Piano Quintet in E minor Op. 5 (score and parts)
Piano Quintet in E minor, op. 5
Christian August Sinding (1856-1941) was an important and productive Norwegian composer whose compositional language remained all his life within the framework of nineteenth-century Romantic music. He was chiefly influenced by Austro-German masters, particularly Liszt, Wagner and Richard Strauss, and in terms of the history of Norwegian art music his music is typically seen as succeeding that of Edvard Grieg. His arguably most famous work, an evocative piece called Frühlingsrauschen (‘Rustle of Spring’) which is a staple of the piano repertoire, bears strong traces of Liszt in the passagework figurations and cantabile melody that they frame. Sinding’s dependence on the Austro-German tradition is not surprising given that, while still reputed in Norway, he spent a considerable part of his life in Germany, his first stay there being to study in Leipzig Conservatory at the age of eighteen. At the beginning of his musical career, Sinding was at first disposed to develop his talent for the violin, but in his initial Leipzig years this gave way to the pursuit of composition, following his self-recognition as well as others’ recognition of his own creativity in this area. The variety, volume and sometimes haunting invention of Sinding’s music earned him an international reputation, enough to see him invited to teach music theory and composition at the Eastman School of Music in New York for a year from 1920, for example. His reputation was certainly not lacking in his homeland, either, as he enjoyed continuous financial support and honours from the Norwegian government from 1880. Sinding’s oeuvre spans multiple genres with distinction, his best work being found equally in opera, symphonies, concertos, chamber and instrumental music, and songs. Kari Michelsen, in her article on Sinding in The New Grove 2, ascribes his posthumous decline both to a characteristic reaction against musical Romanticism and to the exaggerated status given to him during his lifetime by his peers. However easy it may be to accept this judgement as it stands, only a close examination of individual works can really show whether Sinding’s musical reputation has (if so) declined because of these factors and whether the character and quality of his works could mean that a decline in his reputation was or is not at all warranted in the first place.
The substantial, possibly even symphonic, Piano Quintet in E minor dates from Sinding’s German period. It was written in Munich between 1882 and 1884, at the point when he had committed himself full-time to composition. The length of the Quintet is achieved through the articulation of extended episodes that for their effect rely mainly on contrasts of tonality (though the rhythmic and harmonic contrasting of thematic material plays a significant part as well). Sinding’s manipulation of tonality often takes the form of unannounced shifts to tonal centres that are very proximate to yet very remote from the preceding tonality, for example the play generated by suddenly reiterating in G minor thematic material first stated in G♯ minor, in the Finale. Related to this is his practice of interruptive ascending semitonal transpositions, sometimes at cadential breaks. In a sense these kinds of moves (of which these are but two good examples) both support and avoid cliché, but, regardless of this, they certainly promote the characterization of his style as at times ‘post-Romantic’. In the Quintet there appear to be traces of Wagner and Bruckner, with, though not quite the tonal language of Richard Strauss, traces of pushing towards it. From just considering these observations, it seems that one of the most important analytical questions to be faced in any appraisal of Sinding’s music – particularly the instrumental music of his symphonies, concertos and chamber music – is whether his approach to and deployment of tonality is actually unique. To qualify this, we can say that every piece of music, even when operating within conventional formal patterns that to an extent govern tonal structure, embodies its own distinctive ‘take’ on the juxtaposition of tonalities, this element constituting an important component of the style of the piece. To that extent each piece is unique in this respect. For some repertoire, however, the stylistic difference or uniqueness achieved by harmony and tonality is such as to give it a greater prominence that singles out the individuality of the composer more than in other cases. It is with this criterion in mind that we must evaluate Sinding. If we choose to identify tonality as a principal technical element in his music, there is at least a strong possibility that we shall in fact come to the conclusion that his approach to it does uniquely distinguish his music, even if the tonal moves themselves can largely be seen as operating in the context of the more mainstream ‘great’ music of his Austro-German musical mentors.
The vast canvas of the Quintet falls into four movements, none of them less comprehensively treated than the others. There is a suspicion of thematic unity throughout the work, in certain occasional rhythmic similarities and fragmentary thematic recurrences across movements, but there appears to be no conscious monothematic procedure. The opening theme of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, sees a predominantly ascending and conjunct melody line coming to rest, in bar 3, on submediant harmony (in a minor key) (a characteristic shift for Grieg also). It is the piano that articulates the theme, the strings complementing with imitative thematic and decorative figuration. The texture is thicker from bar 9, with dramatic, dysfunctional chromatic harmony (relying on semitonal movement – see discussion above) set up from bar 10 leading to the E major chord, as the dominant of A minor, at bar 13. After a cadential flourish on the dominant, B major, we are by bar 20 now familiar enough with the main thematic content to appreciate its repetition and elaboration in the strings (from bar 21). Following a sonata structure, this elaboration is worked out, with the aid of features such as the interesting use from bar 41 of tied upbeats in the piano triplets, to a lyrical piano second theme in G major from bar 53 (which is abruptly and provocatively prefaced by the tenuto octave Eb, in the left hand, that is the tail of the preceding triplet ostinato, creating a disjunction over the first two beats of this bar). The sort of quirkiness evident in this whole bridging passage between minor first theme and relative major second theme indicates Sinding’s deliberate usage of harmonic and rhythmic irregularity in order to make his musical structure distinctive. Whether such irregularity is essential to his style or a more of a colouristic adjunct it may not be possible to tell definitely. This is part of the experience of listening to the Quintet: the piece effectively hides the exact significance of its musical gestures, so we are never sure what are its most typical features. For example, a detail such as the expanding (contrary-motion) chord progression in bars 89 and 90, at the end of the sonata exposition, is found in different forms elsewhere in the work, but the timing of its deployment in the music (of other sections of the work) is unpredictable. There are therefore frequent marginal frustrations of the expectations of listeners reared on a diet of chamber music of stricter formal pretensions. On this point, incidentally, we can note that Ferruccio Busoni, who studied in Leipzig a little later than Sinding and whose music and musical aesthetics envisaged elasticity of form and tonality, supported Sinding’s Quintet. Later, in his Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1907), Busoni wrote: “Is it not singular, to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form? No wonder that, once he becomes original, he is accused of ‘formlessness’.” Though still a young (but very mature) musician himself at the time Sinding wrote his Quintet, Busoni, throughout his life a champion of emergent composers, must have recognized in the Quintet a subtle and appealing interplay of form and tonality that emphasized an individuality of style embodying precisely the quality of freedom Busoni cared to proclaim in his own music and writings on music.
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE
Set Score & Parts
225 x 320 mm