String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4 Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

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

In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of home entertainment in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so at the end of the 1790s, when Beethoven decided to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.

The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from that of its siblings. The ‘brat’ of the pack is No. 4, the String Quartet in C minor, an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.

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

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

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

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

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

MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

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

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

The Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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