florence Price: String Quartet in G Major
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.
Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018
2018 YOSA Summer Symphony Camp Quartet Seminar
Lots of great learning and music making happened at this summer’s quartet seminar! For the first time, Cadenza Academy and YOSA collaborated to present the one week Quartet Seminar for student quartets, coached by us. We had eight quartets this year, ranging from students playing quartets to the first time to old pros. Each group prepared their parts ahead of camp, rehearsed each day and received a coaching from a member of the Camerata San Antonio quartet. Each day after lunch, the groups were reconfigured with different personnel and repertoire to mix things up and keep it fresh, including one more rehearsal and coaching with a different coach. Eurhythmics and listening lab also helped give everyone a chance to manage their energy (either getting some rest or get some excess energy worked out). Each student performed in daily master classes at least once and each quartet performed on one of two concerts on the final day!
The quartet spent a week together in the gorgeous setting of Edwards, Colorado, earlier this month, digging into 2018-2019 repertoire and making plans for our 2018 String Quartet Seminar. We don’t normally take our work outside, but the setting and weather was too beautiful to stay in!