Composers and their Muses

Ahead of his performance at Wigmore Hall on Saturday 29 September, Steven Isserlis explores the theme of the concert and examines the indIvidual stories behind each piece in the programme.

48540 aSaturday 29 September 2018 7:30PM
Steven Isserlis cello; Connie Shih piano
Composers and their Muses
£40 £35 £30 £25 £18


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The intertwining of music and love is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. The three pairs of composers represented in this programme were all, it seems, deeply involved with each other in a way that exercised a strong influence on their music – at least for a period of their lives. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann, their love violently opposed by Clara’s father but finally prevailing, their subsequent increasingly troubled marriage and Schumann’s final catastrophic breakdown and incarceration, is well-known. The curious and tragic story of Kapralova and Martinu is less so, as is that of Franck’s passion for the alluring Augusta Holmes (although the latter is the subject of an absorbing novel by Ronald Harwood, ‘César and Augusta’). All three couples provided mutual musical inspiration, which we hope to illustrate through this programme.

Clara SchumannClara Schumann: 3 Romances Op. 22 (arr. Isserlis)

Andante molto
Leidenschaftlich schnell

‘Women are not born to compose”. Clara Schumann’s output thankfully contradicts her own somewhat infamous words. As a young virtuoso, she produced a steady stream of music; but following her marriage in 1840, presumably fatigued by the cares of marriage and motherhood and frightened of disturbing her neurotic husband, her output dwindled considerably. Robert himself felt guilty, writing in 1843: ‘Clara has written a number of smaller pieces which show musicianship and a tenderness of invention such as she has never before attained. But children and a husband who is always living in the realms of imagination do not go well with composition. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many tender ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.’ Ten years later, however, things were to change (temporarily, at least) with the arrival in Dusseldorf, where Schumann was then music director, of the 21-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim. The Schumanns had met him as a teenager, and been thoroughly impressed; now they were bowled over. Clara wrote that Joachim played with “a depth of poetic feeling, his whole soul in every note, so ideally, that I have never heard violin-playing like it”. The encounter inspired Robert to compose his monumental violin concerto; it also inspired Clara to take up her pen for the first time in several years, in order to write these Romances. There is certainly no sign of lack of compositional practice in these beautiful pieces, with their intimate intermingling of violin and piano lines. Both Joachim and Brahms (to whom Joachim had introduced the Schumanns later in 1853) were enthusiastic about the Romances, as was King George V of Hanover, no less (though on the other hand, no more). The Romances may not be startlingly innovative – that is not the composer’s intention; but they speak with a very special voice.

Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke Op. 73

Zart und mit ausdruck
Lebhaft, leicht
Rasch und mit feuer

Robert Schumann was the first composer to use the title Fantasiestücke, writing four sets — two for solo piano and one for piano trio, as well as those for clarinet, or violin or cello, and piano, to be heard tonight. The notion of Fantasiestücke – the term adopted from one of his favourite authors, E T A Hoffmann - perfectly suits Schumann’s style, his unique alchemical gift for reproducing dreams in music. The present set was composed in 1849, at a time of violent internal strife in Germany, the revolution forcing the Schumanns to flee from their home in Dresden. Typically, Schumann’s reaction was to write some of his most inward-looking, poetic music. The Fantasiestucke share the conversational tenderness of Clara’s Romances; only in the last movement does Schumann’s exultant alter ego, his extrovert Florestan, occupy centre stage, in contrast to the wistful yearning of Clara’s last Romance.

Vitezslava Kapralova 200x250Vítězslava Kaprálová: Ritournelle Op. 25

The story of Kaprálová is almost beyond tragic. The daughter of a composer and pianist who had studied with Janáček, and who attained fame for his piano duo with Ludvík Kundera (father of the novelist Milan Kundera), Kaprálová showed early promise as composer, pianist and conductor, appearing in the latter role in London for a performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938 of her own Military Symphony. Having met Martinů in Prague, and been deeply moved by his music, she followed him to Paris in 1937, taking lessons with him and enjoying a bond that was clearly more than musical. What exactly transpired will probably never be known for sure; but In June 1939, Kaprálová wrote to her parents that she and Martinů were going to move to America together. Less than a year later, however, she would marry the writer Jiří Mucha, having spent the hours before her wedding with Martinů. Just a few weeks after that, she started to experience severe abdominal pains, which were diagnosed as the onset of tuberculosis; she died in hospital in Montpelier, at the age of 25, on June 16th 1940 – a few days after Martinů and his wife had fled Paris, and embarked on their long journey to America. Around the time that Martinů and Kaprálová seem to have fallen in love, the former was completing his wonderful opera Julietta, about a man obsessed with a woman whom he can only possess in dreams. Her husband recalled Kaprálová’s last words in the hospital where she lay dying: ‘It is Julietta’.

There were originally two ‘ritournelles’ for cello and piano, but only one has survived, dating from May 1940, the month before her death. The style inevitably reminds us of Martinů; but there is a vigour, a confidence, a passionate elan to the music that cannot be taught – all the more extraordinary given that it is almost certainly her swansong. As Martinů was to write later: “Why had destiny given her so much energy, so many precious gifts, and yet denied her the opportunity to realise her full potential? This question, I think, will remain forever unanswered.”

Martinu 200x250Martinů: Cello Sonata No. 1

Poco allegro
Allegro con brio

It is not surprising, given the circumstances in which it was conceived, that the first is the most unremittingly dramatic of Martinů’s three cello sonatas. The work was composed in Paris in May 1939, just around the time that Martinů and Kaprálová were planning their elopement. It is fair to assume, therefore, that his inner life must have been tempestuous at this point; but Martinů’s outer life was even more cataclysmic. The sonata was written shortly after his beloved homeland, Czechoslovakia, betrayed by false allies, had fallen to the Nazis. Martinů was never to see his motherland again. The menacing opening of the sonata, the desolate, funereal landscape of the slow movement, and the desperate conflagration that ends the work: all could be interpreted as an expression of the composer’s anguish at the loss of his beloved country. By the time of the premiere of the sonata, given by the French cellist Pierre Fournier and Martinu’s young friend, the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, in Paris on May 19th 1940, the Nazis were approaching Paris, and Kaprálová was fast approaching death. Martinů was to recall that the concert was ‘a last greeting, the last ray, from a better world’.

Augusta Holmès 200x250Augusta Holmès (arr Isserlis) : Récitatif et chant from La vision de la reine (arr. Isserlis)

The French composer of Irish descent Augusta Holmès; is a fascinating figure in musical history, her reputation for sexual allure still enduring today. ‘We were all in love with her,’ reminisced Saint-Saëns – quite a compliment from one whose preferences naturally strayed rather towards those of his own sex. Nobody seemed to have fallen for her more avidly than her teacher César Franck, 25 years her senior. He had until then enjoyed (?) the reputation of a thoroughly devout Catholic, much of his music reflecting this stance. After falling for Augusta’s charms, he and his music seemed to be transformed; his puritanical wife was appalled by the piano quintet he wrote in the late 1870s, its almost violent sensuality shocking many listeners, as well as Saint-Saëns, its original performer and dedicatee. It was around this time that someone was heard praising Franck’s mystic qualities. ‘Mystic?” replied one of Franck’s students. ‘Go and ask Augusta!”

Well, perhaps there is an element of false legend in that; and the whole story has somewhat blurred our perception of Holmès as a composer in her own right. She was the first woman to have an opera premiered at the Paris Opera, in 1895 – the year of publication of her scéne ‘La Vision de la Reine’. This cantata, for which Holmès wrote the words as well as the music (as was her wont), is a religious work scored for six voices – those of the Queen, the narrator, four ‘voix divines’ – plus a seventh voice, that of the minstrel, played by a solo cello, with the accompaniment being provided by harp and piano. In her opening aria, the Queen implores the Minstrel to use his sonorous bow and the ardent magic of his beautiful sounds (ha!) to intercede with the Immortals to protect her beloved infant son. The cello/minstrel responds with the impassioned recitative which opens our selection; it seems to do the trick, since the four divine voices respond with a variety of blessings and wise advice, from which I have chosen two arias. The first is a paean to nature: ‘Aime les oiseaux et les roses’ (actually not involving the cello in the original, but to balance the proportions of recitative and aria, I have appropriated it), the second a hymn to love, ‘Crois en l’amour, Dieu suprême des voluptés et des douleurs’, performed in the original by one of the ‘voix divines’ in octaves with the cello. The cantata, and this arrangement, ends with a coda of benediction. Perhaps the whole atmosphere is somewhat Victorian – but no less touching for that.

 César Franck cr Pierre Petit 200x250César Franck: Sonata in A for cello and piano

Allegretto ben moderato
Recitativo- Fantasia
Allegretto poco mosso 

And so to Franck’s beloved sonata, written in 1886 as a wedding present for the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysayë (but described as a sonata for violin or cello in the second printing, authorised by Franck). The principal material of the work all stems from the first four bars, in which the piano sounds a questioning phrase that contrasts the purity of the perfect fourth and fifth with the searching sensuality of the minor third and the minor sixth/major third. From there we are taken on a glorious journey, theme after theme sprouting from this very basic seed, through the yearning dialogue of the opening movement, the stormy eruptions of the second, the spiritual transformation of the recitative/fantasia (in which a new theme primarily composed of the pure intervals, the fourth and fifth, makes its angelic appearance), and the love-duet and joyous bells of the finale. Where the piano quintet begins and ends in darkness, this sonata concludes with the ecstatic triumph of love and light. Behind all the undoubted sensuality of the work’s passion lies a purity that elevates the work beyond mere romanticism – a purity which, in the words of the poet Camille Mauclair, ‘is neither dry nor severe, but loving and gentle’.

© Steven Isserlis 2018