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PROGRAM NOTES: The Power of Five

String Quintet in C Major, Opus 29

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 33 minutes

Popular during the baroque period, the viola quintet– string quartet with an additional viola–appeared less often during the nineteenth century. Boccherini is reported to have composed 113 viola quintets, but Mozart wrote only six, Haydn none, and Beethoven only one. At the end of the nineteenth century, Dvořák wrote three, Brahms two, and Bruckner one; the form seems virtually to have disappeared in the twentieth century.

The viola quintet is a very particular kind of music. The addition of an extra mid-range voice not only makes for an unusually mellow sonority, it also creates a richer harmonic language than is possible with the quartet and allows the composer to set groups of instruments against each other in a way impossible in the quartet. Among the greatest viola quintets are all six by Mozart, the present Beethoven quintet, and Dvořák ’s Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 97. It may be no coincidence that Mozart, Beethoven, and Dvořák all frequently played viola in chamber music performances.

Beethoven wrote his Viola Quintet in 1801, between the completion of his First and Second Symphonies. It was during this year that his hearing problems had become serious enough that Beethoven confessed them to a few of his closest friends, but nothing in this music reflects the terrible stress this knowledge was causing the composer. In fact, the Viola Quintet is one of Beethoven’s most radiant scores, full of sunlight even in its turbulent final movements.

The very beginning of the Allegro moderato conveys a feeling of unusual spaciousness and calm. The opening theme, heard immediately in the first violin and cello over steady accompaniment, will dominate this sonata-form movement. It is worth noting that while this is a viola quintet, neither viola is allowed a particularly prominent role; the first violin remains the star of this show, introducing all themes and dominating the instrumental texture. A second theme is introduced by violin duet, and the development is driven along by vigorous triplets. But the opening theme controls this movement, and at the close it pushes the coda forcefully to the cadence.

The Adagio molto espressivo is ornate and elegant music, with the first violin once again firmly at the center. Particularly impressive here is the way Beethoven alternates brief phrases between first violin and cello in the quiet development. By contrast, the Scherzo: Allegro is full of power. The bobbing, three-note figure of its main theme pounds through almost every bar–the ear hears it by implication even when it is not physically present. At the trio section, the first viola finally gets a chance to announce a theme, but this section rushes with no change of tempo right back to the scherzo. The ending of this movement–breathtaking in its suddenness–is a masterstroke.

The Presto finale flies: over a steady murmur of sixteenth-notes in the other voices, the first violin soars and swirls. Some have found this music tempestuous, perhaps anticipating the storm of the Pastoral Symphony of seven years later. The rush of music is interrupted several times: once by a powerful fugato and twice by a brief section–Andante con moto e scherzoso–in which the first violin dances gracefully and gravely above the other voices.

Gardenia for String Quartet and Pipa
Born September 23, 1955, Shanghai
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

Composed for string quartet and Pipa (a traditional Chinese instrument), Gardenia was commissioned in 2016. This work is among the subtropical plants series of composer Xiaogang Ye’s works, in which include “Enchanted Bamboo,” “Hibiscus,” “Datura,” “December Chrysanthemum,” “Scent of Green Mango,” etc. These works show the Southern-originated musician’s sensitivity and attention to the natural environment in a country of the Far East.

“Gardenia” indistinctly means eternal joy in Chinese context. It is born in a moist natural environment with a kind of faintly fragrant scent; its white color is of high aesthetic value to Asians. And it is usually used as food and medicine in South Asia. The gardenia honey is with mild sweet and faint sweet. The Gardenia is also a city flower of Yueyang City, which is a quiet and distant small city located in Hunan Province, in southern of China. When composing this work, the composer adopted folk operas and folk songs in the area of Yueyuang, showing his yearning and a sense of loss to the beautiful scenery in South China.

Co-Commissioned by La Jolla Music Society, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and Chamber
Music Northwest. Commissioned with support from Charles T. Clark. Made possible by the Fund for the Future.

Quintet in G Major for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Doublebass, Opus 77
Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague
Approximate Duration: 30 minutes

Early in 1875, Antonín Dvořák –at that time 33 years old and still a struggling and unknown musician–wrote a quintet for the unusual combination of string quartet plus doublebass. The Quintet was in five movements, and its composition was accelerated by Dvořák ’s decision to incorporate the slow movement, Andante religioso, from an earlier (and abandoned) string quartet; Dvořák intended that this new work should be his Opus 18, but he did not publish it. Then–three years later–Dvořák became famous almost overnight when his first set of Slavonic Dances carried his name around the world. Over the next decade, as commissions and conducting assignments took him across Europe, Dvořák found himself in the happy position of trying to keep up with the many requests for more of his music. As a way of satisfying his publisher’s demands, Dvořák turned to music he had written earlier. One of the pieces that he remembered with some affection was the Quintet for strings, and in 1888–thirteen years after its composition–Dvořák returned to this music and thoroughly revised it, excising the Andante religioso movement in the process. He then sent the Quintet off to his publisher, Simrock, in Berlin. Simrock liked the music but did not want to seem to be publishing “old” music, so–over Dvořák ’s loud protests–he published it with the misleadingly high opus number of 77, which makes it seem that this is a mature work, composed even later than the magnificent Seventh Symphony of 1885. In fact, the music should have been published with the opus number of 18: the published Quintet is the work of a young man that has been thoroughly revised by the more sophisticated composer that Dvořák became.

The Quintet in G Major is very attractive music, and only the unusual combination of instruments it requires has kept it from being performed more often. This music profits greatly from the richness the doublebass brings to its textures, and it sings with a full, deep sonority. The Allegro con fuoco opens with an introduction-like passage that foreshadows the shape of the main theme, which suddenly leaps ahead on its characteristic triplet rhythm. The second subject arrives on springing, staccato bows (Dvořák marks it leggiero: “light”) and in the completely unexpected key of F major–apparently the young composer did not feel that he should be bound by the rules of “proper” composition. The opening theme dominates the full-throated development, though Dvořák builds the coda on the graceful second theme.

The two middle movements are particularly attractive. The E-minor Scherzo dances along triplet rhythms, and this energetic opening is then set in nice relief by the violin’s somber second idea. This is not, however, the trio section, which arrives somewhat later on a flowing melody, again from the first violin; Dvořák rounds matters off with a repeat of the entire opening section. The Poco Andante, in C major, is endlessly (and effortlessly) lyric; its central section–which sends the first violin soaring high above pulsing accompaniment–is one of the joys of the Quintet, and once again Dvořák concludes with a reprise of the opening material, the music finally arriving on a quiet, radiant C-major chord. The Finale, which Dvořák specifies should be “Very fast,” is spirited and amiable. Its central theme has some of the shape of the main theme of the Scherzo, but this movement is more remarkable for its boundless energy: dotted rhythms, sforzando attacks, resounding unisons, and great chords all help power this attractive music along its way.