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8.223171 - KIEL: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2

Friedrich Kiel (1821–1885)
Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 75 • Quintet No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 76


At a time when much of the German-speaking musical world was polarised between the progressive ideas of Liszt’s and Wagner’s sphere of influence and the opposing aesthetics of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, Friedrich Kiel remained without any close connection to his contemporaries, aloof from partisan affiliations and the stream of fashion. While enjoying the support of some members of the radical faction, he professed his adulation for Brahms and was himself a classicist who consciously emulated Beethoven and Schubert. His Opus 1, Fifteen Canons in Chamber Style for piano solo, was published in Leipzig in 1850 on the recommendation of Liszt, whom he did not know personally. No less a progressive than Hans von Bülow wrote disparagingly in 1863 in his Geigenkritik of Kiel’s Variations and Fugue, Op. 17, but changed his opinion after a public performance. In the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik he refuted his earlier opinion, mentioning Kiel’s piano masterpiece in the same breath as Schumann’s Symphonic Variations and Brahms’s Handel Variations, and he became the composer’s ardent supporter and friend. The German musicologist Wilhelm Altmann (1862–1951), who made a specialty of the study of Kiel’s music, found it “a never-failing source of delight.”

Born on 7 October 1821 in Puderbach on the Lahn (Westphalia), Friedrich was the second of five children of the schoolmaster Jost Kiel. Though he learned the rudiments of music from his father, he was in large part self-taught. Something of a prodigy, he played the piano almost without instruction at the age of six, and by his thirteenth year he had composed much music. When the Kiel family moved to nearby Schwarzenau, a set of the young boy’s piano variations came to the attention of Prince Karl von Sayn-Wittgenstein at Berleburg. The prince was a music lover whose court boasted an orchestra of above average abilities, and in 1835 it was arranged that Kiel would study the violin with the court conductor. He soon joined the orchestra, and at the age of fifteen he appeared as soloist in a concerto by Viotti.

At the prince’s instigation Kiel received solid theoretical training from the renowned flautist Kaspar Kummer (1795–1870) at Coburg. The studies proved a stimulus for all sorts of compositions, which were played by the court orchestra. Around 1840 Kiel became the court conductor and the music teacher to the prince’s children.

Stopping in Kassel in October of 1842, Kiel aroused the interest of the great Louis Spohr. With a stipend from King Wilhelm Friedrich IV, Kiel was on his way to Berlin, where he would perfect his technical knowledge under Siegfried Dehn’s tutelage. The theorist and teacher Siegfried Dehn (1799–1858) had been appointed custodian of the royal library in 1842, and he was responsible for the publication of the Brandenburg Concertos in 1849.

In Berlin the industrious Kiel soon earned a fine reputation and became sought after as an instructor. That reputation was firmly established in 1865 by his election to the Prussian Academy of the Fine Arts. The next year saw his appointment to the Stern Conservatory, where he taught composition and was elevated to a professorship three years later. In 1870 he joined the faculty of the newly founded Hochschule für Musik, which under Joseph Joachim’s direction from 1869 to 1907 achieved a well deserved reputation as one of the finest German music schools. Kiel’s first position there was as professor of counterpoint and fugue and of vocal and instrumental composition, and from 1882 he sat on the board of directors. Among his composition students he could claim Noskowski, Paderewski and Stanford. Kiel died in Berlin on 13 September 1885 as the result of injuries from a traffic accident. In 1906 a short-lived Kiel association was founded. Today, when he is remembered at all, it is as a beloved and important teacher, dedicated to preserving the high-minded principles and good taste of classical-romantic art in the German musical culture of his time.

A retiring and unassuming bachelor, Kiel found his special niche as a pedagogue. Though well respected as a pianist, he rarely played in public, and when he ventured forth from Berlin, it was not on concert tours but on holiday excursions. He was a proficient hiker and mountain climber, and at the age of sixty he scaled Monte Rosa. He was a prolific composer, whose piano works and chamber music have a legitimate place near the corresponding works of Brahms. But it was for eight large-scale sacred works, associated with Catholicism and written in the spirit of the then ongoing Bach renaissance, that the Protestant Kiel became increasingly known after 1862. His Requiem of that year was deemed remarkable, and the oratorio Christus, composed in 1870, became inextricably linked to his name.

Given that the list of his opus numbers runs from 1 to 83, that two separate publications bear the same designation of Op. 1, that three opus numbers are assigned to pairs of works, and that there are four piano compositions without an opus number, Kiel’s published compositions total ninety-one. Besides the eight large choral-orchestral works already cited, there are four other compositions for chorus with or without accompaniment, three orchestral works (a piano concerto and two sets of marches), one composition for organ, six works for piano four hands, and thirty-odd works mostly for piano solo.

The remaining thirty compositions, a full third of Kiel’s production, belong to the chamber music genre. There are fourteen works (including four sonatas) for piano and one string instrument, seven piano trios, two string quartets and two sets of waltzes for quartet, three piano quartets, and two piano quintets.

Quintet No. 1 in A major was published in 1874. In five movements, it is genial and relaxed, in keeping with the character of its bright tonic key. The viola and cello in unison immediately announce the broad, flowing first subject and establish a mood of unhurried expansiveness. The second subject follows in the expected key of E major and closes with a fleeting reminiscence of Mendelssohn, but it is Brahms who dominates the development section of this straightforward sonata movement. The second movement is an intermezzo in ternary form. The theme, first played by the strings alone, has a subdued, archaic flavour, and soon the piano adds a galloping accompaniment. Brahms comes to mind again in the lyrical contrasting section, and after the restatement of the initial theme, the movement ends with a brief coda. Occupying the central position in the quintet, the slow movement is also in ternary form. A mood of romantic expressivity arises from the song-like, F major melody, and the middle section provides a rather chromatic A major contrast. On its return the principal theme has a florid piano accompaniment. Kiel’s classical predilection is evident in the ensuing minuet with two trios. On its first appearance the minuet is entrusted to the piano alone but is played by the ensemble thereafter. The rhythmically vigorous first trio recalls Brahms once again, and the second trio, based on a gracious melody over an arpeggiated piano accompaniment, accounts for the quintet’s loveliest moments. Kiel found the rondo form well suited to the expression of good humour, and the high-spirited finale of the first quintet bears that out. It would not be out of place to call this movement a rondo all’ungarese, though no such title appears on the score. The ebullient refrain overflows with Central European charm, making particularly effective use of pizzicati and alternating with a delightful Schubertian theme in bringing the quintet to an exhilarating conclusion.

Published the same year as his first quintet, Kiel’s Quintet No. 2 in G minor, op. 76, has a somewhat different outlook. A mysterious introduction marked by tonal ambiguity strives gradually toward the establishment of the tonic key—one used by Beethoven to express dramatic conflict—and reaches that C minor tonality when a six-note motif announces the beginning of the main subject. As in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, an expansive and exquisite second subject soon overshadows the principal theme, brightening the mood and reminding us that at heart Kiel was a melodist. The development, followed by a straightforward recapitulation, is a model of concision, and the elaborate coda marks a return to the stormy mood of the beginning. The Second Quintet observes the usual four-movement classical pattern, and it concentrates the structural weight in the outer movements. A lyrical, uncomplicated arioso in tripartite song form follows the first movement without pause; its middle section has hints of Brahms’s gypsy music. The third movement, an Intermezzo, resembles a freely conceived, mercurial scherzo in 6/8 time; here Kiel approaches the language of Mendelssohn. Also in three-part form, this movement has a pleasingly melodic trio. As in the first quintet, Kiel casts his finale in Rondo form, here more fully developed to reveal the ternary ABACABA structure that Haydn favoured for his piano trios. The captivating refrain could have been written by Schubert, and it retains its freshness throughout the course of the movement. The first episode is a lively moto perpetuo, and the second is a lyrical melody, surprisingly—but one must assume intentionally—reminiscent of the trio in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Generously proportioned, this tuneful Rondo ends Kiel’s fine quintet in an especially satisfying fashion.

David Nelson

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