Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Schumann Quartet: Mozart, Berg, and Grieg (Part 1)

The Schumann Quartet (photo by Kaupo Kikkas)
The Schumann Quartet will be warming up for their Harrisburg appearance this Saturday with Market Square Concerts by playing at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall the night before. (If you can't make their other two concerts this week in Utrecht and Rotterdam, you'll have to wait until December 4th in Istanbul, and then Christmas Week in Düsseldorf at Schumann Hall and London's Wigmore Hall when they'll be playing a different program.)

At Market Square Church, Saturday at 8pm, they'll be performing quartets by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg – or, to be precise, works for string quartet by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg since only the Grieg is technically a “string quartet.”

(This post examines works by Mozart and Berg on the first half of the program. You can read about and listen to Grieg's quartet in the next post, here.)

Officially, the Mozart is the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546, not one of his four-movement string quartets. And while Alban Berg did write a String Quartet – his Op.3 in 1909-1910 – they'll be performing a work for string quartet he called his Lyric Suite, a work in six movements. And to conclude, there's the second of three string quartets Edvard Grieg wrote, his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op.27 (that is not a misprint).

To make it more confusing, you might wonder why the Schumann Quartet is not playing works by their namesake Robert Schumann who, after all, wrote three string quartets. In fact, they chose the name for different reasons, as, I'm sure, violinists Erick Schumann and Ken Schumann and cellist Mark Schumann will explain, brothers who've been playing chamber music since they were kids then somewhere along the way added violist Liisa Randalu.

The Big News of their 2019-2020 Season has already been the announcement, on September 3rd, that the quartet won the European equivalent of a Grammy, the Opus Classical, for their 2018 recording, “Intermezzo,” featuring string quartets by Robert Schumann (aha!) and Felix Mendelssohn, plus works by Aribert Reimann (his Adagio in Memory of Robert Schumann and arrangements of Schumann's Op.107 songs for soprano and string quartet). The award ceremony was held in Berlin on October 13th.

Here's Berlin Classics' official trailer for this recording:

Mozart (in Dresden) 1789
Mozart's Fugue from the K.546 Adagio & Fugue is not a typical example of Mozart's typical style. Already, in the 1780s' “Classical” era, the Fugue was an old-fashioned throwback to the Baroque Age of the 1720s and usually associated with the music of the largely forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach. Even by the time Bach was organizing his epic collection, The Art of Fugue, the idea of writing fugues had become a purely academic exercise for students to learn counterpoint, the discipline of writing multiple voices (or instrumental lines) each of which can be heard independently as horizontal “lines” (not to be confused with “melodies”) but which must also work within the vertical harmonies.

And what we have, here, is essentially Mozart writing “exercises” in his pursuit of contrapuntal skills, having been introduced in 1782 to the then little-known fugues of the Bachs – JS as well as his sons WF & CPE – by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, diplomat and Imperial Librarian, along with some of the oratorios of George Frederic Handel. It was in December of 1783 that Mozart wrote his Fugue in C Minor for two pianos, K.426 in Köchel's catalog of Mozart's works, ostensibly for his friends gathering at van Swieten's.

While this work – the added-on introduction a dramatic set-up for the fugue to follow – is often performed by a string orchestra, here is the Kontras Quartet to play Mozart's “Adagio & Fugue in C Minor, K.546”:

The “Adagio” is fairly brief, something emotional to contrast with the eventual texture and intellectual involvement required for the fugue. You could listen to the fugue the same way – on a purely emotional level – but you might also appreciate it a little more knowing a bit of what goes into it.

So, at 2:42, the fugue “subject” (or theme) begins and is taken through its paces as anyone would expect a fugue subject to go through, a series of sequences (starting on different pitches to avoid the stagnation of literal repetition) with contrasting elements.

Then, at 3:48, the 1st violin begins playing the subject “inverted” – the downward intervals now going up and vice-versa.

At 4:16, the cello plays the original version but is “answered” a few seconds later by the 1st violin playing the inverted version. But at 4:54, the 1st and 2nd violins are playing the subject together, but the 1st violin is playing the original version against the 2nd violin's inverted version.

In this sense, the fugue is something like a discussion between different members of the quartet, each taking up the “subject” in their own way, perhaps offering their own ideas, maybe adding a little more information, but always coming back to the main topic. Then, somebody says “well, wait a minute, look at it from this perspective” (inverted) and then things really get overheated.

At 5:13, the viola begins the original version but the 2nd violin starts playing it ahead of where we'd've expected it (jumping the gun), not coming in consecutively but overlapping, a technique called stretto (this term comes from the Italian for “stress” since it causes an increase in tension between the music and our expectations). Seconds later, the cello and the 1st violin come in, doing the same thing so that all four instruments are playing the subject but now not only with original and inverted statements but in stretto!

Though Mozart's not done yet: there are still more technical details to be “shown off” in the increasingly complex texture created by only four instruments – “complex” in the sense that usually Mozart's listeners in the 1780s would expect one instrument playing a melody while the others play the harmonies as an accompaniment (not to mention in a toe-tappingly pleasant rhythm). To them, this “old-fashioned” Baroque style was not only unfamiliar, it was regarded as intellectual (“dry as dust”) and, generally, unpleasantly academic. (As one 19th Century critic defined it, a “fugue was where the voices come in one after the other and the audience goes out one after the other.”)

Now, why would Mozart write such a thing? To show off? Did he write it for van Swieten's elite circle of Bach Fans gathering regularly on those noontime Sundays? Probably most of his typical audiences wouldn't be aware of what he was doing much less appreciate how terribly difficult it was to compose it, coming up with a subject “theme” that not only harmonizes with itself (the original plus its inversion), but can also harmonize with each other in the stretto sections where the melodies and harmonies have to overlap perfectly! Trust me, as a survivor of counterpoint classes, this is not easy...

Now, consider this: Mozart finished his arrangement of this fugue and entered it in his own thematic catalog on June 26th, 1788. What else was he working on that summer?

Those last three magnificent symphonies, in particular the great C Major Symphony known as the “Jupiter” which ends with one of the most amazing minutes in all of Classical Music.

Here is five-voice counterpoint (not technically a fugue) based on five different, independently identifiable “thematic motives” heard throughout the finale (first consecutively and then in various combinations) which are now heard switching from voice to voice, practically frolicking over each other until all five “motives” are heard simultaneously over the span of a mere few measures, still running from one instrument to another, overlaid in an incredible mosaic before that final, joyful conclusion – which he completed on August 10th, 1788.

Aside from the fact this is the only example of successful “quintuple invertible counterpoint” in existence – yawn if you must but not even Bach wrote one – Mozart does it in such a way you're hardly even aware he's done it. While scholars will be amazed, those listeners completely ignorant of such technical details will simply be enjoying themselves in a rippingly joyous finale, bopping their heads, recognizing (yes!) when this or that motive rolls by, and applauding vociferously at the end without having a clue why this music is so amazing.

If you have a spare 15 minutes, please check out this video and follow the colorful analysis of the motives and their various manipulations in the course of the last movement of what, alas, turned out to be Mozart's last symphony.

All of this is merely to point out what must have been going through Mozart's mind as he planned these three symphonies: preparing himself for the ending-to-end-all-endings he wanted for the third one. Did he return to this fugue he'd composed a few years earlier to hone his “Bach chops”? And then, in a magical transformation, he created something for his symphony (finished only 45 days later) so thoroughly Mozartean, it is easy to forget how nearly impossible his achievement was, turning Baroque Dust into Classical Gold.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

And while all of that might be a lot to digest for a six-minute piece of music, it's a marvelous set-up for the next work on the program, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, written in the mid-1920s.

Many listeners today still tend to listen to music much as Mozart's audiences did, looking for something enjoyable (“entertaining”) and preferably familiar enough in style they can latch onto it. To a late-18th Century audience not used to baroque-style fugues, the idea of listening linearly to anything more complicated than a tune with a nice accompaniment would've been a challenge. Here, they needed to listen for shapes and fragments – those motives that become the fugue's subject – not recognizable tunes or things they could hum as they leave the concert, and react not to satisfactory simplicity but to tensions and variety created out of the complex juxtapositions of these shapes and fragments.

Enter Alban Berg.

Alban Berg in 1927
As Arnold Schoenberg would develop more systematically his “method of composing with 12 interrelated pitches” into the 1920s (later to be more succinctly known, for better or worse, as “serialism”), Berg never became as committed to it as his teacher-turned-mentor was, nor as doctrinaire about it like his fellow-former-pupil, Anton Webern, would be. Berg, with his richer textures and more emotional “world-sound,” was considered too loose with the theory, more “romantic” than Webern who was, with his sparser textures, more “classical.”

There was also the famous description of these three leading composers of what became the “2nd Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern – as “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” One has only to compare Berg's operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, not to mention the Lyric Suite, to any of Webern's later, serial works to understand the difference in their approaches: Berg's in the emotions expressed in his music, Webern's with its intellectual logic and abstract forms (even calling it the Lyric Suite avoided the baggage an abstract title like “String Quartet No. 2” would have brought with it).

Yes, the Lyric Suite, begun the year after a concert suite from Wozzeck was premiered before the opera could find a house that would stage it, and completed the year before he began work on his second opera, Lulu, is, as one of Schoenberg's later pupils described it, “a latent opera.” Each of its six movements is like a different mood or a scene – even the tempo indications make use of words like “jovial,” “amorous,” “mysterious,” “ecstatic,” “appassionato,” “delirious,” “shadowy,” and finally “desolate.” And while some of them are “openly serial,” others are not, free with not only the rules but even the concept, a flexibility that makes you wonder why he bothered with something so “rule-bound” at all.

I love how one serial composer analyzed the opening movement and described how it's constructed on this particular 12-tone-row (an ordering of pitches that would form the basis of its linear and harmonic language), therefore labeling it “serial” and yet another scholar says “it is freely atonal”! So if two experts cannot agree on something as significant as that, how are you, a mere listener without a PhD in music and probably without perfect pitch, supposed to listen to it? Well, simply: the same way you'd listen to Mozart or Beethoven!

Are you going to sit through a Mozart quartet or a Beethoven symphony and keep track of the chord progressions, the modulations to new and different keys, what degrees of the scale are more prominent than others? No – and Berg (and Schoenberg) wouldn't expect you to listen to their music that way either. Yet very often that's all anybody ever talks about when “describing” (or analyzing [sic]) this music! (Drives me nuts!)

If you're unfamiliar with this music, listen for shapes and patterns rather than tunes and easily defined forms – that's something common to Mozart, Wagner, Berg, or Xenakis – how they create variety yet manage to unify the music, how they build tension and release it (by moving through more dissonance to less dissonance, everything being relative), how rhythm propels us forward or helps resolve the other elements of music to create some sense of arrival.

Above all, listen here for your emotional response to the music: yes, the opening is “perky,” and yes, the misterioso has passages referred to by some as “insect music” that should, if played properly, make your skin crawl (perfect for Halloween). And that quote from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in the last movement, if you catch it and its reference to illicit love, should make you think “is there something going on here behind the music I should be aware of?” Does the fact it opens so jovially and ends with a reflection of that undulating wisp, dissolving to nothing (“fade to dark”) that ended Wozzeck (as the child sees his mother's murdered body but doesn't know how to respond) – does that mean anything? (“Latent opera,” indeed!)

Here is a video complete with score with the 1970 live performance by the Juilliard Quartet:

00:00 - I. Allegretto gioviale
03:09 - II. Andante amoroso
09:26 - III. Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico
12:43 - IV. Adagio appassionato
19:05 - V. Presto delirando – Tenebroso
24:00 - VI. Largo desolato

The Suite was officially dedicated to Alexander von Zemlinsky and was inspired by his Lyric Symphony of 1923 which, at one point, Berg quotes from, though today most people, unfamiliar with Zemlinsky's large-scale vocal symphony, would be hard-pressed to identify.

But what I haven't mentioned, yet, is the “other thing” everybody talks about, nowadays, with this particular piece of music. It's not just a string quartet, an abstract suite in six movements. While there are many clues to the “inner meaning” of the music – whether what it may inspire in the listener or what, in the composer, might have inspired it – there was nothing quite so revealing as “The Secret Score” discovered in January, 1977, about fifty years after the work was completed, and over forty years after the composer's death.

Hanna Fuchs
It seems, despite the appearance of Berg's “perfect marriage,” he was having an affair with Alma Mahler Werfel's sister-in-law, Hanna Fuchs. Whatever their relationship was, it was apparently more than that of an artist and his muse. When we talk about suspecting programmatic elements in music but, of course, nothing can be proven because “we don't know what was in the composer's mind at the time he wrote it,” here, in fact, we do. In one of the letters he wrote to her while composing the amoroso movement, he says, “Even an unsuspecting listener will feel, I believe, something of the loveliness that hovered before me, and that still does, when I think of you, dearest.”

Being a composer interested in both the emotional and intellectual in his music, he created motives out of intervals representing their initials – his was A–B-flat (actually, “B” in German notation) and hers was B–F (B being “H” in German notation, if you remember your B-A-C-H motive). Also a fan of numerology, her number was 10, his was 23: among the various ways he would express this was in the tempo's very precise metronome markings, where one could be a multiplication of his number (therefore, music representing him) and another, a multiplication of hers; sometimes, a tempo could be a common multiplication of both their numbers.

Most curious was a set of sketches for the Suite which musicologist Douglass Green (whom I'd had the pleasure of studying with at Eastman back in the early-70s) studied in 1976 in a Vienna library. There were curious markings over certain pitches in the last movement – this had already been noted before but no one could make sense of what they meant – but somehow (and I'd love to know what inspired Dr. Green to make his conclusion) he figured out this was a secret melodic line, something hidden in the music, moving through various instruments, which eventually led him to decipher it as a setting of a Baudelaire poem, De profundis clamavi (“Out of the depths I cry”), intended as a private message shared only between him and the work's true dedicatee. This was later borne out in the “secret score” discovered only months later by George Perle, a gift that belonged to Hanna's daughter who had no idea what she had (talk about “Antiques Roadshow” moments) and which has since led to performances of the Suite with a soprano brought in for the last movement, singing this line, superimposed over the printed notes that had been played how many times and listened to by how many people who, previously, had no idea it existed.

In fact, the Schumann Quartet will be performing the Suite with a soprano at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night, but it will be just the quartet here in Harrisburg, though I've had this mental image of somebody somewhere in the middle of the church who would suddenly begin singing along as if the music rose up out of the depths to float over the secret world Berg had created in one of his greatest – and certainly most personal – works...

If you want to read more about this aspect of Berg's life and music, you can read one of my blog-posts about Lulu and the role Berg's widow played in suppressing both the quartet's original manuscript and the final, unfinished act of the opera.

And that should be more than enough for you to better appreciate a work that can fall under the heading, “The More You Know.” Do you need to know this to enjoy it? Not at all. But it gives me something to write about... (and, as the saying goes, "if I had more time, I would have written less." Or maybe not.)

A slightly less-detailed post about Edvard Grieg's G Minor String Quartet continues this look into the music the Schumann Quartet will be performing with Market Square Concerts.

- Dick Strawser

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