Friday, February 15, 2013

Change Is Constant: The Linden Quartet Adds Schubert to the Mix

“Nothing is as unchangeable as change itself.”

I’m not sure who said that first but in one form or another, it’s usually attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraklitos, who died around 475 BC, so that means the idea’s been around a fairly long time.

This is why everything – from political promises to concert brochures – should come stamped with “subject to change.”

Market Square Concerts has been dealing with changes or the possibility of changes due to any number of reasons since the current season was first established, before the brochure went to press. Artists have reconsidered and, perhaps, refined their programs. And of course, given the variables of reality, artists sometimes are unable to perform. Programming two years in advance, as is often the case, one can never assure one’s health.

So, faced with a family emergency, one of the violinists of the Linden Quartet, playing at Temple Ohev Sholom as part of this weekend’s program with Market Square Concerts, is unable to perform. Finding a substitute to fit in with the established personality of an organism like a string quartet is not always easy, especially considering the repertoire.

Playing the Mozart Quintet at Cumberland Valley High School on Friday
Fortunately, the Linden Quartet was able to bring in a violinist from another quartet but unfortunately she’s not familiar with the two new composers’ music on the scheduled program and there was not enough time for her to learn them.

So the two short pieces by John Corigliano and Kelly-Marie Murphy’s “Dark Energy,” a quite recent work from 2007, have landed on the cutting-room floor. This is too bad – I know I was not the only person in town looking forward to hearing them.

Fortunately, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (which you can read about here) and the Mendelssohn A Minor Quartet are still on the program, but the concert will now open with another early quartet by another young composer, one that Franz Schubert wrote for his family’s quartet to play during their after-dinner relaxations, something that lots of people did in the days before television, creating their own entertainment.

Schubert at 17
It was written in November of 1813 when Schubert was 16. His father, a school-teacher, was an amateur cellist and his older brother Ferdinand was a talented violinist. Another older brother, Ignaz, also played the violin, so Franz, who played the piano as well as the violin, ended up playing viola in these family gatherings.

During the previous summer, in addition to writing a couple of string quartets, some vocal trios for male voices, an Octet for winds (not to be confused with the masterpiece of his maturity) and numerous exercises for his composition teacher, Antonio Salieri – yes, the same Salieri traditionally maligned with having poisoned Mozart (great theater but totally lacking in proof) – Schubert was unhappy with the way things were going at his school. Some friends of his had gotten in trouble of a political nature (during the era of Napoleonic wars, any form of critical comment against the state was picked up by the secret police). His grades were not good – he was sub-standard in Latin and he'd failed Math which meant he might lose his scholarship.

Schubert was convinced he should quit school and abandon any further school education so he could avoid wasting his time, as he saw it, on subjects that had no relevance to his musical development. Plus, he was easily the most talented musician at the school and had few challenges there, compared to those that could be offered among the circle of Salieri’s other pupils.

On October 4th, he and his brothers performed a little cantata he’d written for their father’s Name Day. Later that month, he received news that he had been awarded a scholarship (not as generous as some of his other friends received) on the condition he improve his grades, work harder and behave well. He was also told in this letter that “singing and music are but a subsidiary matter… good morals and diligence in study are of prime importance and an indispensable duty for all those who wish to enjoy the advantages” of this scholarship.

Since young Franz disagreed with this attitude, he told his father he was going to leave the school but Ferdinand, no doubt aware of the argument this would create, suggested that – especially to avoid being drafted into the army (would he, given his height – or lack of it – as well as his bad eyesight, have been found acceptable?) and as some insurance against financial insecurity in the future – Franz should attend the Imperial Teacher’s Training College to prepare for life as a school teacher like his father, an uncle, and his two older brothers.

On October 28th, then, Franz Schubert completed his first symphony. Two days later, he began work on a new opera which he would work on with Maestro Salieri – a full, three-act singspiel called The Devil’s Pleasure-Palace – followed by two more string quartets, including the E-flat Quartet, D.87.

Here's a classic performance by the Amadeus Quartet recorded in 1955. By the way, ignore the rather high-looking opus number you often find with this piece - Op.125! The Deutsch Catalog is a better indicator of its actual chronology in the composer's life.

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At this time, Beethoven, a major figure in Vienna’s musical world, had been having a difficult patch, following the summer of 1812 when he ostensibly met The Immortal Belovéd at a spa in Bohemia (and presumably, not long afterward, broke up with her). We know little of his daily life after his return to Vienna that fall but we know he composed little – and was apparently not in good health much of the time, either – until he produced what became a popular success, Wellington’s Victory following the arrival in June of 1813 of news heralding the first break in Napoleon’s control of Europe, though it was not performed until December of that year at the same concert that saw the premiere of his 7th Symphony. This was a month after Schubert composed this little quartet of his. The 8th Symphony, also completed before the end of 1812, wasn’t heard in public until 1814. Likewise, he had completed the Op. 95 String Quartet three years earlier but it wasn't premiered until 1814, either.

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Mendelssohn at 20
Fast forward fourteen years to Berlin, where Felix Mendelssohn is 18. News had been received earlier that year that the great Ludwig van Beethoven had died.

By the time Felix Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet in A Minor, he had already written a few other pieces you might be familiar with: his Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet for Strings, both masterpieces for someone of any age, much less a boy in his mid-teens.

Opus numbers only confuse the issue, here: the Octet Op. 20 was written two years before the String Quartet Op. 13, and the famous Overture, his Op. 21, was written the year before the quartet. To make matters worse, the second string quartet he published was actually written two years later than the first but published as Op. 12 so it is therefore always called the String Quartet No. 1.

Just another music-illogical observation…

Anyway, keep this in mind as you listen to Mendelssohn’s quartet.

Here's a performance with the Melos Quartet complete with score (yes, it says "in A Major" but after the introduction, most of the quartet is centered around A Minor).

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Yes, there's a motive similar to Beethoven’s “Muss es sein/Must it be?” motive from the Master’s last quartet, Op.135 - Mendelssohn introduces his motive in the 3rd measure of the second system in the score above. But rather than the presumably philosophical implications of Beethoven’s motive, Mendelssohn’s motive, setting the words “Ist es wahr/Is it true?” in a song he composed a few months earlier (and which, by the way, is published as Op. 9, No. 1), asks if it’s true the girl he’s in love with will be waiting for him at the tree-lined walk. After all, how philosophical is an 18-year-old likely to be?

More importantly, it was composed a year after Beethoven’s Op.135 was completed (and not yet premiered or published), so it was still hot-off-the-press contemporary music – in fact, not even off the press, if it hadn’t been published yet: how did Mendelssohn find out about it before the days of photocopying or on-line self-publishing?

One assumes musicians from Vienna who knew of Beethoven's music and may have been familiar with what he'd been writing at the end of his life, had traveled to Berlin and visited the Mendelssohns who, on Sunday afternoons, gave locally famous musicales which often included many musicians, artists and philosophers who lived in or were visiting the Prussian capital.

So, undoubtedly, this quartet was definitely inspired by the memory of this most famous contemporary composer of the day, at least to anyone interested in New Music. Mendelssohn's father, a wealthy Berlin banker, may not have shared his son’s enthusiasm for it and in fact Beethoven’s Late Quartets continued to leave future generations of listeners in a cloud of uncertainty. It surprises me that a young man of such conservative tastes as Felix Mendelssohn would have taken such an interest in such “avant-garde” music, but that's the case.

Technically, there’s more Late Beethoven referenced in Mendelssohn’s A Minor Quartet than just the similarity of the opening motive and its being posited as a question. At points, Mendelssohn shows he is familiar with Beethoven’s Op.95 (published in 1816) as well as Op. 132, especially the operatic-style recitatives for the first violin in the last movement. This quartet had been premiered in late-1825, not long after its completion. How soon did it reach Berlin?

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So here we have two youthful quartets by teen-aged composers not yet at the level of greatness we ordinarily associate with them (keep in mind, Schubert’s reputation was largely posthumous).

And of course, there’s that “what if” aspect, considering Schubert died at 31 and Mendelssohn at 38 – or for that matter, Mozart, given the “lateness” of his Clarinet Quintet, at 35.

Schubert’s was written to entertain his family and whatever friends might have dropped by to hear them play some evening. Mendelssohn’s was composed to honor a great composer who had been a significant inspiration to him and was now lost to him.

Who knew where the future would take either of them?

- Dick Strawser

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