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PROGRAM NOTES: Danish String Quartet

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in G Major, Opus 77, No. 1

FRANZ JOSPEH HAYDN
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

Haydn turned the string quartet into a great form. Music for two violins, viola, and cello had been written for years–usually as background or entertainment music–but in his cycle of 83 quartets Haydn transformed the quartet into an ensemble of four equal partners, wrote music that demanded the greatest musicianship and commitment from all four performers, and made the quartet the medium for some of his most refined expression. His quartet-writing, however, came to an end in the late 1790s. Haydn had just returned from two quite successful visits to London, and now–in his mid-sixties–he was losing interest in purely instrumental music. He would write no more symphonies and would instead devote his final years to vocal music: from these last years came his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, as well as the great masses.

Just as he was embarking on these new directions, Haydn completed the two string quartets of his Opus 77 (and actually began one more, destined to remain unfinished). Commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz, who would later be Beethoven’s patron, the two Opus 77 quartets of 1799 represent the culmination of a lifetime spent developing and refining the form: the Quartet in G Major performed on this concert is widely considered one of Haydn’s finest, and that is saying a great deal. Audiences might best approach this quartet by listening for the many signs of a master’s touch: the liberation of all four voices, the rapid exchanges of melodic line between them, and the beautifully idiomatic writing for all four instruments–including the often-neglected viola.

The opening Allegro moderato is in the expected sonata form, though with some original thematic touches: the main subject is a genial march-like tune–the steady 4/4 pulse of this march strides along easily throughout the movement. The second subject is hardly a theme at all, just a flowing two-measure figure that moves between the two violins–it is a measure of Haydn’s mature mastery that he can find so much in such simple material. The Adagio is built on a single theme, which is then repeated, growing more elaborate with each recurrence. The brisk minuet (its marking is Presto!) sends the first violin soaring from the bottom of its range to the very top, while the trio makes a surprising leap from the minuet’s G major to the unexpected key of E-flat major, which in turn slides into C minor as it goes. The finale, also marked Presto, is a miniature sonata-form movement that blisters along at a pace that makes it feel almost like a perpetual-motion. Some suspect that Haydn derived its central theme from a Hungarian folksong, but–whatever its origin–this movement is a real showcase for the first violin, and Haydn demands sparkling, athletic playing from all four players throughout this movement.

String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Opus 44, FS36

CARL NIELSEN
Born June 9, 1865, Nørre-Lyndelse, Denmark
Died October 3, 1931, Copenhagen

Carl Nielsen liked unusual titles for his pieces–he wrote symphonies with nicknames like The Four Temperaments, Sinfonia Espansiva, The Inextinguishable, and Sinfonia Semplice. But even more fun are his subjective–and often spicy and provocative–markings for individual movements within his compositions. He gave movements such titles as Allegro orgoglioso (“arrogant, proud”), Allegro collerico (“furious”), and Allegro cavalleresco (“chivalrous”). With these markings, Nielsen wanted to provoke his performers and listeners into a particular state of mind as they played and heard his music.

Such nicknames were very much a part of the music we know today as Nielsen’s String Quartet No. 4 in F Major. Between February and July 1906 Nielsen composed a piece for string quartet that he titled simply Piacevolezza: “relaxed, agreeable.” He was at that time 41 years old and the successful composer of two symphonies–his great comic opera Maskarade would be premièred later that year. The new piece for string quartet was given several private performances for friends before its official première in Copenhagen on November 30, 1907. That première brought sharply-mixed reviews, and the composer himself must not have been wholly satisfied with his new quartet, because he came back to it twelve years later–in 1919–and revised and published it as his Opus 44.

As part of that revision, Nielsen changed some of his titles. What had been called Piacevolezza now became his String Quartet No. 4, and the first movement–which originally had the tantalizing marking Allegro piacevole ed indolente (“fast, relaxed and lazy”)–now became Allegro non tanto e comodo (“not too fast, but comfortable”). Despite these changes, the original spirit of this piece remained intact: this quartet is indeed relaxed, agreeable, and very pleasing music. Its first movement opens with the quietly-flowing opening subject, but dissonances emerge even from within these smooth lines. The animated second theme is treated as the subject of a brief fugato before the movement comes to a beautiful conclusion on a quiet extension of its opening theme.

Nielsen titled the second movement Adagio con sentimento religioso, and it opens with a fortissimo statement of its chorale-like main theme. The exact sentimento religioso the composer had in mind is never specified, but this movement remains very much in character, alternating that firm opening with more introverted secondary material. The Allegretto moderato ed innocente may well be innocent–certainly it is the shortest movement in the quartet. It is also full of a graceful, skittering energy, and that lively progress is continually interrupted by great outbursts from all four players.

A grand one-measure introduction opens the finale, which then overflows with high spirits and relaxed energy. The cello has the espressivo second theme, which is soon followed by a cadenza-like solo interlude for first violin. The very ending, which combines equal parts strength and relaxation, makes a fitting conclusion to all that has gone before.

String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven had been commissioned in 1822 by Prince Nikolas Galitzin of St. Petersburg to write three string quartets, though he had to delay them until after he finished the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. He completed the three quartets for Galitzin in 1825, but those quartets had not exhausted his ideas about the form, and he pressed on to work on another. Begun at the end of 1825, the Quartet in C-sharp Minor was complete in July 1826. This is an astonishing work in every respect. Its form alone is remarkable: seven continuous movements lasting a total of forty minutes. But its content is just as remarkable, for this quartet is an unbroken arc of music that sustains a level of heartfelt intensity and intellectual power through every instant of its journey. This was Beethoven’s favorite among his quartets.

On the manuscript he sent the publisher, the composer scrawled: “zusammengestohlen aus Verschiedenem diesem und jenem” (“Stolen and patched together from various bits and pieces”). The alarmed publishers were worried that he might be trying to palm off some old pieces he had lying around, and Beethoven had to explain that his remark was a joke. But it is at once a joke and a profound truth. A joke because this quartet is one of the most carefully unified pieces ever written, and a truth because it is made up of “bits and pieces”: fugue, theme and variations, scherzo, and sonata form among them.

The form of the Quartet in C-sharp Minor is a long arch. The substantial outer movements are in classical forms, and at the center of the arch is a theme-and-variation movement that lasts a quarter-hour by itself. The second and third and the fifth and sixth form pairs of much shorter movements, often in wholly original forms.

The opening movement is a long, slow fugue, its haunting main subject laid out immediately by the first violin. There is something rapt about the movement (and perhaps the entire quartet), as if the music almost comes from a different world. In a sense, it did. Beethoven had been completely deaf for a decade when he wrote this quartet, and now–less than a year from his death–he was writing from the lonely power of his musical imagination. Molto espressivo, he demands in the score, and if ever there has been expressive music, this is it. The fugue reaches a point of repose, then modulates up half a step to D major for the Allegro molto vivace. Rocking along easily on a 6/8 meter, this flowing movement brings relaxation–and emotional relief–after the intense fugue. The Allegro moderato opens with two sharp chords and seems on the verge of developing entirely new ideas when Beethoven suddenly cuts it off with a soaring cadenza for first violin and proceeds to the next movement. The Allegro moderato seems to pass as the briefest flash of contrast–the entire movement lasts only eleven measures.

The longest movement in the quartet, the Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile is one of its glories. Beethoven presents a simple theme, gracefully shared by the two violins, and then writes six variations on it. At times the variations grow so complex that the original theme almost disappears; Beethoven brings it back, exotically decorated by first violin trills, at the very end of the movement. Out of this quiet close explodes the Presto, the quartet’s scherzo, which rushes along on a steady pulse of quarter-notes; this powerful music flows easily, almost gaily. Beethoven makes use of sharp pizzicato accents and at the very end asks the performers to play sul ponticello, producing an eerie, grating sound by bowing directly on the tops of their bridges.

There follows a heartfelt Adagio, its main idea introduced by the viola. Beethoven distills stunning emotional power into the briefest of spans here: this movement lasts only 28 measures before the concluding Allegro bursts to life with a unison attack three octaves deep. In sonata form, this furiously energetic movement brings back fragments of the fugue subject (sometimes inverted) from the first movement. It is an exuberant conclusion to so intense a journey, and at the very end the music almost leaps upward to the three massive chords that bring the quartet to its close.

meridia