Haydn, String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, no. 1
When, in 1796, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was composing the six string quartets of Opus 76, Mozart had been dead more than five years, and Beethoven was working on such music as he three piano sonatas of Op. 10. Two years later, Vienna would see the publication of both Haydn’s quartets and Beethoven’s Grand Sonata Pathétique, Op. 13. While progressive musical tastes were moving to newer ground, an honored place was still reserved for the master classicist, the “father” of the string quartet.

The Opus 76 set contains two of Haydn’s most famous quartets: the “Quinten” (No. 2) and the “Emperor” (No. 3). Number 1 in G major was not composed first of the six, and it displays a curious combination of older style and the newer, quasi-Beethoven tendencies.The opening Allegro’s main theme is exposed in the cello without accompaniment at first, as if it will become the theme of a fugue. This is indeed picked up by the viola and a pseudo-canon follows. Like the spirit of the theme itself, this is one of Haydn’s jokes, and one he refrains from reiterating in the recapitulation. A few other Baroque-isms occur in this movement, notably some sequenced groups of chords.

From the second movement on, a more progressive, possibly even Beethoven-influenced, mood occupies much of the music. The Adagio features a hymn-like theme, which, like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Adagio, partakes of the French post-revolutionary taste for slow, noble hymns.
The Menuetto (Presto) is actually Haydn’s first real “Scherzo” in the speed and spirit of Beethoven (although Beethoven borrowed the term from Haydn and other earlier composers). The sudden fortissimo during piano passages likewise betray Haydn’s knowledge of the works of his former student. The Menuetto’s trio section is like a rustic dance with its sharply defined rhythms and phrasing.

Haydn could be capable of more surprises than even Beethoven, and the opening of the quartet’s finale is such an instance. Our expectation of a frothy, G major opening is dashed when the composer gives us G minor instead. This serious opening (or is it another joke?) embroils us further as it unravels turbulent passages. Ultimately, Haydn masterfully changes darkness into light, shifting to G major in an unusually smooth and logical manner. We are returned to the jesting mood of the first movement, as the composer concludes what H.C. Robbins Landon has called “surely the most ingenious and astonishingly original Haydn finale since the ‘Farewell’ Symphony….”

Beethoven, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1
The three string quartets that comprise Opus 59 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) are collectively nicknamed the “Razumovsky” Quartets. They were commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky, Russian ambassador in Vienna, who was an amateur quartet player himself. The count stipulated that the quartets contain some Russian folk music. Only the first two quartets contain actual quotations of Russian folk tunes. However, the third in C major presents only a somewhat brooding slow movement as a reminder of Russian moodiness.

The F Major Quartet begins unceremoniously with an unusually lyrical theme heard first in the cello. This theme will come to dominate the first movement. The second thematic group is a bit unclear, but a series of pointillist chord sonorities in high and low registers forms an important punctuation. The exposition does not repeat, although the long, symphonic-proportioned development begins as if it were such a repetition. A fugal episode is central to this energetic, harmonically adventurous section. An unexpected appearance of the main theme introduces the recapitulation. The reaffirmation of this theme is also the foundation of the coda. First, it is heard fortissimo with block chords supporting; then, each instrument, in turn, plays its ascending first idea.

The innovative second movement is a scherzando that breaks with the traditional Scherzo/Trio/Scherzo scheme. It is a blend of scherzo and sonata form with three main sections and a development. Beginning with the simplest one-part texture, rhythm will clearly be the music’s governing element. Yet as the movement unfolds amid multiple, shifting moods, humor becomes the governing emotion. Examples are the fortissimo outbursts followed immediately by threadbare, pointillist passages reminiscent of the previous movement.

The Adagio has a profoundly tragic bearing. This is partly due to its minor key, but even more attributable to its “program.” In the margin of the sketch, Beethoven scratched “A weeping willow or an acacia over my brother’s grave.” This referred to an imaginary dead brother in a fictional scenario. Both the sorrowful character and the symphonic proportions of this movement hark back to the Eroica Symphony.

The Allegro finale is connected to the slow movement by a trill in the First Violin. Subtitled Thème russe, this good-natured movement’s main melody is an adaptation of the Russian song, “Ah! My Luck, Such Luck.” As in the opening movement, the cello introduces the leading theme. In contrast to this bumptious tune comes a smooth second theme of scale figures to round out the short, repeated exposition. The development and recapitulation put the Russian theme through its paces in assorted harmonic guises and contrapuntal manipulations. At the end, an Adagio parody of the theme leads to a brief Presto coda.

Glass, String Quartet no. 3, “Mishima”
In 1985, Paul Schrader directed a monumental, highly controversial film titled “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” It was the documentary drama of the life of Yukio Mishima, a noted author of tragic novels (and to some, a crackpot) who advocated Japan’s return to the medieval mores and customs of the Samurai culture. To this end, Mishima organized a small army and fantasized a coup to take political/military control of Japan. Of course, the coup failed, and in Samurai disgrace, Mishima was required to commit suicide, which he did with the aid of his closest army comrades. Composer Philip Glass has commented that Mishima “really wanted his writing to become his life and his life to become his writing.” Film critic Roger Ebert summarized the film’s biographical scenario with the words:

There is the young boy, separated from his mother and held almost captive by a possessive grandmother, who won’t let him go out to play but wants him always at her side. There is the writer, returning to his desk every day at midnight to write his books and plays in monkish isolation. There is the public man, uniformed, advocating the Bushido Code, acting the role of military commander of his own army. On the last day of his life, he is ceremoniously dressed by a follower and adheres to a rigid timetable that leads to his meticulously planned and rehearsed suicide, or seppuku. Considering that he is a man fully committed to plunging a sword into his own guts, he seems remarkably serene; his life, his work, his obsession have finally become synchronous.

The film interwove flashback scenes from Mishima’s life, his last day of life, and dramatizations based on his writings. The astonishing musical score by Philip Glass utilizes a full orchestra, a string orchestra with percussion, and a string quartet. The quartet portions accompany the six black-and-white flashbacks and are some of the most effective segments of the whole score. Glass has remarked, “At the time of writing the film music, I anticipated the String Quartet sections would be extracted from the film score and made into a concert piece in its own right.” And the present work is the result.

A Note on the Composer: Music with popular touches is the hallmark of Philip Glass (1937- ). Appealing equally to fans of rock, jazz, and classical music, Glass is the ultimate “crossover” composer. This has been the case since 1965, when he developed a new musical vision while working on a film score with sitar player Ravi Shankar. Glass’s style became associated with a new trend in American music called “Minimalism.” (Glass despises the term, but then most composers resent being pigeonholed.) Minimalist music focuses on simple short melodies, which are repeated and varied over a space of time. This type of classical music is somewhat akin to popular “New Age” music.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. Copyright  2018. All rights reserved.