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PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

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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