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.
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
The week began with Camerata San Antonio’s superb accounts of French and Spanish string quartets..
We’ve been privileged to hear many of the most acclaimed globe-trotting string quartets over the years, thanks to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society – and even more privileged to have Camerata San Antonio’s core string quartet in our midst, playing for us several times a year. These folks can go toe-to-toe with the best – violinists Anastasia Parker and Matthew Zerweck, violist Emily Freudigman and cellist Ken Freudigman.
Camerata’s program on Nov. 5 held the sole string quartets of two French masters, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, and by the French-influenced Spaniard Joaquin Turina. The Fauré was especially welcome: Composed just before he died in 1924, it is one of his finest achievements, an engrossing essay in slippery tonality, dense textures and complex counterpoint.
The performances were consistently vigorous, unified, smartly detailed and sonically lustrous. But most impressive was the ever-clear sense of direction, the inexorable momentum that carried the listener from start to finish, especially in Fauré and Debussy. The Turina piece, with one foot in Spanish folk idioms and one in Debussy, and a bit of Chausson for good measure, was less amenable to a clear arc, but still pleasurable.
The recording equipment visible at this concert emboldens us to hope that Camerata will release a recording of the Fauré and Debussy quartets, at least.
Only one minor complaint: Either the electronic enhancement in the University of the Incarnate Word’s concert hall was set too high or my ears were temporarily hyper-sensitive.
Three worthy concerts in two days: On Oct. 1, Camerata San Antonio brought back pianist Viktor Valkov to join its excellent string quartet…Camerata San Antonio opened its season in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall with a program of Brahms, pseudo-Brahms (Carl Frühling) and something completely different, Entr’acte (Minuet and Trio) (2011) for string quartet by the American composer Caroline Shaw, the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 2013.
Read more at incidentlight.com