PROGRAM NOTES: Emerson String Quartet
by Eric Bromberger
String Quartet in D Minor, K.421
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes
Mozart’s move to Vienna in 1781 opened new musical vistas for him, and these must have seemed all the more exciting after so many years in provincial Salzburg. Among the attractions of his adopted city were the string quartets of Haydn, whose Opus 33 quartets were published in Vienna in 1782. Mozart had written no string quartets since 1773, but now–impressed by what Haydn had achieved with this most demanding of forms–Mozart wrote a set of six quartets and dedicated them to Haydn. In that dedication, Mozart noted that these quartets were the product of “long and laborious study,” and there is evidence that Mozart–usually a fast worker–took a long time indeed with these quartets, revising each carefully.
It is a magnificent cycle. Each of the six is distinctive in its own way, and certain moments stay to haunt the mind: the fugal finale of K.387, which looks ahead to the “Jupiter” Symphony; K.464, which so impressed Beethoven that he modeled one of his own quartets on it; and K.465, the “Dissonant,” with its enigmatic beginning. Yet even in such distinguished company, the Quartet in D Minor, K.421, composed in June 1783, stands out as radically different. The only one of the cycle in a minor key, it is one of the most serious and powerful works that Mozart ever wrote. A minorkey quartet was not by itself unusual, and Haydn (who usually published his quartets in groups of six) would often include one minor-key quartet in a set. But no Haydn quartet–great a master as he was of that form–ever matched the expressive power of Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor. Individual keys had specific meanings for Mozart, and D minor, the key of the Piano Concerto No. 20 and of the Requiem, was the key he sometimes associated with revenge in his operas. This quartet is by no means program music, but the mood here partakes of that dark spirit–this is somber and unrelenting music.
The Allegro opens with the first violin’s falling octave on D, and there follows a long and intense melody–marked sotto voce–for that instrument over unobtrusive accompaniment from the other voices. A more flowing second subject makes brief appearances, but the dark first theme dominates this movement. Mozart asks for the standard exposition retreat, but then offers performers the opportunity to repeat the entire development. The recapitulation continues to develop the movement’s material, and finally the cello leads the way into the brief coda with a dark and expressive idea of its own.
The Andante, in F major, affords relief with its gentle main theme. Mozart had originally intended a somewhat simpler melodic idea here; his manuscript shows that he recognized the limits of that theme and replaced it. While this is not a variation movement, the lyric main idea undergoes a process of continuous evolution, sometimes with the most delicate shading, before Mozart brings back a reprise of the opening and rounds things off with a quiet coda. By sharp contrast, the Menuetto is fierce, almost clenched in its chromatic intensity. And then Mozart springs one of his most effective surprises: the trio eases into D major, and–over pizzicato accompaniment–the first violin sings an elegant, soaring melody built on Lombard rhythms (dotted rhythms with the short note coming first). The viola joins the second statement before the return to the driven minuet.
The finale is a theme-and-variation movement. Mozart’s dancing main theme bears more than a passing resemblance to the main theme of the finale of Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Opus 33, No. 5. Perhaps this was intended as an act of homage, but Mozart’s version of this theme is quite subtle: it tints the home key of D minor with hints of D major, and the harmonic tension of this beginning will energize the entire movement. Four variations follow: the second brings a famous syncopated accompaniment from the second violin, the third features the tawny sound of the viola, the fourth moves into D major. At the very end, Mozart brings back his original theme but now marks it Più Allegro, and the music rushes ahead on tense chromatic lines to the sudden end, where the first violin’s falling octave D rounds off this glorious quartet with the same gesture that began it.
String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, Opus 83
Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow
Approximate Duration: 25 minutes
The Soviet crackdown on composers in February 1948 remains, nearly seventy years later, one of the most devastating examples of government interference and censorship in history. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, and others were excoriated for their “formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies” and for writing “confused, neuropathological combinations which transform music into cacophony.” These composers were forced to make public apologies, and–in those frosty early days of the Cold War–they promised to write more “progressive” music, in tune with the ideals of the Revolution.
Shostakovich, who had met with government disfavor in 1936 during the period of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” began to write two kinds of music. The “public” Shostakovich wrote what would now be described as politically-correct scores, intended to satisfy Soviet officials with their ideological purity: the oratorio Song of the Forests, the cantata The Sun Shines over Our Motherland, the film score The Fall of Berlin, and a choral cycle with the numbing title Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets. The “private” Shostakovich, however, wrote the music he wanted to, but held it back, waiting for a more receptive climate. The death of Stalin in March 1953 brought a slight political and artistic thaw, and Shostakovich could bring out these scores: the First Violin Concerto, composed in 1947, but not premièred until 1955; the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, written in 1948 and first performed in 1955; and the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, written respectively in 1949 and 1952, but not played until 1953.
Shostakovich’s Fourth String Quartet is almost as interesting for what it is not as for what it actually is. This music is remarkable for its restraint. All four movements are at a moderate tempo (three Allegrettos and one Andantino), and the work is marked by an emotional reserve as well. There are no dramatic extremes here–this music is spare, understated, lean, at times almost bleak. Harmonically, it varies moments of simple diatonic melodies (even unisons) with episodes of grinding dissonance. And at the end it fades into silence on the same note of emotional restraint that has marked the entire quartet.
The opening Allegretto is quite brief (only three minutes), just long enough to lay out two themes but not long enough to develop them in a significant way. The music moves from the quiet beginning, built on constantly-changing meters, to a full-throated restatement; more lyric secondary material leads to a quiet close on a unison D three octaves deep. The Andantino at first feels somewhat more settled. Its wistful opening, which belongs largely to the first violin, is in straightforward F minor, but again the music grows more turbulent as the movement proceeds; it closes with a quiet reprise of the opening material, now played muted.
The third movement, muted throughout, is scherzo-like in its fusion of quick-paced themes, from the cello’s propulsive opening to a more animated second subject; in the course of the movement, each of the four instruments takes a turn with this second melody. Unmuted solo viola leads the way into the finale over pizzicato accompaniment from the other voices. The first violin’s main theme here has a pronounced “Jewish” character–it is a lamenting tune, built on tight intervals, sharp accents, and fleeting dissonances. This movement, longest in the quartet, rises to an almost orchestral climax full of tremolos, unisons, and huge chords, then fades away on a haunting coda as the two violins in fourths restate the main theme. Over a sustained cello harmonic the upper voices lapse into silence on quiet pizzicatos.
Small wonder that Shostakovich kept this music hidden during the Stalin years. It is far from the “progressive” and popular music the Soviet government wanted, and while this quartet has been admired for its lucidity, it is nevertheless troubling music, remarkable for its leanness, its restraint–and its bleakness.
String Quartet in C Major, Opus 61
Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague
Approximate Duration: 38 minutes
Throughout his creative life, Dvořák was caught between two conflicting artistic impulses. He wrote in the great German classical forms, yet in his heart he was a devout Czech nationalist, happiest when he could infuse his music with the characteristic rhythms and sounds of his homeland. Usually he could balance these claims, but at times they came into conflict.
Such a collision occurred in 1881, when Joseph Hellmesberger commissioned a string quartet from Dvořák. Hellmesberger, a violinist and conductor, must have seemed to Dvořák the symbol of Vienna: he was director of the Vienna Conservatory, he was the founder and first violinist of his own string quartet, and for forty years he conducted the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft. It was Hellmesberger who had championed the young Brahms after the latter’s arrival in Vienna twenty years earlier, and Dvořák recognized how great a compliment it was to have a work commissioned by Hellmesberger. But such a commission raised uncomfortable artistic problems for Dvořák. Should he remain true to his own impulses and write the kind of music he wanted, full of Czech melodies, rhythms, and dances? Or should he write in a more classical–a more Viennese– manner? Viennese audiences, he knew, tended to sneer at local color (particularly foreign local color) in music. Critics have been unanimous in their belief that Dvořák–faced with an important commission from Vienna–capitulated, erasing Czech elements from this quartet and attempting to write in the style of the Viennese masters. One critic hears echoes of Beethoven in the first movement, another hears Schubert in the scherzo, and so on.
Actually, this quartet sounds like Dvořák throughout. True, one does not hear the rhythms and national dances typical of much of Dvořák’s Czech music, but no one would guess that the Quartet in C Major is the work of any composer but Dvořák. He creates memorable themes, the music is full of harmonic adventures, there are surprising thematic links between movements, and this quartet bristles with energy–for this exciting music to make its full effect, it needs a real virtuoso performance.
The extended first movement is in sonata form; Dvořák supplies an extremely dramatic coda which–surprisingly–gives way to a gentle close. The marking for the second movement–Poco adagio e molto cantabile–is crucial, for this intense music sings throughout. The haunting main theme grows more florid and ornate as it develops, and the music is full of chromatic figurations and spiky accompaniment figures. The main theme of the Scherzo is derived from the main theme of the opening movement, and suddenly we are back in that same world of furious energy, with the music racing along on triplet rhythms; the scherzo section itself is in the expected 3/4 meter, but Dvořák sets the trio in 2/4. The rondo-like finale, marked Vivace, is the most impressive movement of the quartet: the main theme sounds unmistakably like a Czech dance, and it is on the energy of this music that Dvořák brings his most “Viennese” composition to a sparkling close.