Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Emerson Quartet Plays Bartók and One of Their Own

This is the second in a series of three posts for this Saturday's performance by the Emerson Quartet, a special presentation in honor of Market Square Concerts' 40th Anniversary and the Emerson's decision to retire after a career of 43 seasons as one of the world's leading chamber music ensembles. 

Join us Saturday Evening at 7:30 at Temple Ohev Sholom, 2345 North Front Street in uptown Harrisburg.

The program concludes with Beethoven's Quartet in A Minor, Op.132, which you can read about in the previous post here, and opens with Borodin's tuneful Quartet No. 2 in D Major, the subject of the third post which you can read here. This post is about the two works in between: three songs by Eugene Drucker, Of Troubled Times, and Bela Bartók's First String Quartet.

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Consider the chronological distance separating the four different works on the Emerson Quartet's program: from the second of Beethoven's Late Quartets, completed in 1825, it was 56 years till Borodin wrote his 2nd Quartet in 1881. The distance from Borodin's quartet to Bartók's, however, only 28 years later, may sound greater: more, stylistically, has changed in between; though one could argue Beethoven's style was so atypical of his age, it's not a fair comparison to pit him against Borodin's pleasant if old-fashioned lyricism and Bartók's striving toward “the new.” And then, a recent work by Emerson Quartet violinist, Eugene Drucker, written during the on-going Pandemic as recently as 2020, is actually separated from the Bartók by 111 years, the broadest span on the program. If the Beethoven is almost 200 years behind us, and it's over 100 years between the two “modern” pieces on the program, does that mean anything for a listener trying to sort out where these composers fit into the Time Line of Music History?

More important, however, would be where these pieces stand in relation to what the composers were writing in their own lifetimes. But for those who still think Bartók is “modern” (he finished this in 1909), that would mean – if Bartók's quartet was being premiered this year, the conservative listener, longing for the familiar comfort of Borodin's beautiful tunes and lush harmonies, might be waxing nostalgic over something composed in 1994. Considering what we may have been listening to then, those of older than, say, 30-something, has there been that significant a change in how musical styles developed over a few decades?

Enough of that suggestion: in this post, I'll provide you what the composer wrote about his lockdown-inspired song cycle and Bartók's answer to the break-up of a relationship when he was in his late-20s (he was, coincidentally, born the same year Borodin composed his 2nd Quartet.

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Eugene Drucker
Eugene Drucker is not just a founding violinist with the Emerson Quartet. In addition to his life as a performer, soloist, and teacher, he has written a novel, The Savior, published in 2007, with another one, Yearning, published late last year. He made his debut as a composer in 2008 with a set of Shakespeare Sonnets for baritone and string quartet, and Madness and the Death of Ophelia, based on scenes from Hamlet, a concert piece for female speaker/singer and string quartet. A setting of five poems by Denise Levertov for soprano and quartet premiered in 2017, and "Series of Twelve" for string quartet premiered the following year. 

Here is the premiere performance of the first of five poems making up "Levertov Settings," The Blind Man's House at the Edge of the Cliff with mezzo-soprano Ashley Chui and a quartet with the composer playing 1st Violin:


Of Troubled Times is a cycle of three songs Drucker wrote for mezzo-soprano, violin, and cello, setting a poem by Lucy Murray and two more by Denise Levertov who had been a personal friend of his in the decade before her death in 1997. Here are the program notes for the piece, provided by the composer:

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In December 2020, music annotator, poet and novelist Lucy Murray wrote a brief, touching poem about the pandemic that had already wrought so much destruction in the U.S. and the rest of the world. The verse ends with a wish, perhaps almost a prayer, that “love [may] persist and sorrow soon be put to rest.” Unfortunately, much more death was to follow in the next few months, and, as it turned out, December had not yet “brought the cruelest time.” But there was “hope in sight,” after all, with the development and rollout of various vaccines that had been researched, created and manufactured in record time. I thought that a musical adaptation of this wistful, sensitive poem could introduce the brief song cycle I had already begun to compose on several works of Denise Levertov before the pandemic, for mezzo-soprano, violin and cello. In the first few months of the lockdown, in the spring of 2020, I continued to work on that group of settings, and later welcomed the opportunity to add “Of Troubled Times.” Ms. Murray’s poem addresses the human disaster of a pandemic. The rest of the poetry in this cycle deals with other sorts of catastrophes, but I thought that they could be linked musically (through similar motifs and harmonic language) as well as thematically, and decided to use Of Troubled Times as the title for the entire piece. I have rendered the somewhat hopeful note at the end of the first song with a degree of ambiguity, so that the final cadence does not provide a comfortable resolution before we move on to the next setting.

The great activist poet Denise Levertov (1923-97) often wrote about war, environmental degradation, the excesses of unbridled capitalism and the spiritual wasteland that characterizes so much of modern life. The Love of Morning oscillates between horror and childlike innocence, which I’ve tried to capture through tone painting and sudden shifts of texture. Arpeggios across all four strings in both violin and cello illustrate the feeling of being “swung like laughing infants” when “we wake to birdsong”; then, abruptly, a series of dull, plodding chords evokes the struggle of the human spirit on “gray mornings,” and a few moments later, the cello resumes the arpeggios to accompany the “summons” that calls us to take some sort of action to alleviate the world’s “leaden burden of human evil.”

On the Mystery of the Incarnation asks us to confront “the worst our kind can do,” and marvels at the fact that God’s Word has been entrusted to “this creature,” so “vainly sure it and no other is godlike,” rather than to an innocent life form like a flower or a dolphin. This gift has been accorded us “as guest, as brother,” “out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve.” I could find no better way to interpret “the Word” in musical terms than to imitate the harmonic simplicity, voice leading and phrase structure of a Bach chorale. But I deny the listener/reader a satisfying resolution, slipping from the warmth and reassurance of an expected cadence in F Major to an E Minor chord with an added seventh as the instrumental sound turns to a brittle sul ponticello timbre. 

– ©2022 Eugene Drucker

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Bela Bartók in 1927
Regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Bela Bartók's first published quartet is in A Minor. That doesn't mean it sounds like it's the A Minor you might be familiar with from, say, a teenaged Mendelssohn's A Minor Quartet, much less Beethoven's Op.132 Quartet on the second half of the program or even the famous opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (also in A Minor). By 1900, the idea of what keys you could "move to" within a piece – the home or central tonality that makes it a 'Something in A Minor' – was very different from the choices composers had in 1700 or even 1800. All of this weakened the hold of the "central tonality" as a structural force in the music. Mozart, in his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, written in 1788, moved so quickly through so many keys at one point in the finale, listeners then must have become dizzy because they had no idea what “key” they were in, everything whizzing by so fast. In fact, some writers in the 20th Century pointed to this as an early example of “atonality” which basically means "music that has no fixed tonal focus."

It's not that the music's chords themselves were necessarily becoming more “dissonant”: it's that the harmonic dissonance, increasing the tension between the chords, was beginning to fracture the confidence a listener might have knowing what key-center or tonality the music was in at any given moment.

While most concertgoers would be more familiar with Bartók's 3rd, 4th & 5th Quartets, the first of the six may come as a surprise, but I guess you could say the same to someone who'd only ever heard Beethoven's Late Quartets and had never, somehow, managed to hear any of his Op. 18 Quartets. What a difference twenty years can make!

Bartók was 27 when he began his first string quartet, writing most of it in 1908 (he finished it in January the next year). At the same time, Schoenberg was working on his 2nd Quartet, the one with the soprano in the final two movements, the last of which is famous for being the first “atonal” composition, more or less.

Schoenberg's 1st Quartet had been premiered in 1907 in Vienna, though I doubt Bartók would've had a chance to hear it by the following year. Even if they don't sound very much alike, they share a common sense regarding disintegrating tonality and interestingly also a tie with the past for all their looking into the future, as if wondering where the tonality of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler was heading in the first decade of the 20th Century.

1st Movement: Lento (Very slow)


Bartók's opening movement sounds little removed from the fugue that begins Beethoven's C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131 (begun immediately after he'd completed the Op.132 Quartet), slow and meditative but also timeless (hear the opening movement of Beethoven's quartet here, from the Emerson's 1997 Grammy-winning recording). It's also important to keep in mind Bartók described this opening movement as “my funeral dirge” – not just “a” funeral dirge but “my” funeral dirge: What could possibly have happened to a young man in his late-20s at the very beginning of his career that would inspire him to compose that? (See below.)

Whether he knew anything about Schoenberg's newest pieces like the 2nd String Quartet with its first example of “atonal” music (with its text, “I feel air from a different planet”), he did find out what Debussy had been up to in Paris. His friend and fellow-composer Zoltan Kodály had just returned from a trip to France with several scores of Debussy's works. You can definitely hear the influence of Debussy beginning at 5:59 into the clip of Bartók's first movement. It's such a sudden change from the rest of the movement, it almost sounds like Kodály dropped by with a score of Debussy's Quartet the day Bartók was composing this passage... Stranger things have been known to happen and strike a young composer's fancy!

2nd movement: Allegretto (not too lively)  

3rd Movement: Introduction. Allegro – Allegro vivace = = = = = = =

As I've often told my students, a young composer's job is to be a sponge and soak up everything you hear, anything that excites you, whatever you like but wonder “how can I do that my own way?” Eventually, some influences will go by the wayside and others will come to the fore and solidify into that elusive thing called “the composer's voice,” that recognizable style where, if you're lucky, as soon as someone hears it, they know, “Oh yeah, that's Bartók!”

Bartók & Kodály (1908)
Now, in Budapest at this stage of his life, Bartók probably didn't know much about what Schoenberg was writing in Vienna. I suspect he might have known Transfigured Night written in 1899 once the score was published in 1904 (follow the link for a live performance with the Emerson Quartet and Friends). Perhaps he might've made a trip to Vienna (rare for Bartók) or an ensemble had brought something by Schoenberg to Budapest (possible); or a friend like Kodály had come back from hearing a concert there and told him all about it. Certainly, as an amateur forensic musicologist, I hear shades of Schoenberg's influence by 2:24 into the 3rd movement's clip but curiously more of what I'd associate with serial Schoenberg which was some 12 years off in the future! It certainly doesn't strike me as “sounding particularly like Bartók.” But then, by 3:37, we are definitely in more recognizable territory with a melody whose rhythms are based on Hungarian speech-patterns and more representative of Bartók's mature style. But why does this sound so different from everything else in the movement?

Bartók in 1903
Well, in 1904, visiting a summer resort, Bartók heard a teen-aged peasant girl from the nearby rural area singing folk-songs unlike anything he'd heard before. But it wasn't until 1908 when Kodály, who had already started studying the folk music of Hungary, introduced his collection to Bartók. This then began his systematic study of not only Hungarian folk music but also a great deal of folk music from across Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Again, it's almost as if, on the day he was writing this passage, Kodály stopped by and they were talking about genuine folk-songs (which Kodály had already begun studying) and Bartók's creative spirit sparked at the possibilities.

In Europe, Hungarian music really meant “Gypsy Music.” This was what Franz Liszt, born in Hungary but cosmopolitan by nature, introduced to the world in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and what the very German Brahms incorporated into his Hungarian Dances and the dance-like finales of works like the 1st Piano Quartet or the Violin Concerto. He'd heard this music as a young man, accompanying a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Reményi. Basically, this was the urban pop music of the day and, like jazz fans in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, people in Vienna went to smoky taverns to hear gypsy bands play the night away (the good Dr. Brahms had his favorite haunts with bands he followed like any jazz fan).

Bartók recording folk songs in 1908

Bartók first incorporated some of this real folk-song style in the last movement of this 1st String Quartet, then later writing several piano pieces based on it that year as well. The photograph of Bartók (above) was taken later in 1908, in fact, as he recorded peasants in rural Slovakia singing into an Edison recording machine! Later, the common structure of much of this folk music would inspire him to create a harmonic and melodic vocabulary unlike standard classical tonality. When he would use this later in his own original works, he referred to it as his “imaginary folk-music.”

I couldn't find anything that wasn't overly arranged (either too New Agey or just rocking out in a pop-rock style), but here's an example of a quiet song about unrequited love that may give you an idea. (If you ever get a chance to hear one of those Nonesuch “Explorer” recordings, many of them transferred to CD, you're in for a definite ear-opener!)

Just as Schoenberg was finding his future voice in his first attempts at writing atonality in 1908 with the last movement of his 2nd String Quartet (“air from a different planet” indeed), Bartók was finding his in the realm of folk-song with the last movement of his 1st String Quartet begun in the same year.

What I'd be curious about is – and I've been unable to find any reference to that theme in particular – is it a genuine folk song, something he'd heard or Kodály gave him, or did he make it up to sound like a real folk song? And if it were real, did it have a text that perhaps had some extra-musical association for him – perhaps resonating with something else going on in his life?

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Stefi Geyer
In 1907, Bartók had fallen in love with a violinist named Stefi Geyer (this photograph of her is dated 1905: she would have been about 17, then). Apparently it was mostly a one-sided relationship, whether completely unrequited or not. Being a composer, naturally Bartók wrote her a violin concerto but when she broke off the relationship the following year, he suppressed the work which was not published until after they had both died. However, after they'd broken up, he did use the first movement as the first of Two Portraits, re-naming it “Ideal,” even three years later adding a dissonant, ironic second portrait labeled “Grotesque.” He uses a sonority of a minor chord with a major 7th superimposed on it – F#-A-C#-E# which he referred to as his “Stefi Chord.” (A version of this motive is spelled out in the opening pitches of the 1st Quartet.)

Emotionally, he was strongly affected by this rejection and his friends worried about the state of his health. After he'd begun work on a new string quartet, he wrote to her that it opened with what he called “my funeral dirge.” If this event signaled the end of one aspect of his life – before the year was out, he married one of his piano students, apparently on the rebound: it was not to be a happy relationship – the quartet ends with another sound that would become his future voice, its inspiration found in the folk songs of his ethnic heritage, something only recently discovered within him, resonating in his innermost soul, and which would form the foundation of his mature musical voice. He would later describe the whole quartet as “a return to life” (keep in mind, in the midst of his “Prayer of Thanksgiving,” in the Op.132 Quartet, Beethoven marked the contrasting motive “finding new strength”!)

In 1984, Hungarian conductor Zoltan Rosznyai was the guest conductor for a Harrisburg Symphony concert that featured concertmaster Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet, then in residence with the orchestra, playing the Two Portraits. I remember Rosznyai explaining to the orchestra how he'd known the Geyer family and had met Stefi Geyer late in her life at a sanatorium in Switzerland where she'd spent most of her life.

As I recall Rosznyai's explanation, Bartók was just too unpredictable for her and presumably not regarded as a good match by her father. She was also only 19 at the time; and Bartók, remember, recently appointed a junior teacher at the Budapest Conservatory, was 27. Not long afterward, she married a Viennese lawyer, presumably a more stable personality and a more securely established professional. After he died during the Flu Epidemic of 1918, she married composer Walter Schulthess and moved to Zurich where she taught and performed. She died there in 1956.

The violin concerto Bartók had composed for her wasn't discovered until after she died, and first heard in 1958. The famous and rather large-scale concerto Bartók wrote in 1937 now had to be re-christened the Violin Concerto No. 2 to make room for this slighter, less mature early work inspired by unrequited love. Its aftermath became the starting point for the first of his six string quartets, starting a collection regarded as monumental to the 20th Century as Beethoven's had been to the 19th.

– Dick Strawser

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