Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók

M.C. Escher: Relativity (1953)
For this week’s dose of great music I chose a memorable performance by the award-winning Escher String Quartet offering a dramatic juxtaposition of Mozart’s most serene and poised String Quartet K.V. 589 and Bartók’s cinematically evocative and intense Second Quartet. Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

If the world has recently felt more like one of those M.C. Escher etchings, then today's "dose of contrasts" may help you find some balance. We usually think of Mozart and Bartók as polar opposites, but beneath their very different skins, there's actually a lot more in common than you might think.

Formed in 2005 and taking their name from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (the life of a touring musician under normal circumstances must seem like walking into one of Escher's dimensionally-challenged lithographs – never mind what our own lives are like in the Age of the Virus), the Escher Quartet performed with Market Square Concerts during the 2016-17 Season. They've been championed by the legendary Emerson Quartet and appeared as “Season Artists” of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, frequently streaming concerts live on the Internet (and available on-demand through YouTube), in 2013 one of a only few ensembles to win an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Here's the first half of their November 2016 concert with the Quartet in B-flat Major, K.589 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (written in May of 1790) and, by way of contrast, the Quartet No. 2 Op. 17 by Bela Bartók (written between 1915 and 1917) which begins 23:51 into the video. And yet, stylistic language and surface details aside, there may be a lot more in common between these two than with either of them and the late-Romantic quartet by Antonín Dvořák which concluded the original program (and is not included here).

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Mozart composed the first of his three “Prussian” Quartets in June 1789, right after returning from Berlin. He began work on Cosí fan tutte apparently sometime in September; the other two had to wait till later, in May and June, 1790, the first major works he completed after the opera's late-January premiere. The second of these, the one composed in May, is the one included on the Escher's program.

In the spring of '89, Mozart had traveled to Berlin, hoping to impress the Prussian king and find a reasonable court gig (or at least make some money in the process). In the fairly short run, he failed at both (that he died two and a half years later didn't help matters in the long run...) but apparently he did receive some sort of commission for some string quartets and six "easy sonatinas" for the king's daughter. The particularly cash-strapped Mozart told a friend he was going to have the King's dedication copy engraved at his own expense. And there's no coincidence that, the king being an avid amateur cellist, the cello is strongly featured in these works. Rather than just being stuck playing the harmonic bass-line with the occasional tune thrown in, very often the cello plays the melody in its uppermost register (unfamiliar territory for the typical chamber musician of the day).

There were, apparently, supposed to have been six quartets for King Friedrich Wilhelm II but somewhere before he finished the third, Mozart became aware the king had lost interest and no official "royal commission" would be forthcoming, so he was forced to "give them away for nothing" to his publisher.

And these were not easy times: in addition to Mozart's needing to write letters to his friend Puchberg begging for loans, Mozart found himself in bad health in April, complaining to Puchberg, "I would have gone to see you myself in order to have a chat with you, but my head is covered with bandages, due to rheumatic pains, which make me feel my situation still more keenly." (His "situation" was more likely a financial one.) At the beginning of May, he is complaining of a headache and a toothache. He wrote this Quartet, K.589, in May.

There was also on the national level a disastrous on-going war with Turkey the Austrians didn't want to be involved in (another situation of entangled alliances), not to mention the death of Emperor Joseph II in late-February, weeks after Cosí's premiere. Given the loss of a supportive patron, there was also the uncertainty of the future with the new emperor, Leopold II, who couldn't care less about music, much less someone like Mozart who was far too new-fangled for his wife's tastes.

Apparently, Mozart had been offered a not well-paying job in Berlin which he turned down in May 1789, but perhaps with these quartets and the disintegrating situation in Vienna, did he hope maybe to make another play for becoming an employee of the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II? Were they an audition piece, like Bach had sent those six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg

In May of 1790, things were very different than they'd been a year before. He was contemplating a possible visit to London and, if it proved favorable, perhaps staying there. Haydn had gone instead: Mozart was young, he could go another time. Unfortunately for classical music, Mozart died at the age of 35, months before Haydn, who'd turned 60 in London, returned to Vienna.

Given the role the Emerson Quartet has played in the Escher's history, here's the Emerson Quartet describing what it's like to record these works. (The clip begins with the finale from the 2nd of the Prussian Quartets, K.589, and concludes with the finale from the 3rd, K.590.)

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While Mozart's serene quartet, written so soon after the success of his opera, Cosí fan tutte, may seem the height of classical perfection, an emphasis on harmonic directness and formal clarity, clean textures and structural as well as aesthetic objectivity, Bartók's quartet will seem a violent contrast in so many ways, not the least with its dissonance and often emotional intensity, not to mention the rhythmic brutality of its middle movement.

Yet, compared to what else was going on in music at the start of the 20th Century, Bartók is beginning to evolve a style less associated with the late-Romanticism of Richard Strauss and Wagner which he initially found himself imitating, and finding a voice built more on clarity of textures, contrasts between segments rather than phrases spinning in long, flowing lines (this quartet's first movement still has some affinity with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht from 1899, considered "the pages of Tristan freshly smeared"), and short rhythmic and melodic cells, particularly in the middle movement, to build longer and longer units of structure often defined more by their contrasts than their similarities. On the whole, his 2nd Quartet is a work of transition between the past and what Bartók would write in the future. Schoenberg had abandoned tonality by 1911 with Pierrot Lunaire, but his first "serial" works didn't emerge until the 1920s.

In this sense, compared to many of his contemporaries, Bartók eventually found himself on the side of the Neo-Classicists (Stravinsky had just started branching out in this direction following The Rite of Spring: his "and now for something completely different" L'Histoire du Soldat was written in 1917 as Bartók was finishing his 2nd Quartet). So in a sense, there is more in common, beneath the surface, between Mozart and Bartók than first meets the ear, and more than either might have in common with Dvořák whose next-to-last quartet concluded this program: but then, most listeners would categorize Mozart and Dvořák as "pleasant to listen to" and Bartók as "difficult," or at least requiring a different level of concentration to appreciate.

When Bartók composed his 2nd quartet over a century ago, now, he had already written some significant works but, being a “modern composer” in conservative (and Germanic-oriented) Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was having trouble getting anything performed. So far, he had not attained anything like international recognition: in fact, if you've heard any of the recent pieces by Bartók performed here in Central PA in the few months before this concert – Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina playing his “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” at Messiah College for a September 11th Memorial Concert, posted with an earlier “weekly dose” last month, or the Harrisburg Symphony's performance with Sara Davis Buechner and one of Bartók's last almost-completed pieces, the 3rd Piano Concerto – it's difficult to argue Bartók had ever attained the same level of international fame as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, still often overlooked as one of the major “original voices” of the 20th Century.

Still, in this early work, written during the years of World War I – it was composed between 1915-1917 but not premiered until 1918 and published finally two years later – one hears different influences as a young composer absorbs his past to create what will, later, become recognizable as “Bartók's Voice.”

The first movement might remind one that, in 1907, Bartók discovered the music of Claude Debussy whose “impressionism” – and its ambiguous tritone interval – helped find a different way of creating a sound-world outside the standard classic tonal system of the previous two centuries.

Bartók had only recently discovered true Hungarian folk music as well, something that would have a more lasting impact on the development of the musical voice we know as Bartók's. Before, most people thought the Hungarian Dances and Rhapsodies of Brahms and Liszt were based on folk songs but they're actually what we'd call the “urban popular music” of the Gypsies (who are not, technically, of Hungarian origin). The second movement is a wild folk-dance, where he incorporates ideas he'd found on a folk-music collecting trip to Northern Africa, his trip to Algeria in 1913 his last field-trip before the War.

Again, strong contrasts often alternate between fragments and more complete segments with one slower, almost waltz-like section sounding more like a whoozy (and decidedly European) dance band tune. While he labeled this “Allegro molto capriccioso,” a compelling performance emphasizing the hypnotic drum-beats of its rhythms might seem more “barbaric” than “capricious.” It ends in a whirlwind.

The third movement is an odd and unsettling contrast: keep in mind, this was written in the midst of war. His friend Zoltan Kodály saw this whole quartet as a series of “life episodes” with the brooding intensity of the ending as “suffering.” As far as a 19th Century German would've been concerned – tonality aside – this would have been the slow movement, requiring a finale of whatever emotional impact to conclude the work satisfactorily.

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The idea of attending a live concert can be augmented by additional opportunities to enrich the listening experience. Of course, many people go to concerts to relax, because they enjoy classical music and you don't need to do anything beyond that just to enjoy a performance, whether you listen to how you enjoy the music or how the composer creates what it is you're enjoying or how the performers interpret what the composer wrote so you could enjoy it.

There are program notes by Lucy Murray which I always highly recommend, giving you some background about the composer's life, a description of what to expect with the work itself and perhaps critical responses to the music, how the music was received by listeners when it was “new music,” all bringing you different insights into what you'll be hearing.

A pre-concert talk – like the one I gave before this program – may focus on different aspects of the music ranging from the “heads-up” variety with musical examples of “what to listen for” to deeper background and a more intense examination of the composers' lives and the music they'd composed at that point in history. Sometimes, it may be a different way to listen to, say, a familiar piece or, with an unfamiliar one (“new music” or just “new to you”), ways of processing things to make them more accessible.

Taking the opportunity to experience anything that's available to you may enhance the “experience” of attending a concert, making the “listening” more enjoyable in the long run.

Years ago, a friend of mine argued against the need for such things (“why can't I just listen?”), one of the problems he had with the “overly technical” demands made by classical music on its listeners. He told me they don't need to do this for a football game, so why do it with classical music?

Of course, when classical music becomes as commonplace and ubiquitous as sports in this country – will weathermen preface their forecasts by saying “it's a great night for going to a concert”? – that may be, but then I point out those interminable pre-game panels on TV broadcasts where experts discuss the various teams' and their individual players' stats and past histories, not to mention the post-game wrap up where experts analyze the game's play-by-play highlights. (At least some people live in towns where they still can read a review of a concert they might have attended).

Just be thankful we don't talk over the music to tell you “and now Lapointe's taken the theme and runs off into the key of – wait, is that E-flat Major? What's he doing in E-flat Major?!”

(...with all due respect for Peter Schickele's classic “concert-casting” skit with Beethoven's 5th, “New Horizons in Music Appreciation.”)

– Dick Strawser

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

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