PROGRAM NOTES | Tue June 30, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna)
“Some excellent works by Beethoven are outstanding among recent publications,” a reviewer wrote shortly after the first three Op. 18 Quartets appeared. “They give perfect proof of his art — but they need to be played well and heard often, for they are very difficult to perform and are in no sense ‘popular’.” Since then they have become very nearly the most well-liked works in all the string quartet literature. They can be termed “popular” in the best sense. We now hear them as Beethoven’s summation of the accomplishments of Haydn and Mozart, and his preparation for the great technical and expressive advances that were to come in his later works.
Beethoven published the six quartets of Op. 18 in two books of three, in the order in which we now know them, which is probably not the order in which they were composed. Their order of composition remains a minor mystery in the history of music, but probably No. 1 was composed second, and No. 3 first. In 1799, Beethoven sent a copy of No. 1 to his friend Carl Amenda saying, “Accept this Quartet as a souvenir of my friendship, and whenever you play it, remember our shared experiences and how true and close a friend I have been and always will be.” When it was published in 1801, Beethoven had reworked it thoroughly, and in 1800, he wrote to Amenda, “Don’t play your quartet any more. I have changed it greatly, because I have just now learned how to write quartets, as you’ll see when you receive it.” The version he published in 1801 is thoroughly reworked.
The first movement of Quartet No. 1, Allegro con brio, is devoted principally to an intense development of its little opening motive, which occurs no less than 102 times. There is a second theme, but it is of comparatively minor importance, for it is usually heard only as an extension of the opening motive or as a counterpoint to it. For contrast in the development section, Beethoven seizes on the scale passages that first appear as mere transitional material.
The second movement, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, is a rich, romantic Lied in the form of a sonata. Its long main theme with its throbbing accompaniment has a beauty that Beethoven would rarely surpass in his later works. Paganini, whose free and flashing virtuoso style is rarely associated with the Classical manner of the Viennese master, is said to have played this slow movement with an emotional intensity that brought tears to the eyes of those present. Third comes a Scherzo, Allegro molto, in which Beethoven, with great wit, manipulates uneven rhythms and phrases of odd lengths. The quartet closes with a playful rondo finale, Allegro.
String Quartet No. 3
(Born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft; died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, England)
England’s greatest 20th-century composer, Benjamin Britten, has been mostly known and admired for his works for the human voice. His vocal compositions range from simple folk song settings to operas, of which Peter Grimes is one of his most well known. Britten composed the gigantic War Requiem to commemorate the restoration of the Coventry Cathedral following its destruction by bombing in World War II; the War Requiem is an impassioned plea against the devastation caused by human conflict.
Britten was born on the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. He made his first attempts at composing at age five, and while still a youth, studied piano and composition with some of England’s most distinguished musicians. In 1930, at seventeen, he entered the Royal College of Music. Before long, he felt constrained by the formal curriculum there and left, bravely setting out to pursue an independent career as a composer. As he matured, Britten’s style became cosmopolitan and international.
Britten composed three quartets, Three Divertimenti, and a short work, Alla Marcia, for the string quartet grouping. It is believed that he composed several other string quartets during his teens, but later destroyed them. In his youth, Britten was mentored and influenced by the composer Frank Bridge. In addition, the influences of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Mahler are readily discernible in his work.
In 1973, Britten suffered a stroke, which permanently affected his right hand. He reported to the musicologist Hans Keller that he could not move his arm well enough to write a full score, and Keller, half-jokingly, suggested that instead he compose a new string quartet to fulfill a long-standing promise to him; consequently, Britten dedicated the work that resulted to Keller and the Amadeus String Quartet. The serenely beautiful String Quartet No. 3 is Britten’s last major composition, his first string quartet since 1945, written just before his death, on a visit to Venice. It premiered December 19, 1976, fifteen days after Britten’s death, in Aldeburgh, where Britten founded a music festival. These facts make his self-quotations from his Venetian opera, Death in Venice, especially poignant. Britten created his own personal links to the city in the homage he gives it in this quartet.
Within this quartet, Britten uses a wide range of original and exotic colors and more experimental, forward-looking techniques than was his usual wont. For this work, he chose an unusual form: five movements in the format of a suite. Throughout, the work has unique and arresting effects and an elegiac character; some have felt it expresses a conscious sense of nostalgia and farewell.
Several of the movements, especially the last one, end in a particularly inconclusive way. The first, Duets, as its title suggests, combines the quartet members in all permutations of possible pairings, which are framed and supported by the remaining two members. The movement has a rather introspective feel. The faster short second movement, Ostinato, requires all four players to articulate thematic fragments, which when joined together become the theme. Ostinato indicates a short musical figure that repeats throughout a composition or a section of one; this rhythmically spirited movement makes use of one.
The extraordinary third movement, Solo, contains many meditative solo cadenza-like passages for the first violin, set with metrical freedom and repetitive motives for the three lower instruments. Shostakovich’s influence permeates this movement, a sad elegy. Music critic Michael Kennedy has written that this central slow movement is “a tribute to the special qualities of Norbert Brainin, leader of the Amadeus Quartet.”
The fourth movement, Burlesque, feels like a Scherzo and trio because of its drive. Kennedy says it, too, evokes the feeling of Shostakovich. The viola arpeggios that make up part of this trio-like section have an avant-garde feel.
The emotionally poignant Recitative and Passacaglia, La Serenissima, (an old name for the Venetian Republic) is the work’s longest movement. It begins with a series of quotes of material from Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name. The passacaglia that follows centers on a repetitive cello figure; after it, an elegy, intense and full of polyphonic complexity, takes the piece to its ambiguous conclusion, uncertain, as it fades away, in which key to settle.
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2
(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)
Brahms’s feelings about the importance of the string quartet as the ultimate expression of the composer’s craft may help to account for why he may have written twenty or more quartets over two decades before he allowed his first two quartets to be published. The long delay had two causes. One was the burden of being in the position of following Beethoven, while the other was that he needed a way to deal with the complex polyphony that was an inherent part of his musical thought, in order for his work to make the impression he wanted with only four instruments. The sextets of the 1860s, perhaps because the group was fifty per cent larger, had given him a satisfactory medium, but a quintet had failed. In the 1870s, he felt confident, at last, that he knew what to do with four players; his Op. 51 Quartets are works in which fullness of expression is unhindered by economy of means.
Brahms completed his Op. 51 quartets in 1873 during his vacation in the countryside not far from Munich. When the summer was over, he delivered the music to his publisher. In September, Clara Schumann, his musical confidante and trusted friend, wrote him, “I am delighted that you are getting such a good fee for your quartets. Now be careful how you invest your money. It is better to have a low interest rate and safety [of capital].” The Hellmesberger Quartet gave the first public performance in Vienna on December 11, 1873.
Until his late thirties, Brahms lived his life as though he were to be forever young and perpetually in transit, physically, spiritually and artistically. He had no fixed residence, but moved from one to another of the many towns that supported Germany’s decentralized musical life, trying his new pieces for his friends and playing occasional concerts. In 1865, in Switzerland, he met a group of wealthy amateurs who admired his work and organized a private concert to hear his D-minor Piano Concerto and his A-Major Serenade.
Among these people was a Dr. Theodor Billroth (1829-1894), an eminent surgeon and also an excellent pianist and violist. The two became fast friends; Billroth’s move to Vienna in 1867 may have occasioned Brahms’s decision to settle there. The two played piano duets; almost all the chamber music Brahms composed had its first, private hearing at Billroth’s residence, with the doctor frequently a member of the performing ensemble. For Brahms, Billroth provided something rare and difficult to find: informed and honest musical judgments. In later years, disagreements on non-musical matters strained their friendship, and when Billroth became gravely ill, Brahms, with a cruel, curious instinct for emotional self-preservation, very nearly ceased to think of him at all. Nevertheless, he dedicated his first two quartets to Billroth.
The emotion expressed in Quartet No. 2 differs from the grave, weighty passion one hears in No. 1. Its music has tender charm; it is delicate and lyrical, maintaining an extraordinary artistic unity and consistency of mood and style as it progresses from its earnest opening to a gay close. The music is rhythmically complex and rich in counterpoint, yet the instrumental writing is beautifully transparent. The four movements are thoroughly integrated by subtle reference rather than by quotation of one another’s themes. In addition, there is a persistent little three-note figure first heard in the middle of the opening theme that reappears as an almost hidden motto in countless varied guises throughout the quartet.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is built around the touching melancholy of the opening theme and the graceful beauty of the second. Displaced accents sometimes give the music a sense of uneasiness; there are long moments of agitation in the development, but the pastoral, idyllic mood prevails. The second movement, Andante moderato, is cast in a large but simple form in which the somewhat solemn opening theme is greatly extended. The contrasting moments of agitated musical dialogue are few and brief.
Brahms called the third movement Quasi minuetto, moderato, almost a minuet but not quite, for its origins in the 18th-century dance are barely distinguishable. In place of the old form’s contrasting central section is a brilliant, scherzo-like Allegretto vivace, whose theme grows out of the minuet. The last movement, Allegro non assai, is a Hungarian dance of the kind that Haydn, Schubert, and Brahms used so well in so many guises.