Program Notes: Takács Quartet

June 8, 2022

String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2, Hob. III:82

Joseph Haydn
Born March 31, 1732, in Rohrau; died May 31, 1809, in Vienna

Haydn, throughout his life, is said to have written at least eighty string quartets, and thus he amply earned the nickname, “father of the string quartet.” His labors gave the quartet form the shape, timbre, and technique it now has. In Haydn’s hands, the string quartet evolved from a composition basically for a solo violin accompanied by three strings, into a work of a highly organized combination of four strings equally sharing the four cogent parts in a sophisticated structure. In his later years, Haydn concentrated much of his energy on the string quartet form; after his return to Vienna, after his second sojourn in London in 1794-5, he composed little other instrumental music. He wrote the six Erdődy Quartets, Op. 76, in 1797, and two of a set that were intended to be the six Lobkowitz Quartets, Op. 77, in 1799. The Op. 77 quartets were commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz, whose name they bear. By 1803, Haydn finished two movements of another quartet, his last, which he had published in 1806 as Op. 103.

It is not understood why Haydn did not finish this projected set of six quartets. Music historians have suggested that Beethoven’s early Op. 18 quartets might have made Haydn worried that his works would suffer in comparison, especially since Prince Lobkowitz also had commissioned the Beethoven quartets; however, the composition and publication dates of the quartets call into question the plausibility of this hypothesis. Another possibility is that Haydn could no longer continue composing the quartets because of failing health and age. 

The second quartet of Op. 77, in F Major, has wit and subtlety similar to that of his Symphony No.99. As could be expected with one of Haydn’s late works, this quartet is powerfully dramatic and intense as well as imposing, long, and detailed.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, in sonata form, is richly textured and thoroughly developed. It is quite subtle, yet it opens with a lengthy theme, which is made up of a disarmingly simple and graceful melody. Snippets of that theme become an accompaniment to the next theme. Each melodic fragment seems to evoke new musical ideas that join or follow it. In the development section, the character of the theme seems to change as it undergoes harmonic change, but by the recapitulation section, it has again returned to its original character, one of straightforward sweetness.

The Minuet, with a Presto tempo, has far-ranging harmonies and begins uncharacteristically with the rough and irregular rhythms found in country peasant dances; in the trio, a slower tempo brings more refinement. The long Andante third movement begins unusually with just two instruments playing. It is in rondo form, but each time the rondo theme returns, it is varied. Although the theme undergoes development, embellishment, and modulation in a manner much like that in a theme and variations movement, it remains unaltered and recognizable throughout the movement.

The Finale, Vivace assai, a light-hearted, relatively simple sonata-form structure, has a dance-like feel which, because of its very independent parts for each of the players, is very demanding to perform. It is monothematic in that the secondary theme is a varied restatement of the first theme, shifted up a fifth to the dominant. As in the preceding Andante movement, Haydn keeps the original theme evident even while enhancing and varying it with accompanying syncopation and counterpoint. 


Fantasiestücke for String Quartet, Op.5

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Born August 15, 1875, in Croydon (London), England; died there, Sept. 1, 1912

British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the illegitimate child of an English-trained physician from Sierra Leone and an English woman. Coleridge-Taylor’s father, a descendant of slaves from North America, could not maintain a medical practice in Britain because of his race, so he returned to Africa permanently around the time of Samuel’s birth.  His mother named him after the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reversing the poet’s final two names.
His mother and her family were quite musical and taught the young Coleridge-Taylor to play violin and even encouraged him to make a career in music. At age 15, he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford. Soon after, he began collaborating with the African-American poet and author Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906). Also, very early in his career, he attracted the composer Edward Elgar’s support; Elgar recommended that the Three Choirs Festival commission a piece from him. 

Coleridge-Taylor was conductor of the Handel Society of London from 1904 until his early death. He also taught at the Croydon Conservatory and was Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music as well as violin teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. He was prolific and composed an opera, a symphony, a violin concerto, much orchestral and chamber music, incidental music, and keyboard pieces. 

Interested in his heritage as the descendant of African-American slaves, he made three tours of the United States, where he became acquainted with African-American and Native American music, which he incorporated into his own music. While in the United States, Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House. Jeffrey Green speaks of the legacy Coleridge-Taylor left for musicians of African descent: “By including African, Afro-American, and Afro-Caribbean elements in his compositions in melody and in title, as well as by being visibly proud of his African descent, the music and the achievements of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had made black concert musicians proud and able to walk tall, especially in America where the compositions of European masters dominated in concert hall programs.” 

Coleridge-Taylor composed the Five Fantasiestücke for String Quartet in 1895, when he was only twenty and still a student. At that time, his music followed conservative late 19th-century tradition that he learned from his mentor, Charles Stanford, to whom he dedicated the Fantasiestücke

Fantasiestücke, a title that Robert Schumann had famously used a half-century earlier, means “fantasy pieces.” Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke are character pieces; each one is short and introduces a particular mood. The first two, Prelude and Serenade, have moderate tempos, but the final three, Humoresque, Minuet and Trio, and Dance are more spirited and quicker. 


String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op. 106

Antonin Dvořák
Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic); died May 1, 1904, in Prague

Chamber music had an important place in Dvořák ’s life. Many of his earliest works were quartets and quintets, modeled after those of Beethoven and Schubert, that he played with his colleagues and friends while developing his craft. 

String Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, is a late work, which Dvořák wrote in 1895, when he had become one of the world’s most honored composers. In 1892, he had become the head of a new conservatory in New York. It was while there that he wrote some of the best music of his mature years: the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto, the American String Quartet and a String Quintet in E-Flat. Despite his enthusiasm for the music of the young society in America, he knew that his art was rooted in his own homeland. After spending a five-month leave in his homeland, in 1894, he decided that he could not remain in the United States much longer. In March 1895, he began a string quartet in New York, but he soon put it aside, and in April, he started on the journey back to Prague.

His first months in Prague were quiet, but when he began to teach at the Prague Conservatory again in the autumn, his creative urge returned. He completed this String Quartet in less than a month; he was so pleased with his work that he then took up the other quartet that he had begun in New York, and in a few weeks, he had finished that one too. Dvořák ’s chamber music was in great demand, thus both works were quickly published. In the manuscript of the G Major Quartet, Dvořák noted happily, “first composition after second return from America.”

The quartet is a work of warm and spontaneous invention, reflecting Dvořák ’s comfort and happiness at being home. The beginning of the optimistic first movement reflects this joy. Although some find the music of this work sounds very Czech, Dvořák rarely incorporated actual folk songs in his music, but rather composed new melodies that had the style or feeling of folk songs. The main theme of the first movement, Allegro moderato, does not have a conventional melody but instead a complex of carefree melodic motives that explore several keys and add up to something like a bird song; everywhere a rustling undercurrent of sound, like that heard in even the quietest places in nature, is evoked. The second theme is smooth; Dvořák introduces a lilting third theme characterized by flowing triplets. The development makes use of all three themes, with rich harmony and modulation. In the recapitulation, a more delicate counter melody is added to the first theme, while the second theme forms the basis of the coda.

The lyrical slow second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is a freely formed meditation on a theme that Dvořák elevates to grand and passionate climaxes. It has been singled out as one of the most glorious creations the composer ever achieved. The next movement, Molto vivace, a scherzo, he developed and extended beyond the usual limits of the form. A hopping Czech dance (skočná) provided the rhythmic inspiration for the movement. 

The quartet ends with a Finale whose brief slow introduction, Andante sostenuto, transforms into the theme of a lively dance in the Czech furiant style, Allegro con fuoco, in the form of an ebullient rondo, during the course of which the first movement is artfully recalled.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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