October 26, 2014


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN  Piano Trio, Op.121a, “Kakadu” Variations

FELIX MENDELSSOHN  Piano Trio No.2 in C Minor, Op.66

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NOTES by Sasha Margolis

Tailleferre, Piano Trio

Germaine Tailleferre’s Piano Trio is exceptional not only for its ravishing Gallic beauty, but for the length of time that passed between its initial composition, in 1916-17, and Tailleferre’s revision (during which she added two entirely new movements) in 1978.

Between her twenty-fourth and eighty-sixth years, Tailleferre prolifically produced ballets, concerti, operas and cantatas, instrumental sonatas, duo piano music, and film scores. However, since music history tends to favor recognizable aesthetic movements and notions of historical progress, she is principally famous not as an individual, but as a member of “Les Six.” This was a group of six young composers emerging in Paris just after World War I, and including also Poulenc, Honegger, and Milhaud (as well as the not so well-known Auric and Durey.) Protégés of Satie and Cocteau, the six were seen as standard-bearers of a new, sparer aesthetic, which contrasted with the so-called impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, and was in tune with the sensibility of painters such as Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, whose works decorated the walls of the studio where the first “Les Six” concerts were staged.

The narrative of “Les Six,” though useful for publicity purposes, ignored the fact that the members of the group never really did display much aesthetic unity, and that as individuals they showed abundant stylistic variability within their own oeuvres. Tailleferre, for example, wrote a number of works that are linear and spare, as a “Les Six” piece ought to be; a few that are more jazzy than classical; while the Trio is closer to Ravel than it is to any of the other “Les Six” composers–unsurprising given the fact that Tailleferre studied with Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire, and became good friends with him in the 1920s.

Indeed, the colors and harmony of the Trio’s first movement, dating from 1916-17, are quite Ravelian, while also drawing frequent comparisons to the music of Chausson; the second movement, written in 1978, evokes the same neoclassical world as Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The whimsical third movement, again dating from 1916-17, calls to mind the harmonies of Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who was director of the Conservatoire during Tailleferre’s student years. This is not to say that Tailleferre’s music is derivative; rather, it is to say that it speaks French, and in the same way that Ravel’s music will sometimes invite comparison with Debussy’s and Fauré’s, so Tailleferre’s recalls other composers, while arranging things very much in its own way. That said, the finale, dating again from 1978, is unlikely to evoke any clear model, while fitting seamlessly with the rest of Tailleferre’s music.

Beethoven, Piano Trio, Op.121A, “Kakadu” Variations

Several of Beethoven’s piano trios have nicknames, which can at times be helpful in letting a listener know what to expect from them. The “Ghost” Trio has an eerie-sounding slow movement; the “Archduke,” dedicated to an actual archduke, has an exalted quality eminently worthy of so noble a personage. What, then, should the name “Kakadu” Variations lead us to expect?

Kakadu is German for “cockatoo.” So then, should we expect to hear a cockatoo? Yes and no. The trio has been given its avian appellation because it includes ten variations on a tune called “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” (“I am the tailor Cockatoo.”) The tune, in turn, comes from an opera by Wenzel Müller, Die Schwestern von Prag (The Sisters from Prague.) Knowing this does not, so far, seem to be of great benefit.

To make matters worse, in the original version of Müller’s opera, the aria in question makes no mention of any cockatoo. But it seems that, at the time the opera premiered in 1794, the word kakadu had recently entered German (from the Malay language, via Dutch); and the bird it refers to, with its jaunty crest of feathers, had been instantly embraced in German culture as a symbol of a sort of mischievous and cocky everyman. Müller’s tailor character was just such a cocky everyman. And somehow, as the tailor’s tune was repeated and popularized outside the theater, his original name was transformed to Kakadu. Eventually, the name in the opera was itself changed to match the people’s preference. That the general public showed great insight in this regard is proven by the striking similarity of Mr. Cockatoo’s melody to another bird-man’s song, the famous aria that Mozart’s Papageno sings in The Magic Flute. Perhaps, then, what we should expect from Beethoven’s variations is a comical and homespun kind of bird-man music.

Is this the case? Alas, the fact is that the complicated history of its nickname is only the beginning of the complexities attending this admittedly diminutive piece of music. Op.121A was published in 1824, at the time Beethoven was writing his Ninth Symphony and late quartets. But it was probably written some twenty-odd years earlier, may have been revised in 1816, and may have been revised again in the year of its publication. Though these twenty-odd years don’t compare to Tailleferre’s sixty-two, those familiar with the marked change in Beethoven’s compositional style throughout his career, and the road he traveled from brilliant pianist-improviser to tortured creative genius, will understand that this matter of dates is no idle or academic one. It may, indeed, be crucial. Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood, in an essay called “Beethoven’s ‘Kakadu’ Variations, Op.121A: A Study in Paradox,” writes: “Modern performers and listeners, struck by its uneven aesthetic qualities and lopsided formal organization, are hardly surprised to learn that scholars remain in doubt over the date of its composition and possible revision.”

The work’s “uneven aesthetic qualities” might be more charitably described as “surprising stylistic juxtapositions,” and to call the form “lopsided” may be taking things a little far. But there’s certainly something unusual going on here. At the heart of the matter is that the “Kakadu” tune is treated in a lighthearted and typically early-Beethoven style, which does match the image of the cockatoo in the German popular imagination. But the transition from variations to coda features contrapuntal complications characteristic of the late Beethoven, a very un-cockatoo-like composer. And the whole variation section is preceded by a profound and portentous introduction improbably constituting nearly a full third of the piece, and containing hints of the theme to come, which, despite melodic commonalities, display a wholly different character.

How to make sense of all this? Lockwood offers some ideas. “In this case,” he proposes, “it is as if Beethoven is suggesting to the listener that in the grand Introduzione he is showing his depth of imagination in a world of fantasy, and is gradually introducing into it the basic elements of Wenzel Müller’s trivial and jocular theme–but first allowing it to emerge in the strongly colored and serious environment of this imaginative introduction–as if he himself, not Müller, were composing it … In publishing the piece in 1824, what could Beethoven have been thinking? Perhaps that, if he was willing to to let this modest sample of his early variation-writing appear in print, it had better come with a massive gesture that would fully indicate the vast road he had travelled …”

Then, Lockwood offers a quite different possibility: that perhaps this is a case in which “the old composer, profoundly engaged in musical projects of the greatest difficulty and depth, looks back with nostalgia on a simple work of his youth, and seeks to bring it into the world, having clothed it with just enough complexity to balance its naiveté and directness with the wisdom of his later years.”

Mendelssohn, Trio in C Minor, Op.66

Unlike Beethoven’s trio, and Tailleferre’s, Mendelssohn’s C Minor is an unambiguously late work–even if, in Mendelssohn’s case, that only means that he was thirty-six when he wrote it. This trio bears the distinction of being the last chamber work its composer was able to see all the way through to publication before his untimely death. This fact is not expressed or hinted at in the music; there is no sense of summation or nostalgia. Still, there may be no more characteristically Mendelssohnian work, none which displays more of his expressive habits and musical priorities.

To begin with, no composer is better at getting down to business than Mendelssohn. Many of his most celebrated works spring to life remarkably quickly, with no need to build momentum, ruminate, hem and haw. Mendelssohn’s favorite means of accomplishing instant immediacy is through employment of one of music’s most basic elements: register. Rather than proceed one step, let alone a half-step, at a time, Mendelssohn prefers to sweep through an octave or more of registral space. Most often, the form of the sweep is a simple arpeggio. It may move upward, as in the Octet, or the Wedding March, or the finale of the Violin Concerto, or the Quartet Op.44, no.1; it may go down, to quite different effect, as in the Hebrides Overture. In the latter case, Mendelssohn, having initially opened registral space with an evocative falling arpeggio, opens up still more by moving the arpeggio around to different harmonies. And he does the same thing at the opening of this C Minor Trio. A minor arpeggio goes up; it goes back down; it goes up again, one half-step higher, dropping only a little; it rises to a higher chord, and then to a still higher one, pulling the listener instantly into a seething and irresistible emotional world.

Into this world comes a melody. It is one Mendelssohn has adapted from one of his own Songs Without Words, and shows two more of the composer’s expressive habits. Mendelssohn likes melodies which feature the interval of the fourth, moving upward, which often seems to signal a sort of heightened expressivity (examples include the First Piano Trio’s opening, the opening theme of the Op.12 Quartet, the introduction to the Op.13 Quartet.) And rhythmically, he likes to build melodies out of a combination of dotted figures, which may alternately build or restrain momentum, and even notes, which are more straightforward (examples includes the Wedding March, especially its second theme, and the Violin Concerto.) Here, he combines these tools to great effect.

The second movement is very much like a Song Without Words; the third, one of Mendelssohn’s elfin scherzos. Thus, by the time the last movement begins, three elements of Mendelssohn’s basic expressive identity–impassioned romanticism, tender songfulness, and the fairy-like–have been heard. In the finale comes a fourth. Mendelssohn, scion of a Jewish family which converted to Lutheranism, steeped himself in the religious works of Bach and Handel, which had a profound impact on his own compositions, emerging as a strong counterweight to the impassioned romanticism which seemed to flow so naturally from him. In the finale of this trio, the contrast of these elements appears with almost academic clarity: Mendelssohn includes, at a certain point, fragments of a chorale, “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ,” which alternate with the movement’s main melody. The chorale’s grounded and serene stepwise motion could not be more at odds with those dynamic arpeggios with which Mendelssohn so often begins his works. It happens that the melody of this particular chorale, which is sometimes attributed to Louis Bourgeois, is the same that is used for the Protestant Doxology.