COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: FANTASIESTÜCKE FOR STRING QUARTET, OP. 5
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a black English composer-conductor of considerable talent and, in his day, a widespread reputation. Educated at the Royal Conservatory of Music (largely under scholarship), Coleridge-Taylor began to compose and achieve performances as early as 1893. Soon after leaving the Conservatory in 1897, he began to make a reputation as both a composer and conductor of choral music. Commissions from many English choral festivals came his way, and by 1910 he was famous enough as a conductor to be dubbed “The Black Mahler.”
At the time Coleridge-Taylor lived, exoticism was in high fashion and many composers were finding an identity in the music of their cultural roots. However, his idol was Anton Dvořák. Like Dvořák, he became fascinated with American Indians, especially in presentations like Longfellow’s poetry. Thus, his most famous works were a series of choral and orchestral pieces based on Hiawatha.
Coleridge-Taylor felt drawn to the United States in spite of prevailing prejudices. After a tour in which he was feted by no less than the President himself, the composer thought of emigrating, writing to a friend, “That which you and many others have lived in for so many years will not quite kill me. I am a great believer in my race.” The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, established in Washington, DC in 1901, is testimony that his race was (and is) also a great believer in him.
As the German spelling suggests, the 5 Fantasiestüke were inspired by Robert Schumann’s two sets of piano miniatures, which he titled Phantasiestüke (Fantasy Pieces). Composed in 1896 for strings, Coleridge-Taylor’s moderate-size essays explore many coloristic possibilities in a string ensemble.
The first movement, “Prelude,” Is structured in varied sections, which are sometimes contrasted in content and mood. “Prelude’ is inspired greatly by Schumann. Full of sweetness, its themes, alone and in counterpoint, reflect Schumann’s sensitivity.
No.2, “Serenade,” has a more wandering structure with each of the instruments lending mutual support. They explore several different melodies, as if walking along through newly discovered musical places.
No. 3, “Humoresque,” is a pixie scherzo in the manner of Mendelssohn. Though digressions from the main theme provide more forceful humor, the composer never loses sight of the Mendelssohnian ideal.
No. 4, “Minuet.” Trills and other decorations adorn this charming impression of the courtly 18th century. However, the Romantic-style harmonies and long-lined melodies place the music back in the hands of Coleridge-Taylor.
No.5, “Dance,” demonstrates the perennial imprint of the dance on concert-music finales. Coleridge-Taylor, however, places his own personal imprint on this music. Full of verve, the plentiful variety of themes and smaller musical ideas show the composer’s mastery of his medium as well as well as his ability to move his listeners.
BRIDGE: PIANO QUINTET IN D MINOR
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Is not as well known to American audiences as perhaps he ought to be. He grew up at a time when Charles Stanford was the predominant English composer, and Bridge studied with Stanford during all of his four years at the Royal College of Music (1899-1903). Between then and the start of World War I (1914) Bridge was largely overshadowed by Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstances marches (for which he was knighted in 1904). Nevertheless, Bridge developed as a composer during the first decade of the 20th century.
The Piano Quintet came into being during that time. Bridge completed the four-movement first version in 1904, and it received some private insignificant public performances. However, the composer was dissatisfied with it, and put the work away until 1912. During those years, Bridge concentrated on playing the viola professionally and conducting, and he was considered one of the most gifted figures on the British music scene.
In 1912, Bridge retrieved and re-thought his Piano Quintet — we might even say “re-composed” the work, since revisions of the even proportion were radically revised. For example, the original to middle movements were melded into a single A-B-A (arch-form) movement.Briefly, the war (1914-1918) affected Bridge deeply, and his music became more dissonant and less key-associated. However, he could still train students traditionally. Notably, Benjamin Britten studied with him for several years of his youth. Britten went on to compose Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in 1937 and to publish a memorial article in 1966, “Early influences — a Tribute to Frank Bridge.”
Adagio – Allegro moderato – Adagio e sostenuto. From a beginning that resembles a cello sonata, the opening builds to a full ensemble presence. Then starting over, a new rhapsodic episode unfolds, becoming more intense until the main body of the movement (allegro), equally rhapsodic and unabashedly late-Romantic. Loose, free-wheeling development grows until it collapses into an echo of the opening adagio and a calm finish.
Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro con brio – Adagio ma non troppo. Now the tripartite middle movement unfolds as an instrumental song. The piano and individual strings take turns, solo and in ensemble, presenting new phrases. The elfin scherzo central section is a complete contrast to what we have just heard. Mysteriously, the music brings us seamlessly back to the rhapsodic, smooth, stretched-out Adagio reprise of the opening music, ending very mysteriously..
Allegro energico. Brilliant from the start, the quintet’s finale is marked by sudden contrasts, some in cultural styles (e.g., occasional gypsy connotations). This music is BIG in every sense. Even the softer central section has an inexplicable broadness, recalling ideas from the earlier movements. Long-lined rhapsodic themes in semi-improvisatory gestures lead to an ending in a truly GRAND style.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, 2021. All rights reserved.
The intimate chamber idiom has its share of composers’ personal mottos and autobiographical references. Still, it is rare to glimpse into any composer’s memories as clearly as in the Eighth String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This work contains a musical motto intended to symbolize his name, which is stated in the opening measures and reworked into each succeeding movement. Resembling J.S. Bach’s motto, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B), the Shostakovich notes are D, E-flat (Es in German), C, B-natural (H in German). Together, this sequence suggests “D. Sch.,” a German mnemonic of the composer’s initials. Still more autobiographical are the musical quotations from the composer’s earlier works and other familiar melodies, with possible references to the sounds of WW II bombers and gunfire. The words of Shostakovich’s closest biographers and of the composer himself can best complete our introduction to this quartet of 1960:
He worked on the score in Dresden. . . . The beautiful city of Dresden had been swept off the face of the earth in a single night, but was rising again from the ruins, all of which stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet . . . to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war. . . . Written in no more than three days, as if poured from the depths of the artist’s soul, the quartet is autobiographical. . . . In the course of the quartet’s five continuous movements, themes from various compositions make their appearance
. . . from the opening subject of the First Symphony, which is interwoven with the Largo of the first movement, to the motifs from the movement entitled “Eternal Memory” in the Eleventh Symphony.
Dmitri and Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich
When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”
And there is also the Jewish theme from the Piano Trio in this quartet. I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears.
Solomon Volkov, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich
Schubert: STring quartet in A minor, d.804
After Schubert had put aside his “Unfinished” Symphony in 1822, he did not give up the idea being a symphonist. On the contrary, he had grand plans for what would become the “Great” C Major Symphony, but he felt that he needed more seasoning in the instrumental domain. As a result, he turned his attention to chamber music, writing three string quartets and the Octet. After completing the Quartet in A Minor and the Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in March 1824, he wrote to his friend, Leopold Kupelweiser, “I have written two quartets . . . and an octet, and I intend to write another quartet. In this manner, I want to pave the way to a grand symphony.” Although Schubert completed all three quartets, the A Minor was the only one in the trilogy to be published during his lifetime.
The first movement begins like one of Schubert’s songs: with a brief introduction (in fact, a little uneasy, like “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) leading to an exquisite lyrical melody. Following a vigorous transition, the second theme is, likewise, song-like. The development reveals some wonderfully colorful key explorations before settling down to a recapitulation that turns unexpectedly to the major mode for the second theme.
For the Andante’s main theme, Schubert borrows his own Entr’Acte music from Rosamunde. This he treats in a series of variations that cover a subtle variety of moods.
Alfred Einstein called the Menuetto movement “the germ or kernel of the A Minor Quartet,” also pointing out that it is a Ländler and not a minuet. In addition, it opens with a direct quotation from Schubert’s 1819 setting of Schiller’s ode, “The Gods of Greece.” If this quartet “is ‘about’ disenchantment and the loss of innocence,” as biographer John Reed asserts, then this movement, with its wistful pre-Brahms melancholy, epitomizes the work.
The rondo finale, set in A major, dispels some of that melancholy with its rustic flavor. But Einstein describes it as appearing “in the same Hungarian disguise which Schubert was to use again in Die Winterreise in an exactly similar sense: outwardly exuberant and chevaleresque, but . . . without any real consolation….” Nevertheless, the impetuousness and rhythmic verve of the finale does much to redirect the quartet’s previous moodiness onto a more positive course.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021. All rights reserved.
[In this work] it is easy to take at face value Haydn’s outer shell, the part he exposed to the public eye, as being the whole man. The Finale of No. 6 is dry, but the point that is being made is not one that admits of a Mozartian warmth, while the opening Allegretto fulfills exactly the same function as that in No. 5 — that of preparation for the slow movement. – H.C. Robbins-Landon
The graceful ingenuities of… No. 6… roll away like the process of peeling an onion… – Sir Donald Tovey
These comments expose the framework in which we should consider the E-flat Quartet: The man Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had several layers of depth, and so did much of his music composed late in life. This quartet properly falls last in the half dozen works of Opus 76. The analogies of the onion and of an outer shell that holds inner treasures hold true. But so could the image of a revolving door, where Haydn can survey the entire 18th century on the inside, yet he also ventures into a preview of the 19th on the outside.
With a theme that could be a “prequel” to music by Robert Schumann, Haydn sets out the theme and variations that forms the quartet’s first movement. These variations are wide ranging in emotional and formalistic character, creating an underlying tension throughout. The climax comes in the fugue on part of the theme, ending this concise movement in a cheerful mood.
Often, you may find this quartet nicknamed “Fantasia.” That is because Haydn gave the Adagio second movement that title. Robbins Landon remarks, “… It can only be described as one of the boldest and most original movements in the whole eighteenth century.” Immediately, we realize that the opening theme is a remarkable forerunner to Beethoven’s slow “hymn-like” themes. The emotional, wandering harmonic character of sections contrasting with the “hymn” is also progressive — ahead of Haydn’s time. Ultimately, these tendencies merge in an extended epilogue, which can leave a listener nearly breathless.
Although Haydn titles the third movement “Menuetto,” its lively speed and witty character make it more of a scherzo — again, pre-echoes of Beethoven. Even the central section, “Alternativo,” is playful and humorous.
In the Allegro finale, short downward scale patterns form the chief thematic ideas. This movement is full of fun and Haydnesque droll humor. There seems to be no end to the descending scale fragments, and the composer seems determined to see how long he can work with them before his listeners grow uncomfortable. However, the master knows just when to wind things up with a brilliant, frothy finish.
Corea: Adventures of hippocrates
Chick Corea (June 12, 1941-February 9, 2021) was an important figure in modern jazz and rock performance and composition. A keyboardist of considerable reputation, his initial musical education came from his father (a professional musician) and from transcribing and learning improvised solos from records. Bud Powell and Horace Silver were early influences. Corea’s first professional experiences were with Latin bands, but in the late 1960s he joined Miles Davis’s group, which was pioneering jazz-rock fusion through electronic abstract jazz. When he formed his own avant-garde group, Circle, in 1970, it was to explore “free” jazz improvisation in a non-electronic sound environment. However, Corea gradually turned to synthesizers and other electronic devices to achieve his sound ideal. He developed as a composer during this period, with some of his tunes (notably Windows, Spain, and CrystalSilence), becoming jazz standards. Corea’s interest in the interaction of jazz and rock grew in the 1980s through the formation of a trio, the Elektric Band. Since then, the versatility and wide-ranging musical interests of Chick Corea have become legendary, and his name is known equally among jazz and rock listeners, as well as many classical enthusiasts.
About Hippocrates, Corea has written: “This quartet was written by a relatively inexperienced writer for strings (me) so, technically, my notation may be unorthodox (or standardly wrong). But I find that most string quartet players, knowing that, will go ahead and make the proper adjustments themselves. This is better than trying to alter the musical concept to fit the correct technical point. Hippocrates is the name of a little robot in a science fiction series by L. Ron Hubbard. There are 7 stories in the 2 volume set entitled Ole Doc Methuselah.”
In 1994, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society and the Orion String quartet commissioned a work from Corea. The outcome was The Adventures of Hippocrates. This was to be Corea’s first work in which a keyboard was not the central instrument.The music is a suite of five substantial movements for string quartet, each exploring a different tempo and rhythmic character. The composer describes their character: (1) Quasi Tango, (2) Waltz, (3) Lyrical (4) Quasi-Rock, and (5) [Finale] (with a “swiftly-moving tempo”). The music is as fresh as writing a string quartet was for Chick Corea. However, we can perceive a few outside influences in this music, such as Astor Piazolla (the “godfather” of the modern Argentine tango) and Béla Bartók (whose Mikrokosmos for piano Corea had previously recorded), and Corea’s own ’70s recordings of Fusion-Rock and “Free” Jazz. Summing up Hippocrates, critic-musicologist Kai Christiansen writes:
Corea has always been a composer and keyboardist with a sophisticated sense of rhythm, harmony and linear momentum. But this string quartet commission challenged Corea to project these skills onto instruments foreign to his fingers as well as splitting his keyboard conception into four separate parts. The results are intriguing, challenging and effective, as is so much of the great music Corea has created in his distinctive style.
Beethoven: STring Quartet in g major, op.18/2
The six works of Opus 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1795-99) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) had ample opportunity 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. The group was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
The G Major Quartet, although placed second in publication, was the third in order of composition. More than in any other quartet, this is Beethoven’s homage to the wit of Haydn, the “father” of the string quartet. The work is nicknamed the “Compliment” Quartet, and Beethoven appears to pay his respects formally in the elaborate opening. Joseph Kerman writes that “it seems irresistibly to summon up images of courtly bowing and scraping in some never-never-land of rococo fantasy.”
Beethoven follows this introduction with the real meat of the exposition. His ready-set-go transition theme evolves into the secondary material soon to become important. In the development section, he employs as many themes as he can, in as many ways as possible. Characteristically, Beethoven’s recapitulation also presents material in new ways. The coda brings the wit of this movement into full bloom.
The Adagio is justifiably famous for one of Beethoven’s innovations. After exposing a sumptuous main theme, he abruptly inserts a section in binary song-form marked Allegro. Following this unpredictable but highly effective segment, the Adagio reprises with the cello and first violin sharing the honors.
Marked “Scherzo,” the third movement is a quickened minuet using galloping rhythms. The Trio section follows more the conventional 18th-century tradition.
The spirit of Haydn smiles through the main theme of the finale. But this playful rondo movement reflects the Haydnesque humor in new, Beethovenian ways. For example, there are false returns of the main theme in “wrong” keys, and mock-scowling shadings of the theme in the minor mode. The quartet ends with two codas: the first pompous and inflated and the second light and witty.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021
On May 23, 2021, we finally returned to live performance in front of an audience, and three days later we were back in the beautiful and spacious Laurel Heights United Methodist Church’s sanctuary for our annual free master class for area students. Our 2020 masterclass had to be conducted online (read about that here), so we were so pleased that COVID conditions had improved enough to allow us to bring students back for a live class. Audience was limited to family members and the class was recorded and released on our YouTube channel a few days later. This year’s class was made possible by a gift from the San Antonio Symphony League in support of our education programs.
Getting ensembles together to rehearse in 20-21 was … challenging… so we opened the class up to solo performers and ended up with a small but very interesting program, opening with cellist Simon Phoa performing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Simon is an alum of Ken Freudigman’s cello studio (Ken is our cellist and Artistic Director) and also of our String Quartet Seminar and is now studying cello at Southern Methodist University. Our violinists Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker took point with Simon, discussing larger musical points and challenges of performing the Paganini Caprices in particular and also adjusting technical choices to accommodate the performance space.
Second was a very talented young quartet which worked together much of this year with Matthew, preparing for quartet competitions. Adriana Bec, Viviana Peters, Ray Zhang and Vincent Garcia-Hettinger performed the first movement of Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet. Our entire quartet worked with them on unifying across the group and controlling/focusing energy.
With continued vigilance, we are looking forward to more concerts with live audiences in 21-22, and more live master classes, too!
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.
Beethoven: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3
Of the six quartets in Op. 18, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the G Major Quartet first chronologically. However, he then spent much time revising it. In musical sketchbooks from 1798-99, Beethoven extensively and laboriously worked out four of the quartets. The earliest is the D Major, making it his first completed mature string quartet.
As in his Symphony No. 1 (from the same general period), Beethoven introduces musical uncertainty right from the first notes, and that sets the tone for the entire first movement. In the graceful first theme group, instead of comfortably establishing the home key, the composer gives us a plethora of notes ornamental to the underlying harmony. Classically, the second theme group should be in the key of A major, but Beethoven takes us to the “wrong” key of C major for the first part, then jerks us into A major with two or three assertive chords. In the development section, he goes even further by clothing much of his thematic material in unaccustomed minor keys. What might be an otherwise routine recapitulation is spiced considerably by splashes of the minor mode and remote keys, notably E-flat (!) only moments before the movement’s ending.
Maintaining character, Beethoven leaps into the key of B-flat major for the Andante movement. The music begins in a serene mood, then runs a gamut of emotions that show Beethoven writing from the heart (rather than by form) with remarkable maturity. Against the music’s pulsating continuity, the individual instruments often take on special characteristics, becoming almost like players in a drama.
Again foreshadowing the First Symphony, the Allegro third movement is a true Beethoven scherzo — essentially a minuet at breakneck speed. The high spirits in the outer sections contrast with the Trio, where the violins conduct a whirlwind dialog in the minor mode.
In the finale, Beethoven whips up the scherzo’s joviality into a frothy lather of triplet notes and jabbing accents. As in the first movement, the underlying harmonies run far afield at times. Despite this Presto’s near-perpetual motion, a few definite themes emerge, notably an idea that reminded one annotator of the “Mexican Hat Dance.” However, Beethoven — always full of surprises — ends this otherwise boisterous and bombastic movement with the quietest of low whispers.
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”
Between 1806, when Beethoven finished his three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, and 1810, when he dashed off the “Serioso” Quartet in one month, the composer wrote little chamber music. A cello sonata (Op. 69), two piano trios (Op. 70), and the Op. 74 string quartet are the tally. During this time, he was deeply occupied with such matters as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the last two piano concertos, to name only a few of the projects. Personal problems involving, finances, health, deafness, love, and family life also beset the composer at the time. We are not surprised, then, that he was at turns despondent and angry, and that he should express these feelings in his most intimate medium, the string quartet. Of the “Serioso” quartet, analyst/philosopher Joseph Kerman writes:
. . . This is first and foremost a problematic work which thrusts in the direction of eccentricity and self-absorption. But Beethoven at his most quirky is Beethoven possessed. In this quartet, and in none of the others so far, he evokes that almost tangible sense of the artist assaulting a daemon of his own fancying. . . .
The F-minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong — and perhaps rather terrible. . . . The piece stands aloof, preoccupied with its radical private war on every fiber of rhetoric and feeling that Beethoven knew or could invent. Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.
Kerman uses the word “concentration,” and we might paraphrase that with the word “compression.” For the individual movements of this quartet are among the shortest Beethoven ever wrote in this medium. And just as air heats up when compressed, so does Beethoven’s music. The first movement, for example is dominated by the opening five-note motive. Though he does introduce other ideas, this brusque idea recurs often, virtually etching itself on our ears. The form of the movement, too, is compressed. Ignoring the usually obligatory repeat of the exposition, Beethoven plunges into a compressed development after just one hearing. Then, the recapitulation is a compressed version of the already terse exposition. Finally, the coda concentrates on the five-note motive, gradually grinding it down dynamically from a pounding fortissimo to a whispering pianissimo.
Beethoven named this quartet “Serioso” himself, and nowhere in it is the description more apt than the second movement. With melancholy concentration, the composer introduces a fully harmonic opening paragraph. We find no prettiness here, nor in the middle section, which starts as a fugato on a new idea. This dissolves into a wispy episode. Then another fugue begins on a new theme, but now the first fugato theme joins in: a double fugue! (The careful listener will also hear the original theme occasionally turned upside down.) After a reprise of the opening paragraph, the music becomes quiet, only to be shaken by the forcible opening of the third movement. The movement would be the “scherzo” (scherzo = joke), but this music is no laughing matter. In Beethoven, anger and determination are often indistinguishable, and this is one of those times. The recurring Trio section offers some emotional relief, but the persistent main idea always hammers away afterward.
The brief Larghetto introduction to the finale bespeaks tragic introspection, but it leads to music that comes off like a quick waltz. This not a merry waltz, however, but a passionate and driving one, much like the breathless finale to the “Appasionata” piano sonata (also in F minor, incidentally). By contrast, the major mode coda at the very end could be taken as some kind of joke on Beethoven’s part. Having been dubbed a “comic-opera” ending, it is almost as if Beethoven thought, “Whoops, we’d better give them a happy ending.” Whether we take the music this way or, more nobly, as proof of the composer’s belief in an indomitable human spirit, we come out with positive feelings.
Beethoven: String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127
The string quartets and Grosse fuge of Opp. 127-135 were the last music penned by Beethoven, and if the early and middle works of Beethoven were often misunderstood in their day, the final ones were a complete enigma. The unusual qualities of these works were so alien to early audiences that many listeners ridiculously considered the quartets to be either the absent-minded doodling of a once-great master in his dotage or the work of a man so totally deaf and out of touch with musical sound, that he could no longer distinguish consonance from dissonance — even on paper!
The truth of the matter is that the last quartets are transcendental. They transcend the standards of form, harmony, and chamber technique as they were known at that time. A mystical quality also pervades the quartets, which Aldous Huxley used symbolically in his novel, Point Counter Point. Then there is the matter of technical difficulty. Never a composer to compromise, Beethoven’s grand visions infused his last quartets with a multitude of transcendental difficulties in rhythm, ensemble playing, and pure endurance.
Beethoven opened this final chapter of composition with the E-flat String Quartet. When he received the commission in 1824, about 14 years had passed since he had composed a quartet, the F Minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”). The new work was very different, however, and unique for its songlike qualities. One writer has even called it “a kind of Lyric Suite [by Alban Berg] before its time.”
The material and extremely plastic structure of the opening movement certainly support that idea. Introductory material recurs during the movement, and there is a free flow between themes and chief sections.
Following an unusual harmonic opening, the slow movement proves to be the extended lyrical centerpiece of the entire quartet. Here is a set of six variations on a long-lined theme, luxuriant in harmony yet vibrant in its rhythms and variety of ideas.
The Scherzo is similarly a full-length essay, but one dominated by the puckish, four-note motive announced in the cello at its beginning. The Presto Trio section literally skims along, and Beethoven brings back a taste of it as part of the coda.
The finale recalls much of the singing Allegro quality of the first movement and its structure is every bit as compact. A lucid modification of rondo form, the movement finally melts into the sweep of triplets that drive the final coda to a brilliant close.