Composer-violinist-educator Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) hails from New York’s Lower East Side, where her father managed a music studio. She was, in her words, “constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music.” Thus, her own compositions have drawn from many diverse influences, such as African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, improvisational styles, modern jazz, film scoring, etc. From those early years, she developed, chiefly as a violinist, to receive degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University. In her professional performing life, Montgomery has been a member of the Providence String Quartet and the Catalyst Quartet. The latter began as a project of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which creates opportunities for African-American and Latino string players.
As a composer, Montgomery was the resident Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony during the 2015-16 season. In addition she has been recognized with grants and fellowships from the American Composers Orchestra, the Sphinx Organization, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization. Her reputation has been spreading steadily, mainly in North America, beginning in New York City, Providence, and Boston, reaching out to Deer Valley, Utah; Miami Beach, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and Toronto, Ontario. Montgomery’s debut record album Strum: Music for Strings was released on the Azica Records label in late 2015. The concluding album track is Strum.
This one-movement work was commissioned by Community Music Works and premiered by the Providence String Quartet in 2006 and was revised in 2012. About the music, critic Maggie Molloy writes:
Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending. . .
Dvorak: Piano Quintet In a major, op. 81
“This work probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his.” (John Clapham)
“ . . . One of the most delightful and successful chamber works, not only in the composer’s works but also in the whole of chamber music composition.” (Otakar Šourek)
“ . . . The best piano quintet ever written, demonstrating as it does from start to finish some of the most lovable characteristics of a lovable composer.” (Gervase Hughes)
With accolades like that, there is very little to add except the bare facts. Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve his First Piano Quintet, Op.5 (also in the key of A major), Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) decided to start afresh. He began Op. 81 in mid- August 1887, and by mid-October the new quintet was completed. It was a period of contentment for Dvořák, and he worked in a pleasant environment. Once finished, Dvořák dedicated the new work to Dr. B. Neureutter, a generous patron of music. The premiere took place the following January, and Simrock published it immediately.
The first movement displays a wide expanse of moods generated from its two themes, both essentially song-like. These moods alternate rapidly during the development and keep the entire movement fresh and spontaneous.
The second movement bears the title Dumka, a kind of melancholy Slavonic folk ballad. In the hands of Dvořák, however, the Dumka involves sudden mood changes from melancholy to exuberance. That is what happens in the middle section of this rondo, when the rhythmic Vivace section springs up.
Although Dvořák gave a subtitle of Furiant to the Scherzo, it is not a genuine Furiant, since there are no predominating shifts of accent. However, every bit of the movement is Slavonic. Interestingly, the Trio section contains chiefly ideas from the main Scherzo theme.
The finale is a bustling movement in sonata form carrying an exhilaration that counterbalances the earlier melancholic moods. From the perky first theme to the last note, the movement is full of rustic fun. Dvořák’s mastery of every feature found in the quintet turn it into what Hughes has called “no less perfect a work of national art than the Dumka itself.”
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020. All rights reserved.
Quinn Mason (b. 1996) is a composer and conductor based in Dallas, Texas. He has studied at SMU with Dr. Lane Harder has also worked closely with distinguished composers David Maslanka, Libby Larsen, David Dzubay and Robert X. Rodriguez. His music has been performed in concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Utah Symphony Orchestra, South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Seattle, Mission Chamber Orchestra, loadbang, Voices of Change, Atlantic Brass Quintet, UT Arlington Saxophone quartet, the Cézanne, Julius and Baumer string quartets and concert bands of SMU, UNT and TCU. He has received awards from the American Composers Forum, Voices of Change, Texas A&M University, the Dallas Foundation, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, the Heartland Symphony Orchestra, The Diversity Initiative and the ASU Symphony Orchestra. He is also a conductor, having studied with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Will White, and has guest conducted Orchestra Seattle, the Brevard Sinfonia and the TCU Symphony Orchestra.
This piece wasn’t written about a specific time or person. It is meant to be a contemplation of memories past, which could be anything the listener/player desires – the viola acts as the voice that recalls these memories and reflects on them with tranquil, yet occasionally tumultuous introspection. Thus, this composition can speak to and work in any occasion.
Schoenfeld: Café Music
Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) is an American composer-pianist active also in Israel. Educated at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Arizona, Schoenfeld has concentrated much of his attention on piano music and chamber music involving the piano. He writes in a virtuoso style with fast tempos and complex textures. One writer has called his music “frenzied,” and the composer himself has remarked that his “is not the kind of music to relax to, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but [also] the audience.”
In an effort to explore his Jewish roots, Schoenfeld has become interested in folk music, particularly the folk music of past Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. (These were also sources for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.) The instrumental music of this culture is called “Klezmer” with a constantly evolving repertoire largely made up of dance songs for weddings and other celebrations.
Schoenfeld’s Café Music is heavily influenced by both the Klezmer tradition and American jazz of the 1920s-1930s — and this is a fascinating fusion. The first movement blends jazzy themes, ragtime rhythms, and the wildly virtuosic style of Klezmer bands, playing at breakneck speed most of the time.
The second movement is what might be called “low-down” in the blues tradition. Sad and blue, the music is nonetheless partially parody. Choosing a minor key, Schoenfeld also recalls the laments of Ashkenazic Jewish peoples — and this style dominates the second half of the movement.
Again frenetically energetic, the third movement launches as a more classically oriented piece. Here and there we hear snippets of Gershwinesque jazz, yet the dance-style underpinning is clearly Klezmer. The only breaks we have from this emotional frenzy are occasional smooth passages in a quasi-Impressionistic style. By the end, Café Music has been quite a ride in a unique blend of Old World and New World musical styles.
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47
During his most productive periods, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) frequently composed clusters of works of a single musical type. In his “chamber music years” (1842-43), for example, Schumann wrote all of his string quartets and several works for piano and strings. During a particularly creative two-month period, Schumann “invented” the piano quintet by composing his E-flat Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also completing the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, in E-flat as well. Each of these works required only five days to sketch and another two weeks to complete. Both were written between October and November of 1843.
In this music, the relationship of piano to strings is sometimes unbalanced. Unlike the lighter piano parts in works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Brahms, the piano is king with Schumann. Listeners may even have the impression that the E-flat Quartet is an extension of Schumann’s solo piano music, since the strings so often double the piano part or oppose it as a block.
In its brief sostenuto introduction, the Piano Quartet’s first movement gives us a small variety of mood snapshots, followed by the Allegro’s first theme, which Schumann presents in three distinct characters. All of them are “with energy and passion,” as Schumann’s directions indicate. The central development offers more cheerful/heroic moods and musical working-out. Before we know it, the principal music returns, abbreviated, and the movement ends in a bright, brave gesture.
The quartet’s Scherzo follows. Here is a perpetual-motion “Wild Horseman”-style opening, giving way to a graceful dialogue between piano and strings. The “Horseman” re-appears to mark the conclusion of this exciting music.
The strings take the spotlight at the opening of the Andante. Then, the piano takes over with an “endless” melody, leading to a full-ensemble texture that seems to speak directly to the heart. The central section is a waltz-dialogue for strings with lilting flourishes from the piano. A cello solo is especially attractive, leading to the movement’s quiet, polite ending.
Counterbalancing the Quartet’s opening movement, the finale introduces a powerful fugue-like main theme. A smooth, but exciting section follows, and then we are back to the fugue, which now introduces a heroic-quality section that builds in excitement. The movement’s central section is smoother and more relaxed, though the tempo is still fairly fast. In several short segments, this music showcases all instruments. The fugue idea returns, now fragmented and developmental. In the final section, each instrument has a brief opportunity to show virtuosity, followed by a powerful, percussive conclusion.
– Dr. Michael Fink 2020 (Schoenfield and Schumann notes)
Florence Price (née Smith) (1888-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony).
She hailed from near Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.
To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting.
In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with Black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.
The musical style of Price’s instrumental concert works is key-oriented, a holdover from the Romantic 19th century Other 20th-century composers who took this approach included Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Her frequent key changes and passages of thick, continuous counterpoint are reminiscent of the late-romantic, César Franck.
The opening movement (Allegro) of Price’s G-Major String Quartet (1929) is almost a textbook of her style: frequent key changes, a great variety of musical themes and shorter ideas that flow quickly from one to another. Key changes sometimes occur in the middle of musical phrases, sweeping the listener’s ear very quickly from one soundscape to another.
The second movement is actually an Andante moderato liked to an Allegretto finale. The theme of the Andante is informed by the style of American folk songs. The Allegretto that follows starts with a trio of free improvisations on that theme, first lyrical, then dominated by pizzicato, finally, like a folk dance. A variant of the theme as a waltz, starting in a minor key, leads to an apotheosis and the quartet’s bright ending.
* * *
In an introductory lecture at the first International Florence Price Festival (at SUNY-Fredonia, January 2020), Jordan Randall Smith commented:
It (almost) goes without saying: the music of composers like Beethoven and Brahms isn’t going anywhere. Cherished repertoire of the past will always have a welcoming space in the concert hall. That said, it is time to finally and fully celebrate the vibrant history of all women and all persons of color who have been the creators and performers of some of music’s greatest riches as a regular part of the concert going experience. We must endeavor to honor Florence Price as a pioneer and secure her place in the musical canon through a rigorous exploration of her music and a zealous advocacy for her legacy.
edvard Grieg: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) composed only about a dozen chamber works, notably his three violin sonatas. By comparison, the body of art songs he wrote seems enormous. It comprises 70 opus-numbered collections and probably an equal amount of unpublished songs. In one of his published sets, Op. 25, which were settings of poetry by Hendrik Ibsen, he revived a musical idea that earlier had been the opening flourish of his Piano Concerto in A Minor (1868). The song, “The Minstrel’s Song,” was based on a Norwegian legend about water sprites who lure minstrels to their waterfalls with the promise of revealing the secret mysteries of music, but only at the cost of their happiness. The possibility that Grieg considered this song text to be relevant to his own life is shown in his own words, “I used the beginning of the song as the core motive in the string quartet that was composed a short time later,” coupled with his later comment on the quartet, “Herein lies . . . a bit of a life story. . . .”
At the premiere, the audience loved it, but the critics hated it. This situation caused problems getting the work published. However, the music continued to be a success, admired by both Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Grieg’s chief publisher finally had to give in with some embarrassment.
The “Minstrel’s Song” motive becomes a motto for the entire work, figuring into each movement. The dramatic first movement introduction leads to an agitated main theme, a contrastingly sweet second theme (subtly incorporating the motto), and a playful third. The development is characterized by heavy emotional contrasts, as the main ideas are worked out. A reprise of the themes brings no surprises, except that near the end a high melody in the cello sings out the second theme accompanied by trembling high strings — perhaps echoing a water sprite?
Titles of the last three movements reflect Grieg’s penchant for “character” music. The second movement is a romanze. Here is Grieg the tunesmith, pealing out a sweet, graceful salon-style melody. But what are these agitated episodes made more emotional by their reliance on the motto? If the quartet is truly autobiographical, this contrast might reflect some of the inner conflicts that plagued Grieg throughout his life.
The intermezzo, third movement, like many by Brahms, stands in place of a classical scherzo/minuet. Grieg’s music reflects the folk dances of his native Norway, heard especially clearly in the central section. Here is Grieg the nationalist at his best.
Following a slow introduction, quick saltarello rhythms animate the finale. The saltarello was a 16th-17th century leaping dance (which also informed the finale of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony). Grieg’s music is lively but not as wild as an Italian saltarello. It serves here to bring the quartet to a bright conclusion with the motto adding weight to both the pensive introduction and the lively coda.
Miguel del Aguila (1957- ) has been characterized as “Philip Glass, but with a sense of humor.” Born in Uruguay, Aguila moved to the United States in 1978 to pursue his musical education. Following the completion of his B.A. from the San Francisco Conservatory, he spent ten years in Vienna studying, conducting, teaching, and performing as a pianist. Settling in Southern California in 1992, Aguila rapidly made a name for himself as a composer, winning accolades locally (Los Angeles Times Resident Music Man of the Year, 1994) and nationally (Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, 1995). Active also as a pianist/conductor, he has performed at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Hall, and at Vienna’s Konzerthaus and Bösendorfer Hall. In 1995, he became conductor and music director of the Ojai Camerata, a position he held for four years.
While he has great respect for the classical tradition, Aguila believes he must create the freshest, most spontaneous music he can. What results is a captivating interplay of classical balance and romantic excess. Aguila’s penchant for devising programs for his own works (which he usually does not disclose) further enhances his highly dramatic style in which musical ideas, always simple and recognizable, are pushed to extremes by propulsive rhythms and adventurous instrumentation.
About Cutting Limes, the composer writes:
Cutting Limes (Cortando Limones) for solo violin was written in 2015. It was commissioned, premiered and recorded by Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio. A five-minute-long work for unaccompanied violin, the piece showcases the rhythmic possibilities of the violin through complex chords, harmonics, alternating hands pizzicati and other extended techniques. Built on a simple modal theme the music has an Andean character. The unaccompanied violin imitates a range of Latin American instruments such as charango, quena and Zampoña as well as the singing of a chicharra (cicada). As I was writing this piece, I kept visualizing the way in which the bow moved along the strings while performing this music. In my mind, it looked as if it was sawing the strings. When I sent the first draft (still untitled) to the violinist, Stephanie soon replied that she was unable to play it because she accidentally cut her fingers while cutting limes. I immediately felt that this was the perfect title of the piece as this dangerous movement of a knife cutting limes was similar to the sawing bow movements I visualized while composing this work.
Miguel del Aguila
Josef Bologne, Chevalier de St.-Georges: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 1 No. 4
Chevalier de St.-Georges (1745 –1799) was born Josef Bologne, to a wealthy Caribbean French planter, Georges de Bologne, and his Black slave, Anne dite Nanon. Josef is presumed to be the first Black composer of European “art” music, including symphonies, violin concertos, chamber music, songs, and operas.
At the age of seven, his father took him to France, where he was educated and grew up, becoming prominent in several fields, including fencing, horsemanship, military leadership, violin playing, and composing music. As a young man, he received royal recognition, obtaining the title “Chevalier” [knight] and (honorary) Officer of the King’s Bodyguard. He was henceforth known as “Chevalier de St.-Georges.”
Very little is known about St.-George’s musical education. However, his name is connected to François Gossec. In 1773, Gossec turned over to St.-Georges directorship of the Concert des Amateurs (later re-named Le Concert Olympique), a small orchestra that St.-Georges trained to become the brightest musical attraction in Paris. Queen Marie Antoinette was one if its patrons. While St. Georges was living at the mansion of the Duc d’Orlêans in 1777, Mozart also resided there for several months. Thus, it is very possible that the two composers enjoyed an acquaintance.
For Mozart and most other European freelance composers of the 18 th century, opera houses were the rough equivalent of Broadway for American composers of the 1920s-1960s. Thus, St.-George devoted considerable time and effort composing operas and trying to obtain performances of them with mixed success. In all, St.-Georges composed seven operas, always in parallel with his efforts in instrumental music, including his final set of string quartets, Opus 14 (1785).
St.-Georges was in London at the fall of the Bastille in Paris (July 14, 1789), the start of the French Revolution. To aid the revolutionaries, he formed the Légion St.-Georges, made up completely of Black soldiers and officers.
During the 1790s, Josef took an active part in the revolution, leading a force of men of color for the revolutionaries. However, in 1793, he barely escaped the guillotine. Instead, he was imprisoned for “non-revolutionary activities,” i.e., performing music.
In 1796, St.-Georges plunged again into the world of concert music, creating a new symphony orchestra and playing violin solos. He died of complications from a bladder disease on June 12, 1799. Following his death, he was quoted as having declared, “Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin. Never before did I play it so well!”
Over time, St.-Georges has been called “The Black Mozart.” Some people disagree. Listen to his string quartet now, and YOU be the judge!
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). (1882-1967) was a many-faceted musician and scholar, who made significant contributions in the fields of composition, ethnomusicology, elementary music education (the “Kodály Method”), and higher education (teaching and administration). He composed concert and religious music for a wide variety of vocal, chamber, orchestral, and operatic forms. He grew up several Hungarian towns, where he was exposed to a variety of native folk music. Around the turn of the 20 th century, Kodály collaborated with Béla Bartók in making folk-song collecting/recording trips through the countryside of Hungary. Together, they published a collection of songs from their findings in 1906. That was in the year following the composition of Kodály’s Intermezzo for String Trio. In this work, as in many to follow Central European folk music was a strong influence (as it was in the music of Bartók).
The Intermezzo consists of a chain of short thematic sections. The first recurs, such as in a rondo. The violin plays this pleasant, folksy melody, with a jaunty accompaniment by the viola and cello. The alternate sections, by contrast, are more lyrical and emotional, showing a vocal influence. Each return of the main theme has the same jaunty mood, but its instrumental presentation changes among the three players. The Intermezzo has no pretense of depth, but it succeeds remarkably as entertaining, “feel-good” music.
Many regard George Enescu (1881-1955) as the greatest composer in the history of Rumania. At first a child prodigy on the violin, he made his debut at the age of eight, going on to study the violin and composition at the major conservatories of Vienna and Paris. In 1897, a concert of his works was given in Paris, and the following year the Cologne Concerts premiered his Poème roumain, Op. 1. Despite his growing popularity in Paris, Enescu decided to dedicate himself to raising the level of music in his native country. He became a busy conductor there but continued also to compose.
Besides his famous Rumanian Rhapsodies for orchestra and a few nationalistic chamber works, Enescu composed extensively in a more “objective” chamber music vein. These works of varying dimensions span his entire creative life from the Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 2 (1897) to the Chamber Symphony, Op. 33 (1954). However, even these carry ethnic nuances, usually modes in place of traditional major/minor scales.
The French Aubade originated as morning music played by town musicians on the arrival of noble personages or high-ranking officials — a counterpart to an evening’s serenade. Gradually, it evolved into a kind of pastorale. Before Enescu’s 1899 Aubade, composers such a Gounod, Lalo, and Bizet had composed Aubaudes. Besides Enescu, 20th-century French composers such as Poulenc, Roussel, Milhaud, and Satie composed Aubades.
Enescu’s Aubade for string trio is a good example of his blend of traditional form elements and Rumanian ethnic nuances. While the cello and viola strum a lulling rhythmic accompaniment, the violin spins out the graceful main theme. The cello takes its turn with this charming melody, then hands it back to the violin. Now comes strong, brief reminiscences of Rumanian folk music, which introduces the development of established melodic ideas. Against the main theme from the violin comes an independent, new melody, spun out from the viola. Meanwhile the cello strums its original, main-theme accompaniment. Gradually, the viola comes to the fore, and the Aubade ends quietly as the trio bids a soft farewell.
Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor”
The “Emperor” Quartet is probably the best known string quartet of among the works of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). While Haydn was in England (1790-1792 and 1794-1795), he became thoroughly impressed by the fervor with which the British people sang their national anthem, “God Save the King.” Encouraged by friends, Haydn pursued the idea, and a friend, Count Saurau, commissioned a text from poet L.L. Haschka. Haydn’s setting of these words made history.
The idea of a National Anthem was not unique to England and Austria; France also had one. It seemed good for Austria also to adopt a national hymn for increased morale in the face of Napoleon’s push through Europe. The anthem, “Gott! erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God preserve the Emperor Francis) was premiered on February 12, 1797, the Emperor’s birthday. The hymn was an immediate sensation, and various arrangements of it could soon be heard throughout the country. Its later history is also noteworthy. In 1841, it was given new words, “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles,” which became the national anthem of Germany and Austria until after World War II. The tune continues today as Germany’s national hymn.
We must wait for the C Major Quartet’s second movement to hear it, however. The first movement is based chiefly on a single theme, which Haydn develops by putting it through several mood transformations. All the while, he makes virtuosic demands on the players.
All through the second movement, Haydn makes sure we can hear the famous national-anthem melody. Presented first in the topmost part of a hymnlike texture, it then sounds as a solo line in each of the variations. This strong melody is played by one violin (Var. 1), while the other etches a virtuoso part; is heard in the cello (Var. 2), while the other strings weave free line above it; appears in the viola (Var.3), surrounded by free countermelodies. In the final variation, the rich hymnlike texture returns, but soon Haydn shifts the instruments into a higher register, lending greater brilliance to the music, which contrasts with the quiet, dignified ending.
Haydn never ceased experimenting, and the Menuetto is a good example. The two violins play a melody in octaves, and the viola and cello soon echo that melody (also in octaves) in follow-the-leader fashion. The Trio middle section contrasts sharply by offering a chordal texture and dynamic nuances.
Another Haydnesque feature is the Hungarian flavor of the finale, something to be found in other of his chamber works. Syncopated rhythms here contribute to this essence. However, the movement also possesses the sophistication of an 18th -century drawing room. In all, we have the feeling that Haydn has made his mark with the “Emperor” movement, and the other three movements, although masterful, are frosting on the cake.
The youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music is Caroline Shaw (1982- ). At age 30, she received this honor for her a cappella vocal work Partita for 8 Voices. In addition to composing, Shaw is active as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and ensemble singer, chiefly with the group Roomful of Teeth, for whom she composed Partita. Her recent commissions include works for Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She has also collaborated frequently with Kanye West. Shaw has studied at Princeton, Rice, and Yale Universities.
Shaw most often composes for a particular artist or ensemble, crafting her music to a degree on aspects of the artist/ensemble revealed through personal encounters. Blueprint was composed for the Aizuri Quartet, which played its world premiere in April 2016 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA). The title of this seven-minute work uses that quartet’s name as a springboard for Blueprint. However, the work also relates closely to an early string quartet by Beethoven. As Shaw explains:
The Aizuri Quartet’s name comes from “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that primarily uses a blue ink. In the 1820s, artists in Japan began to import a particular blue pigment known as “Prussian blue.” . . . The story of aizuri-e is one of innovation, migration, transformation, craft, and beauty. Blueprint, composed for the incredible Aizuri Quartet, takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint. This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan — of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 [“La Malinconia”]. As a violinist and violist, I have played this piece many times, in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends. . . . Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words. We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play music. Blueprint is also a conversation — with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.
Walker, Lyric for String Quartet
George Walker (1922-2018) is one of America’s most distinguished Black composers. Educated at Oberlin and Curtis conservatories, the Eastman School of Music, and Fontainbleau, Walker studied composition with such notables as Gian-Carlo Menotti and Nadia Boulanger, and piano with Rudolph Serkin and Robert Casadesus. Having taught in several major schools of music, Walker held chairs in composition at Rutgers University, the University of Delaware, and the Peabody Institute. He has also won two Rockefeller fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1982, Walker was made a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1996, Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his symphonic work, Lilacs, based on poetry by Walt Whitman. He was the first African American to be honored with that award.
In Walker’s adaptation for string orchestra, Lyric became the most often performed work by an American composer. About the music, Walker has written:
It was composed in 1946 and was originally the second movement of my first string quartet. After a brief introduction, the principal theme that permeates the entire work is introduced by the first violins. A static interlude is followed by successive imitations of the theme that leads to an intense climax. The final section of the work presents a somewhat more animated statement of the same thematic material. The coda recalls the quiet interlude that appeared earlier. Lyric is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother.
Program annotator William D. West has noted certain parallels between George Walker’s Lyric for Strings and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Each was originally the slow movement of its composer’s first string quartet, and both are elegiac pieces expressing an underlying sorrow. West writes:
The poignancy inherent in Walker’s thematic material, and the way he builds it to a searing climax half way through, may also suggest a profound grief, and in this case, of course, we know the connection with the passing of his grandmother. Appropriately, since this is a very personal memorial, the music in the string orchestra version remains intimate throughout, the equivalent of a personal letter which takes us briefly and succinctly into the private and confidential world of the sender.
-William D. West
Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1
The six works of Op. 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1798-1800), Beethoven had many occasions to experiment with the medium and to hear his music when the ink was barely dry. He regularly attended the quartet sessions of Prince Lichnowsky and Emmanuel Förster, a composer who exerted a degree of influence upon young Beethoven. There, a group of musicians was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the F Major Quartet second in the series, but he placed it at the head of the set because of its size and impressiveness. This work stems from 1799, and Beethoven dedicated its initial version to his friend, Karl Amenda. Two years later, the composer revised it with the statement, “I have just learned how to write quartets properly.”
The most impressive feature of the first movement is its initial “turn” motive. Beethoven intensively experimented with different versions of this idea, covering no fewer than 16 pages in his sketch books. At last, he devised a motive that music scholar Joseph Kerman says “behaves like a coiled spring, ready to shoot off in all directions. . . .” Although this motive dominates the movement with its 104 occurrences, there is a rich abundance of other thematic ideas. Kerman states that the movement’s mood “owes much to the perilous effort of holding all this material together.”
Beethoven did not give “names” to much of his music, but he occasionally had some extra-musical idea in mind. At the end of one sketch of this quartet’s Adagio, Beethoven wrote, “les deriers soupirs,” “the last breaths.” Reportedly, he interpreted this to his friend, Amenda, with the words, “I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet.” Broad theatrical emotion is rampant throughout the movement, but especially in the development, which romanticizes its themes as no quartet ever had before.
The size and emotional range of the Scherzo are slight in comparison with the preceding movements. However, as a witty respite, it works well. In the Trio section, a “limping” motive, adds a humorous touch.
Beethoven inherited from Haydn two responsibilities for the finales to early works such as this: They must be effervescent, and they must be sharply rhythmic or dance-like. The finale to the F Major Quartet fills both requirements — and then some. To balance the magnitude of the first movement, Beethoven here provides a lengthy sonata-rondo form with well-contrasted themes. The verve and directed energy of this finale provide an appropriate finish to a monumental accomplishment in chamber music.
If you’re here, you may be trying to figure out how to subscribe this season. I know, we changed everything (because everything changed around us!). We tried to anticipate how you might want to attend concerts this year and have laid out our suggestions for how to get it below. Try finding the statement that best matches what you want and see if our suggestion makes sense for you!
Scenario #1: I want to hear all the concerts AND I want to come to concerts in person as soon as possible! Get a subscription! We’re expecting audience capacity restrictions when we start performing for live audiences again, so only subscribers and donors will have access to the in-person concert reservation system. You’ll have access to our online series all season long for your entire household and can convert that to an in-person ticket on a concert-to-concert basis when we invite live audiences to our concerts again (probably not before mid-season). When you convert to in-person, your subscription will only be good for one seat, but you’ll be able to purchase additional in-person tickets for each member of your party (N.B. We may limit the number of additional in-person tickets each subscriber/donor may purchase depending on audience capacity restrictions). The reservation system will automatically build a bubble of empty seats around your party to preserve social distancing.
Donors and subscribers will also get to enjoy periodic in-depth interactive online discussions of chamber music repertoire with our musicians AND access to our curated archive of Camerata recordings!
Scenario #2: I only want to hear in-person concerts and I’m ok with missing concerts that are only online. Don’t get a subscription, make a donation! Donors will have access to the in-person concert reservation system when we return to performing for live audiences. We’re a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, so your donation is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law and makes everything we do possible. Bear in mind, we expect about half the season may be exclusively online.
Scenario #3: I want to hear all the concerts but I don’t know if I will ever want to come to concerts in person this season. Get a subscription! You’ll have access to our online series all season long for your entire household and can convert that to in-person tickets on a concert-to-concert basis when you feel ready to come to the concert hall. Or you can stay in your home and watch the whole season online – the choice is yours with a subscription!
A perk of online access is you can enjoy a concert more than once!
Scenario #4: I don’t know what I want to do! We get it. Commitment is hard under the best circumstances. We recommend purchasing online access on a concert-to-concert basis (you can do this from our Tickets Page. You’ll get access for your entire household to whatever concerts you choose to enjoy live from your home or at your convenience for a limited time thereafter.