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PROGRAM NOTES: Celebrating Strings

Double Quartet No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 65

April 5, 1784, Brunswick
Died October 22, 1859, Kassel
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

Though his name has almost vanished from concert halls today, a century and a half ago Ludwig Spohr was one of the most respected musicians in the world. A virtuoso violinist, a composer, and a conductor (one of the first to use a baton), Spohr was a colleague of most of the important musicians active during the 75-year span of his life. A close friend of Beethoven (Spohr played in the orchestra that gave the première of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in 1813), Spohr later worked with Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner. He was a prolific composer (ten operas, ten symphonies, fifteen violin concertos, and numerous other works), and these were widely performed during his lifetime. But after Spohr’s death, this music–much influenced by Mozart and the early romantic composers– drifted into obscurity.

Though Spohr wrote nearly forty string quartets, he was particularly attracted to chamber music for large ensembles: he composed a nonet, an octet, a septet, a string sextet, and seven quintets. But perhaps the most unusual of his large chamber works are his four double quartets. Though these have the same instrumentation as a string octet (four violins, two violas, and two cellos), Spohr was adamant that the double string quartet was a completely different form. Writing some years later, he looked back and distinguished his double quartets from the Octet of Felix Mendelssohn (heard later on this program), which had not been written when Spohr composed his first double quartet: “an octet for stringed instruments by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy belongs to quite another kind of art, in which the two quartets do not concert and interchange in double choir, with each other, but all eight instruments work together.”

Spohr’s distinction points to his unique treatment of this ensemble: his double string quartets are composed for two separate string quartets. The two quartets are physically separated, and while occasionally they share the same music, most often they play separately. Spohr felt those grand unison passages should be kept to a minimum–he conceived this music so that (in his words) the “two quartet parties sitting close together should be made to play one piece of music, and keep in reserve the eight-voice play for the chief parts of the composition only.” Between 1823 and 1847, Spohr wrote four double string quartets, and if this music has dropped out of sight today, it was once much favored by outstanding musicians. Joseph Joachim enjoyed playing these pieces (he called them “great fun”), and Jascha Heifetz performed and recorded the Double Quartet No. 1 in D Minor heard on this concert.

When Spohr composed his first double quartet, he was still feeling his way with the new form, and everyone notes that the first quartet has a more prominent part in this music than the second, which is often relegated to an accompanying role. But already Spohr is alert to the possibilities for antiphonal effects with such an ensemble: passages are tossed back and forth between the two quartets, and Spohr takes care to contrast individual passages with passages stamped out in unison by all eight players.

It is on such a grand unison passage that the opening Allegro bursts to life. But quickly the first quartet takes the lead–there is more lyric secondary material, and the movement develops in sonata form, complete with exposition repeat and a brief coda to round it off. The sparkling Scherzo dances gracefully, while its trio section offers individual solo passages to members of the first quartet while the second quartet supplies a pulsing accompaniment. The Larghetto is quite short–it is a brief lyric interlude among the fast movements, and in the opening measures Spohr deploys his forces to make some nice antiphonal exchanges between the two quartets. The concluding Allegretto molto is a brilliant sonata-form movement, and it demands some virtuoso playing from the first violin of the first quartet. Spohr wrote this part for himself, and it gives us some idea of how good a violinist he was–and why Heifetz liked this piece so much.

Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 12

Born December 16, 1882, Kecskemét, Hungary
Died March 6, 1967, Budapest
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

This Serenade is for the extremely unusual combination of two violins and a viola, and Kodály may well have had in mind Dvořák’s Terzetto, Opus 74, the one established work for these forces. Kodály appears to have been strongly attracted by this combination: he wrote a Trio in E-flat Major for two violins and viola while still a teenager (a work he did not include in his official catalog) and returned to this combination for the present Serenade, composed in 1919-20 when he was in his late thirties.
This was an extremely difficult period for Kod´ly. The post-war political turmoil in Hungary appeared to subside when a popular revolt established a democratic government, and Kodály took a position as deputy director of the Academy of Music in Budapest. The liberal government was short-lived, however: a repressive right-wing regime overthrew it after only four months and cracked down on anyone who had held a position of authority under it. The new government wanted to fire Kodály completely, but a stout defense by Bartók and Dohnányi prevented this; instead, the new regime could only put him on leave for a year, and it was during this year that he composed the Serenade.

One might expect music composed under such circumstances to be anguished or bitter, but quite the reverse is true: Kod´ly’s Serenade is vibrant music, a clear symbol of his ability to separate external events from his art. Like so much of the best music of Kodály and Bartók, the Serenade fuses classical forms with Hungarian musical idioms. Beyond this, the music appears to tell a story, and Kodály scholar László Eősze believes this Serenade is literally just that: a love song, a serenade sung by a suitor to a woman, and Eősze has made out what he feels is the program behind the music.

The marking for the first movement is unusual: Allegramente is an indication more of character than of speed–it means “brightly, gaily.” The movement opens immediately with the first theme, a sizzling duet for the violins, followed by a second subject in the viola that appears to be the song of the suitor; these two ideas are then treated in fairly strict sonata form. The second movement offers a series of dialogues between the lovers. The viola opens with the plaintive song of the man; this theme is reminiscent of Bartók’s parlando style, mimicking the patterns of spoken language. The first violin, taking the part of the woman, laughs at the man’s appeal: the violin replies to his heartfelt song with a rising series of chirping gracenotes in a passage Kodály marks ridendo: “laughing.” The main theme of the first movement makes a re-appearance in the course of this movement, which leaves the poor second violin in an accompanying role throughout: it has virtually non-stop tremolos. The brilliant final movement rounds things off by invoking the old Hungarian recruiting dance, the Verbunkosv, at several points. Eősze believes this movement “confirms the understanding between lover and mistress, the light-hearted banter between viola and violin developing into a song of satisfied love; and the tale is brought to an end with an invigorating dance.”

Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20

Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg
Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig
Approximate Duration: 32 minutes

It has become a cliché with a certain kind of critic to say that Mendelssohn never fulfilled the promise of his youth. Such a charge is a pretty tough thing to say about someone who died at 38–most of us would think Mendelssohn never made it out of his youth. And such a charge overlooks the great works Mendelssohn completed in the years just before his death: the Violin Concerto, the complete incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Elijah. But there can be no gainsaying the fact that the young Mendelssohn was a composer whose gifts and promise rivaled–perhaps even surpassed–the young Mozart’s. The child of an educated family that fully supported his talent, Mendelssohn had by age 9 written works that were performed by professional groups in Berlin. At 12 he became close friends with the 72-year-old Goethe, at 17 he composed the magnificent overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and at 20 he led the performance of the St. Matthew Passion that was probably the key event in the revival of interest in Bach’s music.

Mendelssohn completed his Octet in October 1825, when he was 16. One of the finest of his early works, the Octet is remarkable for its polished technique, its sweep, and for its sheer exhilaration. Mendelssohn’s decision to write for a string octet is an interesting one, for such an ensemble approaches chamber-orchestra size, and a composer must steer a careful course between orchestral sonority and true chamber music. Mendelssohn handles this problem easily. At times this music can sound orchestral, as he sets different groups of instruments against each other, but the Octet remains true chamber music–each of the eight voices is distinct and important, and even at its most dazzling and extroverted the Octet preserves the equal participation of independent voices so crucial to chamber music.
Mendelssohn marked the first movement Allegro moderato ma con fuoco, and certainly there is fire in the very beginning, where the first violin rises and falls back through a range of three octaves. Longest by far of the movements, the first is marked by energy, sweep, and an easy exchange between all eight voices before rising to a grand climax derived from the opening theme. By contrast, the Andante is based on the simple melody announced by the lower strings and quickly taken up by the four violins. This gentle melodic line becomes more animated as it develops, with accompanying voices that grow particularly restless.
The Scherzo is the most famous part of the Octet. Mendelssohn said that it was inspired by the closing lines of the Walpurgisnacht section near the end of Part I of Goethe’s Faust, where Faust and Mephistopheles descend into the underworld. He apparently had in mind the final lines of the description of the marriage of Oberon and Titania:

    Clouds go by and mists recede,
    Bathed in the dawn and blended;
    Sighs the wind in leaf and reed,
    And all our tale is ended.

This music zips along brilliantly. Mendelssohn marked it Allegro leggierissimo–“as light as possible”–and it does seem like goblin music, sparkling, trilling, and swirling right up to the end, where it vanishes into thin air.

Featuring an eight-part fugato, the energetic Presto demonstrates the young composer’s contrapuntal skill. There are many wonderful touches here. At one point sharp-eared listeners may detect a quotation, perhaps unconscious, of “And He Shall Reign” from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah, and near the end Mendelssohn skillfully brings back the main theme of the Scherzo as a countermelody to the finale’s polyphonic complexity. It is a masterstroke in a piece of music that would be a brilliant achievement by a composer of any age.