Monday, February 18, 2019

The Doric Quartet Returns, Part 2: Bartók Is Back in the House

The Doric Quartet

As Mozart and Haydn's quartets define the 18th Century String Quartet, and Beethoven's, among others, define the 19th Century's, Bartók's six quartets are considered the high-points of the 20th Century's.

Thursday night's concert with the Doric Quartet – 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom (you can read more about it in the previous post) – concludes with Bela Bartók's 5th String Quartet, though we could list it as “String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat.” In that sense, it might look little different from any 19th Century Quartet, less an opus number (Bartók rarely used them), except I didn't say “B-flat Major” or “Minor.” There's something very comforting about seeing that “B-flat” because it means we're expecting something familiar: that sense of tonality composers had been using since 1700 and the days before Vivaldi and Bach.

But it won't take 20 seconds for a listener to realize this is not your grandfather's string quartet – and certainly not even Papa Haydn's string quartet!

I couldn't decide which of these two Hungarian quartets to recommend: the legendary Hungarian Quartet, recorded in 1961; or one of those “younger generation” ensembles, the Kelemen Qt of Budapest, recorded in 2011. The Hungarian Quartet was formed in 1935, the year after Bartók wrote his 5th Quartet, and it gave the work its Hungarian premiere. In 1961, the 1st Violinist was Bartók's close friend and colleague, Zoltan Szekely for whom he'd composed the Rhapsody for Violin & Piano Francisco Fullana closed his recital with last month. Of the Kelemen Quartet, two of the players currently teach at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest where Bartók had been a student and, later, professor of piano. So, yes, both ensembles have a direct connection with this music!

First, here is the Kelemen Quartet in a live performance recorded at a Beijing competition in 2011:

(If you only have time for one of them, I strongly recommend the Kelemen's live performance if only for the energy and passion they bring to their performance. As I mentioned in the previous post about the last movement of the 4th Quartet, they makes this quartet definitely sound like “down-home music”!)

So, what makes Bartók sound different than previous, more familiar composers?

It is in the way he's chosen to “organize” his music – how he chooses the pitches that become the melodies and harmonies we think of, just as other composers chose to organize their melodies and chords to give the music a sense of order and, with any luck, inevitability. “Tonality” is just another way of systematically organizing and ordering these pitches and chords, and while “Atonality” might be thought of as lacking that organization, Bartók's quartet, here, is not atonal!

Just as Schoenberg developed “serialism” which spawned a whole school of serialist composers, a system full of rules and mathematical-sounding procedures, Bartók looked for another way of coming up with “rules and procedures” to organize his music to be an equivalent system to “tonality” which, if you ask any first year theory student studying classical music, is full of all kinds of rules (“thou shallt not commit parallel fifths and octaves; thou shallt follow thy subdominant chord with thy dominant chord before approaching thy tonic chord” and so on). Without rules like this, music would just be arbitrary and you might as well call it “quantum theory.” It's the way they treat (not to mention bend and break) these rules that gives composers their recognizable sounds (or “voices”).

Bartók (during a rehearsal break)
The problem is, Bartók never wrote down his thoughts about this, never discussed them much in any real detail, and never had any composition students he taught to write like him (which is not what a composition teacher should be doing, anyway). And so, there is no “Bartók School of Composing,” no Bartók disciples out there imitating his style: he sounds completely unique and this usually means, in art as in history, a dead end.

The 5th String Quartet, written in 1934, the “Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste” of 1936, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion or 1937 are three of his most significant pieces from his “Middle Period” in this development of his style. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, uprooted him and his family from any sense of peaceful creativity and financial stability, finding him in New York City trying to survive. It was a form of misdiagnosed leukemia (combined with inadequate health care, war-time immigrant or not) that prevented Bartók from exploring a “Late Period.”

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Even if you don't read music, there's something like watching “abstract art” unfold while you listen to this performance, and it might help you make some sense of Bartók's style. He loves to take a motive you've just heard and invert it, in this way creating a varied texture that often helps “increase the tension.”

The Hungarian Quartet's 1961 recording of Bela Bartók's String Quartet No. 5:

As I said, the work is billed (at least, by the composer) as being in B-flat – it actually starts on a B-flat and ends on a B-flat – but it's not “Major” or “Minor” and certainly like no other B-flat Major piece you've heard, like Haydn's Op. 33 No. 4 Quartet which is “also” in B-flat Major.

Bartók thinks “linearly” rather than vertically with chords, not concerned with the rules Western Art Music had long developed to regulate how those chords move – what we musicians call “harmony” – so the pitch B-flat becomes more important than the chord B-flat. If the pitch is in a prominent place in any chord that could contain a B-flat, it is a more important placement of the pitch than if it's just part of a chord. And Bartók is fond of “harmonizing” a melody with chords that may have nothing to do with those pitches: it's like playing a melody in the Right Hand on the piano's white keys while playing chords in the Left Hand on the black keys.

It's not organized around the B-flat Major (or minor) Scale either, as Haydn or Beethoven would have done. The sense of "scale" might be from any number of possibilities including different scales found in folk-music, particularly an eight-tone (not seven-tone) scale called an octotonic scale, for what it's worth.

All of this is the result of his studies of folk music from Hungary and the Balkans combined – or synthesized – with what he'd learned from traditional classical Western Art Music. His ideas are not meant to replace and destroy traditional concepts but to be their equivalent, essentially, creating the same sort of results only differently.

It's the surface language you're hearing and reacting to, but a good performance will let you sense that, deep down, the end results – these age-old ideas of creating unity and variety, of creating and resolving tension, of creating some kind of framework we call form you can hang on to – are essentially the same.

Instead of the traditional four movements of “standard classical music,” Bartók often uses five which he places in an “arch form” with the central movement being the apex of the arch, the two movements on either side of it related in some way – in the case of the 5th Quartet, the scherzo is the keystone with two short slow movements on either side – and the first and last movements, balancing each other, being both of the same dramatic cloth, just as Beethoven did with his first and last movements, regardless of the less demanding middle movement(s) – think his Eroica Symphony. 

This progression from the opening to the ending of the quartet also creates a kind of palindrome – “Madam, I'm Adam” and all that – and though you may not be aware of it from listening to it, many of the motives and themes you hear in the first movement become transformed into something else in the last movement. Whether the listener is conscious of this doesn't really matter, but it may explain why, to those familiar with Bartók's style, these pieces have an innate sense of coherence and organic logic that sometimes you just can't intellectually explain.

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The first movement opens with its vigorous reiteration of a B-flat in seemingly convulsive rhythms (hardly “patterns”) and then, like something ignited by a burning match, it takes off in a flurry of sparks and rhythms that presents one shiny object after another before the repeated-note-motive returns – oh, but it's not a B-flat this time – before what might be called, in a traditional sense, the contrasting “second theme” with its change of tempo and mood, long slithery lines over drones and a persistent pulse in the cello (if you're following the score, around 1:30) where the repeated tone in the cello is... a B-flat.

But Bartók gradually moves this “focus” pitch up a step at a time until, around 2:29, the repeated-note-motive returns again, this time on an E. The pitch E become the main “focus,” now – and this is what Bartók uses as the equivalent of modulating to the old classical “dominant” to his initial tonic pitch, B-flat. In Haydn or Mendelssohn, it would be B-flat to F, that's the main axis of tonality, before returning to B-flat. Since about 1600 or so, that's been the foundation of the basic harmonic language of classical music. But Bartók turns this into an axis on B-flat to E – which happens to be the interval of a tritone or what musicians since the Medieval period called “The Devil in Music.” Subsequently, it was a “forbidden” interval for about eight centuries.

Anyway, as Bartók's quartet continues, after a great deal of scurrying motivic (and “tonal”) chaos, what happens around 7:26? The repeated-note-motive breaks out in the open – ta dah! – on a B-flat, just like a Haydn or Beethoven Sonata-Form Recapitulation. And before the movement ends on its last B-flat, notice how the two lines honing in on it in those last measures (at 7:36), create a wedge-shaped scale-like approach starting on... an E (or, enharmonically, an F-flat, same pitch). Just like any dominant-to-tonic chord to say “Tonal Center arrived at and established – check!” that could've ended any piece by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms.

Just as any 18th or 19th Century composer would've done, the next movements are a kind of contrast both dramatically and emotionally as well as less intellectually daunting. Bartók often wrote slow movements he referred to as “Night Music,” evoking the sounds of the night and inspired by visits to his uncle's farm. Instead of emotional, even “romantic” music – tender, tragic, wistful – Bartók creates a sound-world that is almost cosmic in its loneliness: sit still on the back porch of that farmhouse and hear the buzzing of insects, the sighing of breezes, drops of water plopping off the leaves following a passing shower, perhaps the distant croaking of frogs down at the pond (not in this quartet, but they exist in other works), all moving with the slowness of celestial time (whatever that means), as lacking in rhythmic propulsion as the other movements sound like foot-stomping folk dances heard after a Saturday night celebration has gotten out-of-hand.

Which is what the scherzo, the apex of this quartet's arch, is all about, and in this particular case, Bulgarian folk dances. As early as 1907, Bartók and his friend Zoltan Kodaly began wandering the countryside “collecting” the authentic folk music of their native Hungary which they began using in their own music, initially as arrangements or as quotations, then, as Bartók called it, creating his own “imaginary folkmusic” based on the logic and patterns he discovered in the real folkmusic. Eventually going further and further afield, he used some of the complex rhythms that make Bulgaria one of the most unique-sounding cultures in Europe – music guaranteed to drive any Westerner who insists music moves in consistent grouping of beats like 2/4 and 3/4 absolutely bonkers.

Imagine dancing this at your high school prom?

(Actually, compared to this, Bartók's scherzo is kind of laid back!)

Following another bit of quiet, almost timeless night-music, when the Finale begins – at 24:18 – we reach a repeated E a few measures in which then starts off the main part of the movement where B-flat is again prominent (but not stable). Around 27:11, we're back to more B-flats and Es, sometimes simultaneously, and while it may not be a recognizable “tune” to tell us, “ah, we're back to the main theme,” he goes through the opening material of the movement just as if it were a Sonata Form recapitulation, just as Haydn or Beethoven might have done in their way.

Then a very weird thing happens – weird if you've gotten used to all this hectic linearity and pounding chords and rhythms that seem more like seizures. At 30:11, an actual “tune” in actual A Major breaks out! Marked to be played “indifferently,” it sounds like a German folksong gone wrong (or after a few too many beers), perhaps as if played on a hurdy-gurdy. Is it an off-the-wall quote? (Actually, it's based on motives we've already heard!) But what's that pitch in the cello – an E?

And just as suddenly, we're off with all that flurrying linear chaos, up and down, piling pitches on top of each other, leading to B-flat/E or leading away from B-flat/E until... there's an eight-note scale broken into two groupings: first one ends on an E, second one ends on... B-flat! Ta-dah!

Beethoven didn't care if you couldn't tell what key he'd modulated to or where in the structural scheme of things you were (is this the Development Section already?) – one of the reasons his music so horrified fans of his teacher, Haydn. Wherever he went along the way, he let you know the key structural points by releasing the tension he'd been creating, by simplifying the texture, or giving you long preparations that created the expectation of, yes, I believe this is going to... perhaps... no definitely, yes, that's the tonic!

Bartók does the same thing but, however you say it in Hungarian, “I'll do it my way.”

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Doric Quartet Returns, Part 1: Haydn & Mendelssohn

At a live radio broadcast in Paris

Who: The Doric Quartet
What: playing Haydn, Mendelssohn and Bartók
When: 8pm Thursday, February 21st (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser at 7:15)
Where: at Temple Ohev Sholom, at 2345 N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg (between Seneca and Emerald Streets)
Tickets can be purchased online through our website here or here; by calling 717-221-9599; or by emailing Tickets are also available at the door before the concert. There are also $5 tickets for college/university students available at the door and school-age (K-12) students are free.
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The Doric Quartet, calling London home, is on another American tour and so, a month before the Spring Equinox, they are returning to Harrisburg once again, this time with a program covering three centuries of great string quartet repertoire: Franz Josef Haydn from 1781, Felix Mendelssohn from 1837, and Bela Bartók from 1934.

It will give me an opportunity to talk about the history of the string quartet at the Pre-Concert Talk (starting at 7:15) and how a classicist, a romanticist and a modernist (or who was at least a modernist when he composed it) treated the string quartet as a form and as a group of four stringed instruments.

In these two posts – this one is about Haydn & Mendelssohn; the next one, which you can read here, about Bartók – you can hear each quartet in its entirety with some background information about each one, but let's begin with some examples of the Doric Quartet playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Bartók – just not the pieces they'll be playing here (I have other recordings for those).

First, some Haydn. Let's just say, while he's called “The Father of the Symphony,” he's also known as “The Father of the String Quartet” (needless to say, Haydn got around) if anyone can be credited with inventing a musical form. Or is that genre...? Or perhaps, in this case, also a medium... Anyway, here's the Doric playing the opening movement of one of Haydn's earlier quartets – No. 6 from the set, Op. 20 (known as “The Sun” Quartets), recorded in Wigmore Hall, one of the great halls not only in London but in the world.

While the concert order is Haydn, Bartók / Mendelssohn, I'm going to follow them chronologically so you can hear the stylistic and historical development between each composer's approach as well as the performers' approach to their music.

So here's the 19th Century romanticist, Felix Mendelssohn, and the intensely gorgeous slow movement from the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 No. 3, a companion piece to the one they'll be performing here:

Now, Bartók will sound like a whole different world, compared to the more familiar styles of Haydn and Mendelssohn and everybody else who's part of the traditional pantheon of the standard repertoire before 1900. And if you think of the Doric as “elegant performers” with their “classy classicism” (I'm sorry, I have no idea where that came from), here's the last movement of Bartók's 4th String Quartet from 1928.

(Every time I hear this quartet, I am reminded of a time years ago, listening to a recording of this with a bunch of my colleagues, when a violinist said, “now, that is down-home music!” We all laughed, of course, because one could hardly imagine Bartók the country-western entertainer until my violinist-friend said he grew up in a family of Hungarian immigrants!)

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Haydn in London, 1791
Haydn wrote about 70 string quartets, give or take – of the original 86, some are only attributed to Haydn, others have been discovered not to be by him at all, even though one of them includes the once-ubiquitous chestnut, “Haydn's Serenade” – but like his 104 symphonies, most of the early quartets are overshadowed by the late ones. The Op. 20 set – like most of his quartets, published as a group of six different works – appeared in 1772 when Haydn was already 40 years old and well known as a composer. The first “great” works in the quartet repertoire, they became famous enough to earn him that nickname of “The Father of the String Quartet,” establishing the pattern for the string quartet as a medium for the next two centuries.

Nine years later, his next set of quartets, his Op. 33, were composed in a “new and particular manner,” he wrote to his publisher. If they had no more claim to fame, these were the ones that inspired Mozart to go and do likewise. While it's assumed Haydn's Op. 20 led Mozart to emulate them in his own first quartets, it was the Op. 33 set that triggered the six “Haydn Quartets” by Mozart – or to be less confusing, Mozart's “Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn” – which are a solid part of the Quartet Repertoire today.

The Op. 33 Quartets are sometimes collectively known as the “Russian Quartets” though they're even less Russian than the three Beethoven would later write for the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky (which at least included a Russian theme in two of them). Premiered on Christmas Day of 1781, Haydn's were dedicated to the then Grand Duke Paul of Russia, Empress Catherine the Great's son and heir who would later become, briefly, the tsar between 1796 and 1801 when he would be assassinated in a palace coup.

Haydn, Mozart & friends playing quartets
Mozart had just arrived in Vienna and would no doubt have known these new quartets, perhaps even played them when he got together in 1784 with some friends to play quartets: Mozart, then 28 and no longer the New Kid on the Block, played the viola and Haydn, now 52, was one of the violinists. The other two were better known both as composers and performers in their day, but today Dittersdorf and Vanhal are otherwise largely forgotten.

Here's the Quartet Berlin-Tokyo performing the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 33 No. 4 of Franz Josef Haydn, recorded at the Banff competition in 2016:

The typical structural plan for the “Classical Quartet” (and, for that matter, the typical symphony) was four movements: the first movement, usually the major movement of the entire work, would be in Sonata Form, followed by the slow movement for contrast. A brief minuet in a moderate tempo (stately, a courtly dance) preceded the final movement, often a fast, light-hearted conclusion in Rondo form, the requisite happy ending (this was, after all, meant to be entertainment).

In this particular quartet, Haydn writes a first movement less adventuresome than those of its companions and though he places the minuet in second place – and calls it a scherzo which to us implies a faster and less courtly dance-style (yet it sounds to us like your typical minuet) – the slow movement, now in third, is the emotional heart of the piece with its luxurious violin melody and simple textures. The lively finale, whimsical and full of quirky turns, sudden stops, and a bit of a gypsy dance whirling past at one point, becomes almost pure slapstick compared to what serious audiences expected (they had not yet learned with “Papa Haydn” you should expect the unexpected). Critics of the day who complained Haydn was “debasing the art with comic foolery” must have been exasperated by the ending: pizzicato, plucking the string rather than playing it with the bow, was something of a special effect and rarely heard, so when he gives you one last go-round of the tune played pizzicato, those same critics were no doubt rolling their eyes. Even today, the usual effect is to hear the audience's good-natured laugh.

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Felix Mendelssohn began his career as a child prodigy, writing a dozen small symphonies when he was 12 and 13, and anyone who hears two of his most famous works – the Octet for Strings and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” – can be forgiven if they think these are the works of a mature genius when actually he was 16 and 17 when he wrote them!

The Mendelssohns' Honeymoon Carriage
By the time he composed the first of his three quartets published as Op. 44, Mendelssohn was now all of 28 – and on his honeymoon! He and his wife Cecile were married in March of 1837 (and no, they didn't play Mendelssohn's “Wedding March” because he didn't write it until five years later), then followed that with a leisurely trip through the Rhineland and the Black Forest, Cecile's health being frail. (The drawing, above, was made by Felix for their wedding diary.) On June 11th, she writes in this diary how she'd been unwell lately and was lying around all day on the bed or the couch. “He is working steadily as always. What I am doing is so unimportant, I cannot remember...” On June 18th, Mendelssohn completed his E Minor String Quartet which was premiered when they returned home in October from London. The following year, he would write two more quartets which became No. 1 and No. 3 of the set, Op. 44.

Here's the Verona Quartet who'd performed in May of 2017 with Market Square Concerts, recorded here at the Banff competition the year before.

Again, in this work, the scherzo (no minuet, here) is the second rather than the traditional third movement, but it is one of Mendelssohn's “fingerprints,” this fleet-footed (or rather fleet-fingered) wispy atmosphere evoking the fairies of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

Mendelssohn takes a selfie, 1837
The first movement opens with a theme that might remind you of the last movement of Mozart's G Minor Symphony. (Curiously, when the Mendelssohns traveled to London shortly after their Rhineland honeymoon, Felix, giving an organ recital at St. Paul's, met the organist there who, some fifty years earlier, had studied with Mozart in Vienna, so he wrote a few preludes and fugues for him.) But the figure pre-dates Mozart's 40th Symphony: known as the “Mannheim Rocket,” it's an upward-rushing arpeggio of a motive much used by the various composers associated with the court orchestra of Mannheim, just a few miles south of where Mendelssohn was writing his new Quartet. Perhaps he and Cecile had visited the palace there, where the orchestra performed in Mozart's day, and he decided to use this motif as a tribute to both Mannheim's past and to the Great Mozart?

The slow movement is one of those soulful “songs-without-words” he was so famous for, and the finale returns to the liveliness of the scherzo combined with the turbulent drama we'd left behind in the first movement.

As much as Mendelssohn is considered a Romantic composer – the 19th Century, after all, is the century of Romanticism – and he has many of the emotional attributes of the style, his sense of formal clarity, clean lines, and a general sense of proportion speak to the classical side of his creative muse. He may have been influenced by the Late Beethoven Quartets but he rarely ventured into their rarefied world. He is much closer in style to Mozart and Haydn, and his love of counterpoint is clear from his early study of the then little-known music of Bach.

When Mendelssohn met Berlioz in Rome – he was writing his “Italian” Symphony, Berlioz his “Fantastique” – he wrote home how, after examining his new friend's score, he felt the need to go wash his hands. Though he championed Berlioz' music as a conductor, he had little sympathy with the extreme Romantic style. Had he not died in 1847 at the age of 38, one wonders what he would have made of the later music of his contemporaries, Wagner and Liszt, or even the as yet undiscovered Brahms who would show up on Robert Schumann's doorstep only a few years later.

Here's a link to the post about the Bartók 5th Quartet on the program. You can hear two different performances, both by Hungarian quartets (including The Hungarian Quartet led by a long-time friend of Bartók's) and one of them with score. For the adventuresome reader, there's also a bit about "what makes Bartók sound so different?" Plus, since the scherzo of Bartok's quartet is based on Bulgarian dance rhythms, why not watch a video about some folks dancing to some authentic Bulgarian folk dances?

- Dick Strawser