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Sonata in A major D574
The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.
These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.
The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.
Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.
Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.
The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.
Sonata for Violin & Piano
The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.
Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.
The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.
The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.
The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.
Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.
The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.
The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.
The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.
Rondo in B minor D 895
The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”
Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.
The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.
The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.
The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102
Long before Martha Stewart made middle-class home furnishings a “thing,” the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) ushered in a bourgeois age of cozy home interiors that celebrated domestic family life and gave music a prominent place within it. Biedermeier Europe enjoyed the blessings of peace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 much as the Eisenhower era did in North America after WWII. But instead of washers, dryers, and TV sets, the European ‘mod con’ most in demand was the piano, an instrument that afforded middle-class families the luxury of home music-making once reserved for the wealthier classes.
As a consequence, the market for Hausmusik (music for amateur performance by small ensembles in the home) expanded considerably. This market had its peaks of reﬁnement in the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn, and its valleys of vulgarity in the variations and potpourris of lesser composers, as annoyingly popular in Biedermeier drawing rooms as YouTube cat videos on computer screens today.
Robert Schumann, after spending the 1830s composing solo piano music exclusively, made up for lost time at the end of the 1840s with a bumper crop of Hausmusik including his Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano. The simple “popular style” (Volkston) of these pieces is evident in their simple three-part (A-B-A) form, their strongly proﬁled melodies with little emphasis on development, and in their prominent use of drone tones in the bass.
Schumann was not engaged in a form of musical “slumming” by evoking the musical idiom of the rural countryside. This was not Dolly Parton arranged for chamber ensemble. For him, the folk music of a nation was emblematic of its very soul, providing a bulwark against the cheapening of musical taste that “fashionable” music threatened to enact on an unschooled public. Hence, the codas of these pieces reveal ﬂashes of sophistication that see them end more artfully than they began.
The ﬁrst is entitled Vanitas vanitatum (from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) and is likely a humorous depiction of the drunken one-legged soldier in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. It has a heavy peasant swing to it but, like many an engaging tippler, is not without occasional touches of sly whimsy.
The drowsy second piece may make you yawn. Its long-held bass drone foreshadows Brahms’ famous lullaby. The third begins with an aura of mystery, its ‘sombre waltz’ opening yielding to more lyrical effusions remarkable for the high register of the cello in which they are set, and for the use of double stops in 6ths.
The fourth piece alternates between a nostril-expanding march and an equally breast-swelling lyricism while the ﬁfth, the least ‘amateur’ and most developed of the set, pairs a piano part full of scampering double thirds with a wide-ranging and restless cello line of steely determination and wilful exuberance.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69
The furrowed brow of care is nowhere to be found in this remarkably sunny and serenely conﬁdent sonata from Beethoven’s middle period. Composed between 1806 and 1808, it overlaps the composer’s work on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies yet evinces none of the disruptive tumult of the celebrated C minor Symphony nor the wondrous, walk-in-the-woods pictorialism of the Pastorale. It seems perfectly content to live in its own world, a world characterized by an almost Mozartean sense of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.
Consider the opening. A rhythmically tranquil theme, beginning with a rising 5th, is presented by the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, its balanced mix of open and stepwise intervals symmetrically arranged on either side of the home-key note of A. This gesture then ﬁnds the perfect continuation of its thoughts in the luxuriantly relaxed and songful reply of the piano that drifts as high in its register as the cello ended low.
The second theme of the movement is similarly tongue-in-groove with the aforementioned, being a mirror image of the opening theme, inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. And throughout it all, cello and piano bask in a honeymoon of mutual admiration and support, even when touring through quite a bit of minor-mode drama and Italian-style pathos in the development section.
The second movement scherzo makes up for the ﬁrst movement’s overall stability of pulse with a serving of jumpy syncopations and offbeat accents, enlivened by a large helping of contrapuntal side-chatter and imitative cross-talk. The two appearances of the movement’s much-less-skittish trio provide a measure of relief from the twitching, but in the end, even they get caught up in the general mêlée.
The third movement Adagio cantabile holds more surprises in store, however. Like a marathon runner who smiles at the press at the starting gun and then, after rounding the ﬁrst turn, takes a cab to the ﬁnish line, this movement calls it quits after a mere 18 bars of lyrical reﬂection, proceeding directly to the last movement.
Cellist Leonard Rose thought this regrettable, but Glenn Gould saw it as part of an emerging pattern in Beethoven’s later works: a tendency to break down the walls between movements, to write sonatas as a single continuous thought:
It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end… to make things all of a piece.
Whatever the reason, the Allegro vivace last movement, in sonata form, is as toe- tapping a ﬁnale as could be imagined, its chuckling good humour kept bubbling by an almost constant 8th-note patter in the piano. And because this sonata lives in a thematic hall of mirrors, its main theme is an inversion of the piano’s delicious opening phrase in the ﬁrst movement.
Pohádka for Cello and Piano
Leoš Janáček is a one-off in music history. His is a voice of visionary ecstatic utterances, of mysterious murmurings evoking the folk music of his Moravian heritage, all tinged with the blurry soft hum of its favourite instrument, the cimbalom. As American conductor Kenneth Woods puts it:
Janáček comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janáček that sounds like his. His music is inﬁnitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.
Janáček was fascinated by the study of speech rhythms and his music, while often misty and atmospheric, is strongly imprinted with the rhythm of the human voice. Utterly indifferent to the compositional conventions of his time, he creates his textures out of short bursts of melody that shimmer with sudden changes of modal colouring. These build to powerful emotional climaxes by the repetition of ostinato fragments that rarely seem to start on the strong beats of the bar.
Janáček’s Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano dates from 1910, and after numerous revisions, reached its ﬁnal form in 1923. Like much of his instrumental music, this three-movement work is programmatic, loosely based on scenes from The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).
While the story is long and convoluted, the gist is that the handsome young Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, has had his soul promised to the King of the Underworld, Kashchei, but on mature consideration decides that he would much rather run away with the grumpy King’s fetching young daughter, Maria, a decision which leads to an adventure-ﬁlled chase over hill and dale until the two lovers ﬁnally reach safety and live happily ever after.
Just how Janáček’s score relates to the events of the tale is not really clear, but many interpreters see the cello in the role of the young prince, with his signature dotted- rhythm motif announced at the outset, and the piano as Maria. Steven Isserlis offers a very suggestive version of how the music illustrates the story, as follows.
The ﬁrst movement, he says, opens with the dreamy setting of a magical lake where Ivan and Maria ﬁrst meet. Enraptured by each other’s company, they fall into a love duet, but then big bad Kashchei arrives and they have to escape to the pounding of horses’ hooves.
The second movement is full of magic. In a nearby palace Ivan gets a spell put on him so he will fall in love with someone else and in a ﬁt of pique Maria turns into a blue ﬂower, prompting an achingly lyrical outpouring in the middle section. But a magician who does house calls ﬁnally releases them both and they rejoice in their good fortune in each other’s arms throughout the ﬁnal movement.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 6
While some people’s children are perfectly content to play in the mud for as long as the sun shines each day, taking only small breaks to tip over a vase or torture the household cat, others—the young Richard Strauss comes instantly to mind—prefer to while away their infant hours composing German lieder or small character pieces for piano, commensurate with their limited handspan on the keyboard.
To say that the composer of Til Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier was a prodigy is to state the obvious. Reportedly able to read musical scores before he could decipher the alphabet, Richard Strauss began his ‘mature’ period as a composer at an age when most of us were preparing for the high school prom. His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6 was begun when he was only 17 and completed two years later in 1883.
It is a radiantly conﬁdent work marked by boundless exuberance, passionate lyrical intensity, and no mean degree of compositional skill, its phrases driven forward with an irresistible harmonic momentum, parcelled out with consummate formal mastery. The cellist encounters a score extending over the entire range of his instrument while any pianist with a hand smaller than a catcher’s mitt will need to arpeggiate many of the work’s Brahmsian left-hand chords.
The ﬁrst movement Allegro con brio opens the work with a heroic introduction leading to a ﬁrst theme of rhapsodic sweep beginning high on the ﬁngerboard over an undulating piano accompaniment, and this is followed by a sombre second theme, just as passionate, rising up from the lowest string. The development section percolates along, bubbling with imitative motivic play, until unable to hold off the urge to burst into a full-on fugato. Call this boy a show-off if you will, but he sure can write imitative counterpoint.
The second movement Andante ma non troppo is a richly hued but dark collection of ruminative melodies over which the lyrical spirit of Mendelssohn hovers benevolently, as it does over the Allegro vivo ﬁnale, with its mixture of coy drawing-room coquettishness and scherzo scamper.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015
Leoš Janáček: In the Mists
Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music. Equally folk-like is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism, à la Debussy, but an impressionism as heard through Czech ears.
The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetitions of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of its melancholy opening theme.
The varied repetition of a four-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.
The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure, and then ends exactly as it begins.
The fourth movement, Presto, with its many changes of meter, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.
Franz Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142)
Schubert wrote these four works, along with another group of four impromptus (D. 899/Op. 90) in 1827. Only two were published in the short period Schubert still had to live. The four that finally appeared as Op. 142 were published in 1838 by Diabelli, who entitled these pieces “Impromptus.”
The word “impromptu” belies the true construction of the works, for they are not improvisations at all, nor are they spur of the moment conceptions. Rather, the word is intended to evoke the idea that the music originated in a casual manner, and that it was born of poetic fantasy in the composer’s mind. Each of the impromptus explores a particular mood of tonal poetry, that mood being defined at the outset.
The somewhat elusive structure of the first impromptu combines elements of sonata and rondo. There is a wide range of moods, from the sombre melancholy of the opening to some highly excitable passages later on. Schubert’s characteristic fluctuations between major and minor tonalities are also much in evidence.
The second is designed as a simple Minuet and Trio. The music strongly recalls the mood, tempo, melodic outline and harmonic progressions of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26 in the same key (A flat major).
The third impromptu is a theme with five variations. Schubert borrowed this wonderfully idyllic, ingratiating theme from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern, where it introduces the scene of Rosamunde tending her flocks in Act IV. He also used a close variant of it in his String Quartet in A minor (D. 804).
The final impromptu, with its slightly ironic air, delights principally through rhythmic playfulness, a dancelike spirit and brilliant passage work. Towards the end, a note of veiled mystery creeps in, but this resolves into a furious rush to the finish, culminating in a swoop down to the lowest note (F) on Schubert’s piano.
Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
The Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) dates from 1837, when the composer was 27. In its first edition, it was published with the title “Florestan and Eusebius,” referring to the two fictional characters, members of the “League of David”, who are actually only opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego, the former representing his extroverted, exuberant side, the latter his quiet, meditative side. The “Davidsbund” itself, purely a product of Schumannn’s fertile romantic imagination but fashioned after the Old Testament figure, represented the proud, musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. All but number 16 bear an initial at the end, indicating whether it was inspired by Florestan, Eusebius or the two together.
The spirit of the dance infuses the entire eighteen-piece set in one way or another. Mazurka, waltz, polka, tarantella, Ländler, and other dance forms are either obviously or subtly transformed in these mood pieces, which are by turns joyous, eccentric, reflective, lively, agitated, and whimsical. The opening gesture, which is used as a sort of motto throughout, comes from a mazurka by Schumann’s fiancée, Clara Wieck.
The pianist-scholar Charles Rosen offers this insightful observation about the music: “The meaning of the Davidsbündlertänze cannot be put into words, of course, but it comes closer to words than any other piece of music that I know. With its combination of memory and nostalgia, humour and willfulness… the work seems to hint at something hidden within it, intended for us to guess at and not to find. It is, in any case, the reticent Eusebius that has the last word.”
Program notes by Donald Gislason & Robert Markow, 2013.
This is the fifth of the six “Haydn” quartets – everyone a masterpiece – that Mozart wrote in the mid-1780s. The identification with Haydn derives from the older composer’s direct influence on his colleague in the matter of string quartet writing. Specific elements of this influence can be seen in the equal importance given to all four parts, and in the masterful contrapuntal, imitative, and rhythmic manipulation of motivic fragments throughout an entire movement. It was after a performance of this quartet, plus two others in the set, that Haydn made this oft-repeated remark to Mozart’s father: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”
That “profound knowledge of composition” reveals itself everywhere in the quartet. In the first movement, both main subjects (the first of which contains no fewer than four motivic fragments) are developed contrapuntally almost immediately after being presented. In the Minuetto the opening subject consists of a rising lyrical element and a falling articulated one; these are immediately combined, superimposed on each other and developed accordingly. The movement is also remarkable for the expressive use of silences and for frequent and dramatic alternation of loud and soft. Characteristics like these pervade the quartet. But what gives this music its almost magical appeal is Mozart’s supreme ability to combine this high order of craftsmanship with artistic beauty, elegance of expression and a sense of a totally natural unfolding of musical events.
Leo Janáček: String Quartet no. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
Very few works of chamber music owe their inspiration to extramusical sources. Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 is one of these. (Other well-known examples include Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 (From My Life) and Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, entitled Intimate Pages.
Janáček, unlike most other composers, did not produce a string quartet until late in life (to be technically correct, he wrote a quartet during his student days in Vienna in 1880, but this has been lost). The First Quartet dates from 1923, when the composer was 69, the Second from 1928, the year of his death at age 74. The First Quartet’s subtitle refers to both a short novel by Tolstoy and a sonata for violin and piano by Beethoven. Both have relevance to Janáček’s quartet.
Tolstoy’s novella (1889) is the story of a married woman caught in the dilemma between remaining faithful to a man who treats her cruelly and having an affair with a violinist who adores her. The violinist, ironically, was introduced to the woman by her husband at a soirée during which Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (No. 9, Op. 47) was performed. Tolstoy describes in detail the effect the music had on those present. Among other observations, the author believes music generally to be “one of the main intermediaries for encouraging adultery in our society.” At any rate, the husband returns unexpectedly early from a business trip several days later to find his wife and the violinist in passionate embrace. The “poor, exhausted, beaten, sorrow-worn woman” is thereupon murdered. Janáček’s compassion for this unfortunate woman found its way into artistic expression through his First String Quartet, which was given its premiere by the famed Bohemian Quartet on October 24, 1924 in Prague.
In preparing to write the quartet, Janáček annotated a copy of Tolstoy’s work with specific ideas about the relationship between the sonata and the novella. However, the composer made no effort to trace any kind of dramatic program in his quartet. Rather, it presents and expands emotional and psychological states to which various musico-dramatic touches have been added. To some listeners, the opening of the third movement of Janáček’s quartet is a veiled quote from the slow movement of Beethoven’s sonata.
One might assign specific themes to characters or moods, if one wishes, but it is the overall sense of theatre that makes the quartet such a compelling work. Not one of its four movements is in sonata form. Instead, motifs and rhythmic devices are presented, repeated, juxtaposed and combined in constantly changing tempos and metres. In a work lasting less than twenty minutes in performance, there are no fewer than 61 changes of tempo and 25 changes of metre. Over and above all this we find liberal use of such special effects as sul ponticello (playing on the bridge of the instrument, which produces an eerie, ghostly sound), harmonics and ostinatos in addition to more traditional effects like trills, pizzicatos and muted passages.
Robert Smetana, in his introduction to the score published by Hudebni Matice, recommends that we approach this music “as a passionate confession of the principle and power of emotional relations between man and woman in life and in art, to grasp the music not as decor, but as an integral part of life, a part that is often excessively painful, and to hear in it the intense personal participation of the composer.”
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, Op. 13
Three great composers wrote a great string quartet in A minor within just a few years of each other in the early nineteenth century: Beethoven (Op. 132), Schubert (No. 13, Op. 29; D 804) and Mendelssohn. But while Beethoven’s and Schubert’s quartets are among their last compositions, composed in 1824-1825, Mendelssohn’s is the work of a young man who has not even reached his maturity. He was eighteen when he wrote it. Although it is assigned No. 2, it was actually his first (not counting an even earlier, unnumbered composition), composed in 1827 but it was published second. The first performance was given in Paris on February 14, 1832.
Listeners will easily note a number of special features of this quartet. First and foremost, it is an astonishingly mature work for an eighteen-year-old. A composer twice or three times Mendelssohn’s age would have been proud to offer it as his own. But then, Mendelssohn had been writing music on this level at an even earlier age – the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream come readily to mind.
Mendelssohn’s quartet opens and closes in A major, which normally would lead us to call it a quartet “in A major.” But those opening and closing passages are only a prologue and epilogue framing the main body of a work in A minor (the second movement alone is in a different key). It is difficult to think of another multi-movement work that behaves like this.
Then there is the powerful influence of Beethoven’s late quartets which Mendelssohn obviously knew, even though they had been written but a few years earlier. This influence can be seen in the advanced harmonic language, tightly knit counterpoint, recitative passages and use of motivic fragments for developmental purposes. Another Beethovenian device is the use of a three-word question as the source of inspiration. The last movement of Beethoven’s quartet Op.135 has as its motto “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). For Mendelssohn it was “Ist es wahr?” (Is it true?). But while Beethoven’s impetus came from a trivial incident involving payment of a fee, for the youthful Mendelssohn it was something more serious. He was all aflame over a young lady (we’re not sure who), who inspired him to set a song to a short poem, possibly by himself, possibly by a friend named Gustav Droyson (pen name J. N. Voss). “Is it true that you’ll always be waiting for me beneath the leafy path?” runs the opening line.
The quartet begins with a warmly consoling, richly scored, chorale-like passage that gives no hint of the emotional turmoil and contrapuntal displays about to be unleashed. It is the perfect foil. Near the end of this short passage Mendelssohn twice presents the “Ist es wahr?” motif (long-short-long), exactly as it appeared at the beginning of the song. Then a rumble from the viola, a few bars of “scurrying” for all four strings, and we’re off on a deeply troubled journey through a long, sonata-form movement pervaded by the “Ist es wahr?” motif. Its rhythm is everywhere, even if its melodic profile is not. As a further measure of the emotional heat of this movement, the second theme, announced by the first violin, is in E minor, not major, as would be the case in most any other sonata-form movement of the period. Here, incidentally, is one of the few moments where the “Ist es wahr?” rhythm is absent. The development section consists of an intense, at times almost violent working out of the “scurrying” figure and, to no one’s surprise by now, the rhythmic pattern of “Ist es wahr?”.
The spirit of Beethoven is nowhere more pronounced than in the adagio movement, with its soulful, hymnlike opening subject and aura of Innigkeit (inwardness). More Beethovenian influence is seen in the use of fugato (a short passage in fugal style but not a fully developed fugue) and in the highly advanced harmony of the central episode. Perhaps nowhere else did Mendelssohn ascend to such levels of expressive dissonance as he did in this movement.
The main theme of the Intermezzo has a folk-like simplicity to it, gently wistful, as if “smiling through the tears.” The movement’s central episode has the characteristic feathery lightness of touch we associate with the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet, though even here imitative counterpoint holds sway, even to the point of two different ideas – one lightly tripping, the other lyrical – bounced about simultaneously at one point.
The finale begins with one of Mendelssohn’s most daring and dramatic gestures – the equivalent of a recitative delivered by an impassioned operatic character, sung by the first violin to throbbing accompaniment from the other strings. It is a gesture Mendelssohn may well have learned from the analogous passage in Beethoven’s Ninth or his A-minor quartet (Op. 132). In fact, the similarity in both rhythm and melodic outline is remarkably close to the corresponding passage in Op. 132. Thereafter it returns in varied form three more times interspersed with fresh melodic ideas. The incisive, five-note pattern (three short, two long) that constitute the recitative’s rhythmic hallmark turn up again and again throughout the movement like a kind of musical genetic code. Again, as in the first movement, the second theme is in E minor, not E major.
Mendelssohn saves his greatest surprise for the end. The music seems to be hurtling toward a thrilling conclusion. The fourth recitative passage interrupts the proceedings, and we revert to the tranquil music that opened the quartet nearly half an hour ago. Here Mendelssohn expands that material into a postlude of 25 measures, exactly the length of the song that was the quartet’s raison d’être. It brings a satisfying sense of closure; “Ist es wahr?” has come full circle.
Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2012.