Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Weekend's Music

While the Guarneri Quartet is wrapping up their Farewell Tour -- their performance this Sunday at 4pm at the Market Square Presbyterian Church will be one of their last concerts anywhere -- Sunday is also, according to Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed's proclamation, "Lucy Miller Murray Day," celebrating her contribution to the musical life of Central Pennsylvania.

Not only did she start Market Square Concerts 27 years ago and been running it up until this season, having passed the baton to Ellen Hughes, now, Lucy has also turned pages for numerous pianists and written extensive program notes for the series. Though she's never been able to parlay her page-turning expertise into a second career, she has taken her extensive collection of program notes and compiled them into a marvelous book called Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Chamber Music which you can order here.

Here are her notes for this weekend's concert:

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3 “The Rider”

Haydn’s voluminous output alone does not explain his powerful musical and cultural influence. His 83 string quartets, though daunting in number, are also overwhelming in their stylistic breadth and ingenuity. They move across the boundaries of the Baroque and the Classical and, as suggested by the Op. 74 quartets, even suggest the dawn of Romanticism.

The move to a freer, more emotional expression was occasioned by the end of Haydn’s 29-year tenure as Kappelmeister in the court of the Hungarian aristocrat, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. That, coupled with two highly successful visits to London, gave Haydn a wider musical exposure. For the first time he heard music played in public halls by professional musicians for a general public. This more democratic approach to music freed him from the decorative style demanded by the aristocratic amateur players and audiences. Prior to this, however, Haydn’s music had already taken on new emotional depths as a result of a philosophical influence that stressed the importance of faith and the senses as opposed to the logic and reason of the Enlightenment.

Shortly after returning from his first visit to London, Haydn was invited to compose a set of string quartets for his friend Count Anton Apponyi, a relative of the Esterházys. The invitation resulted in the three quartets of Op. 71 and the three of Op. 74, appropriately called the “Apponyi Quartets.” They were composed in the summer of 1793 in time for a triumphant return to London where they were received with great acclaim. With their more exaggerated emotional content marked by sharp harmonic contrasts, easily identifiable melodies, brilliant part writing, and faster tempos, here was music the public grasped.

In Op. 74, No. 3, we are called to attention by the opening three chords followed by a dramatic silence, a motto Haydn uses again and again in more than an introductory way. The first and the last movements with their rocking rhythms give the quartet its nickname, “Rider,” but the exquisite Largo assai is the soul of the work with its modulations from major to minor and its elaborate use of scales and arpeggios. Spiritual and noble, the slow movement is a monument of string quartet writing. The following Menuetto wears its crown lightly but still reveals Haydn as a master of counterpoint. Then we are thrust into the powerful Finale and take a wild gallop to the end.

(While 2009 marks the 200th Anniversary of the death of Franz Josef Haydn, today - March 31st - is the 277th Anniversary of the birth of the composer known not only as the Father of the Symphony but also the Father of the String Quartet -- Dr. Dick.)

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10

In his The Literarture of Chamber Music, Arthur Cohn makes a telling statement about Zoltán Kodály: No more fastidious composer exists in the field of 20th century music. Kodály’s musical glossary furnishes one of the best illustrations of authentic, national musical language. He has no intellectual artificialities; the music pours out in free style yet is as balanced as the most precise phrase that Mozart fashioned. It is a tamed music but roams freely on the tether of subtle Hungarian accent. Kodály is the Schubert of Hungarian music as Bartók is its Beethoven.

Kodály spent most of his life in his birthplace, Budapest, where he studied at both the University of Budapest and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. The exception to this were his years in Paris where he studied with Charles Widor and was influenced by the music of Debussy. He returned to Budapest in 1907 to teach at the Academy of Music and to champion the cause of Hungarian music. Around this time he also befriended Bélá Bartók, and the two began their life-long study of Hungarian folk music. Like Bartók, however, Kodály was no simple imitator of folk melodies. In a 1955 speech, his telling comment on this subject was: “The music of the people…can be lifted out from beneath the rubbish heaped on top of it, and a higher art can be built upon it.”

Kodály’s “higher art” is readily evident in his String Quartet No. 2 composed in 1917. That war-ridden time might also explain the work’s prevailing darkness. In a 1946 lecture, Kodály himself commented, “There is no better stimulus for artistic work than suffering.” Indeed, Kodály suffered through both World War I and World War II in his native Hungary without losing his inspiration for composing or for the championing of Hungarian music. Referring to his own work in another lecture, he stated: “Some day the ringing tower of Hungarian music is going to stand. And if in its pedestal some of these stones will be lying and the rest destroyed, I shall regard without concern the night of my deep grave.” When he died in Budapest in 1967, he was one the most respected figures in Hungarian music and remains so today.

Together with its darkness, the first movement of the String Quartet No. 2 reflects modernity. We hear 20th century harmony yet, almost mysteriously, Kodály retains a certain lyricism. So, too, do we hear the influence of Debussy with even hints of bird song. Comparison, however, should not detract from its sheer originality.

In the second movement, Kodály takes a stronger stance with startling solos for violin, forceful cello statements, and dramatic pauses for all. Sonority is fully explored from the highest to the lowest ranges. The suggestion of a folk dance lightens things at the end but not at expense of dramatic effectiveness.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Quartet in F Major

“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second,” said Ravel. That statement aside, his sole string quartet is elegantly crafted in Classical sonata form reminiscent of Mozart. Superimposed on that form are the gorgeous tonal colors and effects we associate with this twentieth century French master with an interest in music of the Far East.

The first movement opens with a rich melody shared by the four instruments and then handed to the first violin over rapid figures by the second violin and viola. An exciting tonal effect occurs when the violin and viola play two octaves apart. In the second movement, Ravel’s love of the exotic reveals itself in the suggestion of a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The rhapsodic third movement includes a reference to the opening melody, thus preserving form but always in lustrous and ever-changing colors. Stemming from a five-beat meter, the restlessness of the last movement is ended by a return to the first movement theme. Structure is not all, however, since the ravishing melodies and tonal colors remind us that this work is, indeed, emotional first and intellectual second.

Written in 1902-03 when Ravel was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, the work is dedicated to his mentor Fauré who took issue with the last movement. Debussy, on the other hand, said to his younger colleague, “In the name of God, I implore you not to change a note of your quartet.” This encouragement is interesting in light of the endless comparisons that would be made between the Debussy and Ravel quartets, a comparison that led to a frosty relationship between the two composers. Ravel would comment, “It’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.” Yet the coupling of the two quartets on recordings continues to this day.

Ravel’s Quartet was premiered in Paris on March 5, 1904. That the Guarneri Quartet ends its 45-year career with performances of this work, as well as the two preceding it, confirms a great heritage.

©2009 Lucy Miller Murray

Lucy Miller Murray is founder of Market Square Concerts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and served as director from 1982 to 2009. Her book, Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Chamber Music, was published by Concert Artists Guild of New York and is available at amazon.com. A second edition is forthcoming.

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