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PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

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

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

François Couperin
L’Atalante

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

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

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

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

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

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

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

Program notes: 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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