By Peter Klein
We all know about Gerard Schwarz, conductor. Lately, we’ve been hearing more and more about Gerard Schwarz, composer.
Schwarz’ latest work, a “Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano” (Horn Trio for short), will receive its world premiere at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival on Monday, July 26 at 8:00 PM in Benaroya Hall. Schwarz and the three performers will give an introduction to the work in a free recital at 7:00 PM.
The Seattle Symphony’s Music Director is by no means new to composition. As a teenager, he studied with the noted American composer Paul Creston. Later teachers included Roger Sessions, Jacob Druckman, Milton Babbitt, Vincent Persichetti and Pierre Boulez. But as the trumpet and then the baton became the focus of Schwarz’ career, his composing took a three-decade hiatus. Until recently.
“All of a sudden, I’m into it again. And it’s getting to be exciting,” said Schwarz, speaking by telephone from the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC, where he is Music Director.
In the past few years, Schwarz has written several orchestral arrangements, two pieces for Music of Remembrance, several violin-cello duos, and “The Human Spirit,” based on the words of Aaron Copland. The orchestral version of the latter work will be heard at the Symphony’s Opening Gala on September 11.
How did the Horn Trio come to be? For that, we can thank Toby Saks, Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. In the last few years, Saks has commissioned several new works for the Festival, financed by a group of patrons called the Commissioning Club. Saks said that she is always looking to commission pieces that will expand the chamber music repertoire, especially for more neglected instrumental combinations.
“We go way back,” said Saks, referring to Schwarz and her days together in the New York Philharmonic of the 1970s. “I know his talents as a composer. He writes charismatic pieces.”
When Saks explored the idea of a new piece with Schwarz, she first suggested combinations of strings. Then, thinking about Schwarz’ trumpet background, Saks decided that she wanted something with brass in it, and hit upon the idea of a horn trio. Said Schwarz, “She believes that it’s a wonderful combination, but the repertoire is limited.”
Indeed, there is only one Horn Trio that every devotee of chamber music knows—the one by Brahms. There are others, most notably by György Ligeti and Lennox Berkeley, plus a few more from Beethoven-era and contemporary composers. But it is the Brahms that almost everyone thinks of when the combination is mentioned. It is one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written, and quite an act to follow.
After accepting the commission, Schwarz reacquainted himself with the Brahms Horn Trio (and also the Clarinet Trio), mostly to see how the great Romantic composer dealt with architecture and balance issues between the three instruments. The piece he then wrote (which this writer has heard) is very different from Brahms. It looks at late 19th-Century Romanticism through a contemporary perspective.
“It’s very accessible,” said Saks, and “it has a lot of craft to it.”
Schwarz is a man of three heritages. He is the American-born son of Viennese Jews who fled Austria after it was annexed by Nazi Germany. The listener will hear the influence of all three heritages in the Horn Trio.
“My music is generally grounded in the Middle European tradition that I grew up in and that I’ve spent most of my life conducting,” Schwarz said. “I have a great love of our country and the American tradition, and there are aspects of this piece where you can hear that as well. And of course, I can’t get away from the Jewishness that occurs from the beginning of this piece. I don’t know why all that happens. I don’t do any of it on purpose.… It just comes out the way it comes out.”
Schwarz’ other recent works have been programmatic. But the Horn Trio is a piece of “absolute music,” written without literary considerations that might emphasize one aspect of his background over another.
When he composes, Schwarz said, “I look for unusual harmonies and suspensions that resolve in hopefully wonderful ways. I look for writing very traditional-sounding melodies. I’m a great believer in melody.” The composer Richard Strauss is a major influence, along with the 20th-Century American composers he has championed in SSO recordings.
One thing the piece does have in common with Brahms is the expression of deeply-felt emotions though a clear musical structure. “In some ways,” Schwarz said, “the most important thing is the structure. Because, when it’s over, you want people to feel like they’ve had a journey, and the journey was a meaningful one.”
The Horn Trio is in three movements. The first movement is in sonata form with an extended introduction. The interval of the ascending fifth recurs throughout the introduction. This is characteristic horn writing, and it also evokes the sound of the shofar (the ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year). Listeners familiar with Jewish High Holiday services will probably recognize shofar calls in the horn part, especially the unmistakable staccato call (Teruah) that sounds shortly after the violin’s first entrance. They might also hear echoes of the High Holiday Kaddish melody in the movement’s main theme.
The entire first movement is mournful and elegiac in character. This might surprise listeners accustomed to Schwarz’ upbeat public persona. But actually, said the composer, “My upbringing evokes that kind of emotion. [It has to do with] my parents being immigrants, being Jewish and being persecuted, my grandparents being murdered by the Germans, this whole history.”
The second movement, “Recitative and Aria,” begins with material from the first movement in the piano part, but harmonized very differently, and interrupted with short interjections from the other two instruments. The music gets more and more agitated, culminating in a tense and dissonant piano cadenza. This tension resolves into the Aria, a beautiful, major-mode Romantic melody.
The third movement is a Scherzo in quick triple time, rhythmic and playful, but with a “bite.” The harmonies here have a bit of a French accent. This movement was the only place (aside from the opening) where Schwarz consciously tried to write music specifically horn-like in character. A motif from the second movement returns in a brief, lyrical interlude. Then the main theme reasserts itself, the music gets faster and wilder, the horn reaches stratospheric heights, and the Trio sprints to a bright B-major finish.
The Horn Trio was written specifically for the three Festival performers who will play the premiere. Stefan Jaciw will take the violin part, which is by turns lyrical and angular, and calls for much vigorous double-stop playing. Pianist Adam Neiman’s part is, like his colleague’s, quite virtuosic, and runs a gamut of emotions and styles from the Romantic to the present.
Jeffrey Fair, who plays Assistant Principal Horn with the Seattle Symphony, said: “I’m honored to be doing it. From a musical standpoint, I think the audience will like it. From a horn player’s perspective, it’s sufficiently challenging. But it doesn’t ask you to do anything that is not idiomatic to the instrument or achievable with the right amount of practice.”
Both Fair and Toby Saks expressed optimism that Schwarz’ Horn Trio will make a welcome addition to the chamber music repertoire.