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PROGRAM NOTES: Takács Quartet

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in G Minor


Born August 22, 1862, Saint Germain-en-Laye, France

Died March 25, 1918, Paris

Early in 1893, Debussy met the famed Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe. Debussy was at this time almost unknown (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was still a year in the future), but he and Ysaÿe instantly became friends–though Ysaÿe was only four years older than Debussy, he treated the diminutive Frenchman like “his little brother.” That summer, Debussy composed a string quartet for Ysaÿe’s quartet, which gave the first performance in Paris on December 29, 1893. Debussy was already notorious with his teachers for his refusal to follow musical custom, and so it comes as a surprise to find him choosing to write in this most demanding of classical forms. Early audiences were baffled. Reviewers used words like “fantastic” and “oriental,” and Debussy’s friend Ernest Chausson confessed mystification. Debussy must have felt the sting of these reactions, for he promised Chausson: “Well, I’ll write another for you . . . and I’ll try to bring more dignity to the form.”

But Debussy did not write another string quartet, and his Quartet in G Minor has become one of the cornerstones of the quartet literature. The entire quartet grows directly out of its first theme, presented at the very opening, and this sharply rhythmic figure reappears in various shapes in all four movements, taking on a different character, a different color, and a different harmony on each reappearance. What struck early audiences as “fantastic” now seems an utterly original conception of what a string quartet might be. Here is a combination of energy, drama, thematic imagination, and attention to color never heard before in a string quartet. Debussy may have felt pushed to apologize for a lack of “dignity” in this music, but we value it today just for that failure.

Those who think of Debussy as the composer of misty impressionism are in for a shock with his quartet, for it has the most slashing, powerful opening Debussy ever wrote: his marking for the beginning is “Animated and very resolute.” This first theme, with its characteristic triplet spring, is the backbone of the entire quartet: the singing second theme grows directly out of this opening (though the third introduces new material). The development is marked by powerful accents, long crescendos, and shimmering colors as this movement drives to an unrelenting close in G minor.

The Scherzo may well be the quartet’s most impressive movement. Against powerful pizzicato chords, Debussy sets the viola’s bowed theme, a transformation of the quartet’s opening figure; soon this is leaping between all four voices. The recapitulation of this movement, in 15/8 and played entirely pizzicato, bristles with rhythmic energy, and the music then fades away to a beautifully understated close. Debussy marks the third movement “Gently expressive,” and this quiet music is so effective that it is sometimes used as an encore piece. It is in ABA form: the opening section is muted, while the more animated middle is played without mutes–the quartet’s opening theme reappears subtly in this middle section. Debussy marks the ending, again played with mutes, “As quiet as possible.”

The finale begins slowly but gradually accelerates to the main tempo, “Very lively and with passion.” As this music proceeds, the quartet’s opening theme begins to reappear in a variety of forms: first in a misty, distant statement marked “soft and expressive,” then gradually louder and louder until it returns in all its fiery energy, stamped out in double-stops by the entire quartet. A propulsive coda drives to the close, where the first violin flashes upward across three octaves to strike the powerful G major chord that concludes this most undignified–and most wonderful–piece of music.

String Quartet No. 4, Sz.91


Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary

Died September 26, 1945, New York City

Ten years separated Bartók’s Second and Third Quartets, but after completing the Third during the summer of 1927 the composer waited only a year to write his Fourth String Quartet. He composed the Fourth between July and September of 1928, composing it even before he had heard the Third. The Fourth was completed so quickly, that when the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet gave the Hungarian première of the Third on March 20, 1929, in Budapest, that same concert concluded with the world première of the Fourth. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Third and Fourth Quartets are so close in time: the advances consolidated in the Third burst into full flower in the Fourth, which speaks a deeper and more expressive language.

The Fourth Quartet is one of the earliest examples of Bartók’s fascination with arch form, an obsession that would in some ways shape the works he composed over the rest of his life. There had been hints of symmetrical formal structures earlier, but the Fourth Quartet is the first explicit and unmistakable statement of that form–the form here is palindromic. At the center of this five-movement quartet is a long slow movement, which Bartók described as “the kernel” of the entire work. Surrounding that central movement are two scherzos (“the inner shell”) built on related material, and the entire quartet is anchored on its powerful opening and closing movements (“the outer shell”), which also share thematic material. There is a breathtaking formal balance to the Fourth Quartet, and that balance is made all the more remarkable by its concentration: the entire five-movement work spans only 23 minutes.

The Third Quartet had been marked by its attention to string sonority, but the Fourth takes us into a completely new sound-world. It marks the first appearance of the “Bartók pizzicato” (the string plucked so sharply that it snaps off the fingerboard), but there are many other new sounds here as well: strummed pizzicatos, fingered ninths, chords arpeggios both up-bow and down-bow. If the Third Quartet had opened up a new world of sound for Bartók, in the Fourth he luxuriates in those sounds, expanding his palette, yet employing these techniques in the service of the music rather than as an end in itself.

One of the most remarkable things about the Fourth Quartet is its motivic concentration. Always a characteristic of Bartók’s music, that concentration is here focused in dazzling ways. Much of Fourth Quartet is derived from a simple rising-and-falling figure announced by the cello in the opening moments of the first movement. Bartók will then use this six-note cell through an almost infinite variety of forms, themes, rhythms, harmonies, and permutations. Such a description makes this music sound cerebral and abstract. In fact, the Fourth Quartet offers some of the most exciting music Bartók ever wrote, as if the “cerebral” technique of the Third Quartet was the gateway into this new world of passion and beauty.

Many observers have been tempted to describe the outer movements of the Fourth Quartet as being in sonata form, and it is true that they are structured–generally–on the notion of exposition, development, and recapitulation. But to try to push those movements into a traditional form is to violate them. The outer movements of the Fourth Quartet do not divide easily into those component sections, and in fact the entire quartet is characterized by a continuous eruption and transformation of ideas. Themes develop even as they are being presented and continue to evolve even as they are being “recapitulated.” For Bartók, form is a dynamic process rather than a structural plan.

The Allegro opens with an aggressive tissue of terraced entrances, and beneath them, almost unobtrusively, the cello stamps out the quartet’s fundamental thematic cell in the seventh measure. This tight chromatic cell (all six notes remain within the compass of a minor third) will then be taken through an infinite sequence of expansions: from this pithy initial statement through inversions, expansions to more melodic shapes, and finally to a close on a massive restatement of that figure.

If the outer movements are marked by a seething dynamism, the three interior movements take us into a different world altogether. Bartók marks the second movement Prestissimo, con sordino and mutes the instruments throughout. The outer sections are built on the opening theme, which is announced by viola and cello in octaves. The central section, which does not relax the tempo in any way, rushes through a cascade of changing sonorities–glissandos, pizzicatos, grainy ponticello bowing–before the return of the opening material. This movement comes to a stunning close: glissandos swoop upward and the music vanishes on delicate harmonics.

At the quartet’s center lies one of Bartók’s night-music movements. Textures here are remarkable. At the beginning Bartók asks the three upper voices–the accompaniment–to alternate playing both without and also with vibrato: the icy stillness of the former contrasts with the warmer texture of vibrato. Beneath these subtly-shifting sonorities, the cello has a long and passionate recitative that has its roots in Hungarian folk music, and the first violin continues with a series of soaring trills suggestive of bird calls

The fourth movement is the companion to the second, this one played entirely pizzicato. The viola’s main theme is a variant of the principal theme of the second movement, here opened up into a more melodic shape. This use of pizzicato takes many forms in this movement: the snapped “Bartók pizzicato,” arpeggiated chords, strummed chords, glissandos.

Brutal chords launch the final movement. This is the counterpart to the opening movement, but that opening Allegro is now counterbalanced by this even faster Allegro molto. Quickly the two violins outline the main theme, a further variation of the opening cell, which returns in its original form as this music dances along its sizzling way. As if to remind us how far we have come, the quartet concludes with a powerful restatement of that figure.

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130


Born December 16, 1770, Bonn

Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven composed the Quartet in B-flat Major between July and December of 1825, and the music had its première in Vienna on March 21, 1826, almost exactly a year to the day before the composer’s death. This massive quartet, consisting of six movements that span a total of nearly 50 minutes, concluded with a complex and extremely difficult fugue that left the first audience stunned. Beethoven, by this time totally deaf, did not attend the première, but when told that the fourth and fifth movements had been so enthusiastically applauded that they had to be repeated, he erupted with anger at the audience: “Yes, these delicacies! Why not the Fugue? Cattle! Asses!”

But it was not just the audience at the première that found the concluding fugue difficult. With some trepidation, Beethoven’s publisher asked the crusty old composer to write a substitute finale and to publish the fugue separately. To everyone’s astonishment, Beethoven agreed to that request and wrote a new finale–a good-natured rondo–in the fall of 1826. Since that time, critics have debated which ending makes better sense artistically, and this is one of those debates that will probably continue forever. At this concert the Quartet in B-flat Major is performed with Beethoven’s substitute rondo-finale as the last movement.

In either version, this music presents problems of unity, for the six movements are quite different from each other. The issue is intensified when the Grosse Fuge is used as the finale, for this movement is so individual that it does seem an independent statement (as, in fact, it is usually played). In its present form, the quartet consists of a huge first movement, four short inner movements (two scherzos and two slow movements), and the concluding rondo. The music encompasses a wide range of emotion, from the frankly playful to some of the most deeply-felt Beethoven ever wrote. The unifying principle of this quartet may simply be its disunity, its amazing range of expression and mood.

The first movement, cast in the highly-modified sonata form Beethoven used in his final years, is built on two contrasting tempos: a reverent Adagio and a quick Allegro that flies along on a steady rush of sixteenth-notes. These tempos alternate, sometimes in sections only one measure long–there is some extraordinarily beautiful music here, full of soaring themes and unexpected shifts of key. By contrast, the Presto–flickering and shadowy–flits past in less than two minutes; in ABA form, it offers a long center section and a sudden close on the return of the opening material. The solemn opening of the Andante is a false direction, for it quickly gives way to a rather elegant movement in sonata form, full of poised, flowing, and calm music. Beethoven titled the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca, which means “Dance in the German Style.” In 3/8 meter, it is based on the rocking, haunting little tune that opens the movement; a brief center section leads to a reprise of the opening.

The Cavatina has become one of the most famous movements in all Beethoven’s quartets. Everyone is struck by the intensity of its feeling, though few agree as to what it expresses–some feel it tragic, others view it as serene; Beethoven himself confessed that even thinking about this movement moved him to tears. Near the end comes an extraordinary passage that Beethoven marks Beklemmt (“Oppressive”): the music seems to stumble and then makes its way to the close over halting and uncertain rhythms.

The concluding rondo has troubled many listeners precisely because it is so different from the fugue it replaces. Where the fugue had provided a violent–and disruptive–conclusion, the substitute finale has seemed to some to go too far in the other direction. After the abrasive furies of the Grosse Fuge, the rondo will inevitably sound a little sugar-coated, and those who disagree with Beethoven’s decision to change finales note that the replacement rounds off too smoothly a quartet whose whole thrust has been dislocation. Does this new finale, pleasing as it is, represent artistic capitulation–or a tacit admission by Beethoven that the fugue had been wrong as a conclusion to the quartet? What we can say is that it was Beethoven himself who decided to detach the fugue, to write this new (and more congenial) finale, and to regard the Grosse Fuge as an independent work. It need not follow that every decision a composer makes about his music is correct, and there are many who regret Beethoven’s decision.

Beethoven began this rondo-finale in Gneixendorf in September 1826 and mailed the manuscript off to his publisher on November 22. He returned to Vienna the following week, took to bed, and died the following March. This dancing, high-spirited music is the last that he completed.