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PROGRAM NOTES: TETZLAFF-TETZLAFF-VOGT TRIO

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major K 502

The piano trio developed out of the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata, a makeshift compositional genre that attempted to compensate for the weak ‘tinkly’ tone of the early fortepiano (forerunner of the modern pianoforte) by the addition of a violin to reinforce the singing line in the right hand, and a cello to reinforce the bass in the left. In the 1780s, after technical advances in instrument manufacture gave the piano a louder and more penetrating tone, Mozart made concertos for piano and orchestra the centrepiece of his public performances in Vienna.

This new prominence of the piano as a solo instrument also affected the kinds of music written for private performance in the home. The five trios for piano, violin and cello that Mozart composed between 1786 and 1788 are all, like the concertos, three-movement works in which the piano plays the leading role. The first of these, the Piano Trio in B flat K 502, is particularly concerto-like in the flamboyance of its keyboard writing. But it also demonstrates the new independence that could be granted to the violin and cello once their ‘accompanying’ role was made obsolete.

The opening Allegro is marked by an extreme economy of means. Virtually the entire movement derives from the opening dialogue between the piano and the stringed instruments, predicated on the contrast between a nonchalant grouping of appoggiaturas in the piano and a sparkling ‘ear-tickle’ figure that chirps in reply from the violin. This opening theme also serves, unusually, as the movement’s second theme, scored differently and presented in a higher register. With such a concentration of musical materials in the exposition, it is not surprising that Mozart introduces a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section.

Among the concerto-like features of this movement are passages of ‘busy-work’ in the piano covered by more sustained melodic activity in the strings, and extended stretches of pearly piano runs leading either to a new formal section, or to a trilling cadence.

The second movement Larghetto is a lyrical outpouring of highly decorated melody, structured as a dialogue between piano and violin, with the cello largely playing a supporting role. A contrast to this florid melody is found in the much less artful middle section which, while departing from the same initial gesture, offers up a more naively simple brand of tunefulness.

The Allegretto finale is a companionable, gently playful rondo constantly enlivened by the same sprightly ‘ear-tickle’ figure that appeared in the first movement. The mood is consistently upbeat, with the piano at particular pains to make the texture sparkle with colourful passagework. Eventually even the cello feels emboldened enough to join in on the fun as it trades phrases back and forth with the violin in the closing section of the score.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with left hand high in the treble and the right hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. An almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly – or playfully, it’s hard to tell which – over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

Robert Schumann
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 63

There is a distinctly ‘Brahmsian’ feel about Schumann’s first piano trio, with its thick, almost orchestral scoring, richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. Composed in 1847, its densely woven compositional textures reflect Schumann’s recent study of Bach but its expressive manner is Romantic to the hilt.

At its opening we are plunged into a brooding drama already fully underway, a churning cauldron of sinuous yearning phrases, echoing back and forth in imitation, that seem to never end. The urgency and passionate intensity of this opening rides on the back of a continuous series of delayed resolutions and syncopations that weaken the strong beats of the bar. This is a feature shared by both the first and second themes of the movement. The development section is notable for a remarkable change in mood, a sudden break in the clouds signalled by a chiming accompaniment in the piano that introduces a completely new theme, a sort of hymn melody hauntingly intoned by the cello and violin playing near the bridge.

The 2nd movement scherzo has a spirit of boundless energy and focused enthusiasm that would do credit to the cheering fanbase of a local football team. Built on a series of driving scale figures echoing between the piano and strings in a peppy dotted rhythm, it smoothes out these scale figures in the more flowing central trio section, which is structured as a series of three-part canons.

The dramatic centre of gravity of this work is its slow movement, a lyrical outpouring of emotion with the violin and cello as its major protagonists while the piano digs deep into its low register to provide a rich bed of sonic support from below. The emotional range of this movement is exceptionally wide. The opening and closing sections are filled with forlorn sighs and seemingly aimless harmonic wanderings, but they enclose a rapturous middle section filled with expansive feelings of contentment and inner joy.

The last movement follows the model of the “triumphant finale” established by Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony, in which the minor mode changes to major and whatever dark clouds may have hovered over previous movements are swept away in a flood of joyous celebration. The tune chosen by Schumann for this celebration is stitched together from motives from the opening of the first movement and almost has the character of a patriotic hymn. But unlike the theme at the opening of the first movement, this finale theme just can’t wait to cadence – as often as possible – and the rhythmic pulse is definite and emphatic. A rondo-like alternation of moods cleverly disguises how the opening theme motivates the entire kaleidoscopic range of variations that drive this euphoric movement to its jubilant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: NIKOLAJ ZNAIDER & ROBERT KULEK

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Violin & Piano in G major Op. 30 No. 3

“Who are you, and what have you done with Ludwig van Beethoven?”

Such is the question that Beethoven enthusiasts raised on the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, and the late quartets might wish to ask of the musician responsible for the Violin & Piano Sonata in G major Op. 30 No. 3. Dating from 1802, the very year in which Beethoven accepted that he was going deaf, it gives scarce evidence of coming from a composer remembered for his rebellious unorthodoxies, one who bequeathed a deeply personal intimacy to instrumental music.

This sonata, by contrast, is sociable and chatty, marked by an uncomplicated joyfulness. It appears to typify rather than challenge the achievements of the Classical era. Its clear phrasing and transparent textures point to Mozart while its vigour and wit are classic Haydn. And yet, if Beethoven is here writing “inside the box”, as it were, he makes sure that the box throbs with energy and feels his sharp elbows knocking from inside, because the rhythmic profile, in its outer movements at least, is distinctly Beethovenian, full of the sudden irregular accents and propulsive drive that would become his trademark.

The first movement’s exposition presents us with three energetic themes.
It opens with a run scurrying back and forth, issuing into a rising arpeggio capped o by a comical chirp from the violin, like Tweety Bird chiming in late, after the beat, in a Bugs Bunny skit. The second theme is surprisingly in a minor key, but every bit as energetic as the first. Finally, a nonchalant closing theme, skipping merrily over a drone bass, completes the line-up. Remarkable in the second and third themes especially are the off-beat accents given to the weakest beat of the bar, the second 8th note in 6/8 time. A steady eight- note pulse and many tremolo figures, exploited thoroughly in the development section, keep this movement bustling and bubbling along in a style that pre-figures the buoyancy of Mendelssohn.

There is no slow movement. Instead comes a real, danceable minuet, moving in even careful steps, with all the graceful pauses that would allow courtiers to exchange polite glances, and a wealth of turns and trills to go with their frilly cuffs and collars. Or so it seems, until Beethoven takes this courtly dance for a stroll in a few other directions, with many a diversion into the minor mode and even an oom-pah-pah rhythm. But the straight-laced minuet tune keeps coming back again and again, and maybe this contrast is the whole point. The closing gesture of the movement is a cutesy trill played cheek-to- cheek in unison by the piano & violin together, a sly wink, perhaps, at a genre that Beethoven would later abandon in favour of the more openly eccentric scherzo.

The last movement has been called a Rondo alla musette and for good reason. There is a country hoedown feel to it, with its drone bass and steady rhythmic pulse. Chewing over the two parts of its theme – one in 16ths, the other in 8ths – it conjures up images of village dancing and presents a daunting challenge to those who frown on toe-tapping during recitals.

Sergei Prokofieff
Sonata for Violin & Piano in D Major Op. 94a

If Prokofieff’s Sonata in D major is remarkably tuneful and easy on the ear, it might be because when he composed it in 1942, he was also working on the film score to famed director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The sonata, originally written for flute and then adapted for violin, is diatonic in its harmonies, as immediate in its appeal as any film score, and its layout in the four movements of the traditional sonata, each clearly structured, makes it especially accessible to audiences familiar with the major works of the classical canon.

The first movement Moderato opens with a dreamy violin melody suspended in the air above a solid steady-as-she-goes piano accompaniment. The second theme in a dotted rhythm is more jaunty, but eminently whistleable. Prokofieff’s adherence to classical norms extends as far as repeating the exposition (!) while his development section adds rhythmic interest but is so in love with its themes that it reproduces them almost intact throughout. And you can hardly blame him.

The second movement Presto is an energetic scherzo full of repeated rhythmic patterns that sometimes doesn’t know if it wants to be in two, or three beats to the bar. Nonetheless, it manages to be full of almost dancelike sections, and even stops to smell the roses in a more lyrical but still quirky middle section.

The third movement Andante opens with a wide-ranging but pleasing melody of a beguiling simplicity. It picks up the pace, however, in an almost jazzy middle section that seems obsessed with all the di erent combinations of notes you can invent within the space of a major third. These two melodies, the broad lyrical one and the busy decorative one, are brought together to close off the movement in a spirit of chumminess and mutual cooperation.

The exuberant fourth movement Allegro con brio presents and balances an extraordinary range of themes, beginning with a strutting, nostril-flaring march in the violin. A further section sees the piano stuck in the mud, plodding along repetitively in the bass while the violin performs pirouettes in the air above it. A complete contrast is provided by a lyrical section that bursts gloriously into song halfway through. Gluing the whole movement together is a constant, faithful pulse of 8th notes in the piano that swells in the final pages to end the work in a state of joyous exaltation.

Dmitri Shostakovich (arr. Dmitri Tsyganov)
Preludes Op. 34: Nos. 10, 15, 16 & 24

Shostakovich’s set of 24 Preludes for Piano Op. 34 was composed in the winter of 1932-33. Representing as they do all the major and minor keys, in strict order, the set invites comparisons with similar collections by Bach and Chopin. The personal, individual stamp that each prelude receives is wholly Chopinesque, while neo-baroque Bachian contrapuntal textures abound.

Each prelude is sharply etched in mood, with a concentration of effect resulting from an elemental simplicity of texture. Arrangements of these pieces abound. This set of four is by Dmitri Tsyganov (1903-1992), a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and founding first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet that premiered the vast majority of Shostakovich’s string quartets.

The tension in these pieces is between expectation and arrival. Their steady rhythms and predictable phrase structures set up regular surprises for the listener when the melody line or harmonic underpinning so often go “o the rails”. Almost as shocking, however, is when they manage to arrive at a perfectly conventional and pleasing cadence. The final result is a kind of thrilling grotesqueness, easily interpretable as having a satiric bite, but not entirely dismissible as pure comedy: the aura of melancholy and lament is far too vivid in the ear.

This forlorn, “sad clown” affect simply oozes from No. 10 in C# minor, with its dance-like accompaniment playing straight man to the pensive musings of the violin.

The mock-waltz feel is even stronger in No. 15 in D at major, with the violin playing the oom-pah-pahs this time. By the time it finally breaks into song, the piece, sadly is almost over.

No. 16 in B at minor shifts between patriotic song and goose-stepping military march with many a melodic misstep along the way.

The last prelude in the set, No. 24 in D minor, accomplishes the impossible: creating a cross between a French gavotte and a march, with a furious pattern- prelude section in the middle.

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Violin & Piano in D minor Op. 108

Brahms’ third and last sonata for violin & piano is a full four-movement work, but remarkably compact and varied in its range of expression. It opens in an introspective but troubled frame of mind, with the violin musing obsessively over a repetitive melodic pattern. The piano restlessly ruminates far below until it grabs the theme to project it out with heroic strength. The second theme, announced by the piano before being taken up by the violin, is a lyrical tidbit of small melodic range with an insistent dotted rhythm. Where the weighty mystery lies in this movement is in the development section, in which the piano intones a low A, dominant of the key, for almost 50 bars beneath relatively serene motivic deliberations from the violin above. All seems to be well during the recapitulation, but no sooner is the first subject reviewed when another development section breaks out that is as harmonically volatile as the previous development was stiflingly stable. Its passion spent, the recapitulation continues, but with the piano plumbing another pedal point, a low D, at the bottom of the keyboard.

Balancing the dark mysterious mood of the first movement is the Adagio, an openly lyrical aria for the violin, accompanied throughout by the piano. Noteworthy in its unvaried repetitions throughout this movement are the deeply affecting falling intervals and passionately expressive outbursts in double thirds, reminiscent of the gypsy manner.

The third movement Un poco presto e con sentimento is teasingly ambiguous in mood. More subversive than sentimental, it stands somewhere between an intermezzo and a scherzo. It opens with a playful hops of a minor third, but the minor avouring is undercut by ickering allusions to the major mode. Its almost gypsyish volatility of mood, however, soon leads it into more hefty and passionate expressive terrain. In other places, though, an almost Mendelssohnian aura of fairyland magic hovers over the proceedings, especially the wispy ending that softly and slyly blows out the candle on this enigmatic movement.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the Presto agitato last movement. While dance-like elements are present in its principal theme in 6/8, the thick scoring of the piano part prevents any spirit of lightness from taking hold in this turbulent and dead serious sonata-rondo. The dark clouds do break momentarily, however, for the simple chorale-like second subject, announced first in the piano. A range of textures, from throbbing syncopations to eerie unisons, ensures variety in the continuous development of ideas pulsing through this movement that lends massive end-weighting to the sonata as a whole.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: SHEKU KANNEH-MASON & ISATA KANNEH-MASON

Gaspar Cassadó
Suite for Solo Cello

Gaspar Cassadó is hardly a household name, but he was one of the great cellists of the twentieth century, active as a performer, composer and transcriber for his instrument. Born in Barcelona in 1897, he was discovered at the age of nine by a young Catalan cellist just starting out on his career, the 21-year-old Pablo Casals, and Gaspar was accepted to study with him in Paris on a scholarship from his native city. During his long studies with Casals in Paris, he absorbed the many aesthetic crosswinds blowing through the French capital, coming to admire the spiky modernism of Stravinsky, the impressionism of Ravel, and the Spanish nationalist sentiments of Manuel Da Falla.

Among the strongest influences on him, however, came from Casals’ championing of the Bach suites for solo cello, which certainly influenced the composition of his own Suite for Solo Cello, composed in 1926. Cassadó himself never recorded the work, and it lay dormant for half a century until it was popularized by cellist Janos Starker in the 1980s. Cassadó’s student Marçal Cervera, who studied the piece with him, says that it represents in its three movements three important cultural regions of Spain: Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia and Andalusia.

Like the Bach suites, Cassadó’s suite is a collection of dances, introduced by a Preludio, which in the first movement of his suite turns into a zarabanda, related to the baroque sarabande. Cervera suggests that the two presentations of the opening theme, one forte, the other piano, represent in turn Don Quixote and his beloved, Dulcinea. But other associations run through the movement, as well, including quotations from Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe (the famous opening flute solo) and from Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello.

The second movement is a sardana, the folk dance most closely associated with the Catalonian nationalist revival of the 19th century. The sardana is a round dance accompanied by a cobla wind band comprising a high-whistling flaviol (wooden fipple flute), double-reed shawms and various brass instruments. The opening, played entirely in harmonics, imitates the high whistling sound of the flaviol summoning the dancers to the town square. The sardana is a dance in three parts, the middle section being more lyrical and in a minor key. The frequent changes in register on the cello imitate the way that various sections of the band interact.

The last movement is the one in which the spirit of the dance is most evident, with the snap of castanets imitated in sharp, abrupt rhythms, the strumming of the guitar in flamboyant arpeggio patterns, and the harmonies of Spanish folk music in the distinctive pattern of the four-note descending bass line.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven’s two cello sonatas of Op. 5 share many characteristics. Each begins with an introductory adagio leading into a sonata-form allegro and ends with a rondo finale. But if the first of the set, in F major, is distinctly ‘Mozartean’ in inspiration, the second in G minor, is more than a little ‘Handelian,’ and understandably so.

Both were written in 1796 at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, where a production of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was on offer at the Berlin Singakademie in the same year that Beethoven visited. King Friedrich Wilhelm was a charter member of the Handel fan club, having introduced George Frederick’s oratorios to the Prussian capital. And he was more than a passable cellist, to boot, having been taught while still a princeling-in-short-pants by the virtuoso court cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) for whom the Op. 5 sonatas were written. What more attractive model to take for a sonata to be performed with Duport in front of the King himself?

What Beethoven admired most in Handel was his ability to evoke an emotion, or construct an entire dramatic scene, out of the merest scrap of a motive, such as the three-note descending phrase that occurs so often in Judas Maccabaeus. Angus Watson finds that this motive structures much of the melodic material in Beethoven’s G minor sonata, as well. But more telling still is Beethoven’s pervasive use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the sonata’s opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, in clear imitation of the French overture (also in G minor) that begins Handel’s oratorio.

Despite its mere two movements, there is nothing small-scale about this sonata. Beethoven’s austere and pathos-filled Adagio, dominated by a descending scale pattern and marked by many dramatic pauses, is just one of the ways in which Beethoven adds structural heft to his sonata. The exposition of the immediately following sonata-form movement virtually overflows with melodic ideas: there are two in its first theme group and two in its second, while the development section erupts with an intensity of emotion and virtuosity of piano writing that hint at Beethoven’s mature ‘heroic’ style. Capping off the first movement is a coda in which Beethoven lets his instrumentalists mull over what they have just played for the last time before the movement ends, grimly and grudgingly, with a stiffly Baroque tierce de Picardie in G major.

After all that heavy drama, Beethoven serves up a good-natured rondo finale with a sturdy opening refrain tune of small range that manages to thump and twinkle in turn. With a repetitive structure playfully phrased in alternating fragments of forte and piano, it drums its way into your head to become the most memorable melody of the movement. The intervening episodes, and even the refrain theme itself are continually developed and varied—sometimes cast in the minor mode, sometimes with the instruments chasing each other in canon—as if in a sonata movement. This finale simply overflows with rhythmic vitality, due to a near-constant chatter of rapid passagework on the part of both piano and cello.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor Op. 40

Shostakovich is said to have been on his way to the premiere of his Cello Sonata in D minor when he read Stalin’s article in Pravda denouncing his internationally successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. What had ticked off the mass-murderer-turned-music-critic was his conviction that the composer had strayed into the aesthetic and ideological crime of “petty-bourgeois formalism.”

‘Petty-bourgeois formalism you say? Good thing he didn’t hear my cello sonata!’ Shostakovich must have thought to himself. The conservative musical language of this sonata, with its profusion of regular phrase lengths and adherence to a four-movement classical layout (sonata-movement, scherzo, largo and rondo) shocked even some of his contemporaries. And for a work composed in 1934, the repeat of the first movement’s exposition is still shocking, even today.

The first and second themes of the sonata-form first movement are both lyrical in inspiration. The second, in particular, seems almost sentimental, without even a touch of sarcasm. In the development section they are set against a repeated note figure that first appears as cello accompaniment to the second theme and then is more openly articulated at the end of the exposition. An unusual feature of this movement is how it slows to a glacial pace in recapitulating the first theme at its conclusion.

The dance-like quality of the second movement scherzo is rough, swaggering and full of ostinato rhythmic energy. The piano part revels in its chattering pattern of repeated notes in the high register (reminiscent of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance) while the cello is equally scintillating with its glistening arpeggios in harmonics.

Admirers of Shostakovich’s mature ‘bleak’ style will feel right at home in the sombre and doleful Adagio, in which the piano largely plays below the searingly lyrical cello line that dominates the movement.

The concluding Allegro is a clearly structured rondo in which the eccentric but playful opening theme occurs three times, separated by two contrasting episodes, the second of which sees the piano take off for the races. Shostakovich declines to build up to a big “petty-bourgeois formalist” ending. One moment you are enjoying a pleasantly regular toe-tapping tune, and the next … it’s over.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

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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