Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin
Erin Schreiber, violin
Jonathan Chu, viola
Chris Tantillo, viola
Melissa Brooks, cello
Jennifer Humphreys, cello
Scott Andrews, clarinet
Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581 (1789)
Allegretto con variazione
String Sextet No. 1 in B-Flat Major (1860)
Allegro ma non troppo
Andante, ma moderator
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso
By Tim Munro
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is a country-hopping violin soloist and conductor. He has dozens of recordings to his name, awards under his belt. We might imagine his chamber program would keep the spotlight focused on his violin.
We would be mistaken. Tonight, Szeps-Znaider shares the spotlight. He takes an equal place among the fine chamber musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
We join them all at the table, lucky to overhear their lively, thoughtful musical conversation. In W.A. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, the four string players bend their voices to match the clarinet’s dusky tones. In Johannes Brahms’ sextet, six independent, equal voices find a way to listen and respond to one another. Parts contributing equally to a better whole.
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
At 33, W.A. Mozart’s career was sputtering. Until recently, Vienna couldn’t get enough of the talented, headstrong man. But success brought resistance. Conservative voices complained of complexity and excess, of arrogance and pride.
“If people could see into my heart,” he wrote at the time, “I should be ashamed. To me everything is cold—cold as ice.” He struggled with money, his marriage fell onto the rocks. But rather than shrink, his musical ambitions grew.
Mozart had been friends with clarinetist Anton Stadler for almost a decade. The two were close enough for nicknames. Stadler was “Stodla,” “Miracle of Bohemia,” and “Nàtschibinitschibi” (a typically Mozartian combination of “penny-pincher” and “foolish man”).
Stadler’s playing bewitched Mozart. Contemporaries mentioned Stadler’s quiet, velvety tone, which “only the heartless can resist.” Mozart, whose music had grown more intimate and inward, must have heard a kindred spirit. He wrote this quintet for Stadler.
Mozart’s first movement is marked Allegro (bright and cheerful). Pushing against type, this movement brings a calm, ecstatic joy, its hands 25
clasped in prayer. Stadler and Mozart were fellow Freemasons, a secret society whose rituals had and have ancient religious overtones.
The second movement brings an aria of aching beauty, sung by clarinet and violin. Mozart the operatic master might have set it to a plea for forgiveness, or a lament for lost love. The third movement paints the rustic goings-on of a town square with a refined brush.
The finale’s theme bubbles over, a melody in pure sunlight. Mozart takes it on a walk: over heavy terrain, past children at play, through a funeral procession, up to a radiant vista. A whole world in miniature.
First performance: December 22, 1789, by the Tonkünstler-Societät, in Vienna, Austria
First SLSO performance: May 28, 1999, by the Ying Quartet, James Moffitt, clarinet
Most recent SLSO performance: September 24, 2020, at an SLSO On the Go concert, with Tzuying Huang, clarinet; Andrea Jarrett and Hannah Ji, violins; Michael Casimir, viola; and Elizabeth Chung, cello
Instrumentation: Clarinet, 2 violins, viola, cello
Approximate duration: 34 minutes
String Sextet No. 1
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria
Johannes Brahms spent much of his life lonely, filled with melancholy. But at this moment, in his late 20s, he was lit by hope and joy. Indeed, Brahms might have looked to the future with optimism.
Work was satisfying: choir conducting gave unexpected pleasure, education, and profit. Life was comfortable: he could venture afield, but still retreat to his beloved Hamburg. His voice was maturing: “I am pleased with my things,” he wrote. “You know, I think I’m growing!”
Still, the shadow of the late LvB lay heavy. Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies and string quartets were intimidating models of acheivement. So intimidating, in fact, that Brahms wouldn’t complete his First Symphony until he was 43, and he burned 20 youthful string quartets in the fire.
Poet of the twilight
Brahms trod other paths. String sextets were uncommon at the time. Finding six skilled string players was no easy task, so most sextets tended lighter, simpler. But the form matched Brahms’ voice perfectly.
First, instrumentation. Brahms’ string sextets are written for a string quartet darkened by extra viola and cello. It allows Brahms—the poet of the twilight—to explore every shading between blue, indigo, and violet.
Second, equality. Brahms’ musical worlds are idealized democracies. Each voice is independent, yet can work with others. Conducting choirs gave Brahms empathy for the very human parts that make up the whole.
The first movement pulls between dance and song. Above a fragile slow waltz, solo strings rise and fall in smooth arcs. We hear Brahms the conversationalist, encouraging players to engage in contented chat, deep discussion, or fiery debate.
The second movement is a theme and variations that looks backwards for its model. Brahms filled his library with music by composers of old, adopting and adapting their tools. His beloved J.S. Bach echoes through this movement.
After the fizz of a blink-and-you-miss-it scherzo, the fourth movement has the feel of a serenade. At the time, Brahms was getting over the pain of a failed relationship. This music burns with the ardor of hope and youthful optimism. Moving on. Moving forward.
First performance: October 20, 1860, in Hanover, Joseph Joachim conducting
First SLSO performance: February 18, 1962, at Washington University’s Graham Chapel (first movement only)
Most recent SLSO performance: March 24, 1997, at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Manuel Ramos and Rebecca Boyer Hall, violins; William Martin and Christian Woehr, violas; and Catherine Lehr and Alvin McCall, cellos
Instrumentation: 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos
Approximate duration: 40 minutes
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.