In orchestral circles, there is a considerable vogue for ‘viola jokes’, some much funnier than others and all derogatory. But when viola players are feeling hard done by, they can take comfort from the considerable number of great composers who were attracted to their instrument, Beethoven and Britten to name but two and all tonight’s composers to name three more. Is it surprising that, when they came to write string quintets, instead of following Schubert’s example and employing an extra cello, all chose to write for two violas instead?

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) Phantasy Quintet

I: Prelude – Lento ma non troppo II: Scherzo – Prestissimo                                                       III: Alla sarabanda IV: Burlesca – Allegro moderato

Should our minds turn to musical patronage, we most probably think of Haydn and the Esterhazy princes, Beethoven and a clutch of Viennese aristocrats, even Tchaikovsky and the mysterious Mme. von Meck. But patronage can be offered in a variety of forms and to this list of illustrious patrons could well be added Walter Wilson Cobbett, a highly astute businessman who was said to have “given to commerce what time he could spare from music”, in particular chamber music with which he was besotted and which he described as “an enchanted world” (a possible strapline for DMMS?) A moderately talented violinist, he devoted a considerable part of his fortune in support of chamber music in many different ways: prizes for its composition and performance, the foundation of chamber music libraries, the launching of a magazine devoted to its practice and the production of a huge ‘Cyclopoedic Survey of Chamber Music’, still the most exhaustive work of reference in the field.  It was in the first quarter of the 20th Century that Cobbett was most active and amongst a number of composers he commissioned for new works was Ralph Vaughan Williams who responded with the Phantasy Quintet.

This was in 1912 with Vaughan Williams emerging as one of the most interesting of the younger generation of English composers. Behind him were major choral works (‘Toward the Unknown Region’ and ‘A Sea Symphony’) and numerous songs (including the cycles ‘Songs of Travel’ and ‘On Wenlock Edge’) amongst much else. Of chamber music there were a number of early works (only recently recorded and made available) but only one really mature work, the string quartet in G minor of 1908, clearly demonstrating what he had learned during his recent period of study with Maurice Ravel. The Phantasy Quintet, however, stands more clearly in the English tradition, phantasy being a form much practised in 17th century England and one the use of which Cobbett encouraged. Vaughan Williams follows the phantasy idea (a work in several contrasting sections performed with little or no break between them) and makes use of a unifying theme in all four sections: a meditative prelude, a buoyant scherzo (if you find your foot tapping here in seven beats per bar, congratulations!), a veiled steady sarabande and a quirky burlesque which eventually returns to music with which the whole work opened.  

Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791) Quintet in C major (K. 515)

I: Allegro II: Andante IIL: Menuetto – allegretto IV: Allegro   

We are told that Mozart wrote some thirty-five chamber works for strings alone, none of which were primarily intended for public performance; chamber concerts for a paying public were practically unknown at the time, even in music mad Vienna where Mozart spent the last decade of his short life. These works will have been written largely for colleagues or friends to play in private for their employers’ or their own enjoyment; only occasionally were they responses to commissions from a publisher or a wealthy amateur.  We know nothing of any external stimulus for the C major quintet, only the date on which it was completed (19th April, 1787), nor for its more famous partner piece, the quintet in G minor completed a month later. Both are rich in invention and utterly assured in technique, delighting in the previously unexplored possibilities of a five (rather than a four) voice chamber texture.  We know that Mozart loved playing chamber music with friends; is it too fanciful to suggest that they might have been written primarily for his own enjoyment, especially in the use of an additional player of his favourite string instrument?    

Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904) Quintet in E flat (Opus 97)

I: Allegro non tanto II: Allegro vivo                                                                         III: Larghetto IV: Finale – allegro giusto

Yet another largely unrecognised patron of music was Mrs Jeanette Thurber, a trained violinist and the wife of a millionaire New York grocer, who spent a great deal of the family’s fortune in support of music. The most lasting and important of her musical enterprises was the National Conservatory of Music which she founded in New York in 1885, not only the first establishment of its kind in the USA but well ahead of its time in encouraging application from female musicians, students of colour and handicapped students. Keen to attract international figures to her staff, she invited Antonin Dvorak to become director in 1892. At first he was reluctant to leave his beloved homeland but in the end gave in to her repeated invitations; the duties were light and the salary 25 times greater than what he had been earning previously. His practical and hard-headed wife is reputed to have had a hand in the negotiations…

During the long summer holidays his contract permitted, he spent much time in rural Iowa at Spillville, a thriving Czech colony where the native language was spoken and life ran on very Czech lines. It was here in this ‘home from home’ that Dvorak wrote much of the best of his ‘American’ music, notably the F major string quartet and the Eb quintet, both written in the summer of 1893. He had reacted very positively to the spirituals he had heard the black students at the Conservatoire singing – indeed he was way ahead of his time in suggesting that this was the music that might well form the foundation of a distinctively American style which Mrs. Thurber was hoping would emerge under her stimulus – and was equally intrigued by the singing and dancing of a group of Kickapoo Indians who visited Spillville selling medicinal herbs. It has been suggested that this Native American music may have had some influence on the pentatonic melodies and taut rhythmic motifs with which this and much else of his American work abound.   

Copyright Richard Hall