September 23, 2014

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Winter Festival: The Incredible Decade 1820-1830

By Gail Wein
23 Dec 2013

Pamela Frank
photo by Nicolas Lieber

The history of classical music comprises a vast array of rich creative output. But, as David Finckel noticed, one particular decade—1820-1830—stands out as especially rich.

Finckel, co-artistic director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, spotted this as he was looking at CMS’s vast data base of thousands of chamber works as he planned the 2013-2014 season. “Looking through the database chronologically, we reached the 1820’s and realized that within ten years, all this incredible music was composed.” Finckel quickly determined that this would be the basis for the CMS Winter Festival, The Incredible Decade. “I daresay there’s not a ten year period in history that produced music of this magnitude anywhere else,” he added.

Finckel and CMS Co-artistic Director Wu Han chose to focus the Winter Festival programs on the works of three composers: Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. “If you look at who else was writing in that time, there are some very good composers, like Rossini, Meyerbeer, Weber, Spohr, Hummel and Glinka, but they’re not even close to the stature of these three giants.”

1820-1830 was a time of great productivity for each of the three. Mendelssohn was just 11 when the decade started, and he was an exceptionally early bloomer. A child prodigy, there were few obstacles to his growth as an artist: he came from a wealthy family, and he wasn’t trotted around Europe as a spectacle by his father the way Mozart and Beethoven were. Mendelssohn created a large number of great works while still in his teens, including his Octet for Strings, which he composed at age 16. On the concerts on February 23 and 25, 2014, Mendelssohn’s Octet is paired with Schubert’s work for the same number of instruments, his Octet for Winds and Strings, written in 1824.

Schubert was in his 20s at the onset of this decade (he died in 1828 at age 31), and he was extremely prolific during this time. He composed a number of significant works in 1824, including his Octet and the Arpeggione Sonata. The popularity of the arpeggione— an instrument bowed like a cello, with frets like a guitar—was a flash in the pan. Its heyday began in 1823, the year it was invented, and lasted only a few years. Schubert’s work for this now-extinct instrument is often played on cello, and the opening program of the Winter Festival (February 7) features this work performed by the cellist Andreas Brantelid and the pianist Alessio Bax.

Schubert was in his 20s at the onset of this decade (he died in 1828 at age 31), and he was extremely prolific during this time. He composed a number of significant works in 1824, including his Octet and the Arpeggione Sonata. The popularity of the arpeggione— an instrument bowed like a cello, with frets like a guitar—was a flash in the pan. Its heyday began in 1823, the year it was invented, and lasted only a few years. Schubert’s work for this now-extinct instrument is often played on cello, and the opening program of the Winter Festival (February 7) features this work performed by the cellist Andreas Brantelid and the pianist Alessio Bax.

Finckel and Wu Han put together the programs in such a way as to highlight the relationships of the music and the composers. In writing his first serious quartet, his Opus 13, Mendelssohn was inspired by Beethoven’s Op. 95 quartet, and Finckel has paired these on the February 9th program, along with Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet. The three are a natural fit, programmatically, but Finckel says, in all his years on stage, he’s never seen these programmed together. February 9 also marks the CMS debut of the Danish String Quartet, bright young stars who are new to the CMS Two roster.

The final program, on March 2, features works that Beethoven and Schubert wrote at the end of their lives. Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 135 was his last, completed just months before his death. He was acutely aware of this, inscribing the motto on the manuscript, “The difficult decision: Must it be? It must!” Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, written for string quartet with an additional cello, was composed during an exceptionally productive time, just weeks before his death in 1828. Many consider it the pinnacle of his chamber works, though its sunny demeanor does not sound like a premonition of his end. “It’s one of the most sublime and beloved works in the literature,” says Finckel.

Finckel says that this 190 year old music, composed on the cusp of the Romantic era, is still relevant today. “All three of these masters were well-schooled in the music of their past, especially that of Bach, and that was evident in their compositions. The ideas of these composers emerge with the same freshness that they did in the 1820s. It’s about life and death and the universe we live in,” he concludes.

The Winter Festival, Finckel explains, is the signature point in the CMS season. This year’s CMS season as a whole focuses on a chronological overview of chamber music, a journey in time that begins with the Baroque Festival, December 6–17, and ends with a contemporary program that features a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on April 11, 2014 in Alice Tully Hall. “The Incredible Decade fits into this timeline perfectly,” says Finckel. “It’s the keystone of our season.”

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Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist and media consultant. She is a contributor to NPR, Voice of America and has written for The Washington Post, Musical America, Symphony Magazine and New Music Box.




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