Monday, April 22, 2019

The Rolston Quartet and Hungarian Threads: Haydn, Brahms & Ligeti


Who: The Rolston String Quartet, 2017 winners of the “Cleveland Quartet Award”
What: playing Haydn's “Sunrise”  Quartet, Brahms' 2nd String Quartet, and György Ligeti's “Metamorphoses nocturnes”
When: Wednesday, April 24th, 2019, at 8:00
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

Tickets can be purchased online through our website here or here; by calling 717-221-9599; or by emailing info@marketsquareconcerts.org. Tickets are also available at the door before the concert. There are also $5 tickets for college/university students also available at the door and school-age (K-12) students are free.

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Last month, with the return of the Pacifica Quartet, I wrote about the “classical music Cycle of Life,” how those new, young quartets appearing side-by-side with the Great Quartets of one generation may eventually become the Established Quartets of the Present who might, with any luck, become a Great Quartet of the Future.

It is now the Rolston Quartet's shot at the brass ring (pardon the merry-go-round analogy but sometimes the music business is like that), having won the latest Cleveland Quartet Award. They are now on their prize's tour, bringing them to eight different chamber music presenters, along with Carnegie Hall, around the country, including Buffalo, Detroit, Washington DC, Kansas City, Urbana (IL) and Austin (TX) as well as Harrisburg.

In 2016, they also won first prize at the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition. What does that mean for a young quartet? Well, it's more than just a trophy for their practice room and bragging rights: it comes with a three-year career development program worth $150,000, a recording, and $25,000 in cash.

Let's sample the Rolston Quartet playing excerpts from the works they'll be performing on Wednesday night. First, the lively finale of the Haydn Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise”:

(Hear the Dover Quartet, another Cleveland Quartet Award and Banff Prize-Winner, playing the complete quartet, a little later in this post.)

While we've heard Brahms' music frequently on Market Square Concerts programs, they've been the string sextets and quintets, the piano quintet, a piano quartet or two, maybe a piano trio or one of the sonatas. But the three string quartets have been curiously absent from the repertoire for many seasons. While the post concludes with a look at the curious background and creative perseverance of Johannes Brahms' second quartet, here's the Rolston Quartet playing its first movement:

(For not one but two complete performances of the Brahms with the legendary Cleveland Quartet - their 1973 debut album and from their 1995 Farewell Recital - see the end segment of this post.)

We've heard the 3rd, 4th and 5th of Bela Bartók's Quartets in the past few seasons – including this past February with the Doric Quartet – so the style of this early quartet Hungarian composer György Ligéti completed in 1954 will come as nothing unusual. Here's a sample of their live broadcast of the opening sections of Ligeti's “Metamorphoses nocturnes” with its fragmented hyperreality. This recording was done at WRTI in Philadelphia.

For a performance of the complete quartet – with score – see below.

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There is a Hungarian Thread through this program.

Hungary, an ancient land going back to the end of the 1st Millennium, went from being a 15th Century province of Austria's empire to become part of the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1868. After World War I and the demise of the empire, Hungary became an independent country with its own beleaguered history, ending up under the control of the Soviet Union with a brutal Stalinist regime in the 1950s.

(#1.) Haydn was the composer-in-residence of the Hungarian prince, Nicholas Esterházy, whose estate was on the border between Austria and Hungary. And this quartet, written in Vienna in the late-1790s, was dedicated to another Hungarian, Count Josef Erdődy.

(#2.) György Ligeti was a Hungarian composer, born in what was once part of Hungary but is now part of Romania, the same region where Bela Bartók was born. His 1st String Quartet, heavily influenced by Bartók's style, was completed in 1954 after he'd started teaching at the conservatory in Budapest, two years before the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution after which he fled to Vienna. Between 1973 and 1989, he taught at the famous music school in Hamburg, Germany, and died in Vienna in 2006.

(#3.) Johannes Brahms, a native of Hamburg in Northern Germany, eventually became a permanent resident of Vienna where one of his favorite pastimes was to hang out with friends at those smoky (and often seedy) taverns featuring Hungarian Gypsy musicians. In his 20s, he'd already met a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Reményi who inspired in him the love of this gypsy music which he would later incorporate into a famous set of Hungarian Dances and which he'd also use in lively dance-like finales for several of his works, including his 2nd String Quartet in A Minor, completed in 1873. (By the way, Gypsy Music is not the same as true Hungarian folk music: it's more like a kind of urban pop music from Hungary which was all the rage in Vienna in the second half of the 19th Century. Brahms' favorite haunts may be more akin to New York's steamy jazz clubs of the 1920s and '30s.)

So let's begin.

FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN: String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76 No. 1 (“Sunrise”)

“Papa” Haydn is described as the Father of the Symphony and the Father of the String Quartet since he was the first major composer to write the finest – and more importantly, the “survivingest” – examples of each genre. He was a prolific composer with a long list of 104 symphonies in his catalogue, not to mention some 80-plus quartets (of which 68 are published). His distinguished career, even if for most of it he was fairly isolated from the rest of the musical world at Prince Esterházy's estate, lasted about fifty years. Not long after he got his first full-time gig, a fellow named Mozart was born, and the Grand Old Man of the Baroque Era, George Frederic Handel, died in London. Haydn was composing his last works when a student of his began making a name for himself. Perhaps you've heard of him – Beethoven?

Haydn in 1799
The six Op. 76 String Quartets and the two of Op. 77 are Haydn's last completed quartets, written between 1796 and 1799 after he returned from his second London tour, days he considered among his happiest. During these two visits, he'd composed his last dozen symphonies. It was during his first trip to London he'd heard his friend Mozart had died – Mozart, who had dedicated six of his finest string quartets to him – and then, after the second trip, he found out his employer, Prince Anton Esterházy, had died (Anton was the less-musically-minded heir of Haydn's “glorious” Prince Nikolaus who'd died in 1790). With a new Esterházy prince requiring a court-composer even less than the previous one, Haydn had fewer obligations and was able, finally, to enjoy his international fame, the Greatest Living Composer at the center of the Musical Universe at the time, Vienna.

So these last quartets, then, come at a very relaxed time in Haydn's life. An exhilarating time one might suspect, the culmination of his years of hard work and service to the Esterházy household. The set of six, Op.76, was dedicated to another Hungarian aristocrat, Count Josef Erdődy (the wife of another member of the family would become a friend – and possible lover – of Beethoven's, who herself received dedications to his Op. 70 Piano Trios and the Op. 102 Cello Sonatas) – and the last two, Op. 77, were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz who would later become associated with Beethoven's Eroica among numerous other pieces. The fact Haydn was increasingly ill, unable to complete the six quartets Lobkowitz had commissioned, is not evident in this generally gracious and joyous music.

The “Sunrise” was a nickname not used by Haydn but something courtesy of a London critic who heard in the quartet's opening rising figure, the first violin over sustained chords in the other instruments, the idea of the sun rising over the horizon. After this dawn-like radiance, it quickly erupts into the lively second part of the movement about a minute in (the same kind of nature-inspired interpretation that would later give us “The Moonlight” Sonata, might think this is a chattering of birds greeting the morning sun or...). When the figure comes back a little later, descending in the cello under sustained higher chords, did someone resist calling it the “Sunset” Quartet? And when the development section begins (at 5:15 in the clip below), now in the minor key, perhaps there's some unexpected cloudiness followed by a passing thunderstorm...? Enough...

Anyway, we're soon on our way through a work that is beginning to show some awareness the musical landscape is changing, that the classical grace and balance and logic of the mid-18th Century is about to give way to something new, something more emotional (especially in the slow movement, beginning at 9:30, which is more than just the image of wistfulness), something that would eventually, in the hands of his student Beethoven, become known as “Romanticism.” (Perhaps it could be called “The New Dawn” Quartet... no, wait, please... enough with the nicknames.)

With the minuet (at 15:00), we're back in an elegant 18th Century world (even with its rustic middle bit) and the finale (at 19:15) is typically exuberant Papa Haydn, once more, even if the energy is not what we'd associate with a composer who is, resting on his laurels or not, already in his mid-60s.

The previous winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award is also a past winner of the Banff International Competition. From Banff's “Haydn round,” here's the Dover Quartet, recorded in 2013:



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GYÖRGY LIGETI: String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses nocturnes”)

György Ligeti in 1984
More people have heard his music – mostly through the use of his Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” – without knowing who he is, much less how to pronounce his name. Despite its looking like an Italian name – Ligeti with an accent on the second syllable – it's Hungarian, accented on the first syllable (his first name, György is often mispronounced Gyór-ghee but in Hungarian, the “y” softens the “g,” so it's actually “zhorzh”).

Regardless, the name often strikes fear in the hearts of unsuspecting concert-goers, hearing he is one of the most innovative of avant-garde composers in the second half of the 20th Century and, true, much of his music can be dizzyingly dissonant, bringing to it an edge and excitement that makes him one of the more identifiable voices in modern music. But everybody has their roots somewhere, and the 1st String Quartet is evidence of his.

The first of two published quartets (there were two more incomplete ones found in sketch-form six years after his death), this is what he himself called “The Pre-historic Ligeti.” It is in one movement but consists of a series of no less than seventeen miniature “nocturnes” (in the sense of night-dreams which can often be nightmarish, rather than in the reflective sense of Chopin) interconnected by various motives but often relying on stark and very sudden contrasts (as can happen in dreams). So the technical “metamorphosis” of these motives and the emotional “nocturnal” imagery lend the work its subtitle, “Metamorphoses nocturnes.” No sunrise and chatty birds, here.

While the program lists all seventeen tempo indications as if they're individual movements, you would do better just to listen to the piece as it evolves rather than try to follow where you are on this list. Some of them will have obvious divisions; sometimes the obvious “waltz-like nature” of one (a bit woozy, perhaps) will erupt into a Bartók dance-frenzy as if you'd tripped over a dime – and you may just miss the shock of it if you're trying to count which nocturne's coming up next. To be honest, since they're not marked in the score and none of them are given programmatic names, several of them don't seem to have beginnings or endings – again, very much like your dreams.

Here's a performance by the Arditti Quartet of the complete quartet that includes the score. Fortunately, you don't have to turn your own pages. If you're familiar with Ligeti's more famous and cosmically colorful Atmospheres from 1961, which one critic described as “a study in orchestration waiting for a piece to happen,” pay attention to the constantly shifting variety of colors he manages to get from just four string players – particularly near the end!



Being a Hungarian composer studying in Budapest – one of his teachers was Bartók's friend, Zoltan Kodaly – the influence of Bela Bartók will be a given. And with Kodaly's influence, so will the interest in folk music, though less so in this piece than in many of his later works.

The opening of the quartet is pure Bartók – crawling scale-wise passages often a half-step apart – and as the rest of it unfolds, it would be easier to point out parts that are not inspired, directly or indirectly, by Bartók. Considering the piece was composed only eight years after Bartók's death, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. And then, too, Ligeti was still a relatively young man, given how some composers develop. Yes, Beethoven produced his “Early Quartets” around the time he was pushing 30; if Ligeti'd lived only as long as Schubert, this would be about all we'd have of his music and we'd probably have never heard of him.

Ligeti in the mid-1950s
Let's consider a bit of biography which might help explain the composer's psychological development. As Lucy Murray mentions in her program notes – always recommended, whether you read them before or after but not during the concert – critic and author Alex Ross describes Ligeti's work as “artwork that answers horror by rejecting it or transcending it.”

Consider that Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti resumed his studies in Budapest and began this quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.” It would not be performed until 1958, by which time he had fled the failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which the Soviet government put down with fierce brutality. From there, he settled in Vienna and eventually became an Austrian citizen.

(A colleague of mine at UConn described what that time was like: a college student supporting the Revolution, he was warned by friends the police were at his home, waiting to arrest him. So without anything more than what he had on his back or in his pockets, without saying good-bye to friends and family, he set out in the middle of the night for the Austrian border and eventually made it to Vienna and freedom.)

Since anything that happens beyond these events will post-date the string quartet on the program, there's no need, here, to go into further detail. But if you have a chance, I highly recommend acquainting yourself with at least these two piano pieces that represent Ligeti's later style – where, in a sense, this “pre-historic” voice went. Again, they might be considering “nocturnal” in the sense of dream-like ambiguity and the pounding fear of nightmares. These links will take you to two of his etudes, subtitled “Autumn in Warsaw” (1985) and “The Devil's Staircase” (1993).

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JOHANNES BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

Brahms in 1890
Brahms was reluctant to talk about his “creative process,” though the circle worn into the carpet behind his piano bench will attest to the amount of miles he must have walked pondering the possibilities. He was a painstaking composer who wrote a great deal more than he ever allowed the public to hear.

He'd once said a composer's most useful tool was “a wastebasket.” And judging from the sheer number of works and sketches he destroyed, one might add a working fireplace. It took him over 20 years before he was able to call his first symphony “finished,” not that it took him that long to write it but it took him that long to start it, dispose of it, start over again, rewrite it, destroy it, put it aside a few years to work on other pieces, come back to it, destroy it, start over, and so on.

There's the famous, often-quoted statement he admitted to writing twenty string quartets before he finished his first one. That's probably not quite accurate: he may have written enough material for twenty string quartets before finding one that got past his typical “rinse-and-repeat” cycle of “begin/revise/destroy/set-aside/begin-again” creative insecurity. And even if there were even one of these twenty complete string quartets out there waiting to be discovered, don't count on it: Brahms was generally pretty methodical when it came to his periodic conflagrations.

We know Brahms began work on this particular quartet in 1866; the first quartet in C Minor was already underway the year before, perhaps already “complete” but not exactly “finished.” We also know both of them were finished in the summer of 1873 and premiered that October by his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. What we don't know is how many versions and sketches he struggled with, how an initial idea evolved into its final form, the way we do with Beethoven's famous (if barely legible) sketch-books. Even so, he had friends play through both of them before they were officially premiered and even then he made “substantial revisions” before sending them to the publisher who'd been waiting for them for at least the last four years. The delay, the composer explained, was if the usually effortless Mozart had such difficulties working on his six “beautiful quartets” dedicated to Haydn, the best he could do was to take his time to produce “two passably decent ones.”

But it might be instructive to look at what else Brahms had “in the oven,” so to speak, over the same period of time. His first symphony had been on one burner or another since 1854 when Brahms was 21 and determined not to engage in “on-the-job training” learning “how to write a symphony” by writing juvenile works he'd later regret, well aware of the expectations people had after the well-meaning Schumann had hailed him as “Beethoven's Heir.”

A piano quartet had also been gestating since 1855 at which point he wrote to Clara Schumann, just a year after her husband's attempted suicide (he would die in an asylum in 1856), “There are frightfully many notes buzzing in my head and around the paper, if I only had tranquility! But everything stays at the beginning stage, I can't finish anything.” From this period, we also have glimpses of a frustrated young composer – still in his early-20s – tacking page after page of various failed works on the ceiling of his room, lying on the bed, staring at them as if at the stars in the night sky, sure signs of the artist's much-dreading “writer's block.”

And it would take a better arm-chair psychologist than I to theorize how Brahms' frail creativity intertwined with the life and death of Robert Schumann (whom he'd only met a few months before Schumann's attempted suicide) and his subsequent unrequited love for Schumann's widow, Clara. The fact motives associated with her name – spelled out in musical pitches – appear like talismans behind the surface of the music is probably enough to get anybody's imagination going.

At some point, he must have been thinking about – as all composers in the shadow of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven would – the writing of string quartets. We only know he'd started two of them in the mid-1860s, but that doesn't mean those other “twenty quartets” hadn't been feeding his fireplace or papering his ceiling for the previous ten years.

Brahms in 1876
Then, something happened in the early-1870s: and finally, if not exactly “suddenly,” Brahms, who'd written many works and gained a reputation as a fine composer despite this decades-long “writer's block,” made a significant break-through, finishing the two string quartets of Op.51 in 1873, the first of his piano quartets (which now became the third he would publish) in 1875, and the epic first symphony, one of the greatest in the repertoire, in 1876. Is it a coincidence the 1st of these string quartets is in C Minor, the piano quartet which had begun in C-sharp Minor finally appeared now in C Minor, and the 1st Symphony is in C Minor?

To Beethoven, C Minor had a special meaning – we often talk about his “C Minor Mood” – many of his most dramatic works being in that key: just listen to the 5th Symphony with its context of a “Struggle Against Fate.” For Brahms, always sensing Beethoven looming behind him, C Minor was also a dramatic key though perhaps not so much a struggle with fate as it is, perhaps, a struggle with himself.

Once past the block regarding these particular pieces, a second string quartet soon found its way to the “Finished Pile,” and a year after the symphony, he almost effortlessly wrote the lyrical, exuberant D Major Symphony.

While the C Minor String Quartet, the first of the two sharing the same creative fire, is an intensely personal work, the A Minor is by comparison if not exactly “sunny” at least more relaxed and at peace with itself. The Hungarian dance that energizes its finale may perhaps reflect a celebration of the end of this long period of self-doubt. Brahms was, after all, now 40 but had yet to grow that famous beard we so often associate with him.

(By the way, while this may be the final concert of the 2018-2019 Season, Summermusic 2019 is not far behind. In case you're looking for some more Brahms, it will begin on July 13th with a program of the first two Brahms piano quartets.)

Speaking of “new, young quartets,” here's the debut recording the then-new Cleveland Quartet released in 1973, four years after they'd formed. I remember being so excited about this recording when I bought it way back then – and yes, people really did have hair like that: it was the '70s, deal with it!

Over the next 22 years, they went on to become one of the Great Quartets of their Generation. And Brahms' 2nd Quartet also featured in their farewell concert in 1995. Here are both recordings for those of you curious about how interpretations of the same piece can differ (or not) over time (even if the 1995 ensemble is only half the original quartet of 1973: personnel changes over time are almost inevitable, after all).

First Movement: Allegro non troppo

Second Movement: Andante moderate

Third Movement: Quasi minuetto: Moderato; Allegretto vivace

Fourth Movement: Finale: Allegro non assai; Poco tranquillo; Più vivace


This is a recording from the Cleveland Quartet's Farewell Concert on December 17th, 1995:


And we'll leave it there: the Cleveland Quartet may have retired as an ensemble, but they went on to continue their individual teaching schedules and mentorship programs, joining with Chamber Music America in 1995 and eight presenters – of which Market Square Concerts and its founding director, Lucy Miller Murray, had the insight to get on-board from the beginning – to promote the winners of their Cleveland Quartet Award.

And now the latest winners of the award, the Rolston Quartet, are here in Harrisburg to play a program that concludes with Brahms' 2nd Quartet. We wish them luck in their future – and urge you to check back in twenty-years' time to see how it all works out.

- Dick Strawser


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shostakovich & The Life Behind Three Quartets

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1938
This is the second post about Sunday's All-Shostakovich Program with the Pacifica Quartet on March 24th, at 4:00 at Harrisburg's Market Square Church. Truman Bullard will be presenting the pre-concert talk at 3:15. For more about the program, check the first post here, where you can hear excerpts from their recording of the Complete Shostakovich Quartets.
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Though it has nothing to do with Shostakovich, last week I was listening to a recording of Bruckner's 7th Symphony with its expansive final cadences, a brilliant, joyous affirmation of a tonic chord building into a soaring climax at the end of the 1st movement over a span of almost two minutes, which then comes back at the end of the 4th movement – the entire symphony is over an hour long – for another seemingly endless, soaring minute (a lot of time for basically one single, prolonged tonic resolution). This always leaves me in breathless exaltation, reminding me of one of the most life-affirming experiences I have ever had in a concert hall and invariably always takes me another minute to recoup myself after that.

At that moment, I realized it was time to return to reality. I shook myself and begrudgingly turned on the TV as the news began. “And from New Zealand, now, where a gunman killed 49 people at Evening Prayers...”

I realize this has nothing to do with Bruckner or his symphony of 1883, but it reminded me of the subjective power of music and its relevance to our own experiences. I'm also reminded of a question not just artists had to deal with after September 11th, 2001: how do you create art in violent times? How do you respond to such events? What is the value of art under circumstances like those we're experiencing more and more in a world it's easy to dismiss as “just going crazy”?

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the three quartets we'll hear on Sunday's concert with the Pacifica Quartet in 1938, 1946, and 1960. We can listen to them purely abstractly as meticulous examples of the “string quartet form” and the way the composer handled the various details inherent in writing a quartet with the baggage of Beethoven behind you, and we can listen to them by thinking “what a perky tune” or “that's a really heart-rending melody” or “I thought this was supposed to be a waltz?”

But I want to give you a little context as to what else was going on behind them, these intimate works intended for a small audience. We think of symphonies, written for large orchestras, played in large halls for large audiences, as “public works,” where the idea is to express something that appeals, especially in the context of Soviet politics, to the masses. Because Shostakovich is not just a Russian composer: he is a Soviet composer and the politics of his time required artists to write music that appealed to the ubiquitous People. The appropriate adjective is, therefore, “populist.”

In January of 1936, two years after its premiere, a performance of his latest opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was met with a – well, “scathing” does not begin to suggest the severity this review's impact would have on the young composer. It appeared after Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, attended a performance of this much touted new work but was so incensed by the music, he left before it was over. The essay, “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in the official press and brought down official condemnation not just on his opera but also on his music in general. Even his Stalin-supporting colleagues now condemned his “anti-populist” leanings, distancing themselves from him to avoid any similar trouble of their own. Consequently, performances of his music were canceled; he was forced to withdraw the new 4th Symphony, already in rehearsal, because it would undoubtedly bring about more trouble. By April, 1937, he had started work on a new symphony, one that would become his 5th, and in the midst of writing it, the real political stuff hit the fan.

The man had been raked over the coals, disgraced by government officials and many of his friends, saw his promising career dissolve in an instant – he was only 29 – and then, once Stalin's “Great Purge” began, he saw friends and relatives of his called in by the Secret Police (the NKVD), some of whom disappeared into the night. Some were imprisoned; others, executed!

When he was finally called into the police station for an interview – this was on a Friday – he was told to come back on Monday. Friends advised him to pack a bag so he'd be ready in case they came to arrest him in the middle of the night (talk about “Fate knocking at the door”). But when he returned for his second interrogation on Monday, he found the previous officer interviewing him had, in the meantime, himself been arrested; so he was told to go home. And that, apparently, was that.

The 5th Symphony was, we are told, written as a way for Shostakovich to regain favor. Someone called it “a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism” and it stuck (those are not Shostakovich's own words on the score!). The new work was premiered in November, 1937. Six months later, on May 30th, 1938, he began something entirely new – his first-ever string quartet.

So there's the “back-story” for that one. And from here on out, through the rest of his career, Shostakovich would often turn to the string quartet and the introverted world of chamber music (usually regarded as more intellectual than the populist symphonies) which did not lend itself to performances in packed football stadiums.

Curiously, labeled by party ideologues with the derogatory term “formalist” – vaguely referring to the use of distinctly Germanic, abstract forms unrelated to the needs of The People who wish to be entertained – the very idea of writing a “string quartet” seems entirely “formalist.” What can be more “formal” that writing in a totally Teutonic genre that has no bearing on Russian folk culture or the interests of the Proletariat? Not only does he write a very classical – in itself “formalist” – work (in the sense of its clarity of structure and simplicity of textures), he even turns a delightfully folksy Russian dance into a fugue, perhaps the most “formalist,” Germanic thing possible! Is Shostakovich thumbing his musical nose at the Party (would they notice?) and would those in the audience who would be aware of this be smiling to themselves (“Dmitri, you sly dog...”)?

This historic recording of the 1st Quartet was made by the Borodin Quartet, an ensemble that worked closely with the composer during much of his career.


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Chronologically speaking, the next string quartet on the program was written in 1946. To most of us in the West that means the End of World War II, but in Russia, the war was a very different event than it was to Americans whose cities were not bombed and whose countryside was not ravaged by invading troops. In this horrific occupation by the Nazis, the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad were just two of the most horrific events. Shostakovich had been in Leningrad when the siege began in June, 1941, the start of the almost-900-day-long siege in which well over a million people would die, and he began working on his epic 7th Symphony (known as “The Leningrad Symphony”), incredibly premiered in the midst of the siege when people in the audience and on the stage were starving and feared being killed in the regular bombardments. When the government was able to evacuate the composer and his family from an airfield surrounded by German artillery the night of October 1st, and his three-year-old son, Maxim, seeing the flashes of gun-fire, asked “What are those?” his father explained “those are the Germans – they're trying to shoot down our plane.”

Shostakovich & Son, mid-1940s
After the 7th Symphony was completed and performed to international acclaim, he spent fairly idyllic summers between 1943 and 1946 at a Composer's Retreat in rural Ivanovo where he wrote, among other things, his 8th and 9th Symphonies, the E Minor Piano Trio and the 2nd String Quartet. On August 2nd, 1946, then, he completed his 3rd Quartet there as well.

Things seemed to be going well for him, compared to the mid-'30s: in 1946, he won the coveted Stalin Prize for the Piano Trio, the 8th Symphony was also being received with great acclaim, the famous photo of him standing atop a Leningrad building with a fire hose during the siege had turned him into an international symbol of resistance against the Nazis and he found himself in the unlikely role of hero. In the spring of 1946, even Stalin himself, now, gave the composer money, the larger apartment his family needed, and the use of a summer dacha (or country house). In this atmosphere, Shostakovich wrote his 3rd Quartet, looking back on the past few years, this time through the miniaturized world of chamber music.

(In most photographs, Shostakovich is always very serious, often frowning. In this one (see above), taken during one of these mid-1940s summers, it is nice to see him being a dad, playing football with his son, Maxim.)

In this live performance, the Borodin Quartet, again, plays the String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73:

It's in five movements: an Allegretto in Sonata form (sneaking a good deal of Western, "formalist" counterpoint into the development section), with a moderately-paced dance-like scherzo followed by a more violent (dissonant), faster march-like scherzo complete with some "military mockery" and canonic imitation (canons, not cannons). The fourth movement is a combination passacaglia (an old German Baroque form) and heart-rending funeral march that eventually blends into the tragic finale with, however, its benedictory conclusion.

But even before Shostakovich had completed this work, something new was afoot. Attacks in the press on writers had begun in 1946, soon followed by ones against artists in the cinema and the theater. Unlike the indiscriminate political purges of the 1930's against those disagreeing with Stalin and his policies, these specifically targeted scientists and, later, artists, the sole purpose being to instill ideological uniformity on Soviet intellectuals in the increasingly bitter climate of the post-war tensions with the West which we know as “The Cold War.” Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, though well-received by the public, did not meet with official approval. His impending 9th Symphony – considering Beethoven's association with a 9th Symphony – was long rumored to be a post-war celebration of the Soviet Victory (typical of Russian wars, merely surviving was considered a victory) complete with a vast choral finale praising Lenin or Stalin (or both). When it turned out to be a slight, rather Haydn-esque and entirely too quirky classical symphony, public reaction was “confused” and official recognition was negative. It was decided the new 3rd Quartet, which in the light of these circumstances would not meet with governmental favor, should be withdrawn from public performance.

Zhdanov & Stalin
Then, in January 1948, came the other shoe: Stalin's lap-dog for all things cultural, Andrei Zhdanov – who considered contemporary music “the equivalent of a piercing road drill or a musical gas chamber” – singled out Shostakovich and Prokofiev for especially harsh “criticism,” along with a handful of other modernists. There was a public disgrace, accusations of pro-Western “formalism” (the writing of things like symphonies and string quartets), elitism and intellectualism as opposed to good old-fashioned populist works of “Soviet Realism.” He was stripped of his teaching posts, his works were forbidden to be performed – and of course no one would dare commission anything new from him – so he lost his sources of income as well as his artistic reason-for-being. He was forced to apologize in public, along with his fellow victims, and he feared (once again) being arrested in the middle of the night.

At their summer dacha, patriotic neighbors set up loudspeakers in their back yard to blast pro-Soviet propaganda programs at Shostakovich's house so he was unable to compose. Sometimes, Maxim would climb up a tree with an improvised catapult and shoot stones at the speakers which might give his father a few hours' respite before the neighbors returned home and fixed them.

But unlike the Artist of 1936, this time the Artist of 1948 (who was only in his early-40s) retired. He did not stop composing, but he stopped publishing his music. Private performances at the homes of friends continued – almost as if he'd gone “underground” – but it was not an easy life. In the midst of the 1st Violin Concerto when news of Zhdanov's decree reached him, he finished it and put it aside in a drawer except for the occasional officially sanctioned “propaganda piece” like the cantata “Song of the Forests,” glorifying Stalin's reforestation policies in 1949 or a film score here and there to earn some money. He became, officially, a “party hack” as he was viewed in the West, but he did not publish his “private music.” Presumably, he began his 10th Symphony, perhaps several times. Friends reported he was on the verge of suicide. When he decided he would begin composing again (“so as not to lose my credentials as a composer”), oddly the first thing he began writing after this attack on his pro-Western influences was a set of Preludes & Fugues for piano in the manner of Bach – once again, what can be more German, more “formal,” more intellectual than a fugue?

Shostakovich decided to wait. And when Stalin died suddenly on March 5th, 1953 – Prokofiev died the same day – he waited for the thaw. His 10th Symphony was supposedly completed (if not already completed) by October, complete with its final victory dance based on his musical signature, the motive "DSCH." It was premiered to great acclaim that December. But as the political struggle following Stalin's death unfolded, bringing Krushchev to power (Peter Sirotin joked with me once that, in Russia, the idea of a peaceful transition in government “is being smothered by a pillow in the back-room of a palace”), things were not immediately all roses and cupcakes.

Shostakovich in 1959
Incidentally, Boris Pasternak began writing his novel Doctor Zhivago around the same time Shostakovich composed his 3rd Quartet. The novel would be banned in the Soviet Union, finally smuggled out and published in the West where it won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, causing all manner of political trouble for the author and his family back home. Krushchev initiated another attack on artists, pressuring them – even the seemingly rehabilitated Shostakovich – into toeing the party line, a form of artistic coercion that resulted in two big “revolutionary” symphonies – Nos. 11 and 12 – and, in 1960, his application to officially join the Communist Party. He thought it would make him "untouchable" and give his family some security.

We tend to think, if you were a Soviet citizen, Comrade Shostakovich would've automatically been a card-carrying Communist. It strikes us as a bit like having an agnostic appointed Composer-in-Residence for the Catholic Church.

Later, Lev Lebedinksy, a friend and frequent visitor to Shostakovich's apartment in these days, wrote:

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“...over the years, [Shostakovich] assumed a mask, and played the role of an obedient Party member. ...His writings often contradicted what he said, and, even worse, his actions contradicted what he had written. ...The most tragic example of his neurotic behavior was his joining the Communist Party in 1960, which he hated and despised. It's hard to tell what made him join, although he had been under much official pressure for some time. He didn't tell his family and friends that he had made the application for membership; we only found out when we received the official Party circular in the post.”
“...I will never forget some of the things he said that night [in June, 1960], sobbing hysterically. 'I am scared to death of them.' 'You don't know the whole truth.' ...'I'm a wretched alcoholic.' 'I've been a whore, I am and always be a whore.'
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The 7th Quartet had been completed in March of 1960, around the time all this was boiling up around him. It is generally considered a “highly personal work,” ostensibly inspired by the impact on him of the death of his first wife, Nina, following a sudden diagnosis of cancer, in December, 1954. This is partly reflected in his choice of key – F-sharp Minor, the traditional tonality in Bach's day for “pain and suffering” (as when Peter cries out his remorse in Bach's “St. John” Passion) – and it is no accident the premiere was in May of 1960: he and Nina became engaged in May, 1929; they married in May, 1932; both their children where born in May, two years apart. It is a compact and often contradictory work. The first movement is “perky, agitated, but full of impish humour; the second dream-like; while the third, although at first violent, finally relapses into mellow contemplation.”

Here, the Borodin Quartet plays Shostakovich's Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108 as part of a 1982 film documentary (for some reason, a small part of the third movement is cut, here):
.

But place the quartet in the context of his emotional state – it is, after all, five years after his wife's death, he wrote his 6th Quartet in 1956, and had already re-married – and realize also the more famous and famously autobiographical 8th Quartet with its “DSCH” Motive and collage of quotes from several of his own works, including an old song, “Tormented by the Weight of Bondage,” a funeral anthem that became a favorite of Lenin's during the Revolution: rather than acknowledge the psychological implications of this “bondage,” critics said Shostakovich paid homage to Lenin by quoting his favorite song. It was written at white heat in three days in July, 1960, just four months after the 7th. In talking about it, he said that when he died, no one would write something in his memory, so he thought he would do it himself. Shortly afterward, his friend Lebedinsky said he sat up with Shostakovich through the night: once again, he was on the verge of suicide.

Here is the Pacifica Quartet from a 2014 "Tiny Desk Concert" recorded for NPR where they play the opening Allegretto of the 7th Quartet, the opening of the 3rd Quartet - and then the brusque 2nd movement of the 8th Quartet:


Now, listening to the music may be one thing but knowing the “biographical background” of these three quartets may add another dimension to them, a deeper layer of understanding: does this affect the way you respond to them?

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Pacifica & Three Shostakovich Quartets (Part 1)

The Pacifica Quartet
Who: The Pacifica String Quartet
What: playing three quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich
When: Sunday at 4:00 (with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk at 3:15)
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg (parking in the Market Square Garage on 2nd Street above Chestnut & the Harrisburg Hospital)
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The Pacifica Quartet, formed in 1994, is celebrating 25 seasons of music-making this year. When I first heard them in the late '90s, I had high hopes for this exciting new young group – not only were they very good in the “standard repertoire,” they also championed composers like Elliott Carter (one of my favorites). In fact, they played Carter's 1st Quartet at their first appearance here, years ago; and the last time I'd seen them live, they were playing all five Carter quartets for the composer just before his 100th birthday! It's not that they are “Modern Music Specialists,” because anything they play is an experience, not just another performance, whether it's hearing their complete Beethoven Cycle or listening to their recordings of the complete Shostakovich Cycle.

And here they are, back again with a concert Peter Sirotin put together with them of three of his favorite Shostakovich quartets.

Now, if you go to chamber music concerts long enough, you will probably hear a few of the Great Quartets of the Day, those legendary names spoken with a sense of awe by us old-timers, and a number of Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who appear and, all too frequently, disappear with great regularity. So, by the time the Great Quartets decide to hang up their bows, some of those Young Up-and-Coming Quartets have been around long enough to be well on their way to becoming the Great Quartets of the Future. At the same time, we continue to experience a number of newer Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who may, with any luck, somewhere down the line become the Great Quartets to the Next Generation.

It's the Classical Music “Cycle of Life.”

Here's a 2018 performance of the quartet playing one of Beethoven's catchier scherzos, from his Op. 18, No. 6:


Speaking of "Cycle of Life," here's another example: years ago, I attended an “out-reach” event presented by Odin Rathnam, former concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony and a founder of the chamber orchestra Concertante, which featured a young high-school-aged quartet he'd been coaching. In order to reach a lot of not-your-usual-concert-goers, it was held in Strawberry Square, right in front of the noisiest clock in the world. And lots of people heard them, stopped, and paid attention. They were playing one of the Biggest Adult Quartets in the repertoire, the G Major Quartet of Franz Schubert, an intensely mature work for so young a composer. But what was amazing to me was, these students couldn't possibly have learned to play it with that same kind of intense maturity simply from hearing a recording. That level of interpretation is the sort of insight quartets twice their age – even more – would be lucky to have.

The first violinist of this quartet was a young guy named Austin Hartman who grew up in Lancaster, close enough to Harrisburg to be considered a “home-town boy.” Later, I heard he had gone on to college where he founded his own quartet, the Biava Quartet.

Today, he is the second violinist of the Pacifica Quartet.

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Shostakovich, who achieved fame as a teen-ager with his 1st Symphony, wrote 15 string quartets during his life, one less than Beethoven. But unlike Beethoven, Shostakovich's quartets do not span his entire career; nor are they as easily subdivided into groups labeled “early,” “middle,” and “late.” To talk about his “early quartets,” looking at the numbers, is not the same as talking about Beethoven's Early Quartets, the Op. 18 set.

Given the three quartets the Pacifica will be playing on this program, I'm going to discuss them in chronological order, giving you samples from the Pacifica's recordings on the Çedille label, courtesy of the ubiquitous YouTube, and then, in the next post, go into more historical background for each of them to prepare you for a different way of approaching these works and the times in the composer's life they were written.

As a sample, here's the last movement of the very first string quartet Shostakovich published: while it might make you think “early/young,” it's a mature work, started in May of 1938 when he was 31. Shostakovich admitted he had not consciously thought of writing a quartet when he sat down to start a kind of theory exercise or “composer's etude,” a bit like other people sitting down to do a crossword puzzle. (Quite different from the preparation and anguish Beethoven, who was himself almost 30 when he released his first quartets, was going through, given the sound of his teacher Haydn marching on behind him.)

But Shostakovich liked how it evolved and by mid-July, it was finished. Thinking people would compare its four brief movements to his recent 5th Symphony (see next post), he wrote “Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.”

While the history of the quartet, overshadowed by the likes of Beethoven, may be far removed from this rather slight work, it is not a “young composer trying to figure out how to write a string quartet in the shadow of Beethoven.” If anything, it's a maturing composer who's figured out how to write a string quartet despite Beethoven, and still, in this last movement, have a great deal of fun with a folksy tune which he turns into – gasp! – a fugue! Not a Great One, admittedly, but fugal nonetheless.



The 2nd and 3rd Quartets are Shostakovich's longest quartets out of the 15, the 2nd written during the summer of 1944, and the 3rd two years later. The 3rd, perhaps his most "symphonic" quartet in scope, is in five movements but not the symmetrical arch-form that Bartók used. He initially described it as a “War Quartet,” following on the heels of his two epic “War Symphonies,” the 7th and 8th and what the public was anticipating in his soon-to-be-announced 9th (see next post). In fact, he originally inscribed the movements with subtitles – "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"; "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; "The forces of war are unleashed"; "Homage to the dead"; and "The eternal question: why and to what purpose?" – before he decided these were perhaps inadequate for the music and, without further explanation, withdrew them. While the work opens with an almost pastoral innocence, the tension and introspection builds through the middle movements until the climactic Passacaglia of the 4th Movement – a favorite form of Shostakovich's where he can build the intensity through the theme's constant repetitions – and then breaks into a last movement that ends with 'mysterious transformation into eternal light and conciliation.'

Later, the composer wrote, “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.”

This is the final movement of Shostakovich's 3rd Quartet from the Pacifica's recording, released in 2014:


Shostakovich would later consider this one of his greatest works. Years after the premiere, a member of the Beethoven Quartet (the Russian ensemble who played the premieres of most of Shostakovich's quartets), wrote:
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“Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He'd promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, 'Keep playing!' So we performed the whole quartet. When we finished playing he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenseless.”
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The 7th Quartet – which opens the concert – is the shortest of the 15 and is in only three interconnected movements. Written in 1960, it ostensibly began as a memorial tribute to his wife, Nina, an unexpected event that deeply affected him (see the next post). Full of contradictory moods, and remote from any idea of a mournful eulogy, the first movement is “primarily perky, agitated, but full of impish humor; the second dream-like; while the third, although at first violent – “we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog” – finally relapses into mellow contemplation.”


But if you listen to this music, there is clearly something else going on behind it. But what? Unless the composer specifically said "this means that and I was thinking of this when I wrote it," we really only have our own subjective reactions to it - and the events of the composer's life. Do they explain the music? Or is he composing against the events, a way of escaping the reality? Or is there some secret that becomes a cathartic release for him but which we, as mere listeners, do not need (and sometimes are not allowed) to know?

In the next post, Shostakovich: the Life Behind Three Quartets, you can hear complete performances of each quartet by the legendary Borodin Quartet who had worked with the composer on most of his quartets throughout his career, plus some biographical information about the composer at the time he was writing them which will give you some context for the reality behind this music.

- Dick Strawser

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(photo credit for Pacifica Quartet photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Doric Quartet Returns, Part 2: Bartók Is Back in the House

The Doric Quartet
PLEASE NOTE: DUE TO THE WEATHER FORECAST, THIS CONCERT HAS BEEN RESCHEDULED for THURSDAY NIGHT!

As Mozart and Haydn's quartets define the 18th Century String Quartet, and Beethoven's, among others, define the 19th Century's, Bartók's six quartets are considered the high-points of the 20th Century's.

Thursday night's concert with the Doric Quartet – 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom (you can read more about it in the previous post) – concludes with Bela Bartók's 5th String Quartet, though we could list it as “String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat.” In that sense, it might look little different from any 19th Century Quartet, less an opus number (Bartók rarely used them), except I didn't say “B-flat Major” or “Minor.” There's something very comforting about seeing that “B-flat” because it means we're expecting something familiar: that sense of tonality composers had been using since 1700 and the days before Vivaldi and Bach.

But it won't take 20 seconds for a listener to realize this is not your grandfather's string quartet – and certainly not even Papa Haydn's string quartet!

I couldn't decide which of these two Hungarian quartets to recommend: the legendary Hungarian Quartet, recorded in 1961; or one of those “younger generation” ensembles, the Kelemen Qt of Budapest, recorded in 2011. The Hungarian Quartet was formed in 1935, the year after Bartók wrote his 5th Quartet, and it gave the work its Hungarian premiere. In 1961, the 1st Violinist was Bartók's close friend and colleague, Zoltan Szekely for whom he'd composed the Rhapsody for Violin & Piano Francisco Fullana closed his recital with last month. Of the Kelemen Quartet, two of the players currently teach at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest where Bartók had been a student and, later, professor of piano. So, yes, both ensembles have a direct connection with this music!

First, here is the Kelemen Quartet in a live performance recorded at a Beijing competition in 2011:


(If you only have time for one of them, I strongly recommend the Kelemen's live performance if only for the energy and passion they bring to their performance. As I mentioned in the previous post about the last movement of the 4th Quartet, they makes this quartet definitely sound like “down-home music”!)

So, what makes Bartók sound different than previous, more familiar composers?

It is in the way he's chosen to “organize” his music – how he chooses the pitches that become the melodies and harmonies we think of, just as other composers chose to organize their melodies and chords to give the music a sense of order and, with any luck, inevitability. “Tonality” is just another way of systematically organizing and ordering these pitches and chords, and while “Atonality” might be thought of as lacking that organization, Bartók's quartet, here, is not atonal!

Just as Schoenberg developed “serialism” which spawned a whole school of serialist composers, a system full of rules and mathematical-sounding procedures, Bartók looked for another way of coming up with “rules and procedures” to organize his music to be an equivalent system to “tonality” which, if you ask any first year theory student studying classical music, is full of all kinds of rules (“thou shallt not commit parallel fifths and octaves; thou shallt follow thy subdominant chord with thy dominant chord before approaching thy tonic chord” and so on). Without rules like this, music would just be arbitrary and you might as well call it “quantum theory.” It's the way they treat (not to mention bend and break) these rules that gives composers their recognizable sounds (or “voices”).

Bartók (during a rehearsal break)
The problem is, Bartók never wrote down his thoughts about this, never discussed them much in any real detail, and never had any composition students he taught to write like him (which is not what a composition teacher should be doing, anyway). And so, there is no “Bartók School of Composing,” no Bartók disciples out there imitating his style: he sounds completely unique and this usually means, in art as in history, a dead end.

The 5th String Quartet, written in 1934, the “Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste” of 1936, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion or 1937 are three of his most significant pieces from his “Middle Period” in this development of his style. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, uprooted him and his family from any sense of peaceful creativity and financial stability, finding him in New York City trying to survive. It was a form of misdiagnosed leukemia (combined with inadequate health care, war-time immigrant or not) that prevented Bartók from exploring a “Late Period.”

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Even if you don't read music, there's something like watching “abstract art” unfold while you listen to this performance, and it might help you make some sense of Bartók's style. He loves to take a motive you've just heard and invert it, in this way creating a varied texture that often helps “increase the tension.”

The Hungarian Quartet's 1961 recording of Bela Bartók's String Quartet No. 5:


As I said, the work is billed (at least, by the composer) as being in B-flat – it actually starts on a B-flat and ends on a B-flat – but it's not “Major” or “Minor” and certainly like no other B-flat Major piece you've heard, like Haydn's Op. 33 No. 4 Quartet which is “also” in B-flat Major.

Bartók thinks “linearly” rather than vertically with chords, not concerned with the rules Western Art Music had long developed to regulate how those chords move – what we musicians call “harmony” – so the pitch B-flat becomes more important than the chord B-flat. If the pitch is in a prominent place in any chord that could contain a B-flat, it is a more important placement of the pitch than if it's just part of a chord. And Bartók is fond of “harmonizing” a melody with chords that may have nothing to do with those pitches: it's like playing a melody in the Right Hand on the piano's white keys while playing chords in the Left Hand on the black keys.

It's not organized around the B-flat Major (or minor) Scale either, as Haydn or Beethoven would have done. The sense of "scale" might be from any number of possibilities including different scales found in folk-music, particularly an eight-tone (not seven-tone) scale called an octotonic scale, for what it's worth.

All of this is the result of his studies of folk music from Hungary and the Balkans combined – or synthesized – with what he'd learned from traditional classical Western Art Music. His ideas are not meant to replace and destroy traditional concepts but to be their equivalent, essentially, creating the same sort of results only differently.

It's the surface language you're hearing and reacting to, but a good performance will let you sense that, deep down, the end results – these age-old ideas of creating unity and variety, of creating and resolving tension, of creating some kind of framework we call form you can hang on to – are essentially the same.

Instead of the traditional four movements of “standard classical music,” Bartók often uses five which he places in an “arch form” with the central movement being the apex of the arch, the two movements on either side of it related in some way – in the case of the 5th Quartet, the scherzo is the keystone with two short slow movements on either side – and the first and last movements, balancing each other, being both of the same dramatic cloth, just as Beethoven did with his first and last movements, regardless of the less demanding middle movement(s) – think his Eroica Symphony. 

This progression from the opening to the ending of the quartet also creates a kind of palindrome – “Madam, I'm Adam” and all that – and though you may not be aware of it from listening to it, many of the motives and themes you hear in the first movement become transformed into something else in the last movement. Whether the listener is conscious of this doesn't really matter, but it may explain why, to those familiar with Bartók's style, these pieces have an innate sense of coherence and organic logic that sometimes you just can't intellectually explain.

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The first movement opens with its vigorous reiteration of a B-flat in seemingly convulsive rhythms (hardly “patterns”) and then, like something ignited by a burning match, it takes off in a flurry of sparks and rhythms that presents one shiny object after another before the repeated-note-motive returns – oh, but it's not a B-flat this time – before what might be called, in a traditional sense, the contrasting “second theme” with its change of tempo and mood, long slithery lines over drones and a persistent pulse in the cello (if you're following the score, around 1:30) where the repeated tone in the cello is... a B-flat.

But Bartók gradually moves this “focus” pitch up a step at a time until, around 2:29, the repeated-note-motive returns again, this time on an E. The pitch E become the main “focus,” now – and this is what Bartók uses as the equivalent of modulating to the old classical “dominant” to his initial tonic pitch, B-flat. In Haydn or Mendelssohn, it would be B-flat to F, that's the main axis of tonality, before returning to B-flat. Since about 1600 or so, that's been the foundation of the basic harmonic language of classical music. But Bartók turns this into an axis on B-flat to E – which happens to be the interval of a tritone or what musicians since the Medieval period called “The Devil in Music.” Subsequently, it was a “forbidden” interval for about eight centuries.

Anyway, as Bartók's quartet continues, after a great deal of scurrying motivic (and “tonal”) chaos, what happens around 7:26? The repeated-note-motive breaks out in the open – ta dah! – on a B-flat, just like a Haydn or Beethoven Sonata-Form Recapitulation. And before the movement ends on its last B-flat, notice how the two lines honing in on it in those last measures (at 7:36), create a wedge-shaped scale-like approach starting on... an E (or, enharmonically, an F-flat, same pitch). Just like any dominant-to-tonic chord to say “Tonal Center arrived at and established – check!” that could've ended any piece by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms.

Just as any 18th or 19th Century composer would've done, the next movements are a kind of contrast both dramatically and emotionally as well as less intellectually daunting. Bartók often wrote slow movements he referred to as “Night Music,” evoking the sounds of the night and inspired by visits to his uncle's farm. Instead of emotional, even “romantic” music – tender, tragic, wistful – Bartók creates a sound-world that is almost cosmic in its loneliness: sit still on the back porch of that farmhouse and hear the buzzing of insects, the sighing of breezes, drops of water plopping off the leaves following a passing shower, perhaps the distant croaking of frogs down at the pond (not in this quartet, but they exist in other works), all moving with the slowness of celestial time (whatever that means), as lacking in rhythmic propulsion as the other movements sound like foot-stomping folk dances heard after a Saturday night celebration has gotten out-of-hand.

Which is what the scherzo, the apex of this quartet's arch, is all about, and in this particular case, Bulgarian folk dances. As early as 1907, Bartók and his friend Zoltan Kodaly began wandering the countryside “collecting” the authentic folk music of their native Hungary which they began using in their own music, initially as arrangements or as quotations, then, as Bartók called it, creating his own “imaginary folkmusic” based on the logic and patterns he discovered in the real folkmusic. Eventually going further and further afield, he used some of the complex rhythms that make Bulgaria one of the most unique-sounding cultures in Europe – music guaranteed to drive any Westerner who insists music moves in consistent grouping of beats like 2/4 and 3/4 absolutely bonkers.

Imagine dancing this at your high school prom?

(Actually, compared to this, Bartók's scherzo is kind of laid back!)

Following another bit of quiet, almost timeless night-music, when the Finale begins – at 24:18 – we reach a repeated E a few measures in which then starts off the main part of the movement where B-flat is again prominent (but not stable). Around 27:11, we're back to more B-flats and Es, sometimes simultaneously, and while it may not be a recognizable “tune” to tell us, “ah, we're back to the main theme,” he goes through the opening material of the movement just as if it were a Sonata Form recapitulation, just as Haydn or Beethoven might have done in their way.

Then a very weird thing happens – weird if you've gotten used to all this hectic linearity and pounding chords and rhythms that seem more like seizures. At 30:11, an actual “tune” in actual A Major breaks out! Marked to be played “indifferently,” it sounds like a German folksong gone wrong (or after a few too many beers), perhaps as if played on a hurdy-gurdy. Is it an off-the-wall quote? (Actually, it's based on motives we've already heard!) But what's that pitch in the cello – an E?

And just as suddenly, we're off with all that flurrying linear chaos, up and down, piling pitches on top of each other, leading to B-flat/E or leading away from B-flat/E until... there's an eight-note scale broken into two groupings: first one ends on an E, second one ends on... B-flat! Ta-dah!

Beethoven didn't care if you couldn't tell what key he'd modulated to or where in the structural scheme of things you were (is this the Development Section already?) – one of the reasons his music so horrified fans of his teacher, Haydn. Wherever he went along the way, he let you know the key structural points by releasing the tension he'd been creating, by simplifying the texture, or giving you long preparations that created the expectation of, yes, I believe this is going to... perhaps... no definitely, yes, that's the tonic!

Bartók does the same thing but, however you say it in Hungarian, “I'll do it my way.”

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Doric Quartet Returns, Part 1: Haydn & Mendelssohn


At a live radio broadcast in Paris
 PLEASE NOTE, DUE TO THE WEATHER FORECAST, THIS CONCERT HAS BEEN RESCHEDULED FOR THURSDAY NIGHT! 

Who: The Doric Quartet
What: playing Haydn, Mendelssohn and Bartók
When: 8pm Thursday, February 21st (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser at 7:15)
Where: at Temple Ohev Sholom, at 2345 N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg (between Seneca and Emerald Streets)
Tickets can be purchased online through our website here or here; by calling 717-221-9599; or by emailing info@marketsquareconcerts.org. Tickets are also available at the door before the concert. There are also $5 tickets for college/university students available at the door and school-age (K-12) students are free.
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The Doric Quartet, calling London home, is on another American tour and so, a month before the Spring Equinox, they are returning to Harrisburg once again, this time with a program covering three centuries of great string quartet repertoire: Franz Josef Haydn from 1781, Felix Mendelssohn from 1837, and Bela Bartók from 1934.

It will give me an opportunity to talk about the history of the string quartet at the Pre-Concert Talk (starting at 7:15) and how a classicist, a romanticist and a modernist (or who was at least a modernist when he composed it) treated the string quartet as a form and as a group of four stringed instruments.

In these two posts – this one is about Haydn & Mendelssohn; the next one, which you can read here, about Bartók – you can hear each quartet in its entirety with some background information about each one, but let's begin with some examples of the Doric Quartet playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Bartók – just not the pieces they'll be playing here (I have other recordings for those).

First, some Haydn. Let's just say, while he's called “The Father of the Symphony,” he's also known as “The Father of the String Quartet” (needless to say, Haydn got around) if anyone can be credited with inventing a musical form. Or is that genre...? Or perhaps, in this case, also a medium... Anyway, here's the Doric playing the opening movement of one of Haydn's earlier quartets – No. 6 from the set, Op. 20 (known as “The Sun” Quartets), recorded in Wigmore Hall, one of the great halls not only in London but in the world.


While the concert order is Haydn, Bartók / Mendelssohn, I'm going to follow them chronologically so you can hear the stylistic and historical development between each composer's approach as well as the performers' approach to their music.

So here's the 19th Century romanticist, Felix Mendelssohn, and the intensely gorgeous slow movement from the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 No. 3, a companion piece to the one they'll be performing here:


Now, Bartók will sound like a whole different world, compared to the more familiar styles of Haydn and Mendelssohn and everybody else who's part of the traditional pantheon of the standard repertoire before 1900. And if you think of the Doric as “elegant performers” with their “classy classicism” (I'm sorry, I have no idea where that came from), here's the last movement of Bartók's 4th String Quartet from 1928.


(Every time I hear this quartet, I am reminded of a time years ago, listening to a recording of this with a bunch of my colleagues, when a violinist said, “now, that is down-home music!” We all laughed, of course, because one could hardly imagine Bartók the country-western entertainer until my violinist-friend said he grew up in a family of Hungarian immigrants!)

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Haydn in London, 1791
Haydn wrote about 70 string quartets, give or take – of the original 86, some are only attributed to Haydn, others have been discovered not to be by him at all, even though one of them includes the once-ubiquitous chestnut, “Haydn's Serenade” – but like his 104 symphonies, most of the early quartets are overshadowed by the late ones. The Op. 20 set – like most of his quartets, published as a group of six different works – appeared in 1772 when Haydn was already 40 years old and well known as a composer. The first “great” works in the quartet repertoire, they became famous enough to earn him that nickname of “The Father of the String Quartet,” establishing the pattern for the string quartet as a medium for the next two centuries.

Nine years later, his next set of quartets, his Op. 33, were composed in a “new and particular manner,” he wrote to his publisher. If they had no more claim to fame, these were the ones that inspired Mozart to go and do likewise. While it's assumed Haydn's Op. 20 led Mozart to emulate them in his own first quartets, it was the Op. 33 set that triggered the six “Haydn Quartets” by Mozart – or to be less confusing, Mozart's “Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn” – which are a solid part of the Quartet Repertoire today.

The Op. 33 Quartets are sometimes collectively known as the “Russian Quartets” though they're even less Russian than the three Beethoven would later write for the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky (which at least included a Russian theme in two of them). Premiered on Christmas Day of 1781, Haydn's were dedicated to the then Grand Duke Paul of Russia, Empress Catherine the Great's son and heir who would later become, briefly, the tsar between 1796 and 1801 when he would be assassinated in a palace coup.

Haydn, Mozart & friends playing quartets
Mozart had just arrived in Vienna and would no doubt have known these new quartets, perhaps even played them when he got together in 1784 with some friends to play quartets: Mozart, then 28 and no longer the New Kid on the Block, played the viola and Haydn, now 52, was one of the violinists. The other two were better known both as composers and performers in their day, but today Dittersdorf and Vanhal are otherwise largely forgotten.

Here's the Quartet Berlin-Tokyo performing the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 33 No. 4 of Franz Josef Haydn, recorded at the Banff competition in 2016:


The typical structural plan for the “Classical Quartet” (and, for that matter, the typical symphony) was four movements: the first movement, usually the major movement of the entire work, would be in Sonata Form, followed by the slow movement for contrast. A brief minuet in a moderate tempo (stately, a courtly dance) preceded the final movement, often a fast, light-hearted conclusion in Rondo form, the requisite happy ending (this was, after all, meant to be entertainment).

In this particular quartet, Haydn writes a first movement less adventuresome than those of its companions and though he places the minuet in second place – and calls it a scherzo which to us implies a faster and less courtly dance-style (yet it sounds to us like your typical minuet) – the slow movement, now in third, is the emotional heart of the piece with its luxurious violin melody and simple textures. The lively finale, whimsical and full of quirky turns, sudden stops, and a bit of a gypsy dance whirling past at one point, becomes almost pure slapstick compared to what serious audiences expected (they had not yet learned with “Papa Haydn” you should expect the unexpected). Critics of the day who complained Haydn was “debasing the art with comic foolery” must have been exasperated by the ending: pizzicato, plucking the string rather than playing it with the bow, was something of a special effect and rarely heard, so when he gives you one last go-round of the tune played pizzicato, those same critics were no doubt rolling their eyes. Even today, the usual effect is to hear the audience's good-natured laugh.

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Felix Mendelssohn began his career as a child prodigy, writing a dozen small symphonies when he was 12 and 13, and anyone who hears two of his most famous works – the Octet for Strings and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” – can be forgiven if they think these are the works of a mature genius when actually he was 16 and 17 when he wrote them!

The Mendelssohns' Honeymoon Carriage
By the time he composed the first of his three quartets published as Op. 44, Mendelssohn was now all of 28 – and on his honeymoon! He and his wife Cecile were married in March of 1837 (and no, they didn't play Mendelssohn's “Wedding March” because he didn't write it until five years later), then followed that with a leisurely trip through the Rhineland and the Black Forest, Cecile's health being frail. (The drawing, above, was made by Felix for their wedding diary.) On June 11th, she writes in this diary how she'd been unwell lately and was lying around all day on the bed or the couch. “He is working steadily as always. What I am doing is so unimportant, I cannot remember...” On June 18th, Mendelssohn completed his E Minor String Quartet which was premiered when they returned home in October from London. The following year, he would write two more quartets which became No. 1 and No. 3 of the set, Op. 44.

Here's the Verona Quartet who'd performed in May of 2017 with Market Square Concerts, recorded here at the Banff competition the year before.


Again, in this work, the scherzo (no minuet, here) is the second rather than the traditional third movement, but it is one of Mendelssohn's “fingerprints,” this fleet-footed (or rather fleet-fingered) wispy atmosphere evoking the fairies of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

Mendelssohn takes a selfie, 1837
The first movement opens with a theme that might remind you of the last movement of Mozart's G Minor Symphony. (Curiously, when the Mendelssohns traveled to London shortly after their Rhineland honeymoon, Felix, giving an organ recital at St. Paul's, met the organist there who, some fifty years earlier, had studied with Mozart in Vienna, so he wrote a few preludes and fugues for him.) But the figure pre-dates Mozart's 40th Symphony: known as the “Mannheim Rocket,” it's an upward-rushing arpeggio of a motive much used by the various composers associated with the court orchestra of Mannheim, just a few miles south of where Mendelssohn was writing his new Quartet. Perhaps he and Cecile had visited the palace there, where the orchestra performed in Mozart's day, and he decided to use this motif as a tribute to both Mannheim's past and to the Great Mozart?

The slow movement is one of those soulful “songs-without-words” he was so famous for, and the finale returns to the liveliness of the scherzo combined with the turbulent drama we'd left behind in the first movement.

As much as Mendelssohn is considered a Romantic composer – the 19th Century, after all, is the century of Romanticism – and he has many of the emotional attributes of the style, his sense of formal clarity, clean lines, and a general sense of proportion speak to the classical side of his creative muse. He may have been influenced by the Late Beethoven Quartets but he rarely ventured into their rarefied world. He is much closer in style to Mozart and Haydn, and his love of counterpoint is clear from his early study of the then little-known music of Bach.

When Mendelssohn met Berlioz in Rome – he was writing his “Italian” Symphony, Berlioz his “Fantastique” – he wrote home how, after examining his new friend's score, he felt the need to go wash his hands. Though he championed Berlioz' music as a conductor, he had little sympathy with the extreme Romantic style. Had he not died in 1847 at the age of 38, one wonders what he would have made of the later music of his contemporaries, Wagner and Liszt, or even the as yet undiscovered Brahms who would show up on Robert Schumann's doorstep only a few years later.

Here's a link to the post about the Bartók 5th Quartet on the program. You can hear two different performances, both by Hungarian quartets (including The Hungarian Quartet led by a long-time friend of Bartók's) and one of them with score. For the adventuresome reader, there's also a bit about "what makes Bartók sound so different?" Plus, since the scherzo of Bartok's quartet is based on Bulgarian dance rhythms, why not watch a video about some folks dancing to some authentic Bulgarian folk dances?

- Dick Strawser