Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

June 13, 2022

Chacony in G Minor

Henry Purcell (arr. Benjamin Britten)
Purcell: Born September 10, 1659, in Westminster, England; died there November 21, 1695 Britten: Born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, England; died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, England

Henry Purcell, one of the most renowned composers in England’s history, was the organist at the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey, where he is buried. He wrote for the church, for the theater, and for every kind of private performance. Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, he had a long and productive career that was condensed into a lifetime of only thirty-six years. He was the only composer before J. S. Bach whose work is included in the repertory of the symphony orchestra. Purcell is best known to today’s audiences for the cameo appearance his music makes in Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. 

Between 1690 and 1695 alone, Purcell composed music for almost fifty plays; the music was so extensive, in some cases, as virtually to convert the plays into operas. His instrumental music includes eight suites and many short pieces for harpsichord, two sets of trio sonatas published in 1683, and later, a collection of Fantasias which he wrote around 1680. 

Purcell composed the Chacony for an ensemble of viols, bowed stringed instruments with frets, typically held vertically like cellos or double basses. Unfortunately, the date when Purcell composed this Chacony, an independent work, is not known, but perhaps it formed part of some incidental music he wrote for a play or some other specific occasion. A chacony (Fr. chaconne It., ciaccona) consists of a series of variations over a repeated bass line figure known as ostinato. The work’s title is unusual and seems to be unique: it would have been expected to call the composition ‘chaconne’ after the French. 

Purcell’s most sincere admirer was Benjamin Britten, who adapted this expressive Chacony in part to familiarize players and audiences with his distinguished predecessor’s music. An eight-measure bass statement that the lower strings introduce serves as the foundation for eighteen variations. In some of the variations, the bass figure appears in the higher-voiced instruments. Purcell became the last major figure to explore this particular format. He created his music at the transitional moment when the older viol family of instruments was beginning to yield to the more brilliant timbre of violins.

Britten completed the arrangement for string quartet in 1948 and revised it for string orchestra in 1963. He chose not to alter Purcell’s original order of notes, but, quoting Philip Lane, devised a “credible dynamic structure and consistency of dotted rhythms and distribution of parts.”  Britten wrote: “The theme, first of all in the basses, moves in a stately fashion from a high to a low G. It is repeated many times in the bass with varying textures above. It then starts moving around the orchestra. There is a quaver [eighth note] version with heavy chords above it, which provides the material for several repetitions. There are some free and modulating versions of it, and a connecting passage leads to a forceful and rhythmic statement in G minor.” According to Britten, the work concludes with “a pathetic variation, with dropping semi-quavers (sixteenth notes), and repeated ‘soft’—Purcell’s own instruction.”

Chacony is scored for strings in four parts. 


Folk Music from the British Isles

(arr. Danish String Quartet)

The Danish String Quartet has chosen both British and Nordic tunes for this selection. They have chosen folk music, which they have found in “all the small places. It is local music, but as such is also the music of everywhere and everyone.”  In these old melodies, they have found “immense beauty and depth” and have made arrangements, so that they might, in their words, “sing them through the medium of our string quartet” with “the idea of marrying two simple but powerful things, folk music and the string quartet.”  Further, “We found a bunch of amazing tunes – and we hope you will enjoy what we did to them.” Specifically, in speaking of the Nordic melodies, the DSQ has found this music to be “simple, with a touch of exotic melancholy.”


String Quartet No. 14, in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)

Franz Schubert
Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna; died there November 19, 1828

Schubert was not unknown during his short lifetime, but never really had an important place in public musical life. He died only sixteen months after Beethoven’s death, but the two composers inhabited different Viennas. Schubert, unlike Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, had no support from wealthy families. Although he had some influential friends, he lived mostly as a lower class Viennese, and his simple lifestyle might be termed “Bohemian.”  He congregated with friends his age, many talented and some from wealthy families, and they attended public musical events and admired the famous musicians, especially Beethoven, from a distance. 

Quartet No. 14, known as “Death and the Maiden,” was first performed in January 1826 in the Viennese home of two amateur musicians, Karl and Franz Hacker. This beautiful quartet, which Schubert wrote, or at least began in 1824, is exciting for its rhythm and scope, but it was not particularly successful at first. In fact, the first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh of the famed Schuppanzigh Quartet which premiered many of Beethoven’s quartets, had trouble playing the first violin part because of his advanced age and complained to Schubert after the play-through, “Brother, this is nothing at all, let well alone: stick to your Lieder.” Yet Schubert, who wrote fifteen string quartets in all, composed one more after this one. Although he sent it along with two other quartets, three operas, a mass, and a symphony to the publisher Schott, Schott returned them all, replying that Schubert’s price was much too high, and that he should “send them something less difficult in easier keys.” The result: the quartet was not published until after Schubert’s death. One contemporary review from the Weimar Musikalische Eilpost in 1826, at least, was short and sweet noting that in performance the piece had “the highest artistic endeavor, . . . clearly expressed. Profound feeling, force and charm, significance and vitality and poetic fire characterize [it].” 

The long first movement, Allegro, demonstrates great power and is both dramatic and tragic. In it, Schubert also displays his mastery of modulation. Because it contains so many ideas, Paul Griffiths has commented on the triplet figure, which shapes the thematic motives. Each of the triplet figures functions like a link to connect the musical thought from one idea to the next. Schubert diverged from classical structures quite innovatively, and in this restless sonata form opening movement of this quartet, he extends the second subject material. Thus, both the exposition of the theme and its recapitulation have very large scopes, partly because each also includes some of its own development. The development itself is, therefore, brief and takes the listener to the coda, which grows to a climax before the movement ends quietly. 

Although Schubert had used the theme and variations form in his Trout Quintet, he never used it again in any quartet except in this quartet’s second movement, Andante con moto, and here it suits his expressive purpose admirably. The quartet takes its subtitle, “Death and the Maiden,” from this theme, which is a slightly altered version of the piano introduction to Schubert’s song, Der Tod und das Madchen (“Death and the Maiden”), written in 1817. The Mattias Claudius text is carried on as a dialogue, in which the maiden begs Death to pass her by, and he replies, “I do no harm. Come, sleep peacefully in my arms.” (While Schubert was being buried only a few yards from Beethoven, a small band of wind instruments played these five variations.) Grief and desolation are most evident in this movement.  Schubert’s choice of thematic material for the quartet was, however, presumably prompted by a request from friends who loved the melody, rather than, as some commentators have contended, because he was thinking about mortality. 

The energetic third movement takes much of its rough vigor from the displaced accents of its syncopated theme and is Schubert’s first scherzo, Allegro molto, in a quartet. For it, he borrows from his own German Dance, D. 790. The Scherzo’s binary structure follows that of the Classical minuet with both sections being repeated. The trio provides a contrast and contains a warm lyrical theme. The Scherzo returns to end the movement.

The last movement, Presto, has characteristics of the form and the rhythm of the tarantella, a Neapolitan folk dance in 6/8 rhythm; it binds the other movements together tonally as well as brings the quartet to a stormy, galloping close. Here Schubert took elements of Rondo form and sonata form, using the characteristics of the tarantella to join them together. Interpretations of this movement with its return to the D minor tonality have focused on its being a dance of death, but music historians have no evidence that suggests that this analysis has any basis in Schubert’s intentions. Less controversial is the fact that the modulations and dynamics strongly reinforce the movement’s the Romantic character.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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