By Jim Berkenstock, Midsummer’s Music Artistic Director
From the very beginning, Midsummer’s Music has made a point of presenting programs featuring pieces with varied instrumentation. We have done this for the sake of variety and interest. We sometimes say that the sounds on our programs are something like the Door County weather—constantly changing. It’s a bit like menu planning. I might like brussels sprouts, but generally not as the first course, the second course, and the third. Hearing different combinations of instruments in different works is part of our recipe.
Occasionally there is a compelling reason for staying with the same instrumentation, because the works are complimentary and the combination instructive and compelling. Although it is hard to make that case for brussels sprouts, I think our Quintet Elegance program that starts this Saturday and runs through September 2nd is such a menu. The ensemble is a string quintet. Mozart helped establish the string quintet with six magnificent works in which he added a second viola to the regular instrumentation of the string quartet (which he also helped establish). For some time, this combination was the one that other composers employed when writing a quintet. We have come to call this configuration with an extra viola a “Viola Quintet.”
Schubert added a new dimension when he wrote his only string quintet, the C Major, and used a cello as the additional instrument. The “Cello Quintet” was born and eventually became as popular as its viola counterpart. More importantly, one of the greatest chamber works ever written was presented to us. But it almost didn’t happen. Schubert finished this work in October of 1828, less than two months before his very untimely death. He offered it to his publisher along with some songs and other shorter works. His publisher was only interested in the songs and wanted more popular piano works. He didn’t take Schubert seriously as a chamber music composer (even though he had already written all 15 of his string quartets). After Schubert’s death, his brother tried to interest another publisher, but it languished for 25 years until it was finally published in 1853. It only received its first performance in 1850! Do you realize how fortunate that we are? This work existed only as a handwritten manuscript for 25 years. In wooden buildings heated by fireplaces and wood stoves, valuables of all kinds disappeared with regularity. That is why we have only 200 of the 300 cantatas J.S. Bach wrote. We are fortunate that Schubert’s Quintet was finally published when it was because we now no longer have the original manuscript or set of original parts—just the first publication. Once a work was published, it was disseminated and ended up in libraries thereby making its legacy pretty secure. Thank God such is the case with this quintet.
Since we are doing a little mini celebration of Schubert this year on the 225th anniversary of his birth in 1797, it seemed important to include this glorious work. And since Cole Randolph, cellist with the Detroit Symphony, was joining us to fill out the quintet, I started looking around for a companion work. I didn’t have to look far because I had recently become aware of a new-to-me composer whose works I had started to explore. Ethel Smyth was born five years after the belated publication of Schubert’s Quintet. Among her many chamber works is a remarkably fine Quintet, and it happens to also be a “cello” quintet.
Smyth’s is a fascinating story. She was born in what is now a suburb of London and had as a father a Major General in the Royal Artillery. He was steadfastly opposed to her pursuing music as a career, and his battle with her came to a head in Ethel’s teenage years when she decided to “go on strike.” The issue was her desire to go to Leipzig to study music. Over the course of two years, she increasingly withdrew from family and social activities and eventually declined food until her father finally relented. She not only studied in Leipzig at the Conservatory, but became acquainted with Dvořák, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, and through her teacher, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met Clara Schumann and Brahms.
Back in England, she found support from the aging Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Smyth’s operatic work, The Wreckers, is considered by many as the best English opera written between those of Purcell and Britten. Der Wald, first produced in 1903, was for over a century the only opera by a woman composer performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She wrote in all genres; although among her many works for orchestra one doesn’t find an actual symphony. There is a fine balance of songs, chamber works, sacred works (her Mass in D is highly regarded), works for piano, and works for the suffragette movement including The March for Women, which became the anthem of the women’s movement. For her work as a composer, a leader in the suffragette movement, and at least 10 literary works, she was bestowed the title “Dame” in the Order of the British Empire becoming the first female composer to receive this honor.
The Quintet is her Opus 1, but it was written when she was already 30 years old, so one assumes it was proceeded by many works without opus number. In five movements, it is full of beauty, variety, and power and quickly assures the listener that she is a composer to be reckoned with (as her father found out years earlier). It seems like a perfect work to pair with Schubert’s great masterpiece.
We hope you will join us for this sumptuous adventure at any of four venues:
- Saturday, August 27, 7:00 pm, Courtney/Reschka Residence, Sister Bay
- Sunday, August 28, 5:00 pm, Woodwalk Gallery, Egg Harbor
- Wednesday, August 31, 7:00 pm, Kress Pavilion, Egg Harbor
- Friday, September 2, 7:00 pm, Sister Bay Moravian Church
David Perry and his colleague from the Pro Arte Quartet in Madison, violist Sally Chisholm, will lead the group that includes violinist Eleanor Bartsch and cellists James Waldo and Cole Randolph. The season is fast coming to an end, but some great music still beckons. Please join us and don’t forget our grand gala on Labor Day at Björklunden. Call 920-854-7088 or visit www.midsummersmusic.com for tickets or further information. Some venues will sell out, so don’t wait.