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Program Notes: Danish String Quartet II

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor D. 810 (Death and the Maiden)

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert, since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.

Despite the despairing backstory, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.

Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.

While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, become a daisy-sniffing, walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.

Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.

The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small, repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.

The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode, only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.

 

Lotta Wennäkoski
Pige

Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski began her musical education studying violin in Budapest before taking up studies in composition, first at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and then at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, studying under composer Louis Andriessen.

Having begun her career writing scores for short films and for radio plays, her compositional instincts tend towards the picturesque and the accessible, with textures immediately understandable in terms of musical gesture. She is the diametrical opposite of a ‘brutalist’ composer, preferring to lure rather than berate the listener and she has even been called a ‘lyricist’ amongst contemporary composers.

While she enjoys an international reputation, having received commissions from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as from the BBC Symphony, she also likes to perform at daycare centres, singing songs with the children and explaining to them the language of modern music.

As a composer of both string music and songs, she is uniquely qualified to compose a work responding to Schubert’s lied Death and the Maiden, especially since many of her compositions for voice deal with issues affecting women. Among these are her song cycle Naisen rakkautta ja elämää (The Love and Life of a Woman) from 2003, based on Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben song collection, and her recent opera project, Regine (2021), about the wife of Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard.

She describes herself as a timbral composer, with a fascination for changes in tone colour. Slip-slidey glissandi are a recurring feature in her string scores and her music often has a strong sense of pulse, communicated in ostinato patterns, against the background of which melodic fragments poke out on the surface of the texture.

Most importantly, her music is fundamentally optimistic in outlook: “I belong”, she says, “to a generation of composers who see the outside world as an opportunity rather than as a threat.”

Composer’s remarks:

Something fierce, something soundless, so have I written in my notebook when planning the string quartet Pige. It has been an inspiring task to write a work to be paired with the Death and the Maiden quartet by Franz Schubert. The “Doppelgänger” idea was greatly feeding my imagination from the very beginning. It’s also been an honour to write music for the hugely expressive musicians of the Danish String Quartet.

The first movement Vorüber, ach, vorüber! is based on the first half of Schubert’s lied that lies behind his Death and the Maiden quartet. This “maiden’s song” has not found its way to his string quartet, so I wanted to use its material in mine. The second movement Daktylus borrows its idea from the haunting pulse of Schubert’s chant of Death. Something fierce and something soundless can be heard here – along with other aspects to the dactyl rhythm.

Schubert’s quartet is wonderful music and of course an unmissable boulder, and “death and the maiden” is a tempting and gloomy motif in art history. On the other hand, I just couldn’t help seeing the motif also as the never-ending image of a dirty old man desiring the young female body… The third movement thus turns its gaze to the girl herself. Pigen og scrapbogen, “The Girl and the Scrapbook”, is joyful textural music – compiled of fragments and freely handled quotations that might spring to mind when thinking of a vital girl’s life.

Pige is Danish for girl. I wish to thank the Danish String Quartet and the co-commissioners for the opportunity to write this music.

Lotta Wennäkoski, March 2022

 

Franz Schubert
Death and the Maiden
(arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) is a setting of a two-stanza poem by German poet Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). Like Schubert’s previous lied Der Erlkönig (1815), it features an emotionally dramatic, high-stakes conversation about a coming death, but in this lied the Grim Reaper himself takes part in the conversation, in person.

While he is not the first to speak, his presence is strongly intimated in the opening 8-bar slow introduction, whispered out pianissimo in the monotonous TUM tum-tum rhythm of a funeral march, impassive and virtually devoid of melody, evoking the silence and stillness of the grave. This introduction, which provided the theme for the 3rd movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, is itself a kind of musical Doppelgänger, echoing another dramatic scene of death foretold – in the same droning monotone, the same key of D minor, and in a virtually identical rhythm – when the Commendatore arrives to escort Don Giovanni down to Hell in the last act of Mozart’s opera of 1787.

The voice of the maiden enters in bar 9. She pleads with Death to let her go, as if he were some kind of lecherous elderly suitor making inappropriate advances to her.

In the lied, her melody line rises gradually in pitch to underline her growing sense of concern:

Pass by, oh pass by!
Go, you wild skeleton-man!
I’m still young! Go, then,
And touch me not
And touch me not.

The second stanza gives Death’s cunning, seductive and bittersweet reply:

Give me your hand, you lovely tender thing!
I am your friend, I’m not here to make you suffer.
Don’t be afraid. I’m not a wild man.
You’ll sleep gently in my arms.

The lied ends with the return of the introduction as a postlude in the major mode, its steady unchanging rhythm transformed from a portent of death into a gentle consoling lullaby.

The intertwining of love and death, brought to the stage earlier in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and later in the Liebestod of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is expressed with elegant simplicity in this short German lied by Schubert.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Seeing Double: The Doppelgänger Project
Reprinted courtesy of Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley, CA

“Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe/Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt” (“It horrifies me when I see his face/The moon reveals my own likeness…”). These chilling words from one of the poems in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder of 1827 depict the uncanny moment of recognition in Der Doppelgänger. Franz Schubert set this text to music the following year—shortly before his death—as part of a collection that was published posthumously under the title Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”).

Heine actually left this poem untitled to intensify the degree of shock and surprise when the narrator realizes he is seeing his Doppelgänger, whereas Schubert clues us in to the troubled emotional atmosphere with the ominous chord sequence heard at the outset. Here, already, is a phase in the process of responding and remaking a source that we might call “doppelgänging,” in the spirit of the Danish String Quartet’s ambitious Doppelgänger Project, an initiative that combines late chamber masterpieces by Schubert with new commissions by four contemporary composers.

The fuzziness around the term Doppelgänger is intentional. On the one hand, the word is used simply to refer to a harmless lookalike (a person who can even be sought out online via image recognition apps). But the mythic implications reach deep into the psyche, providing an obsessive  trope for the Romantics—the coining of the German term is attributed to the novelist Jean Paul, later a favorite of Mahler). The notion of deceptively identical appearances that can disguise polarities opens up yet another dimension embedded within the concept. One of Schubert’s own friends described the composer as having “a double nature—inwardly a kind of poet and outwardly a kind of hedonist.”

“I think everybody has an idea of what a Doppelgänger is,” says DSQ violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. “It can be a very mystical term filled with images and history and philosophy, but it’s also something that is a very physical thing.” Similarly, through its commissioning of the four composers, the DSQ wanted to give ample leeway to each to interpret for themselves how to respond or react to the Schubert work with which they have been paired. “We’ve only created the framework and want to see some sort of inspiration going back and forth between the two. They might quote the Schubert piece or they might write something completely different. We don’t know how they will respond to the challenge.”

For example, Danish composer Bent Sørensen wrote his contribution as a counterpart to the vast expanse of the String Quartet in G major of 1826, Schubert’s final work in the genre. He incorporates Doppelgänger-like gestures into his new score—a product of the pandemic lockdowns—right down to the Schubertian title Doppelgänger.

Later installments in the series include Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (born 1970), a student of Kaija Saariaho and the late Louis Andriessen, and her new quartet responding to the String Quartet in D minor from 1824, popularly known as Death and the Maiden. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has been commissioned to write a work that the DSQ will juxtapose with the A minor Quartet of 1824 (Rosamunde). Thomas Adès will round out the series with a piece that reacts to the String Quintet in C major from 1828.

What was the criterion for choosing the commissioned composers? “It was very hard because on one side we wanted composers we like to work with, who have a musical language that we like; but we also wanted something new, something different,” observes Nørgaard. While the DSQ have burnished their reputation as excitingly fresh and insightful interpreters of the classical canon, the Doppelgänger commissions offer a way to open up new horizons. “Each of the new pieces will be a challenge, because there’s going to be a different language for each.”

(c) Thomas May 2021

 

Franz Schubert
Quartet No. 15 in G major  D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, one inevitably wonders whether Schubert’s mimeographic profusion of ideas 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 German musicologist 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 dreams and night-wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, bemoan nevertheless the way in which his practice of “open-ended variation” betrays the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and deflates 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 to the ministrations of Morpheus.

This quartet is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is an ambitious quartet that lives in an enlarged sound world of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo, and replete with tutti quadruple stops that add an aggressive edge to its musical rhetoric.

Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the ‘sound-weight’ of the instruments into an imitation of an orchestral 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. Equally ear-catching are the many sudden dramatic changes in dynamics (a Beethoven trademark) and the acrobatic pitch range within which the instruments sometimes move at rocket speed.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge shockingly 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. The lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Shy and intimate in mood, it rocks back and forth within the smallest possible range, doing 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.

The Andante un poco moto is charged with mystery and suspense. It begins innocently enough with the cello singing out a simple hummable tune in its tenor register. This is a melody that proceeds at a drowsy ‘sleepwalking’ pace, its eerie stillness reinforced by gentle reminders in the accompaniment of its opening melodic leap and by the stabilizing presence of pedal tones in the harmony. But ever and again it plunges into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return, unleashing ‘horror-film’ tremolos that vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.  These two moods – the eerie dream and the nightmare – alternate throughout the movement until the night-wandering melody ends up back under the covers in the warm embrace of a major chord in its final bars.

The Allegro vivace scherzo that follows goes off like an alarm clock with volleys of rapid-fire repeated notes that vibrate with nervous energy in the minor mode, ricocheting through every register of the quartet’s range until relieved by the calming entrance of the central Trio section, a slow gentle Viennese waltz with a rustic drone in the bass.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. It opens with a hearty foot-stomping, knee-slapping tarantella theme with a type of gypsy-style merriment characterized by quicksilver changes between major and minor tone colourings. And its second theme is an utterly outrageous parody of a Rossini patter aria.

Schubert, too long? This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Bent Sørensen 
Doppelgänger for String Quartet

Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) is widely recognized as the leading Danish composer of his generation. His musical language is rife with microtonal inflections and harmonies blurred over with glissandi.  But for all his modernist techniques, his music is still rooted in clear rhythmic textures, and above all in melody.

“I dream in melodies,” he says. He is a composer determined “to tell my stories by melodies” but with an awareness that “melodies have a memory in themselves of something else.” Perhaps this is why Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim (1931-2010) has said of Sørensen’s emotionally fragile music that “it reminds me of something I’ve never heard.”

Bent Sørensen’s String Quartet No. 5 entitled Doppelgänger was given its world premiere by the Danish String Quartet at the Musiekgebouw in Amsterdam on September 11, 2021.

 

Franz Schubert
Der Doppelgänger (arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s mournful Lied Der Doppelgänger is one of the last in the collection that the composer wrote just before his death in 1828 and was put on sale the following year by his publisher, Thomas Haslinger, who thought it would sell well if marketed as Schubert’s “last farewell to song.”

It paints a mysterious night scene in which a man stands before the house where his love once lived. There he recognizes a spectral shape equally absorbed in sad remembrance: an image of himself.

Der Doppelgänger

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe
Und ringt die Hände vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

– Heinrich Heine

The Ghostly Double

Still is the night, calm fills the streets,
In this house lived my own sweet love;
She left the town long long ago
And yet the house stands still where it was.

And there stands a man too, staring on high,
Wringing his hands, in the thrall of pain;
I dread to look upon his face,
That moonlit figure I see is me.

You Doppelgänger, pale travelling companion!
Why do you ape my song of pain,
That torments me now upon this spot
So many a night, and so long ago?

– trans. D. Gíslason

Der Doppelgänger, coming near the end of the collection, is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise, depicting a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain.

The impassive, slow-moving chords of the accompaniment give no comfort at all to the lonely voice of the protagonist as he realizes he is descending into madness. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by having the singer circle round the same pitch over and over again, and by placing the singer’s vocal declamation—it could hardly be called ‘melody’—over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment,

This is a song without a melody, symbolic of a situation without hope, as dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.

(c) Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 (arr. Förster)

If you have ever happened to see one of those cooking shows in which a chef is challenged to create an entire meal—appetizer, entrée and dessert—out of a minimum of ingredients (an ox-tail, say, and a banana) then you are well on your way to understanding the recipe for cooking up a Baroque fugue.

The aim of a fugue is to create an entire polyphonic composition out of only two melodies, either stated in their entirety or broken up into bits and pieces. These two melodies—the fugue’s subject and countersubject—are presented first in staggered entries, in the manner of a round. The subject enters first alone before being accompanied in subsequent entries by the countersubject. And then it’s off to the races in an alternating pattern of entries (where the subject is stated whole) and episodes (in which the bits and pieces are chewed over), roaming around in different keys. Somewhere near the end there is usually a stretto section, in which the conversation gets so lively that one voice can hardly get started before another voice interrupts to say the same thing, much in the manner of lively Italian dinner conversation.

Cleverness and ingenuity are built into the DNA of fugue-writing and Bach certainly did not stint on either in the construction of his Fugue in G minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Witness the manner in which Bach constructs his fugue subject in two contrasting parts: a first part with semitone steps on either side of a downward-leaping minor 6th, then a second part comprised of a few notes running up and down in smooth stepwise motion. The countersubject (here is the cunning bit) is the same, but in reverse order and inverted: a few notes running down and up followed by a variant of an upward-leaping minor 6th motive. Bach’s subject generates its own countersubject—in the mirror!

The odd thing about this four-voice fugue is that the texture only rarely features all four voices playing at once—likely in order to make the dramatic leap of a minor 6th stand out more easily in a work written for keyboard. German composer Alban Förster (1849-1916), who arranged this fugue for string quartet, might have other ideas, however, about leaving one member of a quartet filing his nails while the others do all the heavy lifting.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Mendelssohn was 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 imitative 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 in 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 (1758-1832), 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.

The String Quartet in A minor Op. 13 was composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin—admittedly, not a crowded field. Its frequent use of fugal textures attests to the young composer’s admiration for Bach while numerous formal features, especially its cyclical design and recall of themes from earlier movements, point to the influence of Beethoven—the late string quartets and Ninth Symphony in particular.

The first movement opens with an endearing Adagio full of short coy phrases which lead to a repeated three-note motive (C# B D) derived from one of Mendelssohn’s own songs (Frage Op. 9 No. 1). This motive will recur throughout the entire quartet, either in its dotted rhythm or in its melodic contour stretching over a minor 3rd. Lyrical repose, however, is in short supply in the remainder of the first movement. The Allegro vivace that follows the introductory Adagio is a restless affair that offers up two anxious little themes, both set in a minor key.

But “anxiety” is a relative term. In Beethoven it summons up the panicky feeling that you’re swimming just slightly ahead of a shark—that’s gaining on you. Mendelssohnian anxiety, by contrast, is more like not knowing where you put the car keys.

Imitative counterpoint is pervasive in this movement, not just as a “spot technique” to add intensity to the development section à la Mozart and Haydn, but even in the initial presentation of the movement’s themes.

Fireside coziness arrives in the Adagio non lento with its serene and elegiac melody in the 1st violin,  drenched in tearful sigh motives. These sigh motives, chromatically inflected, then become the basis for the full-on fugue that follows—an obvious hommage to a similar fugue in the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95. Clever lad that he is, young Felix even inverts his fugue subject before returning to the poised serenity of the opening.

In place of a scherzo, Mendelssohn gives us a relaxed and unbuttoned intermezzo. The tune that begins the movement is of the utmost simplicity, one that uses the same catchy rhythm four times in a row, without somehow becoming tiresome. In the middle section trio, however, Mendelssohn returns to type with a fleet and light-footed romp of detached 16ths lightly peppered with repeated notes. And who could resist combining these two contrasting sections in the movement’s final bars? Certainly not Mendelssohn.

High drama marks the opening to the Presto finale, with a flamboyant and wide-ranging recitative in the 1st violin holding forth over melodramatic tremolos below. The reference to the finale of the Ninth Symphony is obvious but this opening is even more closely patterned on the last movement of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132 (next on the program). The troubled theme that emerges is similar in mood, as well, to the rocking main theme of Beethoven’s Op. 132 finale. Pacing back and forth in tonal space over a harmonically restless cello line it eventually issues into a cross-country horse-gallop before “remembering” the fugue subject from the second movement in a series of flashbacks. The work closes with the same lyrical Adagio with which it opened, framing the quartet’s inner drama as a gently fading memory.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

Beethoven’s late string quartets are at one and the same time backward-looking, progressive, and even visionary works. The fascination he entertained in his last years for densely contrapuntal textures and the arcane procedures of canon and fugue harkened back to the Baroque era. His expansion of the number of movements in a serious work, along with innovations in the formal design of each movement, moved well beyond the norm of Classical-era practice. And his use of increasingly numerous, increasingly precise performance markings, along with his abrupt dynamic and tempo changes, bespoke a type of music that moved at the pace of human thought, in response to the impulses of an individual personality, offering a foretaste of the Romantic movement to come.

All these traits are on display in his Quartet in A minor Op. 132, composed in 1825.

The quartet unfolds in five movements instead of the usual four, arranged symmetrically around a central slow movement. The work opens with a slow introduction fixated on the overlapping entries of a four-note fugue-like subject in long notes that does more than simply set up the off-to-the-races arrival of the movement’s first theme, announced by the cello high in the soprano register. Pay attention to these opening bars: the long notes of this theme, and the intervals out of which it is constructed (especially the descending semitone), will haunt the entire first movement with the magisterial authority of a Baroque fugue subject in augmentation hovering over melodic motion in smaller note values.

Audience members enjoying a double espresso at the intermission will undoubtedly notice the similarity between the theme of this slow introduction and the subject of the Bach fugue which began the program: both are structured around the leap of a minor 6th with semitone motion on either side. Those opting instead for a Red Bull will in addition notice the similarity between the principal motive of Beethoven’s first theme—stepwise motion up and down over a minor 3rd—and the Bach fugue’s countersubject. Devilishly clever programming on the part of these Danish lads, what?

Despite the frequently grave demeanour of its contrapuntal rhetoric, this movement is anything but down-in-the-mouth. On the whole it is bursting with self-confidence—of a somewhat volatile sort—and offers up a good measure of animated instrumental dialogue. Its lyrical second theme, for example, arriving in the 2nd violin over a somewhat loopy accompaniment in undulating triplets, is eminently hummable.

The second movement is not a standard scherzo, but rather an eccentrically mincing minuet and trio. It’s a minuet that thinks it’s a scherzo, though, in the way it tosses short phrases and small motivic fragments back and forth, cleverly manipulated to create a fair bit of metrical “wobble” in the ear. The middle-section Trio is part musette, with a drone in the bass supporting wispy musings in the high treble, and part oom-pah-thumping village dance.

Beethoven reveals the inspiration for his slow movement in its titling: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of a convalescent to the Deity, in the lydian mode). The ‘convalescence’ referred to is the composer’s welcome deliverance in 1825 from a painful intestinal condition that had plagued him for some time. This extraordinarily long movement is structured in alternating sections of pious prayer and joyful deliverance as the composer moves from Heaven-directed thoughts of gratitude to buoyant feelings of corporeal invigoration.

The movement opens solemnly, in the manner of a hymn, with overlapping entries in strict imitation. The antiquarian religious feel of this opening is enhanced by its being written in one of the old church modes. (The lydian mode is simply the F major scale with B natural instead of B flat.)  This is followed by a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) and what a change in mood this is! Leaping octaves and sprightly trills sonically attest to the composer’s bright new outlook on life until thoughts of his indebtedness to the Almighty return. Each subsequent appearance of these alternating sections is a more florid variation of the previous until the movement ends in the celestial regions of each instrument’s highest register.

The 4th movement brings us back down to earth with a short rollicking little march, even more metrically ambiguous than the previous minuet. But then, as if an opera character had just rushed on stage with dramatic news, the 1st violin erupts into a declamatory recitative (like that in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) over a fretting bed of tremolo strings below.

The theme that emerges out of all this theatrical drama to begin the quartet’s last movement is surprisingly subdued. Wistful but restless, serene but strangely urgent, its gently rippling texture reminds us of Brahms. A rip-roaring development section follows, with plenty of contrapuntal interplay, but then, as in many a Beethoven final movement, minor turns to major, trouble turns to triumph, and the same musical motives that caused all that brow-knitting at the beginning of the movement become, in the end, a cause for joyous celebration.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4

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—of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of home entertainment in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so at the end of the 1790s, when Beethoven decided 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 ‘brat’ of the pack is No. 4, the String Quartet in C minor, an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.

Its pulse stays at the upper range of the human heartbeat, with nothing slower than a stately Andante in its four characterful movements. There is no slow movement at all, no moment of lyrical repose amid the onrush of musical ideas. More eccentric still, there is both a scherzo and a minuet (normally the former replaces the latter), and even these seem to be cross-dressing, conflicted as they are over their ‘genre identity’.

Beethoven writing in the key of C minor is always a wild ride and the opening movement of this quartet does not disappoint. Just like the first-movement Allegro of the Pathétique piano sonata (also in C minor), it begins in a state of anxiety, with a pulsating pedal tone in the bass lending melodramatic urgency to a series of rising musical gestures above. All this breathless urgency seems justified when these opening phrases issue into a series of brutally direct triple-stop chords, like a SWAT team knocking down a door. The second theme is more sociable, borrowing the wide melodic leaps of the first theme and serving them up as “happy hops” in a sociable duet format with lots of countermelody interest. But the downward emotional pull of the movement as a whole drags even this happier theme into a minor-mode vortex of alarm and anxiety in the development section.

The inner movements, a scherzo and a minuet, seem confused as to which one is which. The scherzo proceeds at the dainty, mincing pace of a minuet while the minuet has the serious driving energy of a scherzo, complete with its trademark rhythmic quirks such as syncopation, hemiola, and off-beat accents. But there is more than a whiff of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn in the scherzo, especially in its mechanical-clock regularity of rhythm. So perhaps the ‘joke’ is the compositional overkill of having such a light movement begin with an academically impeccable triad-and-scale-based fugato. Indeed, this movement may well have been written more for the delight of its performers rather than for its listeners, since such a learned texture would provide ample excuse for collegial ‘eyebrow theatre’ and an amused exchange of knowing glances between the players.

The Minuetto, by contrast, is a fast-paced brooding affair, about as dance-like as a roller derby, and with many of the same elbow-spikes built into its rhythmic texture. It does, however, take a tea break in its Trio to toss a simple triadic figure back and forth between the instruments.

The last movement rondo begins at a frenetic pace, its Hungarian-tinged refrain theme terminating, like the rondo theme of the Pathétique Sonata, in a series of shoulder-poking repeated notes. Providing the rondo ‘filling’ between its appearances are a broad, stately theme in longer note values and a mischievous series of scurrying triplet figures. Despite the intense race-to-the-finish mood of the coda, it is these whimsical little triplet figures that are loudly proclaimed in the work’s last bars. Beethoven’s parting witticism is that since all four instruments play this motive together in unison, we have no idea whether the movement ends on a major or minor chord!

MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed from region to region: Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while.

In 2013 we borrowed and arranged a bunch of Nordic folk tunes on a recording that we called Wood Works. This album created quite some stir and has been featured on concert stages all over the world, on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, and even as the soundtrack in Starbucks coffee shops. Now we have decided to embark on yet another journey through the rich world of Nordic folk melodies, and have recorded and released ‘Last Leaf’ – another album of traditional music from the Nordic countries, the Faroe and Shetland Islands.

The Danish String Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 74 No. 10 (“Harp”)

Beethoven’s buoyant and good-natured “Harp” quartet of 1809 gets its name from the unusually prominent use of pizzicato in its first movement. Structured in the standard four-movement pattern, it features a sonata-form first movement with slow introduction, a songful slow movement, and a whirlwind scherzo connected without a break to a theme-and-variations finale.

The slow introduction that opens the work generates a sense of mystery and suspense by inching forward in a searching series of tentative, short phrases, the quizzical nature of which is answered from time to time by more resolute chordal exclamations. In the Allegro that follows, the movement’s first theme is announced with a broken triad, a motive destined to be much bandied about in the pizzicato sections to come. The easy-breathing lyrical melody that follows sets the tone for the movement’s carefree mood. The first pizzicato episode leads us to the exuberant second theme, full of scurrying runs and busy-work figurations. As the movement proceeds, it gathers ever more momentum, becoming almost festive by the end of the exposition, and the development section does nothing to spoil the party atmosphere. Rather than a stern cross-examination of these themes, it prefers to celebrate them, in whole and in part, with very little modulatory drama or fretting in the minor mode. It ends with one of the movement’s most unusual instrumental effects, a gradual written-out accelerando that begins in pizzicato and switches to arco just before plunging into the recapitulation. An even more compelling special effect is the rapid-fire cross-string figuration of the first violin, that breaks away from the pack in the coda to imagine itself a concerto soloist, until it is escorted gently back down to earth by the other instruments.

The second movement Adagio ma non troppo is a lyrical rondo with an expansive cantabile refrain melody in the major mode that recurs in ever more embellished form after diversions into minor-mode territory. Almost Mendelssohnian in its fireside warmth and coziness, this is some of Beethoven’s tenderest music.

The scherzo Presto that follows is a jittery jaunt through motivic territory that combines daredevil leaps and stepwise cross-chatter. The repeated notes in its opening section are a twitchy caffeine-soaked version of the ‘knocking door’ motive in the Fifth Symphony’s third-movement scherzo. Fast-paced as this Presto opening section is, its trio section, marked Più presto quasi prestissimo, is even faster. And like the Fifth Symphony, as well, instead of letting his scherzo off-leash to drive to its headlong conclusion, Beethoven tapers it down at the end, ever softer, to graft it into his finale.

This final movement offers up a polite and well-behaved theme, divided up into cutesy bite-sized phrase groupings, each straddling the bar-line in the style of a gavotte. The theme is then followed by six variations, mostly chummy ensemble tributes to the theme’s underlying harmonies, but the second and fifth showcase the viola and first violin, respectively, in solo roles. A whirlwind coda rushes towards a triumphant finish but at the last moment Beethoven pulls it up short to simply blow out the candles on this quartet with two light puffs of chordal harmony.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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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