Friday, February 23, 2018

The Escher Quartet: Alexander Zemlinsky, from A to Z

Zemlinsky by Emil Orlik
With this post on Alexander Zemlinsky's last string quartet, we come to the end of the series about February's Market Square Concerts program with the Escher Quartet on Sunday at 4pm at uptown-Harrisburg's Temple Ohev Sholom. You can read a general introduction (including a video of the complete concert they performed in November 2016) and about the quartet by Dvořák on the program in the first post; and about Bartók and his 3rd Quartet in the second

The music on this program originates in a fairly limited geographic area of Central Europe – from Prague to Budapest and back to Vienna – that would fit into an area roughly covering the distance from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. The works were written within a span of 41 years. While the Bartók quartet may sound more “modern,” the Zemlinsky quartet is chronologically the most recent of the three, composed in 1936.

And going from Dvořák/Prague/1895 to Bartók/Budapest/1927 to Zemlinsky/Vienna/1936 also takes us from the more familiar to the most likely unknown.

Who is Alexander Zemlinsky (or as you might sometimes see him, Alexander von Zemlinsky)?

I admit I'm not that familiar with his music and though I've listened to a few recordings of his works, I don't recall ever hearing anything of his “live,” or (more damning) remembering anything beyond a general curiosity: the fact his music never grabbed me quite the way hearing Bartók's 3rd did when I was a student, reflects more on me than on Zemlinsky, but it's often the fate of composers who, thinking of the Olympics we've been experiencing the past two weeks, never made it onto the medals podium at the end...

Considering how little of Zemlinsky or his music is known, I decided to opt for a more complete life-long biography rather than just discussing the work-in-question. I apologize for the length (if I had more time, I would have written less).

Feel free to scroll down till you find the music videos if you don't have the time or inclination to read everything. But also remember, you can return to the post and read it after the concert. It is – trust me – an interesting story and worth the effort.

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One of the things that fascinates me about him is how a composer with the connections he had never attained a more enduring reputation? He had the backing of no less than Johannes Brahms at the start of his career; and it was a similar kind of mentoring that could've developed into the same kind of sponsorship Brahms gave Dvořák if only the Grand Old Man had lived longer. Along the way, he was championed by Gustav Mahler who conducted two of his operas in Vienna, the first when he was 29. With his friend, sometime student, and eventual brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg, he was regarded as a leading light in Vienna's “new music scene.” As a member of various musical organizations in a city full of such “clubs,” he was regarded as an influential musician, teacher, and composer in a city loaded with composers, most of whom are even more unknown than Zemlinsky (if we continue the Olympic analogy, ones who never made it to posterity's preliminary rounds).

Zemlinsky is, in a way, an ethnic miniature of the Austrian Empire, a polyglot political patchwork that imposed Germanic culture across most of Central and South-Eastern Europe from the 16th Century to the end of World War I. His paternal grandfather was of Polish Catholic descent who was born in a part of Hungary now in Slovakia who married an Austrian woman. His maternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo in the Balkans (previously part of the Ottoman [Turkish] Empire) who married a Bosnian Muslim woman. When Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871, the entire family had been converted to the Jewish faith. For some reason, the composer's father had added the aristocratic “von” to his name, but as soon as Alexander was gaining recognition as a composer, he dropped the “von” which was, essentially, if not illegal, at least pretentious.

Zemlinsky in 1898
Like many Jews – Mahler, included – there was little hope of advancement or official state recognition unless you converted and so in 1899, Zemlinsky became a Lutheran (which I find odd, considering Austria's bureaucratic government treated Catholicism as a state religion). Not that it mattered, in the long run: like Mahler and like Mendelssohn before them, they were born Jews and therefore always a target of the wide-spread anti-Semitism of 19th-Century German culture that made them and their music a target of the Nazi regime well into the 20th.

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Most of what we know of Zemlinsky orbits around the peripheries of three people: Schoenberg, Mahler, and a composition student of his who would later become Mrs. Gustav Mahler (and would eventually marry the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel) – Alma Schindler.

In 1900, Gustav Mahler accepted Zemlinsky's new opera, a fairy-tale story called Es war einmal (the German equivalent of “Once upon a Time”). He was 29 and it seemed his whole future was quickly opening before him.

Shortly after the relatively successful premiere (the opera ran for a dozen performances, at least), Zemlinsky was having dinner at a friend's in late-February where he found himself chatting with a beautiful young lady who was studying composition but who had not yet seen Es war einmal though she was quite a fan of the conductor, Mahler. He suggested she should make an appointment to meet him, impressing her with his connection.

Alma Schindler in 1900
In her diary, Alma Schindler confided, “Spent most of the evening talking with Alexander Zemlinsky, the [29]-year-old composer of Es war einmal. He's dreadfully ugly, almost chinless – yet I found him quite enthralling.” The conversation turned to the music of Wagner whom she considered “the greatest genius that ever lived.” When she told him her favorite work of his was Tristan (with its celebration of adulterous love), she wrote “that so delighted him, he became entirely transformed. He grew truly handsome. Now we understood each other. I find him quite wonderful. I shall invite him to call [on me].”

Eventually, Zemlinsky became her composition teacher (it's quite possible he was more dazzled by her beauty than her musical talent) and wrote maddeningly passionate love-letters to her. As one source put it, “she tortured him for about a year” before finally breaking off their relationship on the advice of her family who's primary objection was he was Jewish as well as ugly. Alma's diaries are full of anti-Semitic comments, yet two of her three future husbands were Jewish – Mahler and Franz Werfel. In 1901, Alma Schindler began seeing Mahler and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married in 1902 – once Alma promised to give up composing (he insisted he wanted a wife, not a colleague).

More to the point of Zemlinsky's music, let's return to his friendship with Schoenberg. They'd met around 1895 (the year Dvořák composed his last quartet) when Zemlinsky founded an amateur orchestra in which one of the cellists was a self-taught would-be composer named Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky, though only three years older, gave Schoenberg advice and general instruction about his compositional endeavors, and they became close friends. In 1898, Schoenberg converted to the Lutheran faith – he would later, in the face of the Nazi occupation of Austria, reconvert to his Jewish roots before fleeing to the United States – and in 1901 he married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde.

Gerstl's Group Portrait with the Schoenbergs
It would not be an entirely happy marriage: by the summer of 1908, Mathilde was having an affair with Schoenberg's painter-friend, Richard Gerstl, and actually left her family to live with him (it was during this time, he composed his 2nd String Quartet which includes his first foray into atonality in its last movement). She eventually returned to her husband and Gerstl subsequently burned most of his paintings and committed suicide.

[Gerstl's painting, by the way – see above – was done that summer and consists of three couples: Arnold and Mathilde Schoenberg (standing) with Alexander and Ida Zemlinsky (seated in front) with another couple that (not surprisingly) cannot be identified.]

Mathilde died in the fall of 1923 and the following summer, Schoenberg married the sister of a pupil of his, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who would found a quartet that would champion Schoenberg's music.

Now, I mention all of this because – regardless of the argument against the impact of biographical details on a composer's music – these events had a direct influence on Zemlinsky's music.

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But first, let's hear a little bit of what Zemlinsky sounded like before he wrote the quartet we'll hear on Sunday's program: the Escher Quartet has recorded all four of Zemlinsky's quartets, and here they play the opening movement of his 1st Quartet (listen to a few minutes of the opening if you don't have time for the whole thing):

The 1st Quartet was written during the time Brahms had arranged a monthly stipend for the 25-year-old composer so he could concentrate on writing, and after its premiere in 1896 (compare this “sound-world” to Dvořák's last quartet in the first post), Brahms told friends it was “bursting with talent,” though he objected to some of its “modernist” tendencies in an awkward private conversation with its young composer. Basically, he pulled out a score of a Mozart string quintet, pointed out a particular passage as “perfection” and said quite matter-of-factly, “that is the tradition handed down from Mozart – to me.”

Zemlinsky's 2nd Quartet was begun in 1913 in the years following the episode in which his sister had run off with the painter Gerstl, and reflects the emotional turmoil he felt and observed both his sister and her husband going through. This is far from an abstract work built on forms and harmonic formulas! Completed in 1915, the quartet was dedicated to Schoenberg.

It's a vast, dramatic expanse lasting some 40-45 minutes, full of musical cyphers where motives are associated with people or events and sometimes motives that act like “code” created from a person's name. He assigns one three-note motive, D-E-G, to “the self” (basically, himself) and by transposing it to A-B-D, adds an E to create “Mathilde,” keeping in mind B in German is represented by H (that's how you can spell B-A-C-H in musical pitches): so, we have mAtHilDE.

The quartet opens with “The Self” motive as if Zemlinsky is the observer, the teller-of-the-tale. One also hears a chord – a D Minor triad with an added G-sharp – which becomes a “code-sonority” for “Fate,” something Zemlinsky used frequently in many of his later works, as well.

In the intervening 17 years, Zemlinsky's style has gone from being heavily influenced by Brahms to absorbing the chromaticism of Wagner's Tristan. Keep in mind, Schoenberg wrote his Wagnerian Verklärte Nacht by 1900 and his atonal break-through piece, Pierrot Lunaire, in 1912. While Zemlinsky has gone much farther afield from Brahms' advice than the Grand Old Man could ever have imagined, he has never gone nearly as far as Schoenberg: despite the intensity of his chromatic harmony, this quartet is still distinctly tonal and reminds me more of Schoenberg's own 1st Quartet (also in D Minor) from 1905 (and also in one unbroken span of about 45 minutes).

Zemlinsky & Schoenberg
A few years before he wrote the 2nd Quartet, Zemlinsky moved to Prague to become the chief conductor of the provincial German “National” Theater. He was responsible for productions of some 50 operas per season which left him very little time to compose. He wrote two operas of his own and then, in the early-1920s, a vast seven-movement symphony with baritone and soprano soloists setting translations of poems by the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. In scope, this work was inspired by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth,” setting Chinese poets, with tenor and alto soloists). Zemlinsky called his work the “Lyric Symphony” and premiered it in 1924. It is generally considered his greatest work.

He also realized he had taken his style about as far as it could go and so he fell into a period of silence as he tried to figure out what he might write next, what he could do to find inspiration – not unusual for composers facing a “style change.”

Zemlinsky with Cigar
Then two things happened: a festival of contemporary music was held in Prague that year and while Zemlinsky conducted Schoenberg's Erwartung, his vast and psychologically intense monodrama in a totally atonal style, he also heard many new composers he'd been unaware of before. All these different nationalities and styles got his creative juices flowing again.

Then, later that same year, his sister Mathilde died. It was customary in the Jewish tradition for the surviving spouse to wait till the end of the official “year of mourning” before remarrying, but Zemlinsky was shocked when Schoenberg announced two months before the mourning period ended that he was marrying Gertrude Kolisch. Whether Zemlinsky saw this as a “substitution” for his sister or not, he clearly was very distressed by Schoenberg's decision. (Admittedly, this doesn't make a lot of sense to me since, by this time, neither was still active in the Jewish faith, and while Zemlinsky never considered himself religious, his widow told his biographer in the 1980s “My husband did not consider himself Jewish,” but that's another story.)

Around this time, Schoenberg had gathered his friends and students together to introduce his new ideas about “composing with twelve tones,” a systematic approach to organizing pitches in lieu of tonality – and for that matter, the arbitrariness of atonality – something that later became known as “serialism” and something which Zemlinsky opposed. As much as he was interested in the expansion of chromaticism – not to mention working with “numerology” – Zemlinsky was never comfortable with abandoning tonality completely: he felt that would be ignoring the spirit of nature. In the “Theme & Variations” of the 3rd Quartet, then, he parodies Schoenberg's new “serial” style.

By now, Zemlinsky's own musical voice had become less reliant on internal creative processes and more on external reactive impressions: from the imitations of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde to parodying Schoenberg's serialism. While the new operas he began composing at this time – when he had time – were lush, post-Romantic scores that often ended in some kind of utopian D Major, it was his last quartet that came directly out of his emotions but again inspired by external events: in this case, the death of his close friend, Alban Berg, who died suddenly just before Christmas of 1935.

By this time, Zemlinsky left Berlin with its increasing presence of the Nazi Party and returned to Vienna. His new quartet, started almost immediately after Berg's funeral, became a Requiem for his friend – just as his 3rd Quartet had begun as a threnody for his sister Mathilde. He was always more attuned to Berg's more flexible approach to Schoenberg's styles (both atonal and serial) and since Berg had quoted from Zemlinsky's “Lyric Symphony” in his 1926 string quartet, the Lyric Suite, and dedicated it to Zemlinsky, Zemlinsky in turn wrote a string quartet he subtitled “Suite” – like Berg's, in six movements – though without the intricate and highly personal program (which Zemlinsky was certainly unaware of). [For links to Berg's Lyric Suite, see the previous post for its references regarding the inspiration for Bartók's 3rd Quartet.]

It's not really “six” movements but rather three pairs of movements: each pair being, in a way, reflections of the same material but presented in different and often violently contrasting ways – the way, for instance, memories and a sense of grief can unexpectedly turn into incomprehension and rage.

The first movement serves the purpose, as an introduction, of both a chorale and a funeral march in music that reflects Berg's melodic style but sometimes, in the contrapuntal texture, a conversation of mourners. The “burlesque” of the second movement – in the sense of being a parody – with its scurrying frenzy (reminiscent of the famous 3rd movement of Berg's “Lyric Suite”), takes on an entirely different and often violent surface.



The third movement, an adagietto, unwinds slowly in dense threads that might bring to mind Wagner's chromaticism by way of Berg's. In contrast, the Intermezzo is clearly a jazzy if at times delicate, understated dance, before breaking out in a slightly cheeky remembrance of good times past.



As the Intermezzo's rowdiness subsides, the composer – represented by the cello solo – is left alone with his thoughts in what becomes the theme for a set of variations, a truly elegiac moment and the most personal music of the entire quartet (if not all four of Zemlinsky's quartets). The elegy – labeled “Barcarolle” or “Gondola Song” – is passed from one player to another, accompanied by a haze of reminiscences in the others.

The finale – perhaps thinking back not only to Berg's often complex counterpoint but also the performance Zemlinsky conducted in the mid-1930s of an orchestration of Bach's Art of Fugue – is a Double Fugue that parodies the motive that opens the Elegy. This again reminds me of an overt reference to Berg's Lyric Suite. The movement ends in a blast of “tonal resolution” with the fugue subject in unison, sounding less “modern” than Beethoven's Grosse Fuge and not, perhaps, what one might expect from a work with such mournful origins.

Theme & Variations: Barcarolle

Double Fugue

But as with his operas of the mid-'30s ending with their “utopian optimism,” perhaps even in such a state, Zemlinsky was not yet ready to end his memorial tribute with any sense of negativity – or abandonment of tonality despite the intense chromaticism of the rest of the work – to fade away into nothingness the way Berg ended his Lyric Suite, in desolation.

As luck (or lack of luck) would have it, Zemlinsky had little chance to write much more after this 4th Quartet. In 1938, when the Nazis occupied Vienna, Zemlinsky and his wife Louise fled once more, this time through Prague to Holland, arriving in New York City just after Christmastime, nearly broke. About six months later, he suffered a severe stroke and was no longer able to compose. Several subsequent strokes weakened his health. When his brother-in-law arrived from Europe in 1942 with the remains of his wife's family's fortune, they were able to buy a house in suburban New Rochelle. Four days after they moved in, Zemlinsky died at the age of 70.

It is not a pleasant story, this life, and after putting it together for you, I find I am even more curious about why Zemlinsky – receiving the support of Brahms and Mahler when he was in his 20s, and given the connections he knew – never realized his potential. It is hard to think of him as a failure – given the American attitude about competition, “you don't win the silver: you lose the gold” – but sometimes it makes you wonder why, for some, life (and fame) can be so unforgiving.

Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Escher Quartet: Part Two - Bartók's 3rd

The Escher Quartet
The Escher Quartet returns to Harrisburg for our February concert on Sunday at 4:00 at Temple Ohev Sholom on North Front Street with a pre-concert talk at 3:15. They'll be playing Bela Bartók's 3rd Quartet, Alexander Zemlinsky's 4th (and last) Quartet, and Antonin Dvořák's 14th (and last) Quartet.

I covered the Dvořák and re-introduced the Escher in the previous post which you can read here. It also includes videos of the complete concert they performed when they first appeared with Market Square Concerts in November 2016.

For my pre-concert talk, getting “behind” the music you'll hear on this program, I'll be taking on the role of a “forensic musicologist,” looking at these pieces from different aspects and associations with some of the influences on the composers and the pieces they've composed.

This post is about Bartók's 3rd (written in Budapest in 1927)  -- Zemlinsky's 4th (written in Vienna in 1936) gets a post of its own.

Though I won't get into it here, there's an historic “common denominator” that's missing: a string quartet by Alban Berg written in 1926 which he called the Lyric Suite, inspired in part by Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony of 1923 (first heard in Prague in 1924). For this post, let's just leave it at this: Bartók was inspired to compose his 3rd and 4th String Quartets after hearing Berg's Lyric Suite in early-1927; Berg dedicated his quartet to Zemlinsky; and after hearing that Berg had died just before Christmas Day in 1935, Zemlinsky began his 4th Quartet as a memorial to his friend.

(If you have time and the inclination – or are reading this after the concert – you can listen to Berg's Suite here with score and performed by the Juilliard Quartet; and follow a lecture recorded at London's Wigmore Hall on the very involved and highly personal story behind Berg's music, here.)

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Bela Bartók in 1927
Bartók's 3rd Quartet was composed in 1927, as I mentioned inspired by hearing Berg's new Lyric Suite for String Quartet earlier that year: for Bartók, the "take-away" from Berg's newest piece was hearing new sounds and new ways Berg used to organize these sounds. While the 3rd Quartet is the shortest and “tersest” of Bartók's six quartets, it is also the most outwardly “modern” of them as well, and perhaps the most difficult to understand (in one sense of the word). It is a visceral work, “muscular” in its dramatic contrasts and conflicts, and though certain ideas recur to give the listener something to hang on to, they do not recur in the same sense a traditional work by Mozart or Brahms would, giving the listener certain expectations and satisfying those expectations with the way everything – conflict and contrasts – are resolved.

In the 1920s, Schoenberg had presented his first “serial” works: if atonal music was “not tonal” and sounded too arbitrary, he felt he needed some way of logically organizing his pitches like tonality but without sounding old-fashioned. Music was becoming more “chromatic” – more reliant on the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale rather than the 7 pitches of the traditional Major or Minor scale – since the days of Mozart, especially once we hit the “Music of the Future” of Wagner and Liszt in the mid-19th Century. Schoenberg was just taking this chromaticism one step further. It is unfortunate people point to all the rules and constraints the system (any system) places on a composer without realizing that Classical Tonality has, after all, its own systematic approach with just as many rules and constraints (ask any college freshman music major struggling with Harmony 101).

Bartók apparently – though he never said anything in writing about his style that I'm aware of – agreed with Schoenberg about the need to organize pitches into some kind of systematic approach. He just didn't agree with Schoenberg's apparently pedantic use of it. More to his liking was the neo-Romanticism of Alban Berg's music with its emotional content and often violent use of tension: it is the release of that tension that drives classical tonality and without some kind of anchoring, the idea of “resolution” is only a vague and often unsatisfying veneer. It is the harmonic tension of tonality that supplies “structural satisfaction” to the ear of a 19th Century listener, aware of how it's done or not, and how else one could do that is what Berg – and eventually Bartók – was trying to discover.

Nominally, Bartók refers to his quartet as the Quartet No. 3 in C-sharp, yet as you follow the score and listen to this terse single-movement 15-minute work, you might think “C-sharp Major? He must be bonkers!” Without getting into the theory behind this architectural concept, just listen to ways Bartók creates a mounting tension, reaches a climax, resolves that tension and moves on to the next one. The fact it begins on a C-sharp pitch and ends on a kind of C-sharp chord (not built on thirds like your typical triad) - see below - may bypass you completely, but it's there and, in its own way, creates its own logical sense of “statement – digression – and return” that is the same sense one gets out of a piece in C Major by Beethoven.
Final Measures of Bartók's 3rd Quartet in C-sharp

This performance with the Hungarian Quartet allows you to follow along with the score: even if you can't read the music (or if it goes by too fast to make sense of it), sometimes just seeing the shapes and densities of the music can be illuminating.

Or if you prefer to watch a live performance, here's one with the Amernet Quartet who played an all-Russian program for MSC this past November:

You can, of course, listen to it any way you like: aesthetically for the emotional response to some very dramatic music; or technically to the ways Bartók might be creating those sounds and tensions through his dynamics, his sound effects and the music's harmonic and rhythmic drive, its tension-and-release.

There are sounds here Beethoven or Brahms would never have dreamed of using: the glassy, almost spooky sounds of playing “near the bridge” (sul ponticello) or the different kinds of attacks, especially his use of pizzicato, or plucking the string (in the 4th Quartet of 1928 he would make use of a “snap” pizzicato that became known as “the Bartók Pizzicato”). The way his textures weave in and out, piling up only to be interrupted by slashing chords, sometimes in contrasting rhythms, all manage to create “unexpected expectations” for the first-time listener: where did this come from? Where is that going?

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Bela Bartók was a Hungarian composer, born in a part of Hungary now located in Romania when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Usually he figures as one of the leading composers of the 20th Century along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky but is generally not regarded as important as he ought to be: let's say, if there were a Classical Music Olympics, he might have won the Silver for his Concerto for Orchestra and his six string quartets are regarded as the greatest collective achievement in the quartet repertoire since Beethoven and Brahms (that is, all of their quartets, not just a select few as one might hear from Haydn and Mozart).

Bartók, however, followed no school, writers on music will tell you, but then neither did Schoenberg or Stravinsky: other composers followed them. Schoenberg initiated what is called the “Second Viennese School” with his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and though few composers specifically imitated Stravinsky despite his winning three successive Gold medals between 1911 and 1914 for his three great ballets, Bartók seems to be a musical “dead end”: he had no disciples.

While Schoenberg, more notorious than famous, was one of the more “reviled” figures of 20th Century music, given the popular reaction against his serial style, and Stravinsky never had another popular success like The Rite of Spring (1914) even though he continued writing up until he died in 1971, Bartók's recognition was late in starting and was brought to a screeching halt by World War II – ironically, all three composers fled Europe to settle in the United States, Schoenberg and Stravinsky settling in the same neighborhood in Hollywood, Bartók trying to make a living in New York City – and he died in 1945 before he was able to regain the ground he'd lost by leaving his native Hungary behind.

But Bartók, like many artists, was not interested in catering to the popular crowd (even Beethoven bowed to popular appeal at times with things like Wellington's Victory and arranging, say, scads of British folk songs because they put food on the table). Works like the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin sometimes offended a potential audience through the amoral nature of its story even before they got to hear the raw music that conveys the story.

Plus Bartók was still “finding his voice” in his late-30s after World War I, a time when Hungary had become a newly independent nation, finally separated from centuries of domination by the Austrians. This was an even more turbulent time in its history between the ravages of politics and the collapsing economy. Bartók was a Hungarian Nationalist, refusing to speak German, the official language, at home. Now, in the social unrest of different factions trying to gain political control after the War, there was less interest in the arts, especially art that reminded them of the violence outside the concert hall. But to him it was more important than ever to find a “Hungarian Voice” not based on old German concepts of what music was.

Bartók had been primarily a pianist and teacher who composed in his spare time. He began The Miraculous Mandarin just before the war ended in 1918, essentially completing the first draft the next year; but he didn't actually finish it until 1924. The world premiere was given in Cologne, Germany, and was a disaster, followed by a 10-minute riot (Bartók himself never saw the work staged). In 1928, he created the orchestral suite from the full score and it has gone on to become a fairly popular concert work.

While completing his 1st String Quartet in 1909, Bartók heard a kitchen maid singing a song of such poignant beauty and simplicity, unlike anything he'd heard before, which, already in his late-20s, he realized was the “true folk music” of his native Hungary. Before that, everything he'd heard was the music of the gypsies, that typical “Hungarian” music beloved of Franz Liszt's Rhapsodies and Brahms' dances (and gypsies, though often associated with Hungary, are not ethnically Hungarian: in reality, their music is the equivalent of “urban pop” music and not actual folk music). This discovery was, to put it mildly, an ear-opener!

Bartók (4th from left) collecting folk songs in a Hungarian village

As a result, he began researching this music and started to arrange some of it into collections of songs and dances himself, even utilizing the style of it (if not actually quoting it) in some of his own music. Having discovered the essence of the “Hungarian Voice,” he was now able to create a less-Western sound to his music and by the 1920s, he was utilizing what he called “imaginary folk music” as the basis of his melodic style. He also incorporated elements of other folk musics he'd heard and collected: music from across the Balkans as well as Northern Africa. While it might not be a way of advancing a Hungarian sound, it did manage to convey a non-Western sound which could be open to many more (and even more diverse) influences than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

It is this sense of personal identity that permeates not only the 3rd Quartet but almost everything Bartók would compose the rest of his life.

And where does that leave Alexander Zemlinsky? Well, you can read about him and his 4th Quartet in the next post. (If you think this one's long, you should see what I cut out...)

- Dick Strawser 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Escher Quartet Returns: Part One

Who: The Escher String Quartet
What: Quartets by Bela Bartók, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Antonin Dvořák
When: Sunday, Feb. 25th, at 4:00 with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser at 3:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg (directions, here

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The Escher Quartet on the road (I'm sure they get more than a bicycle when they tour)
If you were at the concert on November 2nd, 2016, at Market Square Church, you heard the Escher Quartet make their unexpected debut in Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts as a last-minute substitution for the Heath Quartet from England who suddenly had to cancel their American tour (not just their appearance with MSC but also their all-important Carnegie Hall debut). It's a tricky job finding any group that can come in and do the concert date much less the concert's program. And Peter Sirotin was delighted the Escher was available (or were available if you prefer treating the noun “quartet” as a collective plural instead of a singular group, but I digress...) because he'd hoped to engage them at some time in the near future. They didn't have the 5th String Quartet of Michael Tippett in their repertoire, alas – the Heath Quartet made a specialty of performing all five Tippett quartets – so they substituted Bartók's 2nd String Quartet instead along with Mozart B-flat Major Quartet, K.589 (Mozart's next-to-last quartet) and Dvořák's G Major Quartet, Op.106 (Dvořák's next-to-last quartet as well).

So, as conversations evolved during their brief visit to Harrisburg, it was agreed the Escher Quartet would make its own scheduled appearance this season. For this visit, they're again playing Bartók and Dvořák but adding one of their own specialties, a quartet by Alexander Zemlinsky (they've recorded and perform all four as a cycle). This time around, it's Bartók's 3rd and Dvořák's last, the A-flat Major Quartet Op. 105, as well as Zemlinsky's last, his Quartet No. 4.

If you're not familiar with the Escher Quartet's playing, here are two samples recorded in 2015 from “Music at Menlo” – first, the opening movement of Mozart's D Minor Quartet which we'd heard just last month with the Jupiter Quartet:

...and with the Quartetsatz of Franz Schubert, that one movement he completed of a proposed C Minor String Quartet that should, by rights, be called the “Unfinished” Quartet:

And if you did miss the Escher Quartet's concert in 2016, here is the complete program recorded at their Market Square Church performance. The first video opens with the Mozart B-flat, K.598; the Bartók 2nd begins at 23:50. The second video contains the Dvořák Quartet in G Major, Op. 106.
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(with thanks to Market Square Church's resident sound- and video-technician, Newman Stare.)
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Here is a brief and very informal interview with members of the quartet recorded during a performance in Tel Aviv, talking about the importance of music in their lives as well as how they became the “Escher” Quartet and the visit backstage after one concert where a man named Escher introduced himself. You see, they decided the Dutch artist M.C. Escher with his distinctive dimensionally challenging style (see below), would be an appropriate name for a group that explores various dimensionalities in chamber music. And the man named Escher who dropped by after the concert was M.C. Escher's son, George.

This post will cover the Dvořák quartet: you can read about (and listen to) the Bartók Quartet in the second post, here; and the Zemlinsky Quartet in the third post, here.

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M.C. Escher, Waterfall (1961)
In my pre-concert talk which starts at 3:15 on Sunday, I'll be examining different aspects of the music and the composers' lives, different ways of thinking about what you're going to hear that might illuminate your listening experience.

For historical background and biographical information, you can read Lucy Miller Murray's always engaging program notes on the MSC website here.

And of course, you can read this post either before or after the concert and still find some enlightenment about the world behind the music.

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Usually, I'd present the pieces in “program order” – as you'll hear them Sunday afternoon – but I decided for this one, I'd do them in “chronological order,” starting with the most familiar (Dvořák in 1895), then the less familiar (Bartók in 1927) and finally the least familiar and quite possible the unknown (Zemlinsky in 1936), all composed within a span of 41 years.

Or, for that matter, I could present them in, uhm... a kind of “geographical order,” working in toward the thematic center of Vienna: this would be Dvořák in Prague (which is 156 miles from Vienna as the crow flies, presumably first class); then, Bartók in Budapest (276 miles from Prague); and finally, in the center of it all, Zemlinsky's Vienna (135 miles from Budapest). Kind of an odd route as most tours go, but you'll see why this might work, in a bit...

To give you an idea of the space we'll be traveling musically in this concert, if we started in Pittsburgh, it would be 254 miles to Philadelphia and then 94 miles back to Harrisburg. The distance between Prague and Budapest is only 22 miles longer than it is from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

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In April of 1895, Dvořák returned to Prague following his stay in the United States, teaching at the National Conservatory in New York City since 1892. While he was there he composed, among other works, the “New World” Symphony and the “American” Quartet (No. 12), but when philanthropist Jeanette Thurber's money ran out and her pet project, the conservatory, could no longer guarantee Dvořák his “then-staggering” annual salary of $15,000, so the composer (long homesick for his native Bohemia) quickly packed his bags and left for Prague, bags which included sketches for two nearly completed works he'd been composing at the time, the Cello Concerto (Op. 104) and what became his last string quartet, No. 14 in A-flat Major (Op.105).

He'd already been working on this last quartet for six months before he left New York, a rather long time for him. Then he began working on a new quartet which became the G Major, started in November, 1895, and completed on December 9th. This then helped him break through the issues he'd been having with the A-flat Quartet and he finished it three weeks later.

(Through one of those flukes, he was working on two quartets almost simultaneously: No. 14 in A-flat got to the publishers first as Op.105, so No.13 in G Major became Op. 106. Yes, the numbering indicates the order of their completion, but the opus numbers are off-kilter, always confusing. Dvořák was never one to care much about opus numbers and chronology.)

Here's a classic performance with the Cleveland Quartet:

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The quartet is in the usual four movements. The opening Allegro appasionato begins with a brooding slow introduction before lifting the curtain on the scene easily described as “a pleasant homecoming.” The second movement is the scherzo, marked Molto vivace and full of the syncopations and cross-rhythms typical of the Czech dance called a furiant. The middle section, the trio, is one of Dvořák's sweeter respites.

The slow movement, Lento e molto cantabile (“slow and very song-like”), is based on a choral song Dvořák composed on Christmas Day (five days before he officially completed the entire quartet). Then the finale brings back the suspenseful mood of the introduction before quickly opening up into a joyous dance – again, the pleasure of a homecoming – before ending with a big, almost orchestral climax to what would become not only his last string quartet but his last chamber work.

Dvořák was 54 when he completed these last two quartets of his. Though he would live another 8 years, he wrote primarily orchestral tone poems and operas, leaving the “abstract” world of chamber music, symphonies and concertos behind for the story-telling world of symphonic poems, three of which, composed in quick succession, got their first performances (basically open rehearsals) four months ahead of the A-flat Quartet – and four more operas including Rusalka of 1900, a Slavic version of “The Little Mermaid” story, with its famous “Song to the Moon.”

When he died at the age of 62 following a bout of the flu in 1904, he left sketches for several works behind, including a couple of possible oratorios and three more potential operas, but no chamber music.

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As I suspected, this post would be too long by the time I get around to the remaining two quartets on the program, so I will continue with the Bartók and the Zemlinsky works in subsequent posts.

- Dick Strawser