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PROGRAM NOTES: Hagen Quartet

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in C Major, K.465 “Dissonant”

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

When Mozart arrived in Vienna, the towering figure in music was Franz Joseph Haydn, then nearly 50. Haydn had taken the string quartet, which for the previous generation had been a divertimento-like entertainment, and transformed it. He liberated the viola and cello from what had been purely accompanying roles and made all four voices equal partners; he further made each detail of rhythm and theme and harmony an important part of the musical enterprise. Under Haydn’s inspired hands, the string quartet evolved from entertainment music into an important art form. Mozart, who was 25 when he arrived in Vienna, quickly grasped what the older master had achieved with the string quartet and embarked on a cycle of six quartets of his own. These are in no sense derivative works–they are thoroughly original quartets, each of them a masterpiece–but Mozart acknowledged his debt (and admiration) by dedicating the entire cycle to Haydn when it was published in 1785.

The “Dissonant” Quartet, the last of the six, was completed on January 14, 1785. The nickname comes from its extraordinary slow introduction. The quartet is in C major and the music opens with a steady pulse of C’s from the cello, but as the other three voices make terraced entrances above, their notes (A-flat, E-flat, and A–all wrong for the key of C major) grind quietly against each other. The tonality remains uncertain until the Allegro, where the music settles into radiant C major and normal sonata form. The surprise is that after this unusual introduction, the first movement is quite straightforward, flowing broadly along its bright C-major energy; an ebullient coda eventually draws the movement to a quiet close. The Andante cantabile develops by repetition, its lyric main idea growing more conflicted as it evolves. The Menuetto sends the first violin soaring across a wide range, while the dramatic trio section moves unexpectedly into urgent C minor. After these stresses, the concluding Allegro, in sonata form, returns to the bright spirits of the opening movement. This finale, which has a brilliant part for the first violin, fairly flies to its resounding close.

Mozart may have been struck by Haydn’s quartets, but now it was Haydn’s turn to be amazed. When he heard the “Dissonant” Quartet and two others of this cycle performed at a garden party in Vienna in February 1785, Haydn pulled Mozart’s father Leopold aside and offered as sincere a compliment as any composer ever gave another: “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 110

Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow

In the summer of 1960 Shostakovich went to Dresden, where he was to write a score for the film Five Days, Five Nights, a joint East German and Soviet production. The devastation of Dresden by Allied bombing in 1945–the event that drove Kurt Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse Five–was still evident in 1960, and it stunned the composer. He interrupted his work on the film score and in the space of three days (July 12-14) wrote his String Quartet No. 8, dedicated “To the memory of the victims of fascism and war.”

The Eighth Quartet has become the most-frequently performed of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets, but this intense music appears to have been the product of much more than an encounter with the horrors of war–it sprang straight from its creator’s soul. In it Shostakovich quotes heavily from his own works: there are quotations from the First, Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Symphonies, Piano Trio in E Minor, Cello Concerto No. 1, and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as well as from several Russian songs.

The quartet also uses as its central theme Shostakovich’s musical “signature” DSCH: he took the letters D for Dmitri and SCH from the first three letters of his last name pronounced "De-Es-Ce-Ha" and set down their musical equivalents: D-Es (E-flat in German notation)-C-H (B in German notation). That motto–D-Eb-C-B–is the first thing one hears in this quartet, and it permeates the entire work.

Why should a quartet inspired by the destruction of a foreign city (and an “enemy” city, at that) have turned into so personal a piece of music for its composer? Vasily Shirinsky–second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, which gave the première–offered the official Soviet explanation of so dark a work: “In this music, there is a portrait of Shostakovich, the musician, the citizen, and the protector of peaceful and progressive humanity.” But in Testimony, Shostakovich’s much-disputed memoirs, the composer strongly suggests that the quartet is not about fascism but is autobiographical and is about suffering, and he cites his quotation of the song “Languishing in Prison” and of the “Jewish theme” from the Piano Trio as pointing a way toward understanding the quartet.

In her recent biography of the composer, Laurel Fay suggests an even darker autobiographical significance. In the spring of 1960, just before his trip to Dresden, Shostakovich was named head of the Union of Composers of the Soviet Federation, and the Russian government clearly expected such a position to be held by a party member. Under pressure to join the party, the composer reluctantly agreed and then was overwhelmed by regret and guilt. There is evidence that he intended that the Eighth Quartet, a work full of autobiographical meaning, should be his final composition and that he planned to kill himself upon his return to Moscow. Five days after completing the quartet, Shostakovich wrote to a friend: “However much I tried to draft my obligations for the film, I just couldn’t do it. Instead I wrote an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs. I reflected that if I die someday then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet.’”

Was the Eighth Quartet to be Shostakovich’s epitaph for himself?

The quartet is extremely compact and focused–its five interconnected movements last twenty minutes. The brooding Largo opens with the DSCH motto in the solo cello, which soon turns into the fanfare from the First Symphony, followed in turn by a quotation from the Fifth Symphony. The movement, somber and beautiful, suddenly explodes into the Allegro molto, in which the first violin’s pounding quarter-notes recall the “battle music” from the composer’s wartime Eighth Symphony. At the climax of this movement comes what Shostakovich called the “Jewish theme,” which seems to shriek out above the sounds of battle. The Allegretto is a ghostly waltz in which the first violin dances high above the other voices. Each of the final two movements is a Largo. The fourth is built on exploding chords that some have compared to gunshots, others to the fatal knock on the door in the middle of the night. At the climax of this movement come the quotations from the prison song and–in the cello’s high register–from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth. The fifth movement returns to the mood and music of the first. The DSCH motto enters fugally and many of the quartet’s earlier themes are recalled before the music closes very quietly on a chord marked morendo.

SIDE NOTE: The film for which Shostakovich was to write the score, that summer, was a typical product of Cold War propaganda. A joint work by Russian and East German filmmakers, Five Days, Five Nights told the politically-correct confabulation that heroic Russian troops had entered Dresden in February 1945 and helped preserve the city’s artistic treasures from Allied bombing (in fact, Russian troops were nowhere near Dresden during the bombing). Shostakovich’s score for the film is unremarkable except that it too makes use of quotations: in the course of the music, the theme from the finale of Beethoven’sNinth Symphony gradually breaks in on Shostakovich’s own music. And for the record: on September 14, 1960–two months after composing the Eighth Quartet–Shostakovich officially became a member of the Communist Party.

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 67

Johannes BRAHMS
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

Brahms’ final string quartet is his most original–and perhaps most successful–essay in that form. He completed this quartet and several other works during the summer of 1875, which he spent happily at Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg. Throughout that relaxed summer, though, Brahms continued to work on his First Symphony, a project that had occupied (some would say obsessed) him for over twenty years. He could at least escape into the other works he wrote that summer, and typically he deprecated them as “useless trifles, to avoid facing the serious countenance of a symphony.” TheQuartet in B-flat Major–hardly a useless trifle–had its first performance on October 30, 1876, five days before the long-awaited première of the First Symphony.

Brahms’ first two string quartets had been tightly-argued affairs, but in the Third Quartet he seemed to relax, and this music flows and shimmers. Its bright surface, though, conceals many original touches, and the genial finale in particular is a compositional tour de force. Brahms gives the opening movement the unusual marking Vivace, more typical of a scherzo than a sonata-form first movement. It is built on two contrasted theme-groups, but in fact the real contrast in this movement is between two quite different meters. The opening–inevitably compared to hunting horn calls–is in 6/8, while the second theme is in 2/4: its slightly-square rhythms have reminded some commentators of a polka. Brahms builds the movement around subtle contrasts between these different meters, jumping back and forth between them and at several points experimenting with some modest polyrhythmic overlapping. The movement concludes with a cadence derived from the “hunting-horn” opening.

The ternary-form second movement opens with a long violin melody reminiscent of the music of Brahms’ close friend Robert Schumann. Brahms marks the violin part cantabile, but it must cut through a thick accompaniment, which is often double-stopped. The middle section, full of fierce declarations and rhythmic swirls, gradually gives way to the opening material and quiet close. The third movement is marked Agitato, but that is more an indication of mood than tempo, and Brahms puts the real tempo direction–Allegretto non troppo–in parentheses. Particularly remarkable here is the sound: Brahms mutes all instruments except the viola, which dominates this movement. Its husky, surging opening idea contrasts with the silky, rustling sound of the muted accompanying voices. The trio section likewise emphasizes the sound of the viola, followed by a da capo repeat and coda.

The finale–Poco Allegretto con Variazioni–is the most remarkable of the four movements, and Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer called it “the nucleus of the whole work.” As Brahms’ marking suggests, it is a set of variations, based on a folk-like tune announced immediately. There follow six variations, all fairly closely derived from the opening tune, and then some remarkable things begin to happen. Into the seventh variation suddenly pops the hunting-horn tune from the quartet’s very beginning, the eighth variation is based on a transition passage from the first movement, and in the closing moments Brahms puts on a real show of compositional mastery: he combines the hunting-horn tune from the very beginning with the variation melody of the finale and presents them simultaneously.

Such a description makes this music sound terribly learned, and that might in fact be the case, were it not so much fun. We greet these themes as old friends when they appear to take up their place in the dance, and Brahms rounds off the quartet with this bright union of his opening and closing movements.