July 23 2024 : Haydn, Debussy & Mendelssohn

May 8, 2024

CM4 July 23
CMF musicians
Fellows – Myriade Quartet (Haydn only)

Haydn, String Quartet in C major Op. 20 No. 2 19’
Debussy, Sonata for flute, viola and harp 19’

Mendelssohn, String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 33’

Haydn, String Quartet in C major Op. 20 No. 2

With his six Opus 20 Quartets of 1772, Haydn was determined to lift the burgeoning string quartet form to new heights of sophistication and ingenuity. He was employed by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, head of one of the wealthiest and most powerful Hungarian noble families, and who gave composer full rein to realize his creative ambitions. The string quartet, along with the symphony, became a laboratory for novel sonorities and formal designs. 

Haydn had already composed three sets of quartets, but with Opus 20 he solidified his reputation (Beethoven would study Op. 20 in 1793 before composing his own quartets). The Quartet No. 2 is arguably the finest of the set. What especially stands out is the newfound independence of the cello, which breaks free of its humble supporting role to soar above the other strings. The violin must wait its turn as the cello presents the opening theme in its upper register before initiating a brief three-part fugato (a kind of miniature fugue).

The Capriccio slow movement unfolds like an operatic scene, from the stern, impassioned recitative of the opening phrases to the beguiling, central arioso of the first violin. The third movement minuet follows without pause and contains hints of a bagpipe drone. In the finale Haydn’s deploys many “learned” techniques and tricks: lines chasing one another and weaving in and out, and melodies turning upside-down before a grand summing up at the end. 

Debussy, Sonata for flute, viola and harp

Life appeared bleak to Claude Debussy as he entered his 50s, with an unhappy marriage, distress over the war raging in Europe, and the pain from cancer. He called his workspace “a factory of nothingness.” Then came an opportunity for escape. A colleague offered him a seaside villa in Normandy for the of summer of 1915. “I am relearning about music,” Debussy wrote from Pourville-sur-Mer, as he began a planned set of six sonatas. He lived to complete just three: those for cello and piano, for violin and piano, and for flute, viola and harp.

The lean textures of the flute, viola and harp sonata convey an atmosphere of elegance and melancholy. “I have been writing nothing but pure music in our old form, which graciously does not impose [Wagnerian] ring-cycle efforts upon the auditory faculty,” Debussy said in a letter to Igor Stravinsky. “I don’t know if one should laugh at it or cry? Perhaps both.”

There is also a dreamlike hush to the sonata, as if Debussy took his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and stripped it to its essence. The first movement, titled Pastorale, is languorous and cool, the second movement features hints of a Baroque dance, while the third, marked “allegro moderato, but with resolve,” is sparkling and driven. Notice the ornamental quality of the instrumental writing, as melodies sometimes seem like little more than a series of arabesques and decorative filigree. Debussy dedicated the sonata to his daughter, Claude-Emma, and it received its premiere in Paris on April 21, 1917, less than a year before his death at the age of 55.

Mendelssohn, String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20

Felix Mendelssohn was just 16 when he composed his Octet, packed with joyous optimism and dexterity, elfin imagination and humor. The piece was a birthday gift for his violin teacher Eduard Rietz, then leader of the Berlin Court Orchestra, and its demanding first-violin part testifies to his considerable virtuosity. 

The string octet — essentially, a double string quartet — had little precedent. Though Louis Spohr had written for this instrumentation as early as 1814, Mendelssohn’s 1825 work has the character of a string symphony, featuring a more kaleidoscopic range of instrumental colors. The score features these instructions: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.” 

The first movement blazes forth with invention and variety while maintaining a grand, vaulted symmetry. The second movement is a lamenting Andante, anxiously floating around the key of C minor. According to Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, the third movement scherzo is a fantastical depiction of the Walpurgis Night section of Goethe’s Faust (Walpurgis Night is a nocturnal holiday in German folklore in which people seek to ward off witches and evil spirits). The Presto finale shows the influence of J.S. Bach and Handel as Mendelssohn presents an eight-part fugue and quotes “And He Shall Reign” from “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah, before the music builds to its bracing conclusion. 

— Brian Wise

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