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Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic-era composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for imitative counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed in kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: Chiaroscuro Quartet and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor  (“Death & the Maiden”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restlessness mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major  K 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a fortepiano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.  

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show.  Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement but more importantly, as in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch.  Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it presents—four in the orchestral exposition alone.  The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall.  The development section, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra.  Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), youngest son of J. S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J. C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute.  And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure.  The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repetitive motive of three notes descending by step.  When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra! Filled with thrills and spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

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

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

The Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Richard Strauss
String Sextet from Capriccio

Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)

The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

*                      *                      *

The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.

Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.

The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

 

Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.

Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.

But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.

*                      *                      *

The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.

The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.

The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.

The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70

In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.

Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.

*                      *                      *

The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).

The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.

The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: CASTALIAN STRING QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5

Having recently returned from his hugely successful visits to England and been liberated from financial woes, Haydn composed a set of six String Quartets, Op. 76 which were commissioned by Hungarian Count, Joseph Erdödy in 1797. Deviating from more traditional forms and establishing a new treatment of thematic material, these innovative features secured their place amongst his most ambitious chamber works. While employed under the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy II, his relatively light duties allowed him to compose multiple works, including the ever-popular Creation oratorio, published in 1799. Not only was this an intensification of his prior achievements, the added weight, character, and instant successes also ensured the resulting “Erdödy” quartets were considered a triumph.

The opening Allegretto, an elegant and dignified dance in triple time, is a typically Haydnian movement flourishing entirely out of a single melody. Serenity is soon lost, however, as a fiery outburst in D minor using rapidly furious scalar runs creates a desire for the unknown with a delightfully energetic coda in faster tempo that ends the movement. The tenderness of the largo in the remote key of F Sharp minor ensues with a particularly prominent singing and mournful nature. The lack of open strings results in an ethereal sound with both the cello and viola taking prominent melancholic solo roles before the opening theme returns. The minuet and trio is perhaps more mysterious and insecure, with duplet figures constantly disrupting the expected triple time. The cello opens the trio with grumbling scale material aplenty concealing deep secrets before an opening of light occurs as all parts join in homophony. Followed by the unbounded joy of a turbulent folk scene, the finale has the character of bagpipe music as the open fifths in the accompaniment allow each part takes their turn to gallop into the limelight. Its rapid pace and jagged phrasing makes it particularly challenging to pull off; however, its outright declamatory nature ensures the quartet ends on a high.

Gabriel Fauré
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

The sole string quartet of Gabriel Fauré, completed shortly before his death, was composed in the summer of 1923. Keeping the work under wraps, wary of his declining health and uninvited comparisons to great composers of the past, Fauré wrote to his wife from Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy admitting “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!” Trained in the formal tradition of counterpoint since the age of 9, it is perhaps unsurprising that the work owes much to the weight of tradition while also incorporating youthful creativity that he perhaps so craved as he neared the end of his life.

The viola’s rising opening phrase answered by the first violin sets the tone for the Allegro with lamenting and contouring lines interacting in a form of ebb and flow ending in exhaustion. Although the tonality often feels murky, the defined sonata form provides structure as the development section proposes a more concise and contrapuntal construction with the viola once again having a particularly eloquent role. The central Andante (the most extensive movement) is contemplative, comprised of rising chromatic scales that simultaneously radiate youthful curiosity but also a sense of nostalgia. The owing melody is accompanied by pulsating quavers that eventually lead to individual parts emerging before sinking back into the reweaving of previous material. With the Allegro, the combined function of scherzo, as well as finale, is clear. The angular theme is introduced in the cello over a pizzicato accompaniment flitting between duple and triple beat divisions as a serenade and dance. Eventually reaching a jubilant E major conclusion, the work casts a distinct view of life and love regarded as a true representative of the composer himself as he seeks a quiet but profound farewell to life.

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1

Dedicated to his dear friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 was composed in the space of a few weeks during the summer of 1842. A man of habit during his most productive periods, Schumann’s intense focus on a single genre at a time notably led to the composition of over 150 songs in 1840, which were succeeded by several large-orchestral works merely a year later. In that so-called chamber-music year of 1842, alongside the three quartets of Op. 41, he also wrote a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio inspired by the works of the masters before him: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. While Schumann’s string quartets are less frequently programmed, they have often been cited as the ‘missing links’ between the quartets of Mendelssohn and Brahms, a testament to his unique gifts as a composer.

As one of the finest contributions to the genre, the first quartet of Op. 41 begins in A minor, using falling motifs engaged in imitative counterpoint at every turn, wrought in anguish and sorrow. The curling lines are eventually unravelled breaking into a sunny Allegro in 6/8 and the submediant key of F major. A sense of rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint is finely nuanced before the galloping scherzo follows, vividly contrasting in character. Szforzando accents are abundant, immediately suggesting Mendelssohn- inspired sprightliness combined with fiery passion. The trio is in the major mode providing some lyrical contrast in a more genteel character. The divine theme of the Adagio follows, bringing together notions of idealised romance and lust particularly as the cello acquires the melody accompanied by pizzicato violins. However, the elegant sentiment is soon lost as the Presto plunges into forceful abandon, surging towards the unexpected interlude in A major. Quickly cast aside, the deluge of mighty textural celebration returns drawing the work to a finale of legendary proportions.

Program notes © Jessica Bryden

 

Program Notes: Dover Quartet with Avi Avital

Sulkhan Tsintsadze

Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin (arr. Ohan Ben-Ari)

 The Soviets promoted the ideal of music rooted in the traditions of their native soil and in this regard it would be hard to find a composer more congenial to Soviet ideals than Sulkhan Tsintsadze, one of the leading composers of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Honoured throughout his long career for his prodigious output of operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works and film music, Tisintsadze is especially known in the West for his music for string quartet, above all his many sets of miniatures, each a picture of traditional life in the land of his birth.

Tsintsadze’s scores are remarkable for their wit and for the level of picturesqueness they achieve using just the standard effects of traditional string writing. In these short pieces, with their toe-tapping rhythms and melodies built up out of short repeated phrases, we hear the exotic sounds of traditional Georgian folk songs and imagine the colourful gestures of village dancing. Exhilarating glissandi convey the élan of the Georgian folk idiom and pizzicati the plucking of national stringed instruments.

In Shepherd’s Dance we hear a pastoral bagpipe drone in the cello and the fluty sound of the pan’s pipe in the strings higher up. The drone element is even more evident in the double-stops of the cello solo that opens the fighting song Satchidao, with its exotic Middle-Eastern-sounding scale pattern reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof.

We can imagine a group of whirling village dancers in the spiffy, almost breathless pace of Indi-mindi. Sentimental lyricism breaks out in Suliko, a waltz melody in sixths that wafts nostalgically over a light oom-pah-pah accompaniment. And it is in these lyrical moments that we hear Tsintsadze the film composer, writing for a popular audience.

 

Bedřich Smetana

Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life”

It was in 1874 that Smetana first began to hear high-pitched sounds and experience other auditory disturbances, unmistakable symptoms of the disorder known as tinnitus which within two years would take away his hearing entirely. It was thus as a completely deaf 52-year-old composer that he wrote his first string quartet in 1876, a string quartet with an autobiographical program referred to in its title: From my life.

The life he had led was marked by a string of personal misfortunes. Three of his four daughters had died in infancy and his wife had predeceased him, as well. And yet his professional life in music and his early experience of falling in love provided him with inspiring moments of real exaltation. These strongly personal emotions he expressed in a string quartet remarkable for its orchestral conception of sound and consequently its technical difficulty. In fact, it was initially judged to be unplayable, due to his frequent use of multiple-stops.

Despite its programmatic themes, this work displays the standard four-movement pattern of the traditional string quartet, with a sonata-form first movement, followed by a scherzo, a lyrical slow movement and a rousing finale.

The first movement opens with a depiction of the composer’s youth, a troubled period in his life when he was afflicted with powerful yearnings, expressed by the strongly attacked motives of the solo viola over hushed tremolos in the other instruments. The falling interval with which each motive abruptly ends stands emblematic of the struggles he will face and the misfortunes that will befall him. But present in this movement is also a potent force of optimism, expressed by the second theme in a placidly peaceful G major. Despite a development section full of fretting over the first theme, it is this more peaceful second theme that will dominate the recapitulation, balancing out in a quiet ending the worrying tone of the movement’s opening theme.

The dancelike character of the second movement scherzo is evident in its tempo marking: Allegro moderato a la Polka. Smetana confesses that he was fond of dancing, and composed a great deal of dance music in his youth. The tone here is unpretentiously upbeat, full of hops, skips and boisterous good spirits. And really now, is there anything more joyous than the sugary dominant 9th chord that opens this movement? The middle section trio, by contrast, with its soothing off-beat chords and Palm-Court-like insouciance, is total suavity from beginning to end – a tip of the hat, Smetana says, to the aristocratic circles he frequented as a young buck.

The slow movement Largo sostenuto pays tribute to the composer’s childhood sweetheart, Kateřina Kolářová, whom he married in 1847, and who died of tuberculosis ten years later. Beginning with a cello soliloquy that soulfully repeats the falling intervals of the quartet’s opening, this movement develops as a series of variations on two themes, sometimes lovingly enveloped in a nurturing accompaniment of adoring countermelodies, sometimes throbbing with drama and youthful ardour.

The Vivace final movement is indelibly stamped with the effervescence and natural vitality of Czech folk music, presenting passages of a strongly marked – even punchy– rhythmic character alternating with solo “lead breaks” by individual instruments. The music suddenly stops, however, as ominous tremolos prepare the way for a long-held ultra-high E in the first violin, representing the abnormal sound that Smetana began to hear in his ear as his hearing slowly disappeared. The movement then lurches slowly to its conclusion, recalling memories of themes past, until it fades into the very silence that marked the composer’s final years.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Chaconne from Partita in D minor for Violin BWV   1004

The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges that it presents to the performer and for the monumental brilliance of its formal architecture.

At its core is a 4-bar pattern of chords, stated at the outset, that serve as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s 4-bar thematic pattern comes in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar. There follow 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design. The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon.

Avi Avital stands in a long line of transcribers of this work. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn arranged the work for violin and piano, while Busoni created the canonical version for piano solo that Benjamin Grosvenor played at his VRS concert in 2015. Not to mention, of course, the version that Andres Segovia created for guitar.

Each instrument or combination of instruments offers new possibilities for clothing the elegant structure of this work in new sonic garb. Some, like Busoni, have sought to expand its sound palette to match that of the organ. Brahms, on the other hand, conceived of its musical riches as capable of being contained within the small compass of the pianist’s left hand alone. It will be of great interest to see where Avi Avital takes this celebrated piece, sonically and interpretively, on the mandolin.

 

David Bruce

Cymbeline for String Quartet and Mandolin

David Bruce was born in Connecticut in 1970 but grew up in England where he received his academic musical training, graduating in 1999 with a Ph.D. in composition from King’s College London under Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He has received numerous commissions from Carnegie Hall and was composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House from 2012 to 2013. His latest opera, Nothing, often described as “a modern-day Lord of the Flies,” was premiered at Glyndebourne in February 2016 and will be performed in Aarhus, Denmark this year.

There is a directness of appeal in Bruce’s music that derives from the intriguing strangeness of the simple musical textures he creates, textures featuring exotic scale modes, engaging rhythms, wind-chime-like timbres, and above all a magical connection to intimate human emotion.

“Cymbeline” is an old Celtic word that refers to the Lord of the Sun. The composer’s first impulse in creating this work was an association that he intuited between the colour of the sun and the warm golden timbre of the mandolin and string quartet playing together.

The work is structured in three movements conceived as a temporal sequence of primal daily sun events (sunrise, noon, sunset) which the composer describes as follows:

The sun was one of the first objects of worship and it has been surmised that the idea of a holy trinity … relates to the three distinct positions of the sun: sunrise (father), noon (son), and sunset (spirit). Sunrise is “the father of the day”; midday represents the fullness of energy, the son; and sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection – the spirit. To me, these three states represent not just “father, son and spirit” but also perhaps, the reflection upon an action about to happen (sunrise), the action itself (noon), and the reflection on the action that happened (sunset).

Cymbeline was written especially for Avi Avital and is dedicated to him and his wife Roni, in honour of their recent marriage.

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: Apollon Musagète Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3

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

And so it was that when Beethoven finally decided in 1798 that it was time for him
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 D major Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 is the quiet one of the litter, the gentle introspective one, but surprisingly capable nonetheless of cutting up like a trickster when the circumstances are right. This quartet is bright and lyrical but not a show-off. There are no fugues or flashy variation movements, just a non-stop display of surpassing compositional inventiveness and contrapuntal skill.

The first movement Allegro opens unconventionally with the vocally conceived
leap of a 7th (A to G) played solo by the first violin. (If you don’t think a 7th is particularly singable, consider the first two notes of “There’s a place for us” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story.) This leap spawns points of imitation in the other instruments that seem to spring spontaneously, without fuss, from the very fabric

of the texture. There is, in fact, such an assured air of relaxed normality about this movement that its contrapuntal feats almost pass unnoticed. The second theme is a pulsing chordal subject in simple note values with a slight bit of oomph on the second beat. The one feature of this movement that does raise an eyebrow is its moderately substantial coda—a hint at Beethoven’s future fascination with lengthy postscripts.

The second movement Andante con moto is a cozy little rondo comprised of a principal theme and two contrasting episodes. It begins in close harmony with a songlike melody in even 8th notes delicately nuanced by chromatic inflections in the harmony. The mood of this movement never varies from its pose of poised thoughtfulness, even when passing through moments of reflection in the minor mode. Rather, it becomes ever richer in texture until finally reaching its climax in a pulsing stream of repeated 16th notes before slowly saying farewell to each of its constituent motives in a quiet farewell.

The Allegro third movement is a one-to-the-bar scherzo with a contrasting Minore middle section in place of a trio. Its mood is good-natured rather than overtly joking or rambunctious, as future Beethoven scherzos would turn out to be. The middle section picks up the pace with swirling runs in the first and second violins but this minor-mode merriment is tinged with the furrowed brow and secret sorrow of the Gypsy fiddler.

The quartet finally comes out of its shell in a Presto finale giddy with excitement and bubbling over with merriment. Its constantly bouncy rhythm and breathless pace make a joke out of every little ‘dumb’ pause—and there are many. Contrapuntal hi-jinx blend so effortlessly into the mix that even a thorny fugato section is tossed off like a walk in the park. Sealing the deal for Beethoven’s first four-voiced essay in musical wit is the ending, tossed off with the dry delivery of a stand-up comic.

 

Anton Webern
Langsamer Satz

Anton Webern is a composer known chiefly for his short, delicate, exquisitely concise atonal works written using the serial techniques developed in the early 20th century by what came to be known as the Second Viennese School, of which he was part—the ‘First’ School being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert a century earlier.

Celebrated as he is for the pristine, intellectually rigorous miniatures of his maturity,
we must remember that even this most cerebral of atonal composers was once young, and in love. And to express the torments and transports of young love there is nothing quite like good old tonality, especially the wildly yearning chromatic tonality of the late- Romantic period.

Webern’s utterly ravishing Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) for string quartet is deeply romantic (with a small r) and dates from June 1905, when the 21-year-old composer went on a five-day hiking tour of the picturesque Austrian countryside with Wilhelmine Mörtl, his cousin and future wife, with whom he was besotted.

Described by some as “Tristan und Isolde compressed into 11 minutes,” this work still counts as the longest that the famously laconic composer ever wrote. Perhaps because it was a student work—Webern had just begun studies with Arnold Schoenberg the year before—it was not performed publicly until 1962, when it was premiered by the University of Washington String Quartet at an international Webern festival in Seattle.

Longtime Webern wonks will no doubt note the sophistication of motivic manipulation in the work, especially the inversion of the opening theme that foretells one of the basic procedures of 12-tone composition. But for now let us take this work for what it was at its inception: the spontaneous creative outpouring of Young Anton in Love.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major, D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, it were vain to skirt the debate dividing rival Schubertian factions as to whether the mimeographic profusion of ideas in this composer’s works should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthy tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

No less a scholarly titan than Carl Dahlhaus has proposed that Schubert operates according to a different sense of psychological time. Some of his colleagues stress the trance-like quality of Schubert’s musical thinking, likening him to a musical somnambulist who bids us enter an enchanted world of involuntary dream-filled wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, still bemoan the way in which his practice of open-ended variation hijacks the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and betrays the expectation of propulsive forward drive created by Beethoven.

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim on the ministrations of Morpheus. Here is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is a work of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo. Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the weight of sound to create an orchestral-style tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply

to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge like a primal scream—in the minor! No lack of drama here. What follows combines the emphatic pomp of a Baroque French overture with the suspenseful hinting at things-to-come of a sonata movement’s slow introduction. The first theme, when it arrives, mixes great leaps with jagged dotted rhythms over a slowly descending bass-line, continuing the tone of epic grandeur announced at the outset. A lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Rocking back and forth within a small range, it does everything it can to de-emphasize the first beat of the bar. While the development section is tumultuous and intense, the movement’s two themes start duking it out long before that, interrupting each other, even in the exposition, in a continuous alternation of tranquil lilt and surging protest that plays out through the movement in the flickering shadows of quicksilver changes between major and minor modes.

No respite from turmoil arrives with the Andante con moto, a movement of impressive dimensions and intense emotional drama. Beginning innocently enough with a dignified little minor-mode tune in the cello, more musing than mournful, it plunges six times into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return and fretting tremolos vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.

It is left, then, for the Allegro vivace scherzo to lighten the mood and finally bring relief from the pall of anxiety and tension that has so far dominated the work. Continuous patterns of repeated notes mark this movement with a fleetness of foot that would soon become Mendelssohn’s trademark. Here the tremolos are written out in full, emphasizing their role as individual pulses of rhythmic intensity rather than furry blurs of sound. Antiphonal echo effects abound, with the barrage only interrupted by a delicious Ländler melody in the trio.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. The opening tarantella theme, glinting alternately between major & minor tone colouring soon gives way to a perfect parody of an opera buffa patter aria à la Rossini. This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program Notes: Arcanto Quartet

This evening the Arcanto Quartet offers us a chance to explore chamber music from the end of the 17th century to the recent past, sampling music for four players by Henry Purcell (1659–95), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

 

Henry Purcell

Long before the primacy of the string quartet, consort music for viols was a pre- eminent genre of instrumental music. Sixteenth century British composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis wrote impressive polyphonic compositions for three, four, or five performers. Slightly over a hundred years later, the young Henry Purcell became the last major figure to explore this particular format. His early fantasias and in nomines for viols—compositions based on a particularly popular chant fragment—were created at the transitional moment when the older viol family of instruments was giving way to the more brilliant timbre of the violins.

Purcell’s reputation as the first homegrown British composer to truly master the Baroque style is unassailable. Much of his music is indebted to Italian practice, yet his 13 fantasias demonstrate an implicit conservatism—close to the last gasp of an indigenous British string tradition.

What Purcell might have made of the sound and timbres of the modern string quartet is anyone’s guess. But modern interest in the unique charm of Purcell’s music has encouraged contemporary string quartets to program these varied and delightful compositions. Purcell had no more sincere admirer than Benjamin Britten, who adapted his Chacony in G minor for string quartet as early as 1948, in part to familiarize players and audiences with his distinguished predecessor’s music.

 

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s purely instrumental works have been somewhat eclipsed by the splendour of his creations for the opera stage, but his string quartets—written, conveniently, in “early,” “middle,” and “late” career—are gradually finding their way into the standard repertoire of the world’s great quartets.

His first quartet, conceived in 1928, when the composer was 14, was a substantial four-movement affair immediately withdrawn, and not published until the 1990s. The “official” First Quartet dates from 1941, created during the composer’s unsatisfactory self-exile in the United States. The Second Quartet was written four years later, just as Britten’s first great opera, Peter Grimes, was being premiered in war-torn London. Characteristically, it pays extravagant homage to Purcell with an astonishing concluding Chacony.

Creating the Third Quartet had to wait until the final months of Britten’s life. Commissioned by the Amadeus String Quartet in 1974, it is very much a final summing up and a farewell. Some of its musical materials were quarried from Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, but it is by no means just a suite of best bits or recycled out-takes from that stage work.

Like Shostakovich, his composer friend of later years, Britten filled his music with coded references and intentional ambiguities, though it might seem that choosing to base an opera on Thomas Mann’s tale of infatuation and the end of a life devoted to art is fairly unambiguous.

Whatever its sources, the Third Quartet is chamber music of the highest quality, rife with allusive references to the historical idea of the string quartet. Its five-movement structure, with such operatic focuses as “duets,” “solo,” and “recitative,” relates to similar five-movement structures in two of the 20th century’s other quartet masters, Bartók and Shostakovich, and reflects a conscious desire to push beyond the conventional classic four-movement quartet format. The use of Lydian mode in the second movement inevitably brings to mind Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132, with its “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity”—a fairly unpleasant

bit of irony given the precarious state of Britten’s health when he was writing the piece. The Burlesque evokes Mahler, one of Britten’s abiding heros, and his embittered scherzos.

Then comes the finale. Britten made a final pilgrimage to Venice in November 1975, where he created much of the music heard at the end of the quartet. It is his last use of the passacaglia/chaconne type of variations, an old pre-classical structure he

employed with spectacular variety throughout his work. In opera Britten uses the form to underscore moments of great seriousness and drama, making it a potent symbol as well as a musical structure. In abstract contexts such as the finales of both the second and third quartets, it is left to the listener to ponder extra-musical meanings.

Britten heard a private run-through of the piece at the end of September, 1976, but died a few weeks before the quartet’s premiere by the Amadeus in The Maltings, the concert hall Britten created near Aldeburgh, in mid-December 1976.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

By the time Beethoven turned his hand to the “Razumovsky” Quartets in the middle of the first decade of the 19th century, he was accepted as one of the major composers in Vienna. His flashy early years were over, and he was well-advanced into what scholars generally call his middle period, a compositional phase where he focussed on pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas.

Beethoven’s three Opus 59 string quartets are central to the development of the string quartet as chamber music’s most important genre. Beethoven accepted the four- movement sequence standardized by Mozart and Haydn—weighty first movement, slow movement, Minuet, and fast finale—but he expanded the classic idioms with his own unmistakable textures, formal devices, and harmonic language.

The nickname “Razumovsky” refers to one of Beethoven’s patrons, Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752–1836), a Russian diplomat at the Austrian court. A player as well as a connoisseur, Razumovsky maintained a resident quartet (apparently sitting in occasionally as second violin) and commissioned Beethoven to write the three quartets that have kept the count’s name alive long after his career as a powerful figure in the complicated world of international diplomacy has been forgotten.

Beethoven did remarkable work in the three Opus 53 quartets, but not all his contemporaries got the point; indeed at least one writer recorded his reservations. An 1807 observer for the weekly music publication the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the compositions as “very long and difficult.” The writer was by no means entirely negative, adding, “They are profoundly thought through and composed with enormous skill,” before concluding “but [they] will not be intelligible to everyone.”

This mixed review did not extend to the C major quartet, however—“Which by virtue of its individuality, melodic invention and harmonic power is certain to win over every educated music lover.” As it has to this day.

 

 

Program notes: Doric String Quartet

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2

Those of us wondering in our spare moments what a happy retirement consists of might do well to consider the case of one Franz Joseph Haydn, whose life in the years 1796-97, when his collection of six string quartets Op. 76 was written, offers a model of retired bliss. The period of the 1790s saw Haydn’s official career as an active court composer for the Esterhazy family drawing to a close and his status as an international musical celebrity take flight in earnest. After two tours of England (1791-92 and 1794-95), he returned to Vienna a wealthy man, free to compose whatever he wished, whenever he wished, and his writing for string quartet bears the marks of this newfound personal liberty.

The six quartets of Op. 76 are widely regarded as the supreme accomplishment of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. They fulfill Goethe’s wish that a string quartet be a “civilized conversation between four independent personalities.” And yet they are more than that.

The personal stamp that Haydn put on these works prefigures tendencies which would later characterize the work of his young student, Beethoven. The first
 of these was a new level of seriousness in musical expression. No longer was Haydn’s audience presented with music of such courtesy and deference that it could easily be thrust into the background of the social setting which it graced. This was music that demanded the full concentrated attention of its listeners. Emblematic of this new seriousness was an increased use of the minor mode, a denser fabric of motives in the musical texture, and a general shifting of the centre of gravity in sonata- form movements towards the development section, where the ‘churn’ of motivic interplay dominated the proceedings.

All of these tendencies are on full display in the second of the Op. 76 quartets, nicknamed the ‘Fifths’ quartet in recognition of the intensity with which its falling fifth motive echoes throughout the first movement (occurring more than 100 times, by a rough count). Indeed, the degree to which it keeps occurring throughout the entire exposition, like a gravy boat continually passed around a table of dinner guests, has caused scholars to disagree on just where the ‘second subject’ begins, if there is one at all. And the development section only increases the density of motivic reference by adding inversions and strettos into the mix. With falling fifths ricocheting off every wall, the need to ‘re-introduce the theme’ to the listener is reduced and so the recapitulation is short, but a coda of renewed developmental vigour (also to become a Beethovenian characteristic) keeps tension high till the final emphatic chords.

A relaxed and gracious second movement, a theme 
and variations, offers an opportunity to lower the 
blood pressure somewhat. Yet within the diminutive confines of this simple theme, Haydn finds a wealth of possibilities for variety and tonal interest, dipping now and then into the minor mode and providing many a florid vamp at the top of the texture for the first violin. Attentive listeners will also notice a few sly references to the first movement’s falling fifths.

The third movement Minuetto returns to the minor mode, which along with Haydn’s use of severe contrapuntal procedure (its outer sections being in strict two-voice canon), has earned this movement
its own nickname: the Witch’s Canon. Who knew that witches were so learned? The austerely elegant minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 provides an interesting precedent for such an intensely contrapuntal, minor-mode take on this courtly dance. But then again, it might well be that Haydn is simply sending up the genre rather than offering a demonic variant of it.

The trio provides much needed relief in the major mode, but brings playful surprises of its own in the form of
a clock-like tick-tocking, as rhythmically rigid as the framing opening and closing sections are melodically severe, and an almost gypsy-like alternation between the major and minor mode.

All pretense of gravitas is abandoned in the last movement, however, which unfolds in a rollicking sonata-form movement with many a coy pause along the way. Even the minor mode has lost its tragic edge here in favour of a Mendelssohnian-style merry scamper that finally comes out of the closet to end the work in a bright and buoyant D major.

 

THOMAS ADÈS
The Four Quarters Op. 28

The multi-award-winning British composer, pianist
 and conductor Thomas Adès is a towering figure in contemporary music. A major factor in his success is that despite the modernity of his musical language, he writes from inside, and from well inside, the classical tradition, always anchoring his listener’s attention in some element of the aurally familiar. One finds within his works clearly defined melodies walking abreast with lively contrapuntal side-chatter. Musical connoisseurs will raise an eyebrow of discerning interest to discover canons and ostinati pulsing within his most embroiled textures, even while their toes prove unable to resist tapping in the face of repeated rhythmic invitations to the dance.

And he writes in the traditional genres of the classical canon. His list of works includes operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo piano,
and choral anthems. His sonorities, moreover, are full and resonant but, like those of Stravinsky, elegantly transparent and easy to ‘parse’ in the ear.

One never has the suspicion, when listening to his music, that he is trying to evoke the sound of an SUV driven, in tragic error, through the plate glass window of a Tim Horton’s, or to broadcast the unfiltered sonic output of radio waves received from deep space by the Hubble telescope. These things Mr. Adès does not attempt. And a grateful world thanks him for his restraint.

The crowning virtue of his compositional creed is that he composes entirely for natural instruments, without resorting to the sort of electronic gadgetry and digital trickery that have become such a blight upon the aural landscape of our time. He seeks to ‘update’ (to use his term) traditional music-making, not destroy it, nor supplant it with technology. When in need of new orchestral sounds, for example, he prefers to have his musicians scrub a washboard, rattle a bag of metal knives and forks, or lower a vibrating gong into a bowl of water rather than have them twiddle a dial, tap an electric foot-pedal, or slouch over a laptop as if absorbed in a computer game.

The Four Quarters was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered there by the Emerson Quartet in March 2011. The work takes as its subject the passage of time during a 24-hour period, with each of its four movements, or ‘quarters’, evoking a distinct time of day.

We start our journey in the late evening with a movement entitled Nightfalls, a curious plural of mysterious import. The sound of the strings, played at the opening without vibrato, is as raw as the night is dark. While the mood is meditative to begin with, the sudden dramatic contrasts of loud and soft that follow hint at the unsettling presence of things that go bump in the night.

The second movement Serenade: Morning Dew suggests in its opening pizzicato section the arrival of water droplets on the fronds and leafy limbs of outdoor plant life, and hints in its bowed sections at the glints of sunlight arriving with the dawn of a new day.

Days, another curious title in the plural, brings us to noon and beyond. Largely structured around a syncopated ostinato rife with repeated notes in the second violin, it builds to a climax in which all instruments play in unison before trailing off as they head their separate ways.

The Twenty-Fifth Hour is an impossible time of day, a fact given whimsical acknowledgement in its almost- impossible time signature: 25/16, which is divided up into repeating sections of 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. The simple dance-like quality with which it begins belies the treacherous difficulty of the alternating harmonics and stopped notes that generate its ‘yodeling’ timbral charm. The movement churns to its conclusion in the second half over throbbing sustained double-stops in the cello that nudge the increasingly acquiescent and peaceable musings of its non-knee-held colleagues ebbing towards a soft but nonetheless shocking (for contemporary music) conclusion: a major chord.

 

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130

Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, written in 1825, is a massive work comprising six movements and lasting
a good three quarters of an hour. It is also considered one of the most head-scratching, enigmatic works in the classical canon, one that has baffled musicologists and music theorists to this day.

The aspect of the work most responsible for uniting fingernail to hair follicle in a scratching motion is the last movement, the so-called ‘Great Fugue,’ a work of such formal extravagance that it moved Beethoven’s publisher to tactfully suggest that the composer might wish to replace it with something a tad more … digestible. Which he did, in fact, writing a traditional finale for the first publication of the quartet in 1826 and leaving the original Grosse Fuge to be published separately as his Op. 133.

This evening, however, the work is being performed according to its original conception and there is much to recommend this decision. For all its small-scale difficulties (the bizarre dynamic markings, changes in metre and abrupt changes in tone and mood) the large- scale shape of this work, as originally conceived, is clear. While it may be a hard nut to crack, the nut is clearly divided into an intellectually engaging outer ‘shell’ (the first and last movements) and a meaty inner ‘core’ of rewarding musical ‘nuggets’ (the four movements in between).

The two outer movements are really musical hybrids, ‘fantasies’ masquerading as more serious musical forms: the first movement is in ‘sonata drag’ while the last is
a fugue at a masked ball, changing masks faster than a flirt changes dance partners. These outer movements are colourfully ‘contrasty’ (to use Joseph Kerman’s term) while the four inner movements are remarkably uniform, each picking a single mood and sticking with
it. The outer movements flash with the dazzling charm of the fast card trick while the inner movements grab the heart in an ever-closer embrace of simple nourishing emotion.

It’s quite a ride, this quartet. So here is your dance card.

The first movement begins with a question of musical etiquette. The slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement as used, for example, in Haydn’s Symphonies 101 and 104, or Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 7, is meant to ease you gently and solemnly into the sound world of the piece you are about to hear, which normally takes off like a scalded cat once this introductory function is fulfilled. It’s like an usher who shows you ceremonially to your seat and then leaves you to enjoy your evening’s entertainment, never to be heard from again. Said usher is not expected to sit down beside you and interrupt every time a stray thought enters his head.

And yet, that is just what the slow introduction to this movement does. No sooner have you left behind the tender musings that open the work, and you start to follow the spiffy tumbling 16th-note figures of the movement’s first subject, than the slow introduction pops up again after a few bars to say ‘You know, I was just thinking …’ and then promptly disappears again. Very odd. Anyone who has sat beside a talkative stranger of questionable marble-count on public transit will know just how awkward these situations can quickly become.

But no matter, the exposition finally gets underway in earnest with a vigorously pursued agenda of constantly chattering 16ths which finally give way to a slower, more vocally-inspired second subject in longer note values. At the traditional repeat of the exposition, however, up pops your slow-introduction usher again to show you to your seat (the one you are already occupying) as if the two of you had never met. Within the frame
of expectations of the sonata-consuming public, it all seems like some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, an impression reinforced when the slow introduction returns to seat you yet a third time for the development section.

By now, however, this is the least of your problems. The development section that follows is one of Beethoven’s strangest. A ‘development’ is normally the place where all the musical washing is done as the preceding thematic material is sudsed up right proper and put through the contrapuntal wringer. But this development section is the least active segment of the whole movement, seeming more like an eerie moonwalk of trance-like calm, numbly self-absorbed in its own obsessive rocking rhythm.

And yet a perfectly normal recapitulation sets you back on familiar ground. But just as things are
drawing to a close, here once again comes the slow introduction interrupting every effort to keep the music moving forward, until finally cooler heads prevail and the musical conversation comes to a rousing conclusion.

All this might seem the height of musical impudence, but Beethoven has done this before, in one of his earliest works. His Pathétique Sonata in C minor,
Op. 13, features a slow introduction that occurs, and interrupts, in exactly the same three places within 
the first movement. A new twist on an old trick? It is quite possible that Beethoven, in melding the sectional surprises of the ‘fantasy’ genre onto the staid moorings and weight-bearing architecture of the traditional sonata, is having just a wee bit of fun here, playing peek-a-boo from behind the pillars of this musical structure, as it were, in the style of his teacher Haydn, the pranksterish inventor of the ‘false recapitulation’.

The much more straightforward inner movements begin with a furtively whispered Presto that gives every indication of wanting to be a full-on scherzo in ternary form, but its ‘trio’ middle section provides little by way of contrast. Despite its minor-mode seriousness and breathless heartbeat rhythm, the mood is more determined than grim, yet even that may be just a pose. Its quick, double-hairpin dynamic markings add a humorous ‘leering’ quality to the phrasing that the written-out glissandos in the 1st violin almost push to an open giggle of glee.

The charm offensive begins in earnest in the 3rd movement Andante, where we find ourselves more than halfway to the Viennese whipped cream that Brahms serves up in his most sumptuous slow movements. The wonderfully unbuttoned easy-breathing melody that begins in the viola and then
is taken up by the 1st violin evokes a pleasant walk in the park, the walking pace reinforced by a constant metronomic tick-tock in the accompaniment. The occasional jarring note squealed out by the 1st violin, as if someone had just pinched his bottom, reveals, perhaps, the meaning of the indication Poco scherzoso at the beginning of the movement.

The 4th movement Alla tedesca takes lilting to a whole new level in its ever more sophisticated textural treatments and melodic variations of a nostalgically simple tune, reminiscent of a waltz. Its charm is such that if there is one tune you will be found humming
in the shower tomorrow, it’s this one. A little game of ‘Who’s got the theme?’ arrives at the end, with each instrument taking a single bar of the tune (and not even in the right order) to round out the movement on a note of wit and whimsy.

We arrive at the warm beating heart of this quartet in its 5th movement, the operatically named Cavatina, and what a wellspring of operatic emotion it is. You can easily visualize the scene, with a single pensive character inhabiting a pool of light in the middle of
the stage. Beethoven confessed that he could never think of this movement without weeping, and the score bears every mark of the emotion he felt: the low tessitura of the two violins, the sigh motives on first beats of the bar, the reluctance to cadence, and, above all, the unrestrained pathos of the section marked Beklemmt, in which the 1st violin breaks away to sob openly in front of its companions.

This Cavatina was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on the Golden Record placed on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, meant to convey the heights of human achievement to whatever intelligent life form might find them.

The Grosse Fuge last movement, by contrast, has seemed to many to have charted the opposite path, arriving to us on earth from somewhere deep in outer space. Indeed, musical analysts with cranial cavities considerably larger than that of the present writer have spent many an hour that could more profitably have been spent sorting laundry in an attempt to understand what are referred to as the ‘problems of continuity’ in this movement, as if its overall form constituted some sort of compositional speech impediment that needed to be excused or explained.

Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this movement, in all dimensions, that so baffles the musical pundits. Was the great composer responding to an inner voice asking: “Would you like to supersize that fugue?” The movement occupies fully one third of the quartet’s entire length, and its range of expression is nothing if not extreme, with dramatically large leaps peppering the melodic outline of its fugue subject, and dynamic indications such as ff, f and sf profusely scattered throughout the score, sometimes on every beat for pages on end.

Worse still, the question of musical etiquette posed
in the first movement seems to have progressed into
a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder,
given the way the piece opens. There was, after all, no tradition of starting a fugue with a slow introduction, or an introduction of any kind whatsoever. And yet
as the finale opens (under the grandiose name of Overtura) we are served up a series of short thematic statements, each abandoned immediately after a single phrase, like someone changing TV channels with the remote every 5 or 6 seconds. Each short phrase is in a different rhythm, and has a different character.

First comes (a) a bold, strident declaration in half notes comprising an odd mix of gaping intervals and stepwise motion, ending in a trill, then (b) an almost flippant, skippy-dippy version of the same melodic intervals, but in a triplet rhythm, then (c) a more soothing placid variant of these, then (d) the same melodic intervals again, chopped up and separated by rests, before the arrival of (e) a jagged-edged, wildly leaping fugue theme, using the ‘chopped up’ theme as its countersubject.

Has Beethoven gone barking mad? Crazy like a fox, I would say. When starting out on a movement of such breathtaking length, what better way to prepare the listener for the arduous road ahead than to provide a ‘table of contents’ indicating the various transforms of the theme to be encountered along the way?

In writing this ‘fugal fantasy’ Beethoven not only treats his material according to standard fugal procedures (stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc.), he combines these with the processes of sonata development, as well, creating as wildly different versions of his melodic material as he can devise, and announcing the major variants at the outset. Then, just as he did in the Fifth Symphony, he proceeds in the course of the movement to delete notes from his theme to make it splinter into shorter and shorter fragments, until finally the texture is reduced to a series of duelling trills, like two dogs snarling at each other in a dispute over a bone.

The result is an uninhibited virtuosic display of compositional mastery, an 1812 Overture of intellectual fireworks unique in the literature of Western music.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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