Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing: Suite for String Quartet, Op. 11 (composer’s adaptation)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is well known to classic movie buffs as the composer of scores to such adventure films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. However, Korngold at one time held an honored position in European opera and concert music that originated in his youth. This Wunderkind composed his first major work, the pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), at the age of 11 and went on to write a series of successful operas, culminating in Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), completed when he was only 23.
The Austrian-born Korngold got involved in Hollywood film scoring in 1934, when Max Reinhardt arranged with Warner Brothers to make a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold adapted the music of Mendelssohn for this project but then went on to compose a string of 18 original film scores — most of them “swashbucklers.” These melodramatic adventures were not far removed from the Viennese operatic stage from which Korngold had come, and his late- Romantic, Wagner/Strauss style fit them perfectly.
Back in 1919-20, Korngold had composed orchestral incidental music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was premiered the following year. While composing music for the play, he was also adapting some of it as a suite for orchestra, which he also adapted for violin and piano and for string quartet. Here are the movements:
- The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber. Through music, we hear the variety of thoughts running through the bride’s mind on the eve of her wedding – some sweet and lyrical, some jumbled and fearful, but ending quietly and at peace.
- March of the Watch (Dogbert and Verges). Very much in the style of Prokofiev, the music is a comic march, with the pretense of bravery and loyal duty. But frequently, the Watch soldiers trip over themselves or each other.
- Masquerade (Hornpipe). Comic and energetic comes a sailor’s dance. Both players are kept busy with their parts, which project jollity and a humorous, playful Punch-and-Judy ending to the suite.
Kreisler: String Quartet in A Minor
The world knew Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) first as a virtuoso violinist and then as a composer. He was an incredible child prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. There he won the gold medal in violin and went on to the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated at the age of 12 with another gold medal. Soon, for unexplained reasons, Kreisler gave up the violin for a time while he pursued further education and military service. In 1896, he chose a musical career, quickly regained his technique (he never needed to practice much), and embarked on a triumphant career that took him through Europe, England, and the United States. During and after World War I, Kreisler spent time in France and the United States (his wife’s homeland), finally settling there in 1939 and becoming a citizen in 1943. He continued concertizing and broadcasting until 1950. Kreisler’s bowing technique, tone color, and vibrato style influenced almost every concert violinist of the 20th century.
As a composer, Kreisler achieved some notoriety when he revealed that several compositions from his concert repertoire that he had passed off as authentic “olden” works were actually from his own pen. However, he also composed many contemporary pieces for violin and piano that epitomized the colorful recital fare of his day.
Kreisler also dabbled in chamber music. He composed his one string quartet in 1919, dedicating it to his wife. Each of the four movements is titled. The first, Fantasia, is just that: a quilt of different themes and moods in a form that is free except for the ending, which is a literal reprise of the introductory measures.
The second movement, Scherzo, is a playful, puckish piece that owes much to Mendelssohn. The slower, more sentimental, central section, however, is a showcase for individual instruments, as well as a resting point before a reprise of the main section.
Introduction and Romance is the title of the next movement. The well-proportioned introduction makes an emotional contrast with the main torso of the music. Led by the soloistic first violin, this music is at turns cheerful and passionate. Perhaps the high point is the ending, an adventurous progression of harmonies in the upper instruments over some charming pizzicato work by the cello.
Finale: Retrospection completes Kreisler’s quartet. Following a brief introduction, its main thematic group unfolds as a lively, witty march that evokes Brahms’s “barrel house” style. An atmospheric contrasting section (still in march rhythms) lends momentary seriousness before a partial reprise of main themes. Surprisingly, Kreisler concludes with an encapsulation of music from the opening of the quartet, lending a long moment of nostalgia to its soft, sweet ending.
Price, String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor
Florence Price (née Smith) (1887-1953) 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.
Around a short, repeated musical idea (ostinato) in the second violin, the opening movement unfolds as a lyrical strand of attractive melody. The movement introduces a second theme group more serious-sounding than the first, but it soon comes to a soft conclusion. Ever more lyrical, the third theme group joins the quartet together. Its vocal-inspired melodies now come mostly from the First Violin. Other members of the quartet play brief commentaries, but the First Violin consistently shepherds the ensemble back together. Now come passages where the instruments’ melodies differ and compete, yet regularly they blend together. A euphonious, forthright statement by the First Violin and Viola reflect aspects of Price’s cultural background in Gospel and folk music. The music now becomes competitive among the performers as they drive to the end of the movement.
Andante cantabile marks the second movement. Beginning in a minor key, it is lyrical in Price’s best way, yet there is an overreaching mood of tragedy and sadness. Phrases are traded or shared among quartet members. A new section of music brings a more confident mood. Soft, comforting music follows, as a fragmentary song pours out, drawing the movement to a quiet conclusion.
A significant dance impulse informs the third movement — yet it is a polite, courteous dance, well measured, crisp, and in a moderate tempo. The music becomes “bluesy” at times, yet it never loses its proud façade. The second section is another story. We might call it “showy.” We hear passing references to past musical phrases, but no solid development —just “swing,” which finally winds down to a polite ending.
Quick triple rhythms open the finale, tripping and skipping along. Momentum is the main idea now, as new ideas come and go. At about the halfway point some brief solo interchanges among the quartet lead us to a short pause and a recapitulation of the tripping-skipping music of the finale’s original music. At last, a brief slower passage introduces the finale’s “finale” and a cheerful, energetic ending to Price’s String Quartet in A Minor.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.