Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Schumann Quartet: The Music of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg in 1876
This post resumes the “look behind the scenes” from the other two works on the Schumann Quartet's program Saturday night, November 9th, at Market Square Church. You can read about the two works by Mozart and Alban Berg on the first half of the program here.

Given the tempestuous nature of Grieg's quartet – at least the main part of its first movement – and the intensity of both Mozart's and Berg's works, you might think they've put the Drang before the Sturm.

What is it about this work from his mid-30s that makes it sound so different in style yet so immediately recognizable as Grieg, even though most American listeners are familiar only with his miniatures like the short pieces making up the music written for Peer Gynt and the various folk-inspired dances. Oh yes, and that Piano Concerto written when he was 24.

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It was around New Year's, 1888, and three famous composers found themselves in Leipzig and were having dinner at the home of Adolph Brodsky, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Johannes Brahms was in town to conduct his “Double Concerto” and perform his new C Minor Piano Trio. Tchaikovsky was on a major European tour, making his Leipzig debut in early January, conducting his Suite No. 1 in D Minor in a few days. Grieg was a frequent visitor to the city and had many friends there but I couldn't find any specific references to concerts he might have been giving at the time.

Tchaikovsky had, as yet, not met either of the other two composers. He and Brahms would have a chilly relationship and took no effort to hide the fact they disliked each other's music. But with both of them, Grieg had a warm friendship, a mutual admiration both personally and musically (in fact, Tchaikovsky would later dedicate his concert-overture Hamlet to Grieg).

When the guests – who included several other notable Leipzig musicians – sat down to dinner, Frau Brodsky placed Nina Grieg between Brahms and Tchaikovsky as a kind of buffer. At one point, she stood up and protested she could no longer sit there, the tension made her so nervous. Her husband gallantly slipped into her place, saying “I have the nerve!”

We tend to forget composers whose music we so much admire had personal lives and sometimes interacted not just as musicians but as otherwise “normal” people. Frau Brodsky also remarked about this dinner how Brahms had been coveting the jar of strawberry jam, protesting he would share it with no one else, and they all laughed. “It was like a children's party, not a gathering of great composers.” Brodsky, over the after-dinner cigars and drinks, even played some magic tricks for his guests, and Brahms, especially amused, demanded an explanation how each was done. (Oh, if only someone could've snapped a selfie at that dinner party...)

In his diary, Tchaikovsky noted his first impressions of Grieg who, at the time, was 44 and would publish his famous 1st Suite from Peer Gynt that same year. “There entered the room a very short, middle-aged man, exceedingly fragile in appearance, with shoulders of unequal height, fair hair brushed back from his forehead, and a very slight, almost boyish beard and mustache. There was nothing striking [in his appearance]… but he had an uncommon charm and blue eyes, not very large, but irresistibly fascinating, recalling the glance of a charming and candid child. I rejoiced... it turned out this personality... belonged to a musician whose warmly emotional music had long ago won my heart. It was Edvard Grieg.”

At a concert of chamber music a few days later, Grieg and his wife would sit with Tchaikovsky to hear the Russian's Op.11 String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Trio. They would again meet – without Brahms – at the Brodsky home for dinner, where Nina Grieg sang some of her husband's songs, the composer at the piano, much to Tchaikovsky's delight.

Chamber music was a special world for Grieg, though he wrote only three violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and one complete string quartet, the one in G Minor, Op.27, written ten years before this Leipzig dinner. For the Norwegian composer, known mostly as a composer of miniatures – though had he written nothing more than his early Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, he would've been a “one-hit wonder” – chamber music with its “large-scale, multi-movement forms” was a daunting challenge and a professional goal, not always easily accomplished. His solution, at least in this string quartet, might strike one as an imaginative working of various miniatures honed into a gradually larger format much like a mosaic or montage.

There's a much-quoted letter written shortly after he'd completed it: "I have recently finished a string quartet,” he wrote to a close friend, “which I still haven't heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written."

Grieg (1879)
But the letter continues (quoted in Grove's Dictionary 1980): “I needed to do this as a study. Now I shall tackle another piece of chamber music; I think in that way I shall find myself again. You can have no idea what trouble I had with the forms, but this was because I was stagnating, and this in turn was in part on account of a number of occasional works (Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jarsalfar and other horrors) and in part on account of too much popularity. I have thought of saying 'Farewell, shadows' to all this – if it can be done.”

(You might be shocked to find him referring to some of his most popular music as “horrors,” but such are composers' reactions to some of their own works. Tchaikovsky loathed The Nutcracker, perhaps because it became too popular at the expense of works he felt were far more significant.)

Something that has always intrigued me about Grieg's quartet is its opening, not really a slow introduction, but more of a “motto” that recurs throughout the piece, much the way Tchaikovsky would be doing with the “Fate Motto” that opens his 4th Symphony, written about the same time. I wondered if this had any significance for Grieg – or was it just a nice thematic idea? Given his frame-of-mind as he was writing this work and the importance he placed on it (finding himself again and all that), remember he wrote it a year after his score for the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, this “horror” that had consumed two years of his time and energy.

So it's very revealing to discover it comes from a song published a year earlier, Spillemænd (“Fiddlers” or “Minstrels”), Op.25 No. 1, which sets a poem by Henrik Ibsen about a water spirit who would give minstrels great gifts of musical abilities in exchange for their happiness.

Enough said.

Now, given that insight, listen to all four movements of Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor, Op.27, in this version with the score, performed by the Copenhagen Quartet:

The 1st Movement, Un poco andante - Allegro molto ed agitato, opens with the “motto theme” that will appear in various guises through the course of the entire quartet. The dramatic main part of the movement contrasts a stormy section with one of Grieg's more lyrical song-like tunes (starting at 1:58), based on the “motto theme.” These elements then play out in various contrasting segments, juxtaposed, intertwined to create a greater structural unity than the initial “miniature” impression would suggest. At 6:29, the initial “storm sequence” returns and continues in standard sonata form till the “motto theme” returns in an emotional climactic point (at 9:56) which eventually exhausts itself into a benedictory statement in a hushed G Major (at 10:57) before ending in a stormy G Minor, after all.

The 2nd Movement (begins at 11:55), is a Romanze: Andantino, begins with a gently swaying waltz-like dance switching (at 13:14) into “an intoxicating whirl around the dance floor” before regaining its composure (at 14:38) and all its initial social niceties, occasionally breaking out into passionate if momentary and usually abruptly truncated whirls, as if the young couple's parents are, for the moment, not always watching them.

This is but a tentative warm-up for the intricate motions of the 3rd Movement (18:07), an Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato - Più vivo e scherzando which would imply the more laid-back, dance-like (or walk-in-the-country) interludes that Brahms would replace the more traditional scherzo with (though, by 1878, Brahms had only recently completed his 1st and 2nd Symphonies). However, it begins with a dramatic statement based on the opening “motto theme,” once again before turning into another dance, not quite so sociably regular (full of “cross-rhythms”) as the 2nd movement's Romance, but not quite the folksy mood we normally expect from Grieg (he was, after all, not “intending to bring trivialities to market”).

But then, at 20:25, the cello introduces an out-and-out folk-dance for the “middle section” (usually called “the trio” though nobody knows why). You might notice the initial imitation as one instrument enters after another with the tune, in a kind of a faux-fugue. Then the opening section returns before ending in a folksy fluster at the end.

The 4th Movement (24:30), Finale: Lento - Presto al saltarello, opens with a statement of the “motto theme,” once again (this time starting on the same pitch but in different octaves, from the upper to the lowest register of the quartet), before breaking out into what I can only describe as a Norwegian version of an Italian saltarello, a dance similar to the old tarantella whose frenzied motions were supposedly inspired by those of someone bitten by a tarantula. However, whatever Grieg calls it here, its musical origins can be found in the typical Nordic springdans or halling, athletic dances young men might dance at weddings. Grieg had used similar dances in the finale of his Piano Concerto. It continues with various contrasting moments until, at 31:57, the opening motto makes one last emotional appearance before rounding the work off in a blaze of G Major glory.

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Looking back to the source of that “motto theme” and that letter I'd quoted, it's not surprising to realize how he doubted his own abilities, a “miniaturist” who lacked experience – the Piano Concerto and a couple of violin sonatas aside – especially the technique needed to deal with “larger forms” which required a different kind of creative thinking. There are several letters written to his friend, Robert Heckmann, a violinist and music critic, looking for advice and, openly or not, positive reinforcement.

In one response, Heckmann told him “I quite honestly could find no sign at all in the quartet of your imagination having been paralyzed.” He would help him with revisions of various sections of the quartet and assured him he would premiere it at a concert in Cologne in October of 1878 if it were ready in time. It was, he did, and Grieg dedicated the quartet to him. By the way, a year later, Heckmann would premiere the 1st Violin Sonata of Johannes Brahms in Bonn.

(In the previous post, I'd mentioned Grieg wrote three string quartets and his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor is the second of them. Technically, the first quartet was a student work, assigned him by his composition teacher in Leipzig, Carl Reinecke, never published and since lost. The third of these quartets was begun in 1891 but he only left the first two movements more or less complete. Two more movements may have been sketched, but his friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen edited only the first two movements, had them performed at his home the month Grieg died and published them the following year. Though rarely performed, it has occasionally been paired with the G Minor Quartet in recordings. You can listen to it, here.)

When Grieg sent his new G Minor quartet to his publisher, they rejected it on the grounds, given all the “double-stops” in the string writing, perhaps the work should instead be a string quintet or maybe a piano quintet? So he sent it elsewhere instead.

It's that rich, almost orchestral texture Grieg gets from his players, requiring each one to play full chords at dramatic moments so it sounds like more than four instruments playing. And G Minor was a good key for that, several pitches of the open strings fitting in the scales of G Minor and its closest related tonalities.

Much is also made of Grieg's “adventuresome” harmonies and its leaning towards an impressionist style – one we associate with French painting and the music of Claude Debussy – except given Grieg's absorption of Norwegian folk music, many of these “adventuresome chords” are the result of trying to harmonize a tune that does not necessarily conform to standard classroom procedures of Late-18th Century classical style.

Just as other composers inspired by their own folk music discovered, this juxtaposition of worlds led to what we would think of as their own “nationalist” voices: while initially colorful – for instance, those odd “augmented” intervals and scales Grieg used in his “orientalist” moments like Peer Gynt's “Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter” which he detested and complained “reeked of cow-pies” – these added sonorities eventually led to the assimilation of folk and art music, as Dvořák, Mussorgsky or Bartók would do, where it became more difficult to determine what was “original” and what belonged to an authentic folk (or folk-like) melody.

Writers claim Grieg's G Minor Quartet was a major influence on the development of Impressionism and particularly Debussy who also wrote a string quartet in the same key (!), despite Debussy's open antipathy to Grieg's music. One writer points out the similarities between the opening of Debussy's quartet and the opening of Grieg's which means, I guess, the opening of Tchaikovsky's B-flat Minor Piano Concerto could've been inspired by the finale of Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata?

But then I found another writer who said “Scholars call Grieg a ‘miniaturist’ due to his petite stature [footnoted source not found]. His music reflects this description.” Being short certainly didn't stop Schubert or Wagner from writing long pieces! Hasn't modern science pretty much debunked such things as Victorian phrenology? Oh, well... as usual, I digress... 

Was Grieg's folk-music influence simply the result of his being born in Norway? He studied in Germany, primarily in Leipzig, with German teachers and was given German composers as his role-models simply because, when he was growing up, there were no Norwegian composers to emulate. It wasn't till he lived in Copenhagen for three years and met the Danish composer Niels Gade (you can read about him in my post from this past Summermusic performances) that he became aware of music outside the German sphere and began to take more of an interest in composition.

(Keep in mind, since the 16th Century, Norway had been a Danish territory; after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, it was ceded to Sweden in a union similar to Austria-Hungary where the Swedish king would also be the King of Norway. It didn't become independent until 1905, two years before Grieg died, and the king it chose in a popular election had been the Crown Prince of Denmark who became King Haakon VII – Haakon VI had died in 1380, but once again I digress...)

Ole Bull
A key figure in the emergence of Norwegian music was the violinist Ole Bull – Schumann considered him the equal of Paganini – who would go on to have an international career, a curious association with Pennsylvania, and who got caught up in the growing nationalist movement of the 1840s, calling for independence from Sweden. At the time, the official language in Norway (despite being part of Sweden) was Danish and in 1850, Bull co-founded the first Norwegian-language theater in the country in his hometown of Bergen. Eight years later, he meet the 15-year-old Edvard Grieg – Bull's brother had married the sister of Grieg's mother whatever level of cousinship that would be called – and realized the sickly boy growing up in culturally isolated Bergen had musical talent so he arranged to send him to Leipzig to study piano at the Conservatory there.

By the way, it is intriguing to consider that Grieg wrote his quartet while spending the summer at a family home in the Hardanger region of Norway, south of Bergen, home of that most folksy of Norwegian folk instruments, the Hardanger fiddle!

Rikard Nordraak
But a more immediately influential friend was the young composer Rikard Nordraak whom he met in Copenhagen in the 1860s. One of his patriotic songs, Ja, vi elsker, became the de facto national anthem of the Norwegian nationalist movement.

Considering what it meant to be a Norwegian composer, Nordraak wrote,
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“They talk of carrying rocks to Norway but we have enough rock. Let us simply use what we have. Nationalism, in music for example, does not mean composing more Hallings and Springar such as our forefathers composed. That is nonsense. No, it means building a house out of all these bits of rock and living in it. Listen to the unclothed plaintive melodies that wander, like so many orphans, round the countryside all over Norway. Gather them about you in a circle round the heart of love and let them all tell you their stories. Remember them all, reflect and then play each one afterwards so that you solve all riddles and everyone thinks you like his story best. Then they will be happy and cleave to your heart. Then you will be a national artist.”
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Unfortunately, Nordraak died of tuberculosis in 1866 at the age of 23. The Funeral March young Grieg composed for his friend was something the composer asked to be played at his own funeral – at a time when Norway had finally become, almost 40 years after Nordraak's death, an independent nation.

– Dick Strawser

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.

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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