Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) String Quartet in F Op 18 No 1 (1799)
Allegro con brio
Adagio affettuoso ed appasionato
Scherzo. Allegro molto
Beethoven was in his late 20s and living in Vienna when he wrote his six Op 18 string quartets. Uneducated (‘I do everything badly except compose’), rough-mannered, but with an alluringly intense personality and undoubted musical genius, he had managed to secure the patronage, both as composer and pianist, of Vienna’s cosmopolitan aristocracy. Chamber music was an important part of their diet, and Beethoven composed piano trios (Op 1) and string trios (Op 9), violin sonatas (Op 12) and piano sonatas (Ops 2, 10 & 14) before publishing in the ‘serious’ medium of the string quartet.
The great success of his three Op 9 string trios, published in 1798, encouraged him to accept a commission from Count Lobkowitz for six quartets. As models he had Mozart, who had died the year that Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn, and Haydn, from whom Beethoven (“the Great Mogul” as Haydn called him) had briefly had lessons in composition. Whilst their influence is undeniable, Beethoven in these ‘early’ (he was after all 29) chamber works already has his own voice, with tantalising seeds of his later styles clearly apparent. At the same time as commissioning Beethoven, Lobkowitz had also commissioned 6 quartets from Haydn. Perhaps recognising the quality of Beethoven’s works, and not wishing to subject himself in Viennese soirées to a direct comparison with his erstwhile pupil, Haydn only wrote two of the requested six quartets (Op 77) and completed no more quartets in his lifetime.
The striking opening phrase of the Allegro con brio (illustrated) is a speeded-up version of the opening of an earlier (Op 3) String Trio’s Adagio (illustrated). Its simple, easily recognisable shape helps the listener follow the upcoming complex contrapuntal writing – perhaps a cunning ploy by Beethoven to help win over his audiences to this revolutionary music.
The burial vault scene in Romeo & Juliet is known to have provided the inspiration for the extraordinarily dramatic slow movement. The long melodic line of the opening, and indeed the dramatic model for the movement as a whole, perhaps benefitted from the lessons in vocal composition that Beethoven was having at that time from Salieri. However, no-one but Beethoven could have written this movement. Unprecedented gestures such as the unbearably long silences building to the final climax are pure Beethoven at his most daring.
The Scherzo is no comfort after the death throes of the Adagio, with its odd phrase-lengths and swerving harmonies – especially taxing for the first violin in the Trio.
Beethoven certainly confirms his contrapuntal credentials in the
triumphant final Allegro. The tumbling triplets of its opening (illustrated) are again an echo of an earlier String Trio (Op 9 no 3 Presto; illustrated), and, like the opening of this quartet’s first movement, provide an easily recognisable motif for the listener as Beethoven plies us with fugal flourishes.
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) ‘Mládí’ Suite for Wind Sextet (1924)
arr for String Quartet (2015) by Kryštof Mařatka (1972-)
Mládí (Youth) was written in the middle of Janáček’s immensely productive last decade. His productivity had both political and personal roots: Czechoslovakia had become independent in 1918 and the previous year Janáček had met and fallen in love with the much younger Kamila Stösslová. Kamila is explicitly associated with the gypsy femme fatale of his song cycle ‘The diary of one who disappeared’ (1917), as well as with the heroines of his operas ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ (1922-3) and ‘The Makropoulos Affair’ (1923-5).
The wind sextet Mládí (Youth), along with his first string quartet, was written around the same time as these operas, and shares with them the technique of shaping individual phrases to the prosody of the speaking voice. The opening phrase captures the phrase ‘Mládí, zlaté mládí!’ (‘Youth, golden youth!’) and recurs throughout the work especially in the first and last movements.
The third movement borrows a theme from a short work Janáček composed earlier in 1924 for piccolo, bells and tambourine ‘March of the Blue Boys’, recalling his time as a chorister in the Old Brno Monastery.
Mládí’s first performance, in Brno, was given by teachers at the Conservatory there and was plagued by mechanical failure: the oboe had to effect an impromptu repair; he was more successful than the clarinettist who, because of a broken spring, could only pretend to play. Janáček’s understandable anger abated a month later with a successful and popular performance in Prague by members of the Czech Philharmonic.
Kryštof Mařatka’s (2015) arrangement of the wind suite is dedicated to the Zemlinsky quartet. Here he comments on some of the problems: “Throughout my work, it was necessary to take care of the stylization, that is to say to the way to express the musical speech and to adapt it, if necessary, so that it is faithful to the composer’s specific writing style for string quartet; this sometimes comes at the cost of modifying certain elements. [For example,] in the 1st movement, a dramatic passage for solo horn is reinforced by successively adding to a cello solo the other instruments of the quartet, in unison and octave”.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) String Quartet Op 41 No 3 (1842)
Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato
Assai agitato – Un poco adagio – Tempo risoluto
Finale: Allegro molto vivace – Quasi Trio
Coming after his ‘Liederjahre’ of 1840 and the subsequent ‘Symphonic Year’ of 1841, 1842 was Schumann’s ‘Chamber Music Year’: three string quartets, a piano quartet and the particularly successful piano quintet. Such creativity may have been due to Schumann at last winning, in July 1840, the protracted legal case in which his ex-teacher Friedrich Wieck, attempted to forbid him from marrying Wieck’s daughter Clara. They were married on 12 September 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
1842, however, did not start well for the Schumanns. Robert accompanied Clara at the start of her concert tour of North Germany, but he tired of being in her shadow, returned home to Leipzig in a state of deep melancholy, and comforted himself with beer, champagne and, unable to compose, contrapuntal exercises. Clara’s father spread an unfounded and malicious rumour that the Schumanns had separated. However, in April Clara returned and Robert started a two-month study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. During June he wrote the first two of his own three quartets, the third following in July. He dedicated them to his Leipzig friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn. The three quartets were first performed on September 13, for Clara’s birthday. She thought them ‘new and, at the same time, lucid, finely worked and always in quartet idiom’ – a comment reflecting Schumann the critic’s own view that the ‘proper’ quartet style should avoid ‘symphonic furore’ and aim rather for a conversational tone in which ‘everyone has something to say’.
In Schumann’s third quartet his wonderful lyrical gift sings out to us, and we are fooled by his rhythmic playfulness. The brief introductory Andante opens with a sighing, falling fifth (*, illustrated). It sets the mood and also opens the main Allegro and recurs throughout it in various guises. Schumann’s rhythmic trickery pops up in the second subject of the Allegro (illustrated). After a brief silence, the upper strings start their off-beat accompaniment just before the cello enters with the theme. Not only is this deceptive for the listener, but it is a notorious pratfall for the unwary amateur player.
Another rhythmic trick starts the second movement (illustrated). Here everyone enters on the last quaver of the bar, but the tune is tied over as if the first note were really the downbeat. The theme is a decorated descent over an interval of a fifth. There follows a set of entertaining variations culminating in one of huge and relentless energy with the accent resolutely on the offbeat, dominated by leaps that rework the opening falling fifth. A calming coda prepares us for the beautiful Adagio molto (illustrated), whose opening theme is based on a rising figure that again embraces an interval of a fifth. The serenity of this idea is twice challenged by a threatening transformation in the minor, but serenity prevails.
There are more rhythmic tricks in the Finale. The rustic dotted theme starts with an accented up-beat which sounds like a down-beat as if the rustics are tipsy. The movement is a Rondo with the opening episode alternating with a variety of others, including a “Quasi Trio” – compensation for the absence of a traditional Minuet/Scherzo & Trio movement.
Programme notes by Chris Darwin