PROGRAM NOTES | Tue July 7 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 4
Franz Josef Haydn
(Born March 31, 1732, in Rohrau; died May 31, 1809, in Vienna)
Composed in 1772, this quartet belongs to one of the most popular of Haydn’s quartet groupings, the Op. 20 series that effectively includes the first of Haydn’s mature quartets. The group was known as the Die Sonnenquartette, the “Sun Quartets,” for no other reason than that the edition published in 1779, four years after the first edition that had been published in Paris in 1775, pictured the emblem of a rising sun. To each of the six works Haydn simply gave the title, “Divertimento a quattro,” but by doing so, he was not designating them as lightweight pieces. At the time, divertimento was the common name that was given to diverse pieces of chamber music in Austria; up to and including Op. 20, all of Haydn’s quartets had that indication. The marking does not signify that in these works a rococo lightness reigns or that intensity is absent. In fact, Haydn’s biographer, Karl Geiringer, points out: “Haydn reverted to baroque features, adopting contrapuntal devices that also approach the ideal of emotional concentration.” In short, in these works reacting against the light and pleasing Rococo style galant (courtly style), Haydn achieved a strong concentration of form and content for the first time in the quartet form. Style galantfavored homophonic texture, with the melody appearing predominantly in the first violin and the other instruments playing the accompaniment underneath.
Music historians credit the true beginning of the string quartet as a form to this set of Haydn quartets because here for the first time, all the four instruments are actively involved as equals in a dialogue. The eminent early 20th-century critic, Donald Tovey, wrote that in Op. 20, “the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal; and further progress is not progress in any historical sense but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.” The works in this opus are fascinating, substantial and varied, and each has a strong contrapuntal component.
This quartet begins with two noble, intense and serious movements. The first, Allegro di molto, has a sophisticated structure with an initial lengthy subject made up of five phrases of six measures over a held bass note. This bottom note establishes three repeated notes as the generating motif on which the rest of the movement is constructed. The movement features bold and unusual harmonies, as the first theme is contrasted and intertwined with other melodic material. After the development section comes to its terminus, there are five beats of silence, and then the first theme returns. The second movement, Un poco adagio e affetuoso, has a meditative and harmonically powerful theme followed by a set of variations. In the fourth variation, the cello has an unusually important role. The theme returns in its original form and becomes extended into an emotionally powerful coda. The third movement, Menuet alla zingarese, evokes gypsy folk music. The traditional minuet-style triple rhythm becomes submerged as the violins sound in duple time throughout; the viola and cello also play in duple time with their accentuation of the meter falling a beat after that of the violins. This syncopated effect, a conflict of meter and accent, is underpinned with sforzando accents (strong, sudden emphasis on a note or chord.) The trio of the minuet shifts to the more straightforward, featuring scale-like passages in the cello with a simple accompaniment. The finale, Presto e scherzando, notable for its humor and its fiery nature, again utilizes Hungarian gypsy folk melodies. In sonata form, this movement derives all its thematic material from the opening phrases.
String Quartet No. 2
(Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, Massachusetts)
Adams composed String Quartet No.2 in 2014 for the 25th anniversary of the St. Lawrence String Quartet; it is his third collaboration with the group. String Quartet No.1, composed in 2008 for the St. Lawrence Quartet, his first for the quartet, was his second full-sized work for the medium, but his first without electronics. In 2012, he composed Absolute Jest for the St. Lawrence Quartet; it is a work for quartet and orchestra. In addition, Adams composed John’s Book of Alleged Dances for the Kronos Quartet and recorded prepared piano in 1994, and a string quartet, Fellow Traveler, in 2007, a five-minute piece written for Peter Sellars’ birthday.
Adams looked to the piano music of late Beethoven as the starting point for String Quartet No. 2, which follows in line with its predecessor, Absolute Jest, as both compositions were inspired by Beethoven’s late works. What Adams says he admires most in Beethoven is his “combination of deep feeling, vitality, and energy.” For Quartet No. 1, Adams focused primarily on the scherzo movements from two late quartets, explaining he was originally motivated to use Beethoven in this way after admiring how Stravinsky joined the music of Pergolesi with his own in his ballet, Pulcinella.
In String Quartet No. 2, Adams turned to Beethoven’s late piano music, taking short fragments from the second to last piano sonata, Op. 110 in A-flat major, as well as from the Diabelli Variations. Adams calls his fragmentary borrowings “fractals”; the longest “fractal” is eight measures long. Adams explicated how he deals with these quotations: “I throw them into a petri dish and let them grow in whatever way they want to. Sometimes they get out of hand and I have to reel them back in.”
In an interview with Thomas May, Adams, whose instrument is clarinet, spoke of his attraction to the string quartet: “I love string instruments, and I think my favorite literature in music is the string quartet. It’s a little ironic that I’ve been so drawn to it, since I don’t play a string instrument.” Adams has not found composing for string quartet an easy process in today’s world, “Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time—and I don’t know many these days who do—the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating. What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally ‘improvise’ on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want. They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration, and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own. It is no surprise then for me to reveal that both the First Quartet and Absolute Jest went through radical revision stages both before and after each piece’s premiere.”
Geoff Nuttall, the first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, commented about Adams’ use of Beethoven: “It takes [guts] to start with Beethoven and turn it into your own thing, but that is what he does. It becomes pure John Adams, music nobody else could write.” Nuttall went on to say, “The way he writes for string quartet is very John. When you look at the page, it seems very simple, but the rhythmic complexities—the groove, as he describes them—are many. And he’s a stickler for how the groove and tempo are important to create the vibe in playing his music.”
In both Quartet No. 1 and No.2, Adams recombines isolated fragments from late Beethoven works with astonishing inventive imagination. In No. 2, in two movements, the energetic first movement, Allegro molto, begins with a descending six-note figure from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 110 as Adams re-imagines it. He later takes on a second motif from the same movement, which he also transforms. The music moves very swiftly with much rhythmic agitation, and “the familiar Beethoven cadences and half-cadences reappear throughout the movement like a homing mechanism,” Adams explains. “Each apparition is followed by a departure to an increasingly remote key and textural region.” In the process, he alters every aspect of the phrase: its shape, its harmony, its pitch, its texture, and its dynamics.
The second movement, Andantino, begins with a soft, gentle introspective theme, which takes its origin from the first movement of Op. 110, but the movement goes on to introduce more stormy, restless elements. Here the original Beethoven harmonic and melodic ideas find themselves going in unexpected directions, as if they spurred on a kind of compositional “free association” that keeps increasing in its complexity until it takes the listener to the frenzied Energico, which is itself full of dissonant unrest and many changes of mood inspired by one of the shortest of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Adams called this finale section “emotionally bi-polar.”
The work was commissioned by Stanford Live, Carnegie Hall, the Julliard School, the Library of Congress’s Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music, and Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. St. Lawrence String Quartet performed its world premiere at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University on January 18, 2015.
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
(Born August 22, 1862, in St. Germain-en-Laye; died March 25, 1918, in Paris)
Debussy finished his only String Quartet in February 1893, and then traveled to Ghent to visit the playwright Maeterlinck, whose Pelléas et Mélisande he wanted to adapt as an opera. He stopped in Brussels to show some of his works to the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe; in Paris in December, the Ysaÿe Quartet, to whom this quartet is dedicated, debuted this masterpiece. The music initially puzzled everyone: the audience, the conservative critics and those in the vanguard, too.
Perhaps the trouble was that Debussy had arrived at too advanced a solution to a problem not yet known to ordinary listeners. He was grappling with how to reconcile classical forms of chamber music in which a high degree of independence among the movements exists, with his use of cyclical forms in which musical ideas are carried forward from one movement to the next. The master of cyclical form, César Franck, found Debussy’s Quartet too nervous, “all pins and needles,” he said, perhaps because the structure of the quartet fuses cyclical and variation form with a minimum of thematic development.
Debussy makes great formal advances in this work. Even though this quartet is his only published work in a specific key (because it has a key signature), it never really looks backward. Debussy reuses fragments of melody in successive movements to give unity to the whole; he bases all four movements on a single theme plainly stated at the outset. The simplicity of this idea shocked early listeners who failed to grasp the nature of the piece. The execution of the idea was not simple because it places an enormous burden on the creative imagination. Debussy begins with a theme both original and striking, which the listener can retain and follow through its transformations and displacements, its dismemberment and its re-assembly, tracing it through changes of tempo and of mood. At the end, the listener feels the unitary power Debussy has created. Yet Debussy’s ideas are brief, taking up only one or two measures; he relies more on allusive connections than on repetition. Also, Debussy adapts procedures from other sources, especially from Wagner and the Russians, whose music he heard during his travels. He casts four movements in forms not very different from those of past masters, dressing his new ideas in warm colors and rich harmonies. His writing is intricate and elegant.
With this work, Debussy moves chamber music into a new era of ambiguous impression and suggestivenessthat he evokes again a year later in Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.). After the quartet, Debussy composed no more chamber music until 1915, and never wrote another string quartet. He objected to the term impressionism, but it accurately defines his aesthetic. In this quartet, Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune and his opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, he frees musical language from tradition in his search for music that he said is “supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.” Paul Griffiths contends that Debussy’s quartet influenced the future of the string quartet by “indicating that new sounds could be achieved by forgetting the old conversational mode” as a result of the use of flexible speeds with many tempo changes within a section. Debussy also achieves a wide variety of texture by joining instruments together in different ways in a search for “fluidity, for constant alteration.”
The first movement, Animé et très décidé, is firmly declarative, by turns vigorously rhythmic and gracefully lyrical. The main theme and the principal harmonic setting are based on the Phrygian mode. Debussy introduces many tempo changes, some unusually swift, as well as frequent rhythmic and modal recasting of the germinal theme. Then comes a playful scherzo, Assez vif et bien rythmé, in which a motif from the opening theme, speeded up, is restated repeatedly (an ostinato or repeated figure) with virtuosic pizzicatos. The germinal theme almost disappears from the slow, somewhat funereal third movement, Andantino doucement expressif, but frequent subtle hints of its elements remain. Debussy enhances the tone with mutes. As Griffiths notes, this movement is less innovative and more conventionally Romantic than the others. The repeated motif reappears in the finale’s slow introduction, Très modéré, and dominates the concluding movement, Très mouvementé et avec passion, which accelerates to the quartet’s end.