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PROGRAM NOTES: THE VERONA QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
Quartet in B at major Op. 50 No. 1

The art music of Western Europe underwent a period of transition in the mid- 18th century as the thickly embroiled scores of the Baroque, with their long spun-out melodic lines and constant harmonic churn, gradually yielded to the clearer textures, symmetrical phrases and slower harmonic rhythms of
the emerging Classical era. Haydn was one of the chief architects of the new musical style and a new musical genre, the string quartet, played a leading role in its propagation.

As an ensemble of smoothly blended stringed instruments, the quartet naturally lent itself to an equality of part-writing that Haydn exploited to create engaging musical ‘conversations’, with phrases that asked questions answered by phrases that replied to them, and featuring instruments that led the discussion while others ‘listened’ in sympathetic accompaniment.

In Viennese circles the string quartet was an all-male ensemble of wealthy amateurs and professional musicians who, like the madrigal singers of the Renaissance, made music in private for their own enjoyment. The exclusive nature of the gathering, along with its masculine sensibility, meant that in- jokes and prankish humour, of a sort that Haydn was particularly adept at concocting, were a much-appreciated element of the style. The exchange of knowing smiles and impish smirks between players was evidently a major feature of the evening’s entertainment.

Few works embody this ideal of connoisseurship like the set of six quartets Op. 50 that Haydn wrote in 1787, dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and known as the Prussian quartets. They could just as easily be called the Seinfeld quartets for their quality of improvising musical theatre out of nothing – out of mere scraps of melody and memorable fragments of rhythm.

Witness the opening Allegro movement of the first in the set, the Quartet in B at, in which the entire discursive content is laid out sequentially in the first 8 bars: the pulsing of a single low pitch by the solo cello, a cute little up-and- down gure that cadences after it’s just begun, and the same up-and-down gure cast in triplets. From these pulsing, cadencing & triplet motives alone Haydn creates an entire sonata-form movement: a monothematic movement (as was oft his wont), since his second subject, in triplets, derives directly from the triplets of his first. So seamlessly interwoven, in fact, are the motivic and formal Lego pieces of this movement that modern scholars are still at brickbats about just where the recapitulation begins.

In the Adagio non lento theme and variations, the accent is on decoration. The theme is an assemblage of small motivic gestures with many coy leaps, set in a siciliano rhythm. The following three variations and coda lace the theme with ever-more-frilly garlands of accompanimental ligree, with the lyrical core of the movement residing in the operatically-inspired central variation in the minor mode.

The Poco Allegretto minuet & trio displays a subtle quirkiness in its metrical dissonances, with a triplet-vs-duplet tussle evident in the very first statement of the theme. Accented off-beat entries and sliding chromatic lines add to the dizziness, but the sparkling highlight of the movement comes in the clever hiccuping of the 1st and 2nd violin lines in the trio.

The Vivace last movement is a bustling, high-energy romp in the spirit of an opera buffa finale, with lively contrapuntal exchanges between the instruments and hairpin changes in direction alternating with addle-brained moments of comic indecision and goofy episodes of daydreaming. Built on a simple downward arpeggio pattern, it is another monothematic sonata-form movement, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, with its veer pattern of recurring refrains.. Don’t be fooled by the apparently final-sounding cadence in the recapitulation. It’s a ruse! Haydn puts in a gran pausa, a full two-bar rest, to make you think the movement is over … then merrily begins again to lead the work to its real conclusion.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quartet No. 7 in F# minor Op. 108

The worlds of Shostakovich and Haydn were poles apart, as different as 18th- century Vienna and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Soviet ideology celebrated national folk music and looked down on elitism in art, so merely writing a string quartet, with its origins in the salons of the Viennese aristocracy, risked labelling its composer as a cultural dissident. And yet Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets in his career and there is no shortage of critical commentary that interprets them as products of their political environment.

Shostakovich’s chromatically wandering melodies seem to be searching in numb bewilderment for their place in the natural tonal world, and never really nding it. The lack of harmonic drive, the sparse textures, and generally low dynamic range seem to symbolize a kind of social alienation that is easy to map onto the daily life of citizens living under a repressive regime.

Another view, however, might see the composition of these string quartets as escaping the pressures of Soviet society rather than typifying them, as retreating to an abstract world of formal compositional practice in a direct line of descent from Haydn. Because for all their moonscape strangeness, the string quartets of Shostakovich are written “the old-fashioned way”: with identifiable musical motives developed within an imitative contrapuntal texture that lls out a large-scale formal plan – the very essence of Haydn’s string quartet language.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, written in 1960, makes a strong case for this view, so tightly is its construction based on the development of its clearly marked musical motives. The work is structured in three movements played without a break, in a large-scale cyclical design, its last movement almost entirely based on transformed materials from the first two movements.

It opens with the solo 1st violin playing a seemingly carefree series of 3-note gures, chromatically tripping down the F# minor scale to end in a 3-note ‘door-knocking’ rhythm on one note – a rhythm that permeates most of the movement, even the buoyant second theme announced by the cello. The opening scalar descent is soon developed in pizzicato triplets, ever dogged by the door-knocking rhythm, which o ciates even in the slow coda at the end of the movement.

The Lento second movement demonstrates how Shostakovich keeps his textures starkly simple and easy to grasp in the ear. In this movement he places a rhythmic ostinato in the mid-range while motivic and thematic play alternates on both sides of it. He begins with a roaming 16th-note pattern of noodling in the 2nd violin, over which the 1st violin intones a searingly intense, but chilling cantilena, soon passed to the cello in its high register. The mid- range murmuring then changes to a di erent kind of ostinato, in a constant dotted rhythm, as ghostly melodic phrases alternate above and below.

The stage is now set for the finale, which swallows the motives of the previous two movements whole and spits them out in radically new guises. This last movement is in two sections: a violently aggressive Allegro followed by a more re ective Allegretto. It opens with the series of tripping 3-note gures that began the quartet, inverted now into a de antly set of ascending gestures climbing up the scale. Soon the innocuous noodlings and dotted gures that had murmured in the background of the second movement burst into the foreground at volume as the two-part subject of a teeth-gritting fugue, at the climax of which the 2nd movement’s searing melody emerges, followed by the original descending gures from the 1st movement and their culminating ‘door-knocking’ triplets.

Taking the movement to its conclusion is an Allegretto that pores soothing oil on these troubled waters, still using materials from the previous movements, but with its slower pace and almost waltz-like musical character leading the movement to an enigmatically quiet coda much like that of the first movement, now experienced as a final bookend to the work as a whole.

Maurice Ravel
Quartet in F major

Comparisons between Debussy and Ravel are inevitable when thinking of French impressionism and the string quartets of these two composers – Debussy’s of 1893 and Ravel’s of 1903 – provide an unusually fertile ground for such comparisons. Both works exhibit a feeling for the exotic in their use of modal melodies and cozy harmonies chosen for their colour rather than their drive to arrive at a cadence. Both relish unusual textures and timbres (e.g., the pizzicato-dominated scherzos in both) and the use of a cyclic design that sees the same themes recur between movements.

But whereas Debussy’s world is more dreamlike and motivated by free association, Ravel’s more clearly focussed and formally controlled. The willingness to oat in an ever-changing moment of timeless rêverie
is uppermost in Debussy, the crystalline sense of order and classical craftsmanship is stronger in Ravel.

Ravel reveals himself to be the compositional master of the iron (formal) hand in the velvet (timbral) glove especially well in his Quartet in F major, with its layout in the four traditional movements of classical practice: a sonata-form opening movement, 2nd movement scherzo and contrasting trio, a lyrical 3rd movement, and rondo-ish finale.

Two contrasting themes motivate the formal procedures of the gently-paced first movement: a thoughtful, musing first theme introduced at the opening by the 1st and 2nd violins, and a second more introspective second theme played by the 1st violin and viola together two octaves apart. The development section sets these themes against a plush background of quivering tremolos that contribute mightily to its climax and the recapitulation is a paragon of balanced repetition, being almost a carbon-copy of the exposition. Notable in the movement’s soothing coda are the cello’s 10 bars of consecutive parallel perfect fifths (!), a harmonic practice banned in traditional harmony.

The scherzo is a kaleidoscope of colourful musical e ects: pizzicato timbres, shrieking high trills, and alternating patterns of 3/4 and 6/8 meters, suggestive of both Spanish folk-dance rhythms and the complex overlays of a Javanese gamelan ensemble. The slower, almost morose trio middle section repurposes previous melodic material to create a kind of a casserole of broken musical pasta pieces before hinting at, then diving into, a repeat of the opening section.

The third movement is a deeply lyrical rhapsody in many sections, with sinuous, sensuous melodies (many recalling previous movements) set against a number of evocative timbral backdrops. The stillness of night is almost palpable in this movement, although an underlying passion lurks deep beneath the trembling sonic foliage, a passion that nds expression in the movement’s throbbing climax.

The finale is a kind of rondo, alternating urgently propelled circling motives in quintuple meter (5/8 and 5/4) with calmer, more lyrical sections in 3/4 that nostalgically remember themes from earlier movements. Tremolo in this finale is not used as a mere background accompaniment, but rather as the main source of propulsive energy driving the movement to its exultant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: The Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
Well-Tempered Clavier II
Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major BWV 876 (arr. Mozart)

In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.

The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier  is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.

The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.

Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.

 

Dmitri  Shostakovich
Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor Op. 144

Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.

His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.

The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.

Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade,  which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp  to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.

The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.

There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.

The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in E-flat major Op. 127

The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.

What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.

A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.

The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.

The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.

This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

The Art of Fugue

Fugue is the Rubik’s cube of compositional genres. It’s the sort of thing that only the ‘brainiest’ of modern composers, one with a bent for antiquarian curiosities, would attempt.

And yet in its golden age in the first half of the 18th century, fugue writing was commonplace, an expected skill for any composer aspiring to a royal appointment, or a post as Kapellmeister in an aristocratic house. In concept, you could think of it as ‘Row, row, row your boat’ meets the Riddle of the Sphinx: an arcane puzzle for the composer to solve, and yet a simple-sounding but richly textured and wondrous aural achievement for its audience to experience. By the time that Bach wrote his encyclopedic compendia of fugal procedure – the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 & 1744) and his Art of Fugue (1750) – the rules of the game for this test of musical moxie were well established.

Each voice in the polyphonic texture was to enter with a complete statement of the fugue subject, or theme, and then noodle on with a countersubject, a strand of melody meant to accompany subsequent statements of the theme. Once all the voices had thrown their hat into the ring and the exposition was complete, they would all take a kind of coffee break, an episode, to engage in water cooler conversation about their boss, often repeating themselves in a series of harmonic sequences, until one of them remembered what they were being paid for and piped up with the theme subject again. By now, of course, they had wandered into another key. No matter, they would just go on alternating theme statements with episodes of motivic banter, modulating around the table of keys like they were at a ouija board séance.

Then “just to make things more interesting” (as poker sharps are wont to say), the cleverest of the lot might begin stating the theme in any number of altered forms: some in diminution (halved note values), others in augmentation (double note values), still others in inversion (mirrored intervals) and the biggest eggheads of all might actually sing it out in retrograde (backwards). As if that weren’t enough, somewhere near the end, they would all start to interrupt each other in stretto, not letting a theme statement finish before echoing what was just being said. It can all get a bit hard to follow for anyone unfamiliar with the pace of Italian dinner table conversation. Inevitably, someone would get their toe stepped on, producing a long pedal point in the bass that would remind everyone where their harmonic loyalties should lie, and prompting a general consensus that the piece should end on friendly terms.

Such a dazzling display of compositional ingenuity
 was tailor-made for the Baroque world-view that conceived of this earthly existence as infused with
a divine order imaginatively paralleled in the fractal scalar replications of fugal procedure. For musicians of the later 18th century, however, such darkly embroiled musical arguments were the antithesis of what the Enlightenment mind, illuminated by the clear light of Reason, would find pleasing. Fugal procedure in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn thus became a ‘spot’ technique applied sparingly, and for specific purposes, e.g., in the development section of a sonata-form movement, or as the final ‘Amen’ movement of a Mass. Related to this was the use of fugue as the crowning last movement of an extended multi-movement work such as a symphony or a grand sonata. In the more dramatic instrumental essays of Beethoven, especially his late works, a fugal finale became a way of summing up and resolving tensions still left hanging in the air from previous movements – sort of like Hercule Poirot calling everyone into the library to review all the evidence and name the murderer.

Despite its decline in compositional use, fugue continued, however, to be cultivated in the conservatories of Europe, remaining a required subject in the training of young composers. Needless to say, this produced some long faces and not a little mumbling in the porridge of the emerging generation of Romantics. Berlioz whined at having to show competence in fugal writing in order to win his Prix de Rome, and placed a fugue in his La Damnation de Faust as a way of parodying the dusty pedantry of German music. And Wagner, for his part, joined in on the whinging with a fugue in Die Meistersinger that sarcastically painted Beckmesser as a musical prig.

Yet despite its being out of step with the prevailing artistic climate, fugues remained an object of prestige and even veneration by a generation of ‘absolute music’ composers that included Mendelssohn and Brahms, while attracting the attention even of died-in-the-wool Romantics such as Liszt and Schumann (both of whom wrote fugues on the notes B-A-C-H). The prominent exception was Chopin, who while making the left hand a worthy melodic partner to the right, otherwise showed little interest in imitative counterpoint, and none at all in fugue.

In the 20th century fugue survived, surprisingly, as
a viable vehicle for the expression of musical ideas, perhaps because of the trend of neo-classical nostalgia that emerged after World War I. Bartók, for example, opened his Music for Percussion and Strings with a fugue, while Samuel Barber ended his Piano Sonata Op. 26 with one. But the outstanding figure in 20th-century fugal writing would have to be Dmitri Shostakovich, whose 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the keys, Op. 87 (1950-51), stands as a modern monument of Bach-worship.

Our concert today takes us through a few of the works of the 19th and 20th centuries in which fugue is a major protagonist. Of these, Mendelssohn is by far the most conservative, looking back with genuine affection to the music of Bach, while Shostakovich brilliantly adapts fugal procedure to his distinctly modern idiom. And as for Beethoven, well, only a mind such as his could begin a string quartet with a fugue without fear of creating an anticlimax in what followed.

Felix Mendelssohn
Capriccio and Fugue
 from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81
(Nos. 3 & 4)

Mendelssohn was a not your typical ‘Romantic-era’ composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

Mendelssohn was a prodigious composer, in terms
 of output, but only a fraction of his compositions
 were published in his lifetime. The Four Pieces for 
String Quartet comprise both youthful and late works, published posthumously as the composer’s Op. 81 (all of the composer’s opus numbers after 72 are posthumous publications).

The third movement Capriccio, written in 1843, is 
a product of Mendelssohn’s maturity and features 
a pair of boldly contrasting sections. The opening Andante con moto presents a long-arching lyrical melody over barcarolle-like rocking undulations in the accompaniment. The fugue that follows is nothing if not spiffy. Its subject is parceled out in two rapid spurts of 16th notes followed by a slower rising scale figure. These two musical ideas, heard successively at first, are just made to be heard one on top of the other and – spoiler alert – that’s exactly what happens in the brisk contrapuntal tennis match that unfolds. Mendelssohn indulges here his predilection for perpetuum mobile textures, with the scurrying voices brought back to earth only by the grounding provided by long bass pedals near the end.

The fourth movement, Fuga, is a much earlier work, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin – admittedly, not a crowded field. Much more introverted in tone than the Capriccio, it unfolds placidly and demurely with a distinctly un- boyish gravitas unperturbed even by the dramatic upward leap of a minor 7th in the fugue subject. It is not long, though, before a second exposition supervenes to let us know that we have, in fact, a double fugue on our hands here. The new second theme, in faster note values, glides serenely up and down the scale, soon combining with the first in a spirit of inter-thematic chummy-ness that promises all will be well.

Despite its scholarly construction, the extreme warmth of tone colour in this fugue, especially at the end, places it closer in spirit to the warm ‘hot-milk-and- cookies’ domesticity of Biedermeyer Berlin than to the severe rigour of Bach’s Lutheran Leipzig of the previous century.

Dmitri Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 9 in E
major, Op. 117

I had always wondered why my Russian hosts in Moscow insisted on having the television on, loud, whenever we spoke together. It was my dissertation supervisor, who had done research in what was then East Germany, who finally explained it to me: no citizen of a totalitarian state feels comfortable speaking with a Westerner without background noise to mask the conversation – in case it was being recorded.

You didn’t need to tell that to Dmitri Shostakovich, a survivor of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and 40s. The doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984 was a reality for Soviet citizens, who learned, each in his own way, to frame their public utterances in their own dialect of doublespeak, musicians included.

Shostakovich veered quite close to the flame, though, with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony (1962) that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E ♭ major (1964). Framed in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, the dual states of mind of Soviet citizenry are on full display in a series of musical contrasts written into the work.

The lyrical first theme that opens the quartet roams anxiously back and forth, constantly changing direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, seemingly unable
to escape the dull drone in the cello below. No such problems plague the confident strutting second theme announced staccato by the cello. This breezy and whistle-able tune leaps about where it wants, when it wants, living the good life. Quite a pair, these two, as they fall into conversation to start this quartet on its journey.

The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, its hymn-like texture providing continuous support for a top-voice melody that eventually muses its way into a stray musical thought that turns into the theme for the third movement.

Here is where the real fun begins. The filled-in minor third of the strutting tune from the first movement is transformed in the third movement into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (alias the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. (One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors.) All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat poking his head out from the wings to yell “Hey!” with a high clap of the hands at the end of every phrase.

The fourth movement is the most extreme in terms of textural contrast, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi- string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.

All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, culminating in a mighty fugue and a long crescendo to a final emphatic “So there!” statement of the main theme from all instruments in unison.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in
Cminor, Op. 131

Beethoven’s late period is remarkable for his experiments in large-scale form, notably the inclusion of fugues within a musical structure – the sonata – that is largely at odds with the operating principles and esthetic aims of fugal procedure. What distinguishes fugue from your average run-of-the-mill sonata movement such as a sonata allegro, a scherzo or a rondo, is its extreme density of musical thought. If a scherzo might be compared to a fluffy pillow, and a rondo to a helium balloon, a fugue would be more
like a bowling ball: not something you chuck into the lap of the unwary listener without a heads-up of fair warning.

And yet that is just what Beethoven did in the very first movement of his Quartet in C♯ minor Op. 131, which opens with an eyebrow-knitting fugue of imposing gravity replete with all the tricks of the high-Baroque fugal trade such as augmentation, diminution and stretto.

Beethoven had used fugue in a string quartet before, as the last movement of his third Rasumovsky quartet Op. 59, No. 3. And fugues had also more recently served as final movements of his monumental piano sonatas Opp. 106 and 110 as well as his string quartet Op. 130. But the exhilarating pace of the Rasumovsky fugue in no way disappointed those in his audience expecting a rousing, toe-tapping finale, while listeners of Opp. 106, 100 and 130 had had ample warning of the composer’s high- minded cast of thought in the movements leading up to these crowning fugues.

What ever could the brooding Brainiac from Bonn have been thinking by not ending, but starting his C♯ minor quartet with a fugue, and a thick and gravely-paced one at that?

The answer lies in the larger-scale plan he had for the quartet, conceived of in its entirety. The key areas explored in the opening fugue – D major, A major,
E major, B minor and major, G♯ minor, and of course C♯ minor – are, not coincidentally, the very keys of the movements that follow, creating a kind of harmonic table-of-contents for how the larger framework of the work will unfold.

Added to this are tantalizing bits of the fugue subject, as well as its general up-and-down shape, that photo- bomb the melodic selfies of the other movements, ultimately culminating in full-scale quotations in the last movement.

Not that the essential outline of the traditional sonata movement structure has been abandoned entirely
in favour of an impressionistic slide-show. The load- bearing pillars of the quartet’s structure – movements 1, 4 and 7 – are still the more-or-less traditional movements of the sonatas he had written hither-to- fore. He merely laid them out in reverse order: a fugue for a 1st movement (instead of a last movement), a theme and variations 4th movement (in the central ‘slow-movement’ position) and a sonata allegro to end rather than begin the work. Filling out the traditional line-up is a 5th-movement scherzo (complete with trio), which neatly counter-balances the dance movement that follows the opening fugue. And acting as a kind of ‘clutch’ to ease the gear-changing between these variously paced musical offerings are the short transitions of movements 3 and 6.

A noticeable feature of this work is what the late Joseph Kerman calls the “flatness” of the writing: how each movement (except the sonata-form finale) establishes a single emotional tone and sticks to it throughout, creating an emotionally homogenous ‘tile’ that contributes to the overall mosaic pattern of the whole. And what would that ‘whole’ be?

A clue might be found in Beethoven’s insistence on giving a number to each of the seven movements as if they were individual set pieces in a ‘number’ opera. The entire work, then, could be thought of as one complete ‘act’ of an opera. The way that the seven movements are played in a continuous stream without interruption, as well as the recitative and cavatina-like qualities of the transitional movements (3 and 6), certainly lends credence to this view.

“Surely the saddest thing ever said in notes” is how Richard Wagner described the opening Adagio fugue of this quartet. While certainly sombre in tone, the mood
is anything but resigned. Its pervading chromaticism evinces a sense of luminous hope, or at least a hopeful yearning, evocative of an inner strength of will typical of this composer.

Beethoven brings us back down to earth in a second movement Allegro molto vivace that swings and sways with the body rhythms of the dance. Mono-rhythmic and virtually mono-thematic, this movement perfectly exemplifies a ‘flat tile’ in the colourful mosaic of this quartet.

The transitional 11-bar 3rd movement cleanses
the palette with a few brisk chords (typical of the introduction to an operatic recitative) followed by a moustache-twirling flourish in the first violin to whet our appetite for the 4th movement theme and variations, the most traditional movement in the quartet. Its theme, despite a lilting emphasis on the 2nd beat, is the very soul of propriety, with regular phrase lengths and nary a single modulation, not even to the dominant. Six equally graceful variations follow, ranging from the ornamental to the imitative, culminating in the ‘hymn variation’, so called because of its hymn-like homophonic texture. A coda thrilling with trills leads to a tepid cadence to set up the burst of energy to come.

The fifth movement Presto is as simple and childlike a scherzo as Beethoven ever wrote, full of playful hesitations, games of hide-and-seek between piano and forte dynamics and comic pizzicato asides. If your foot doesn’t start spontaneously tapping during the eminently whistle-able Trio, give it a wiggle: it’s probably fallen asleep.

Another short palette-cleanser follows in the 6th movement, attempting to clear all the laughing gas from the air. It takes the form of a tearful cavatina,
i.e., a song consisting of a single phrase without any repetition. Its minor-mode lyricism bridges the gap between the hilarity and buoyant good spirits of the major-mode scherzo and the firm resolve of the minor- mode finale.

Here, finally, we get a movement with internal
 contrast – and plenty of it. The sonata-form seventh movement that ends the quartet is remarkable for its sheer wildness. It takes off from the starting blocks
at a gallop in a steady hunting rhythm only stopping for breath to linger over its loving second theme, a gracious descending scale in E major. Beethoven pulls out all the stops in this finale, prompting Wagner to call it “the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering; the lighting flickers, thunders growl:
and above it the stupendous fiddler […] who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlpool, to the brink of the abyss.”

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

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