“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.
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.
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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.