Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Parker Quartet: Beethoven & Mendelssohn

As Ellen Hughes wrote to Market Square Concerts's e-mailing list, reminding them that the first concert of the new season is upon us:

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Dear Concertgoer-

The New York Times called the Parker String Quartet “something extraordinary,” The Boston Globe hailed its “fiercely committed performances” and The Washington Post declared it “a quartet that deserves close attention.”

I hope you'll be able to join us Sunday, October 11 at 4 PM at Whitaker Center for the first concert of our 2009-10 chamber music season to hear this quartet, which was awarded the coveted Cleveland Quartet Award earlier this year. They're playing early Beethoven and Bartok and also Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2, a work that's both a tribute to Beethoven and full of youthful romance, as Mendelssohn is said to have fallen in love just as he was writing this quartet.

What a perfect way to spend a fall afternoon, listening to this music played by a vibrant, award-winning quartet. Tickets are available at The BOX, 717 214 ARTS, or at the door.
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In addition to earning the Cleveland Quartet Award, the Parker Quartet has received high praise for its debut CD from 2007 (on the Zig Zag label) with Bartok's 2nd and 5th String Quartets:

“The Parkers’ Bartok spins the illusion of spontaneous improvisation…they have absorbed the language; they have the confidence to play freely with the music and the instinct to bring it off.” (Gramophone).

Their recent recording for the Naxos label, the complete string quartets of the late György Ligeti, was released this past March. An album of Haydn quartets follows for Zig Zag.

You can hear them in this broadcast from a live recording made at WGBH Boston last year, playing Dvorak's String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51 (not the "American" Quartet).

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Having performed here a few seasons ago for the 25th Anniversary season with Market Square Concerts, the Parker Quartet returns for the first concert of the 2009-2010 Season on Sunday, October 11th (4pm at Whitaker Center) with a program of "firsts" - in this case, the first quartet Beethoven completed for publication; the first quartet by Bela Bartok, and the first "mature" quartet that Felix Mendelssohn composed and (eventually) published.

That doesn't mean they're the first quartets these composers ever wrote. I don't think there are any unpublished quartets in Bartók's catalog – none have been added to the six he did publish – but there was at least one that Mendelssohn wrote as a child, including at least one String Quartet when he was 14, around the time he was writing all those string symphonies. (If you want to read more about Mendelssohn, you can check out the website for a Mendelssohn educational project Odin Rathnam and I devised for the John Harris High School this past month, a kind of Mendelssohn-and-his-(and-our)-Times.”)

There are no string quartets rattling around in Beethoven's juvenalia closet that I'm aware of, not that he wouldn't have tried his hand at something like this as a part-time violin- and viola-player when he was growing up in Bonn. When he was in his early-20s, Beethoven planned on going to Vienna to study with Mozart: unfortunately Mozart died at the age of 35 before it could happen. So Beethoven did the next best thing: he went to Vienna to study with Haydn who was, at the time, enjoying his laurels as the greatest living composer in Europe, having just completed his first trip to London and was in the midst of writing the last and perhaps greatest of his symphonies and string quartets. Mozart, at least in his musical temperament, might have been better suited to Beethoven's goals, but certainly there was something to gain in calling himself Haydn's pupil. The publicity was good but it also came at a price: anything he composed would also be compared to his teacher which may explain why Beethoven waited until he was almost thirty to release both his first symphony and his first string quartets.

Of the six published as Op. 18 – the “Early” Quartets as they're universally known – the first one he completed ended up becoming the third of the set. He often worked on a number of compositions at the same time, unlike Mozart who, working as quickly and effortlessly as he did, would dash off one before moving on to another. Beethoven must have known how uncharacteristically long it took Mozart to complete the half-dozen quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, learning the craft of the style from Haydn's own works as if he studied with him himself. We can see in Beethoven's sketchbooks a number of ideas written down that ended up in various quartets over the two years he worked on them. We can also see how hard he worked to find the best ideas: for instance, there are eight versions of the opening them of the 1st Quartet – only in the 9th take did he find the one he decided to use.

The D Major Quartet (No. 3) has the spirit of his teacher hovering over it: the opening reminds you of Haydn's “Sunrise” Quartet and the “Clock” and “Military” Symphonies aren't far away in the quartet's finale. It's clear that Haydn's sense of humor was closer to Beethoven's own rather than the “urbane gaiety” of Mozart. Despite their official dedication to Prince Lobkowitz, these really are Beethoven's “Haydn” Quartets.

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Whether or not Beethoven was consciously looking at Haydn's quartets and symphonies as models, I don't know, though he apparently did use Mozart's A Major Quartet, K.464, as a model for his own A Major Quartet, Op. 18. No. 5.

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was looking specifically at some of Beethoven's later quartets as models for his own. He had studied works by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach to learn the art of counterpoint which were useful he was writing out-right fugues like he did in his string symphonies but which also came in handy when he wrote two of his most famous works – the Octet for Strings and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” – both when he was still in his mid-teens.

At the time, Beethoven was still alive and had been composing his last string quartets. His music was quite “contemporary” in the sense we often think it today – new, controversial and not necessarily liked by everybody in the audience. In fact, Mendelssohn father, Abraham Mendelssohn, one of the most important bankers in Berlin, didn't care for Beethoven's music at all, preferring the craftsmanship of the Bachs over the wild Romantic irregularities of Beethoven.

When he was 21, Mendelssohn wrote to his sisters how

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“Father was continuously in the worst mood and scolded Beethoven and all the Romanticists. Often he saddened me and made me impatient. Something new had come into the world and my father could not quite stomach that. It frightened him a little. As long as I insisted on talking about Beethoven and praising him, his temper grew worse and worse, and if I remember rightly, he once ordered me to leave the table.”
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Considering how poorly these late quartets of Beethoven were regarded at the time - Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists of the day (and a more popular composer than Beethoven was in the 1820s), had little understanding for these quartets, calling them “indecipherable horrors” - one can only imagine Abraham Mendelssohn's reaction when he discovered his son going over to the dark side to actively imitate these “horrors.”

Only about seven months after Beethoven had died, an 18-year-old Mendelssohn composed a string quartet inspired directly by at least three of Beethoven's quartets: Op. 95, the “Serioso,” the A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, and the very last one, Op. 135, which hadn't even been to the printers yet when Beethoven died in March, 1827. Considering Beethoven's death was current news to a young fan like Felix Mendelssohn, his copy of Op. 135 was literally hot off the press.

The most obvious influence is the motto that Mendelssohn uses in his own quartet. Beethoven began the last movement of Op. 135, labeled "Der schwer gefasste Entschluss [The hard-won Decision]" with two distinct motives: one, questioning and tentative which he labeled “Muss es sein? [Must it be?]” and the other, affirmative and joyful, labeled “Es muss sein! [It must be!].” (You can see a performance of this movement with the Hagen Quartet on YouTube: the question occurs at the beginning (0:37) and the answer comes in at 1:54.)

Because this was Beethoven's last quartet - not that he knew that at the time - it is sometimes assumed the question is about life and death. Schindler tells the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Beethoven was often annoyed by his housekeeper waiting on Saturdays for her pay: he would sing to her the phrase, Muss es sein? and she would sing back, Es muss sein! True or not, it appears at least once in one of the conversation books. A more reliable source was from a violinist friend who told him a joke about someone needing to pay up on a bet, and Beethoven, amused by the incident, composed a humorous canon using these words and motives.

In Mendelssohn's case, his motive was set to the words, “Ist es wahr? [Is it true?]” which sounds deeply philosophical. But he borrowed it from a song he'd composed earlier that year which began “Is it true you are waiting for me in the arbor by the vine-clad wall?" The poem describes a budding love affair with the young man hoping to meet his beloved at the garden gate.

Perhaps Mendelssohn had actually become involved in a budding romance at the time he wrote the quartet (or at least the song), but this is more likely an old legend with nothing to substantiate it - a lovely story, all the same. And in that era, it was not uncommon for young people to live vicariously through poetry and to sigh longingly for someone who barely knew they existed.

Unlike Beethoven who used his motto only in the finale of Op. 135, Mendelssohn chose to incorporate his motto in every movement of his quartet.

Here's the first movement of Mendelssohn's A Minor String Quartet with its slow introduction that concludes with this “Ist es wahr?” motive – you can hear it at 1:20 just before the more tempestuous main section of the movement begins. In this performance, it's the Cavani Quartet.
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The one movement that has little to do with Beethoven is the third movement. It's the middle section (beginning at 1:43) of this brief Intermezzo that is typical Mendelssohn, bringing to mind some of the fairy music from “A Midsummer Nights Dream” written the year before and the justly famous scherzo of the Octet written the year before that. (As often happens on YouTube, not every performance posted is of commendable value. I couldn't find many recordings of the Mendelssohn - and none of the Beethoven on the program, but this will give you an idea of what to expect when you hear it live with the Parker Quartet on October 11th.)
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The last movement is the one most seriously inspired by Beethoven's Op. 132, in particular the transition between the march-like 4th Movement and the finale. Out of nowhere, Beethoven writes a full-formula operatic recitative with the 1st Violin as the prima donna, setting up the start of the last movement. This is exactly how Mendelssohn begins his tempestuous finale, copying the operatic convention to a T.
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At 8:21, the opening movement's slow introduction returns, expanding the “Ist es wahr?” motive (at 9:00) and bringing the whole quartet to a well-rounded close (except for the guy who stands up in front of the camera to take some snapshots).

By the way, though this quartet is published as Op. 13, it was written two years before the one published as Op. 12, listed therefore as No. 1, and two years after the Octet for Strings which was published even later as Op. 20! He wasn't particularly concerned about seeing every work into print nor getting them there in convenient chronological order.

The Parker Quartet's program on October 11th will also include Bartok's 1st Quartet, but I'll write about that in a separate post, since I can just hear Ellen telling me to write shorter...

- Dr. Dick

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