Franz Joseph Haydn
Quartet in B at major Op. 50 No. 1
The art music of Western Europe underwent a period of transition in the mid- 18th century as the thickly embroiled scores of the Baroque, with their long spun-out melodic lines and constant harmonic churn, gradually yielded to the clearer textures, symmetrical phrases and slower harmonic rhythms of
the emerging Classical era. Haydn was one of the chief architects of the new musical style and a new musical genre, the string quartet, played a leading role in its propagation.
As an ensemble of smoothly blended stringed instruments, the quartet naturally lent itself to an equality of part-writing that Haydn exploited to create engaging musical ‘conversations’, with phrases that asked questions answered by phrases that replied to them, and featuring instruments that led the discussion while others ‘listened’ in sympathetic accompaniment.
In Viennese circles the string quartet was an all-male ensemble of wealthy amateurs and professional musicians who, like the madrigal singers of the Renaissance, made music in private for their own enjoyment. The exclusive nature of the gathering, along with its masculine sensibility, meant that in- jokes and prankish humour, of a sort that Haydn was particularly adept at concocting, were a much-appreciated element of the style. The exchange of knowing smiles and impish smirks between players was evidently a major feature of the evening’s entertainment.
Few works embody this ideal of connoisseurship like the set of six quartets Op. 50 that Haydn wrote in 1787, dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and known as the Prussian quartets. They could just as easily be called the Seinfeld quartets for their quality of improvising musical theatre out of nothing – out of mere scraps of melody and memorable fragments of rhythm.
Witness the opening Allegro movement of the first in the set, the Quartet in B at, in which the entire discursive content is laid out sequentially in the first 8 bars: the pulsing of a single low pitch by the solo cello, a cute little up-and- down gure that cadences after it’s just begun, and the same up-and-down gure cast in triplets. From these pulsing, cadencing & triplet motives alone Haydn creates an entire sonata-form movement: a monothematic movement (as was oft his wont), since his second subject, in triplets, derives directly from the triplets of his first. So seamlessly interwoven, in fact, are the motivic and formal Lego pieces of this movement that modern scholars are still at brickbats about just where the recapitulation begins.
In the Adagio non lento theme and variations, the accent is on decoration. The theme is an assemblage of small motivic gestures with many coy leaps, set in a siciliano rhythm. The following three variations and coda lace the theme with ever-more-frilly garlands of accompanimental ligree, with the lyrical core of the movement residing in the operatically-inspired central variation in the minor mode.
The Poco Allegretto minuet & trio displays a subtle quirkiness in its metrical dissonances, with a triplet-vs-duplet tussle evident in the very first statement of the theme. Accented off-beat entries and sliding chromatic lines add to the dizziness, but the sparkling highlight of the movement comes in the clever hiccuping of the 1st and 2nd violin lines in the trio.
The Vivace last movement is a bustling, high-energy romp in the spirit of an opera buffa finale, with lively contrapuntal exchanges between the instruments and hairpin changes in direction alternating with addle-brained moments of comic indecision and goofy episodes of daydreaming. Built on a simple downward arpeggio pattern, it is another monothematic sonata-form movement, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, with its veer pattern of recurring refrains.. Don’t be fooled by the apparently final-sounding cadence in the recapitulation. It’s a ruse! Haydn puts in a gran pausa, a full two-bar rest, to make you think the movement is over … then merrily begins again to lead the work to its real conclusion.
Quartet No. 7 in F# minor Op. 108
The worlds of Shostakovich and Haydn were poles apart, as different as 18th- century Vienna and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Soviet ideology celebrated national folk music and looked down on elitism in art, so merely writing a string quartet, with its origins in the salons of the Viennese aristocracy, risked labelling its composer as a cultural dissident. And yet Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets in his career and there is no shortage of critical commentary that interprets them as products of their political environment.
Shostakovich’s chromatically wandering melodies seem to be searching in numb bewilderment for their place in the natural tonal world, and never really nding it. The lack of harmonic drive, the sparse textures, and generally low dynamic range seem to symbolize a kind of social alienation that is easy to map onto the daily life of citizens living under a repressive regime.
Another view, however, might see the composition of these string quartets as escaping the pressures of Soviet society rather than typifying them, as retreating to an abstract world of formal compositional practice in a direct line of descent from Haydn. Because for all their moonscape strangeness, the string quartets of Shostakovich are written “the old-fashioned way”: with identifiable musical motives developed within an imitative contrapuntal texture that lls out a large-scale formal plan – the very essence of Haydn’s string quartet language.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, written in 1960, makes a strong case for this view, so tightly is its construction based on the development of its clearly marked musical motives. The work is structured in three movements played without a break, in a large-scale cyclical design, its last movement almost entirely based on transformed materials from the first two movements.
It opens with the solo 1st violin playing a seemingly carefree series of 3-note gures, chromatically tripping down the F# minor scale to end in a 3-note ‘door-knocking’ rhythm on one note – a rhythm that permeates most of the movement, even the buoyant second theme announced by the cello. The opening scalar descent is soon developed in pizzicato triplets, ever dogged by the door-knocking rhythm, which o ciates even in the slow coda at the end of the movement.
The Lento second movement demonstrates how Shostakovich keeps his textures starkly simple and easy to grasp in the ear. In this movement he places a rhythmic ostinato in the mid-range while motivic and thematic play alternates on both sides of it. He begins with a roaming 16th-note pattern of noodling in the 2nd violin, over which the 1st violin intones a searingly intense, but chilling cantilena, soon passed to the cello in its high register. The mid- range murmuring then changes to a di erent kind of ostinato, in a constant dotted rhythm, as ghostly melodic phrases alternate above and below.
The stage is now set for the finale, which swallows the motives of the previous two movements whole and spits them out in radically new guises. This last movement is in two sections: a violently aggressive Allegro followed by a more re ective Allegretto. It opens with the series of tripping 3-note gures that began the quartet, inverted now into a de antly set of ascending gestures climbing up the scale. Soon the innocuous noodlings and dotted gures that had murmured in the background of the second movement burst into the foreground at volume as the two-part subject of a teeth-gritting fugue, at the climax of which the 2nd movement’s searing melody emerges, followed by the original descending gures from the 1st movement and their culminating ‘door-knocking’ triplets.
Taking the movement to its conclusion is an Allegretto that pores soothing oil on these troubled waters, still using materials from the previous movements, but with its slower pace and almost waltz-like musical character leading the movement to an enigmatically quiet coda much like that of the first movement, now experienced as a final bookend to the work as a whole.
Quartet in F major
Comparisons between Debussy and Ravel are inevitable when thinking of French impressionism and the string quartets of these two composers – Debussy’s of 1893 and Ravel’s of 1903 – provide an unusually fertile ground for such comparisons. Both works exhibit a feeling for the exotic in their use of modal melodies and cozy harmonies chosen for their colour rather than their drive to arrive at a cadence. Both relish unusual textures and timbres (e.g., the pizzicato-dominated scherzos in both) and the use of a cyclic design that sees the same themes recur between movements.
But whereas Debussy’s world is more dreamlike and motivated by free association, Ravel’s more clearly focussed and formally controlled. The willingness to oat in an ever-changing moment of timeless rêverie
is uppermost in Debussy, the crystalline sense of order and classical craftsmanship is stronger in Ravel.
Ravel reveals himself to be the compositional master of the iron (formal) hand in the velvet (timbral) glove especially well in his Quartet in F major, with its layout in the four traditional movements of classical practice: a sonata-form opening movement, 2nd movement scherzo and contrasting trio, a lyrical 3rd movement, and rondo-ish finale.
Two contrasting themes motivate the formal procedures of the gently-paced first movement: a thoughtful, musing first theme introduced at the opening by the 1st and 2nd violins, and a second more introspective second theme played by the 1st violin and viola together two octaves apart. The development section sets these themes against a plush background of quivering tremolos that contribute mightily to its climax and the recapitulation is a paragon of balanced repetition, being almost a carbon-copy of the exposition. Notable in the movement’s soothing coda are the cello’s 10 bars of consecutive parallel perfect fifths (!), a harmonic practice banned in traditional harmony.
The scherzo is a kaleidoscope of colourful musical e ects: pizzicato timbres, shrieking high trills, and alternating patterns of 3/4 and 6/8 meters, suggestive of both Spanish folk-dance rhythms and the complex overlays of a Javanese gamelan ensemble. The slower, almost morose trio middle section repurposes previous melodic material to create a kind of a casserole of broken musical pasta pieces before hinting at, then diving into, a repeat of the opening section.
The third movement is a deeply lyrical rhapsody in many sections, with sinuous, sensuous melodies (many recalling previous movements) set against a number of evocative timbral backdrops. The stillness of night is almost palpable in this movement, although an underlying passion lurks deep beneath the trembling sonic foliage, a passion that nds expression in the movement’s throbbing climax.
The finale is a kind of rondo, alternating urgently propelled circling motives in quintuple meter (5/8 and 5/4) with calmer, more lyrical sections in 3/4 that nostalgically remember themes from earlier movements. Tremolo in this finale is not used as a mere background accompaniment, but rather as the main source of propulsive energy driving the movement to its exultant conclusion.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017