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8.223482 - KUHLAU: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832)
Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2


Flautists are likely to know Kuhlau as "the Beethoven of the flute", and chamber music enthusiasts are likely to hold in high esteem his numerous duos, trios, quartets, quintets and variations. Beginning piano students are likely to know his sonatinas. Danish concert-goers are well acquainted with his colourful theatrical overtures, and music historians recognise him as one of the earliest proponents of nationalism in European concert music. Beyond that one might add that Kuhlau was a celebrated pianist and the respectably prolific composer of opus numbers comprising more than 200 individual works.

Daniel Friedrich Rudolph Kuhlau was born on 11 September 1786 in the German town of Uelzen, midway between Hanover and Hamburg. His father was a military band musician, and the family lived in humble circumstances, moving from one town to another and eventually settling in Hamburg in 1803. The young Kuhlau lost his right eye in a street accident; while recuperating from a prolonged illness that followed, he began music lessons. Little else is known of his early musical education. Hamburg was a major German musical centre, and by frequenting the concert halls and theatres Kuhlau became well acquainted with the music of the times. Eventually he came to the attention of C.F.G. Schwenke—the stern cantor of St. Catherine’s Church and a disciple of C.P.E. Bach—who recognised his potential, taught him theory and composition, and provided entry into Hamburg’s musical circles. Kuhlau gave his first public recital as a pianist in 1808, and soon afterward he published his first compositions. Fearing conscription into the French army when Napoleon’s forces occupied Hamburg in 1810, Kuhlau fled to Copenhagen under an assumed name. He emerged there in January 1811 to give a concert of his own music at the Royal Theatre, performing his Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 7. He continued to give concerts and compose, giving a command performance for the queen, and in 1813 he gained the post of royal chamber musician—an honour that entailed no salary for the first five years. At this time Kuhlau began composing piano pieces and chamber music for flute as a means of income, satisfying the demands of publishers in Germany and Denmark and later in England and France as well. There is a misconception that Kuhlau was an accomplished flautist; in fact, he did not play the instrument at all, and the excellence of his flute music sterns from a natural feeling for the instrument and from expert practical advice from a player in the royal orchestra.

Opera was Kuhlau’s true ambition, and the collaboration in 1814 with the dramatist Adam Oehlenschläger resulted in The Robbers’ Castle, which proved a triumphant entry into the musical theatre. Four more operas followed and three incidental scores, of which The Elf Hill, written in 1828, reigns supreme in Danish music to this day. Incorporating actual Scandinavian folk tunes, it marks the dawning of national romanticism, and it had a profound effect on later Danish composers.

A Danish citizen since 1813, Kuhlau nevertheless felt the constraint of provincialism in Copenhagen’s musical life. His restless artistic temperament and healthy curiosity led him abroad seven times, twice northward to Sweden and Norway and five times to Germany or Austria. Eagerly he sought out the new music of his contemporaries, and he introduced the works of Beethoven and others to Danish audiences. The visit to Vienna in 1825 must have been one of the high points of his life. There he spent a convivial, now legendary evening with Beethoven, and the two amused themselves by drinking champagne and composing canons based on puns. A heavy drinker, Kuhlau fell victim to deteriorating health; money remained a perennial problem, and he grew embittered. The crushing blow came when fire raged through his house, destroying most of his possessions and the manuscripts of his unpublished music. The following year, on 12 March 1832, Kuhlau succumbed to a chest ailment at the age of 46.

Beethoven’s influence predominates in Kuhlau’s chamber music. The works are usually models of structural expertise, at the same time blessed by an abundance of melody, beauty of instrumentation and an impression of freshness. Stylistically they bridge the era of German high classicism and the early romantic movement, observing established classical form but introducing the technical bravura of the early 19th century along with romantic freedom of expression. Apart from the 60-odd works with one or more flutes, Kuhlau composed eight additional chamber works; four violin sonatas, a string quartet and three piano quartets.

The expansive opening movement of Piano Quartet No. 1, written in 1820, begins immediately with the initial theme. The key is C minor, favoured by Beethoven for tragic utterance, but here conveying a gentler mood. Kuhlau’s fondness for scale passages soon becomes apparent in the piano’s elaborations around the theme. The flowing second subject has a motivic relationship to the first and resembles both Mozart and early Beethoven. The piano concludes the exposition with the gesture of a cadenza, and bravura passages occur elsewhere in the movement. Kuhlau’s slow movements are notable for their lyrical beauty, and the central movement of this quartet is no exception. A simple, folk-like melody, heard at the outset, establishes an aura of romantic sentiment. The piano embellishes it with delicate arpeggios and arabesques, then establishes a capricious march rhythm, over which the strings play in legato fashion. This central episode of the A-B-A song form compensates for the absence of a scherzo in Kuhlau’s three-movement scheme. The finale is a Rondo, beginning with a rhythmically propelled minor-key theme. There follows an episode, motivically related and noble in hearing, which sounds for all the world as though it will lead to a fugue. But here Kuhlau deceives, and before long the rondo theme returns, decked out with a showy piano part and some drama. A second episode, also connected motivically to the rondo theme, delivers the anticipated fugue, and one cannot help but note the similarity to the "fate" motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In its final appearance the rondo theme intertwines with fugal reminiscences, the key modulates to the major, and an imaginative coda speeds along to a sunny conclusion.

In 1821–22 Kuhlau visited Leipzig and spent four months studying in Vienna. In all likelihood the Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, dating from 1822, is the fruit of that voyage. With a touch of glorious deception, Kuhlau begins the quartet in the classical manner, but within moments he traverses a stylistic gamut from the elegant to the dramatic, the playful and the flowingly melodic. The warm, song-like second subject is overtly romantic, and the piano writing is more virtuosic and freely expressive than in the earlier quartet. Kuhlau’s role as a link between the classical and romantic eras is eloquently attested in this movement. The same is true of the slow movement, which presents a romantically inspired elaboration of a melody that at first appears more classical in tone. Also apparent is the Viennese quality of this lovely music. A fine Scherzo calls to mind Schubert’s rhythmic vigour, and the brief trio with its Ländler associations anticipates in germinal form the later practice of Schubert, Bruckner and eventually Mahler. Looking backward one can trace Kuhlau’s interest in folk music to his early days in Hamburg. The succinct, lighthearted Finale almost belies its sonata structure, and again the spirit of Viennese geniality prevails. The first subject comprises a rising motif, a display for the piano of Kuhlau’s beloved scales and a quasi-dramatic descending idea. Well delineated from this is the playful, bouncing theme of the second subject. There is a seamless transition to a brief development, which lasts just over a minute and combines elements of the two subjects. After a straightforward reprise the briefest of codas brings this sparkling movement to a sooner than expected end.

Keith Anderson

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