QUARTETS PROGRAM NOTES
MOZART: STRING QUARTET IN A MAJOR, K. 464
“Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the profound knowledge of composition.”
With those words, Franz Josef Haydn expressed his feelings about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (to Mozart’s father, Leopold). The year was 1785, and the occasion was the playing of some of Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets. These had been composed over the years 1782-1785, and Mozart would soon dedicate them in print to the “Father” of the String Quartet.
The A Major Quartet is the fifth in the series, and it is probably the least performed. Yet there are treasures for the listener in this work. The general grace of the first movement is one. Beginning with a waltz-like gesture, the first theme-group presents a turning, cascading idea that soon lands in the distant key of C. There, the waltz impulse becomes intensified. The second theme has an ascending chromatic “motto” that introduces its several phrases before the first theme returns to round out the exposition and open the door to the development. In the recapitulation, Mozart replaces the key of C with the even more remote key of F. But soon all is resolved, and the movement ends normally.
The minuet movement (placed second in this quartet) begins with two contrasting phrases. The main motives from these are then combined and reshuffled to generate the rest of the movement. Unexpected rests and dynamic shifts add humor by breaking up the natural flow. From A major, Mozart moves to E for the Trio section. The smoothness of its first strain is broken by agile first violin triplets in the second.
A theme with variations forms the Andante. The elegance of the theme continues in the first three variations. Then in the fourth, a minor variation, the melody dissolves into triplet activity. The suavity of the opening returns in the fifth variation, but in the final variation this combines with an extended staccato rhythmic figure that moves gradually through the instruments from cello to first violin.
The finale is dominated chiefly by one theme. Interestingly, it opens with a descending chromatic line, mirroring the ascending one in the first movement. The variety of textures in this movement is remarkable. They range from insistently repeated bass notes to hymn-like passages to stretched notes in the outer parts played against running scales in the inner parts. Mozart brings the quartet to a close with a final, clever reference to the descending chromatic idea.
BACEWICZ: STRING QUARTET NO. 4
During the first half of the 20th century, women composers did not enjoy the liberal, open treatment and recognition they have achieved (gradually) during the second half and beyond. This “glass ceiling” situation was more pronounced in Eastern Europe than in Western society. Knowing this helps us to understand why the very talented Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) had to wait until 1945 to complete her first orchestral work, the present concert overture, and another four years before its premiere. Of course she lived through the upheavals of two World Wars and also other tragic events in her native Poland during that time. Society and the Arts were often in a state of upheaval, making concert schedules unsure and suddenly changeable. Her education in Warsaw (Kazimierz Sikorski) and Paris (Nadia Boulanger) focused on composition and also violin playing. Most of her adult life, Bacewicz made her living as a violinist. It was not until after WW II that, now married and living in Warsaw, she turned her attention professionally to composing music. Describing Bacewicz’s activities in the 1950s, music researcher and writer Judith Rosen introduces the String Quartet No. 4:
A significant work from this period is the String Quartet No.4 (1951), which received first prize (out of 57 entries) in the International Composers’ Competition in Liège, Belgium. In 1953, it became a required piece for competitors in the International String Quartet Competition in Geneva and continues to be chosen for performance in the United States and abroad.
(Part I.) An Andante introduces Allegro segments, which are spikey at first, but new themes smooth out and become ever more lyrical, then strident, leading to a short solo by the viola. This introduces a new theme in high range of the cello. Then comes punctuating music, flirting with dissonance before answered by a lyrical melody in the first violin. Now, the music is clearly developmental for a time. A new segment of development focuses on the instruments’ high ranges. The stamping chords from early in the movement now are explored and developed, now and again morphing into dragging chords that support fleeting melodic thoughts. The solo viola returns with lyrical melody, and then is joined by the others in an exchange of two-note ideas that wander with little connection to a single key. Smoothly, the music discovers the quick coda ending of the movement.
(Part II.) Again, the music begins Andante, but smooth and mildly contrapuntal among the instruments. Soaring music then makes a landing, and repeated chord formations support a violin-cello duet that soon melts into a rich chordal transition. The violin-cello duet now plays an answer to their preceding statement, leading to a “vamping” segment — a short, restful interlude. Imitative counterpoint among the quartet is now extensive, until the now-familiar brief melody comes from the viola and cello, while the violins accompany. The music continues with a review of several previous musical ideas, which “discover” the end of the movement.
(Part III.) No tempo is specified, but it could be marked Allegro giocoso. The music has the definite “feel” of Baltic folk music, and it has a quick dance impulse. We hear fast triplet rhythms and phrasing that frequently comes to a complete stop. As in the previous movements, this finale’s melodies are usually fragmentary and certain fragments repeat. Suddenly, the music is cast in a more moderate tempo, allowing melodies to become more lyrical. Soon, however, mischief brews, and we are on our way back to the whirling rhythms of the opening. Soon however, the music digresses (keeping the dance character, but exploring new moods and string effects). Like any good rondo, the music returns to the original main thematic matter, but this time in pizzicato. This, too, soon morphs into a wandering, quasi-developmental segment. The music seems to yearn for a return to familiar territory, and Bacewicz delivers it, returning to a full-blown re-statement of the main theme. But now the music builds toward a climax, which presents as a final dancing coda to the movement and the whole quartet.
BEETHOVEN: STRING QUARTET IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 74 “HARP”
For Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the year 1809 was a year of both triumph and defeat. For one thing, he became financially secure through an annual income contributed jointly by Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky. This allowed him to seriously contemplate marriage. However, it came as a severe blow when his proposal was rejected. It was also the year in which Beethoven solidified his chamber-music techniques after the experimentation and symphonic ideals expressed in the three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59. This solidification was achieved through writing the Quartet in E-flat, for a work in which Beethoven again seems at ease and in complete technical control.
After a slightly mysterious slow introduction the main body of the first movement launches with an opening arpeggio motive. This proves to generate the passages that have lent the work its sobriquet, “Harp.” (The term arpeggio derives from the Italian arpeggiare, meaning to play the harp.) Indeed, Beethoven’s later treatment of the arpeggio motive is harplike, since he generally introduces it in pizzicato. This happens briefly in the exposition and in more expanded form during the development section. The first movement is a paragon of brevity and simple elegance.
For some, the middle movements are the high point of the quartet. The Adagio is a serene yet deeply emotional essay. Its romanticism is at once recognized by its expressive harmonies. The main theme, in musiclogist Joseph Kerman’s words, is “certainly one of Beethoven’s best lyrical ideas to date. Tender, and yet at the same time slightly remote in emotional quality.” Late in the movement, Beethoven’s vast capacity for pathos can be heard in passages where the first violin plays halting ornamental commentaries while lower strings spin out the chief melody.
Beethoven’s characteristic driving rhythm typifies the Scherzo movement, marked Presto. The rhythmic motives of this portion of the work may strike the listener as a speeded up, yet “benign” relative of the Fifth Symphony’s Scherzo. The intenseness of the quartet’s main Scherzo section contrasts sharply with the broad humor of the Trio. Beethoven asks for a tempo twice as fast as the opening and composes the Trio in “textbook” double counterpoint. Here he is lampooning pedantic contrapuntists as well as himself (for around this time he compiled a series of counterpoint drills for Archduke Rudolf).
The final movement follows the Scherzo without break. It is in a traditional form —binary theme with variations. Yet a remarkably untraditional feature is the alternating dynamic markings for the variations: semper forte (Var. 1, 3, and 5) and semper dolce e piano (Var. 2, 4, and 6).
Kerman succinctly summarizes the “Harp” Quartet’s significance when he describes is as “a work of consolidation rather than exploration, a work which though by no means content to repeat something that has been done before, is content to move within an expressive framework laid down by its predecessors.”
Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2022. All rights reserved.