchestral and chamber works as well. He seems to have written just one instrumental trio (or at any rate this is the only one that survives), early on in his life as a composer, for piano, flute, and bassoon. The influence of the operatic style (opera buffa?) seems to underlie this delightful two-movement work. Imagine the piano as the pit orchestra, and the bassoon and flute as the male and female protagonists as they “sing” two Italianate arias to you.

Programme notes © Dr. Luis Dias