Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3
In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—a six-pack of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of self-entertainment in the homes of the upper classes in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice in the trade was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.
And so it was that when Beethoven finally decided in 1798 that it was time for him to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.
The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from that of its siblings. The D major Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 is the quiet one of the litter, the gentle introspective one, but surprisingly capable nonetheless of cutting up like a trickster when the circumstances are right. This quartet is bright and lyrical but not a show-off. There are no fugues or flashy variation movements, just a non-stop display of surpassing compositional inventiveness and contrapuntal skill.
The first movement Allegro opens unconventionally with the vocally conceived leap of a 7th (A to G) played solo by the first violin. (If you don’t think a 7th is particularly singable, consider the first two notes of “There’s a place for us” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story.) This leap spawns points of imitation in the other instruments that seem to spring spontaneously, without fuss, from the very fabric
of the texture. There is, in fact, such an assured air of relaxed normality about this movement that its contrapuntal feats almost pass unnoticed. The second theme is a pulsing chordal subject in simple note values with a slight bit of oomph on the second beat. The one feature of this movement that does raise an eyebrow is its moderately substantial coda—a hint at Beethoven’s future fascination with lengthy postscripts.
The second movement Andante con moto is a cozy little rondo comprised of a principal theme and two contrasting episodes. It begins in close harmony with a songlike melody in even 8th notes delicately nuanced by chromatic inflections in the harmony. The mood of this movement never varies from its pose of poised thoughtfulness, even when passing through moments of reflection in the minor mode. Rather, it becomes ever richer in texture until finally reaching its climax in a pulsing stream of repeated 16th notes before slowly saying farewell to each of its constituent motives in a quiet farewell.
The Allegro third movement is a one-to-the-bar scherzo with a contrasting Minore middle section in place of a trio. Its mood is good-natured rather than overtly joking or rambunctious, as future Beethoven scherzos would turn out to be. The middle section picks up the pace with swirling runs in the first and second violins but this minor-mode merriment is tinged with the furrowed brow and secret sorrow of the Gypsy fiddler.
The quartet finally comes out of its shell in a Presto finale giddy with excitement and bubbling over with merriment. Its constantly bouncy rhythm and breathless pace make a joke out of every little ‘dumb’ pause—and there are many. Contrapuntal hi-jinx blend so effortlessly into the mix that even a thorny fugato section is tossed off like a walk in the park. Sealing the deal for Beethoven’s first four-voiced essay in musical wit is the ending, tossed off with the dry delivery of a stand-up comic.
Anton Webern is a composer known chiefly for his short, delicate, exquisitely concise atonal works written using the serial techniques developed in the early 20th century by what came to be known as the Second Viennese School, of which he was part—the ‘First’ School being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert a century earlier.
Celebrated as he is for the pristine, intellectually rigorous miniatures of his maturity, we must remember that even this most cerebral of atonal composers was once young, and in love. And to express the torments and transports of young love there is nothing quite like good old tonality, especially the wildly yearning chromatic tonality of the late- Romantic period.
Webern’s utterly ravishing Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) for string quartet is deeply romantic (with a small r) and dates from June 1905, when the 21-year-old composer went on a five-day hiking tour of the picturesque Austrian countryside with Wilhelmine Mörtl, his cousin and future wife, with whom he was besotted.
Described by some as “Tristan und Isolde compressed into 11 minutes,” this work still counts as the longest that the famously laconic composer ever wrote. Perhaps because it was a student work—Webern had just begun studies with Arnold Schoenberg the year before—it was not performed publicly until 1962, when it was premiered by the University of Washington String Quartet at an international Webern festival in Seattle.
Longtime Webern wonks will no doubt note the sophistication of motivic manipulation in the work, especially the inversion of the opening theme that foretells one of the basic procedures of 12-tone composition. But for now let us take this work for what it was at its inception: the spontaneous creative outpouring of Young Anton in Love.
String Quartet in G major, D. 887
When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, it were vain to skirt the debate dividing rival Schubertian factions as to whether the mimeographic profusion of ideas in this composer’s works should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthy tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.
No less a scholarly titan than Carl Dahlhaus has proposed that Schubert operates according to a different sense of psychological time. Some of his colleagues stress the trance-like quality of Schubert’s musical thinking, likening him to a musical somnambulist who bids us enter an enchanted world of involuntary dream-filled wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, still bemoan the way in which his practice of open-ended variation hijacks the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and betrays the expectation of propulsive forward drive created by Beethoven.
Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim on the ministrations of Morpheus. Here is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is a work of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo. Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the weight of sound to create an orchestral-style tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply
to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect.
The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge like a primal scream—in the minor! No lack of drama here. What follows combines the emphatic pomp of a Baroque French overture with the suspenseful hinting at things-to-come of a sonata movement’s slow introduction. The first theme, when it arrives, mixes great leaps with jagged dotted rhythms over a slowly descending bass-line, continuing the tone of epic grandeur announced at the outset. A lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Rocking back and forth within a small range, it does everything it can to de-emphasize the first beat of the bar. While the development section is tumultuous and intense, the movement’s two themes start duking it out long before that, interrupting each other, even in the exposition, in a continuous alternation of tranquil lilt and surging protest that plays out through the movement in the flickering shadows of quicksilver changes between major and minor modes.
No respite from turmoil arrives with the Andante con moto, a movement of impressive dimensions and intense emotional drama. Beginning innocently enough with a dignified little minor-mode tune in the cello, more musing than mournful, it plunges six times into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return and fretting tremolos vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.
It is left, then, for the Allegro vivace scherzo to lighten the mood and finally bring relief from the pall of anxiety and tension that has so far dominated the work. Continuous patterns of repeated notes mark this movement with a fleetness of foot that would soon become Mendelssohn’s trademark. Here the tremolos are written out in full, emphasizing their role as individual pulses of rhythmic intensity rather than furry blurs of sound. Antiphonal echo effects abound, with the barrage only interrupted by a delicious Ländler melody in the trio.
High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. The opening tarantella theme, glinting alternately between major & minor tone colouring soon gives way to a perfect parody of an opera buffa patter aria à la Rossini. This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015