Program Notes: Mozart & R. Schumann

Seattle Symphony musicians come together in a chamber music program with works by Juri Seo, Schumann and Mozart on Thursday, February 18, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Lost Songs for Clarinet and String Quartet

Eric Jacobs clarinet
Natasha Bazhanov violin
Artur Girsky violin
Mara Gearman viola
Nathan Chan cello

Juri Seo, an award-winning composer and professor of music at Princeton University, is known for exploring extreme contrasts within her compositions. Merging a deep love of classical form and tonality with an unorthodox approach and modern palette of timbres, Seo’s music is both humorous and serious, explosive and tranquil.

In her notes for Lost Songs for Clarinet and String Quartet, Juri Seo writes, “We live in cycles, with birth and death being the primary conditions of our existence. The simple act of breathing encapsulates the cyclic nature of life. Song does too, though perhaps in a more abstract way. In song, a call awaits a response; in song, silence is broken and inevitably restored.” This piece centers around two elements: breath and the songs of the ʻōʻō bird (Moho braccatus) of Kauai, Hawaii. Seo was struck by the poignant 1976 recordings from Cornell University’s Macaulay Library, which houses the world’s largest archive of animal sounds. These tapes capture the last call of this now extinct bird, presumably that of a lone male looking for a mate. Seo transcribed these calls and extracted fragments as musical motives, employing the use of microtones and multiphonics in the clarinet, which alongside breaths and tolling bells, evoke a sense of sorrow and passing time.

A meditation on darkness and loss, this piece is also a celebration of life. Seo writes, “If the last calls of the ʻōʻō bird went unanswered in the forests of Kauai, in my music, they are not only answered, but transformed and multiplied into a choir of birds.” The music becomes an imagined paradise, and a welcome respite from so much loss. Seo concludes, “Loss may be complete and permanent to our physical world, but not to our memory, nor to our music.”


String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 41, No. 2
Allegro vivace
Andante, quasi variazioni
Scherzo: Presto
Allegro molto vivace

Noah Geller violin
Andy Liang violin
Mara Gearman viola
Efe Baltacıgil cello

Robert Schumann spent much of his life plagued by hardship. While still a boy, his sister drowned herself in a lake and his father succumbed to a nervous disorder shortly thereafter. He lost his brother and sister-in-law to a cholera outbreak in 1833 and suffered bouts of suicidal depression until his death at the age of 46. On the other side of these mental struggles were manic bursts of creative output. The summer of 1842 was one such time of profound productivity. Earlier that year, Schumann accompanied his wife, the brilliant pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, on her concert tour of Europe where he was persistently in her shadow and insecure about his own talents. He returned home determined to improve his compositional technique. Within a few summer months, after much study, Schumann had composed all three of his string quartets. He revered the quartets of Haydn and Mozart and was awed by Beethoven’s mastery of the genre. Drawing on these rich traditions, Schumann displayed his own mastery of traditional forms, departing from his more wildly romantic piano music. Despite the struggles Schumann experienced during this time, his quartets are decidedly light and optimistic, full of energy and beauty.

In the Second Quartet, Schumann embraces the 4-movement template of the classical era: a grand sonata-form first movement followed by a slow movement with variations, a scherzo and a thrilling finale, again in sonata form. A sweet melody soars through the first movement, always reaching upwards in a lighthearted spirit, slyly veering away from any real musical turmoil. The middle movements are dominated by Schumann’s love of syncopation. The lilting second-movement theme passes through six variations and a coda, each with its own treatment of the off-beat pattern that creates an elusive mood throughout.  The Scherzo is more playful in its syncopated energy, rushing forward to begin every phrase on upbeats. The quartet concludes with more overlapping phrases of an invigorating melody and an almost raucous energy that gathers speed as it hurtles to an end.

Serenade No. 12 in C minor, K. 388 (384a), “Nachtmusik”
Menuetto in canone

Mary Lynch oboe
Stefan Farkas oboe
Benjamin Lulich clarinet
Laura DeLuca clarinet
Seth Krimsky bassoon
Paul Rafanelli bassoon 
John Turman horn
Danielle Kuhlmann horn 

Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 in C minor is an enigma in many ways. From its origin and construction to its instrumentation and emotional impact, this Serenade stands apart as one of Mozart’s most puzzling and mysterious works. There is some uncertainty among musicologists as to when it was composed, although evidence points to 1782. Also unknown are the circumstances surrounding its composition, whether it was composed for a special occasion or commissioned by a royal court. During Mozart’s time, serenades were composed of loosely joined dance meters, often five movements or more, and lighthearted in nature. The Serenade No. 12, by comparison, is a four movement “symphony” for wind octet. Its dark and serious tone is also in stark contrast to the practice of the day in which wind ensembles were a form of light entertainment, often performing as background music. This defiantly dark and somber piece, nicknamed “Nachtmusik” (night music), calls out for a more formal setting, one where listeners can give their full attention to this austere piece.

The opening movement begins with a dramatic declaration in C minor. The second theme moves to a jauntier E-flat major melody in the oboe, supported by bright eighth notes in the clarinets. The development features a brief canon which travels through several keys before returning to C minor for the recapitulation of the opening material. This time, the second theme remains in the minor key, transforming the oboe melody into a more solemn character.  The delicate Andante second movement is in a graceful triple meter and features lilting phrases in E-flat major, filled with harmonic suspensions, which contribute to the overall dark, nocturnal quality of this work. Following this is a minuet that displays Mozart’s contrapuntal skills at their finest. The trio section is comprised solely of the oboes and bassoons, in a beautiful four-voice double canon. Mozart adds depth to this counterpoint by inverting the second voice as it answers the first in a perfect mirror image. The Finale is in a theme and variation form, moving through an array of colors and moods. The first variation, which is quite intense, is followed by more lighthearted iterations before concluding with a final variation in the jubilant key of C major, a stark contrast from where the piece began.

© 2021 Catherine Case

Posted on February 16, 2021