Skip links

x2 Program Notes – Jessie Montgomery, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Wolfgang Mozart

Please enjoy the program notes for tonight’s x2: Mozart & Rachmaninoff event. These program notes were created as part of Project Resonance, the Music Academy’s unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UC Santa Barbara are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival. *** JESSIE MONTGOMERY Strum  Most biographies of Jessie Montgomery start with “violinist, educator, and composer.” However, this does not encompass all of the other work that she has achieved and stands for—work as an activist, a warrior for social justice, and an advocate for change. Montgomery is a modern example of a true polymath, and she has been impacting the world with her unique ability to bring intersectionality to the field of classical music. The two concepts, music and intersectionality, are inextricably intertwined—they both encompass the complex nature of what makes us human. Intersectionality acknowledges that a person’s experience through life is molded by simultaneous, overlapping identities that lead to different modes of privilege and discrimination, and music is perhaps its truest form of expression.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jessie Montgomery was exposed to a variety of art forms from an early age. Her father was a prominent jazz musician, and her mother was a theater artist who specialized in the avant-garde; the two were deeply involved in community activism and artistic experimentation, and instilled the idea that art belongs to everyone in their impressionable daughter. A highly accomplished violinist, Montgomery began playing at a young age and was encouraged to embrace the skill of improvisation. She dabbled in composition throughout her childhood as a form of self-expression and as a way to continue exploring the boundaries of the “classical” music genre, even drawing on her background in improvisation on occasion. Montgomery attended The Juilliard School for a degree in violin performance before later attending NYU for a degree in film and multimedia composition. She has founded and performed in a number of quartets including PUBLIQuartet, Providence Quartet, and Catalyst Quartet, as well as ensembles such as the Silkroad Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi. Montgomery currently holds the position of Professor of Violin and Composition at The New School, and in May of 2021 she began her appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Montgomery single-handedly embodies the idea of intersectionality in everything that she does—bridging the ideas of diversity and inclusion by acknowledging that “just being an African American person and writing music that references [African American] traditions can fall under the realm of social justice in that it’s acknowledging the contributions of oppressed peoples and making sure that audiences are remembering and recognizing the importance of those contributions.” Strum is no exception. The piece was originally written in 2006 as a string quintet for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players and was revised to be a string quartet in 2008. In 2012, it was revised once again for the Catalyst Quartet’s performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition, a competition pioneered by forward-thinking industry leaders who recognized the need for diversity and inclusion in the highest levels of classical music. Looking at the way that Strum has evolved, it’s remarkable to note how its journey mirrors that of its composer: it started as a piece that was intended for a community-centered ensemble and ended up as a type of anthem for an organization that supports underrepresented communities. – Shruthi Kattumenu Academy fellow, violin
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor Sergei Rachmaninoff framed this piano trio as an elegy, but he offers us no dedication to indicate who it could be an elegy for. This may have been only a reflection of his emerging fixation on death, as Rachmaninoff frequently referenced mortality in his later works. He often used the Dies irae theme and also wrote larger works that engaged with death, including Isle of the Dead, based on the chilling painting by Arnold Böcklin and The Bells based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. More likely though, it was reflection of the reverence he had for his mentor, Pytor Tchaikovsky, whose 1882 Piano Trio in A Minor was also written as an elegy, in his case for the great Russian pianist, Nikolai Rubenstein. Rachmaninoff admired Tchaikovsky from childhood as Tchaikovsky had been a household name in Russia since 1873 when the younger composer was born. When the teenage Rachmaninoff began studies at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was one of his earliest and most passionate advocates. The personal relationship between the two composers was deeply meaningful to both of them, so it makes perfect sense that their compositional sensibilities align in many ways.
The “Tchaikovsky-ness” of this trio is unmistakable and pays explicit homage to Tchaikovsky’s 1882 piano trio. Both works feature soaring unison melodies in the strings underpinned by dazzling pyrotechnics in the piano, and both works conclude with a funeral march scored over a somber re-casting of the original theme. The episodes between treat us to the decadent Rachmaninoff melodies that have come to define his signature style. At times it may seem like the young composer was playing it safe, as the work is both more formal and less adventurous than his later works. But his penchant for sweeping melodic lines and rich Russian textures are invariably present. We can certainly hear elements of the classic Rachmaninoff, but it is evident that this trio was conceived and written as a work in veneration of his mentor. The work was composed in just three days in January of 1892 and premiered a week later to little success. Rachmaninoff cynically remarked that he did not even recover his expenses from the performance. Nevertheless, the work has transcended its underwhelming premiere and is now treasured as an early masterpiece from a talented pianist and composer. Tchaikovsky died the next year in November of 1893. Following his death, Rachmaninoff immediately composed his second elegiac piano trio. This time, however, it was not just an homage, but was published explicitly as a memorial to the late composer. This first trio is often thought of as a prequel to the second. But it is undeniably more than just a prequel. It is also a visionary reflection of Rachmaninoff’s respect and admiration for his remarkable mentor. – Keoni Bolding Academy fellow, viola
WOLFGANG MOZART String Quintet in G Minor Writing of the finale of Wolfgang Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet – a light, buoyant romp of an ending that is quite a change in character from much of what came before – Melvin Berger says, “This section clears away all remnants of despair with its zestful lightheartedness. While some critics find the Allegro trivial in this context, most admire its insouciant gaiety.” The last sentence – with emphasis added – raises an interesting question: Is the finale of the G Minor Quintet trivial? Could Mozart himself really have ruined the ending to his own work? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. The better question, then, might be how could there possibly be a situation where “some critics” could entertain the possibility that a happy sounding ending to a minor key work might be considered trivial, at all? The answer lies in the key of G minor.
Much has been made of Mozart’s relationship with minor keys, particularly G minor. Strange as it may sound, there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted entirely to “Mozart and G minor.” It’s the key of Symphonies 25 and 40, a number of prominent chamber works, and a particularly emotional aria in The Magic Flute. In the preface to the Bärenreiter edition of another work in the key – the First Piano Quartet – Hellmut Federhofer writes that, “Throughout Mozart’s life G minor was the key of fate, appearing to him most suitable for expressing suffering and sadness.” Melvin Berger clearly agreed. Just look at some of the words he used to describe the G minor String Quintet: “sorrowful,” “dark,” “palpably despondent,” “oppressive,” “ungainly,” “dirge,” “lament.” For the Mozart in Berger’s imagination, G minor must also have a key of suffering and sadness, or as he put it, one that “[projected] poignancy and yearning.” But then you’re left with that pesky question: what do you make of the ending? People love to look for patterns, to seek meaning wherever they can find it. But when we start to take these patterns for granted, to use them not just to search for meaning but to assume a specific meaning in advance, then perhaps we’ve begun to lose the point. Automatically assuming a work by Mozart in the key of G minor must deal with fate or suffering leaves you with the thorny issue of how to handle the moments that don’t seem, well, sad. All too often, the issue is “handled” by dismissing that which doesn’t fit the expected narrative, which is precisely how you end up with a situation where a critic might ask if an out-of-character finale could be considered “trivial.” The issue of Mozart and G minor, then, can start to seem a bit like the proverbial question of the blue curtains in literary criticism: are the curtains blue because the author is trying to convey sadness? Or are the curtains just…blue? While it may certainly be true that G minor was a key of “suffering and sadness” for Mozart, one reality of creating art is that it very rarely fits neatly into precisely labeled boxes. Sometimes the curtains really are just blue, and maybe – on occasion – G minor was for Mozart just a key. – Henry Michaels Project Resonance Blog editor, Director of Audience Experience & Engagement, Music Academy of the West

Leave a comment