All three of today’s works have a special relationship with semitones. For example, the Haydn opens with one that metamorphoses into its main theme; the Janáček opens with a harsh F#-G clash which sets the tone of this emotionally-charged piece; the Beethoven, famously, is built around the opening two embedded pairs of semitones. You can probably spot more examples.
Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet Op. 74 No.1 in C (1793)
Menuet & Trio
Haydn’s six ‘Apponyi’ quartets (Op 71 and 74) were written in 1792 & 1793 between his two extended visits to London. Prince Nicholas Esterházy, Haydn’s patron to whom he was devoted, had died in the autumn of 1790. His successor, Prince Anton, did not care for music and disbanded the Esterházy orchestra, for whom Haydn had composed for the previous 30 or so years. However, he did keep Haydn on, on full pay, with only nominal duties. Haydn was thus free to apply for leave to accept Johann Peter Salomon’s offer to spend a year in London (against Mozart’s advice, who thought the 58 year-old master too old for such jaunts). London’s crowded, vibrant musical scene challenged and exhilarated Haydn, and his six new ‘London’ symphonies, written for a larger orchestra, hall and audience than at Esterházy, were a sensation. Haydn returned home in the summer of 1792, to a Vienna without Mozart, who had died in December just short of his 36th birthday. The eponymous Apponyi, Count Anton Georg, was a relative of the Esterházys, and paid Haydn 100 ducats for the privilege of having the six quartets publicly dedicated to him. The quartets of the set have a power and brilliance that reflect Haydn’s experience with the London orchestras and his intention to take the quartets back to his London audience.
Like the three preceding Op 71 quartets, this quartet opens with a short introduction: apparently a simple C-major cadence establishing the key. But its importance turns out to be melodic rather than harmonic as its ascending B-C semitone sequence breeds no fewer than 6 ascending semitones in the following Allegro theme which in turn influences much of this quartet. Haydn’s love of thematic integrity also appears in the Trio’s echoing of the Menuet’s rising theme with the same rising figure moulding the theme for the brilliant fugally-developed Finale. Incidentally the transition from the Menuet’s C major to the contrasting brightness of the Trio’s A major, is achieved by a simple device that Beethoven later loved to use (see below): the first violin finishes the Menuet on a C natural, and simply slides up a semitone to start the Trio in A major on a C#.
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata) (1923)
Adagio – Con moto
Con moto – Vivo – Andante
Con moto – (Adagio) – Più mosso
George Bridgetower was a Polish-African violinist, a friend of Beethoven and the original dedicatee of his tempestuous A major violin sonata ‘Sonata per un mulattico lunatico’. Shortly after the first performance in 1803, Bridgetower insulted a woman-friend of Beethoven, who then changed the sonata’s dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer didn’t much care for Beethoven’s music and never played the ‘outrageously unintelligible’ sonata. This ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata inspired a novella (1889) by Leon Tolstoy in which a husband’s jealousy is inflamed by his wife playing the sonata with an attentive male violinist. Arriving home unexpectedly one night, the husband finds the pair together in the music room and stabs his wife to death. The violinist escapes (undignified to chase him in one’s socks); the distraught, guilt-ridden husband, acquitted of murder, rides the trains seeking the forgiveness of strangers.
In 1907-9 Janáček had been inspired both by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and by his Kreutzer Sonata. Unfortunately, not only his sketches from Anna Karenina but also the complete three-movement Piano Trio inspired by the Kreutzer Sonata have been lost. Much later in 1923, Janáček returned to the topic of the Kreutzer Sonata producing his first string quartet. We have Janáček’s word, corroborated by Pavel Dĕdeček the violinist at the first performance of the lost piano trio, that some of the ideas from the piano trio gave rise to the quartet. The quartet was written in just a fortnight in October 1923 in Janáček’s characteristic fragmentary, episodic, mature style; it swings the listener violently across a huge range of emotions. By then the 69-year old Janáček was having a musically productive but one-sidedly passionate and obsessive (730 letters) relationship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. He wrote to her: ‘I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one…Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata’ .
The opening contains two elements (illustrated): a slow (Adagio), anguished, rising and falling motif on the violin and viola, followed immediately by a faster (Con moto), busy motif on the cello. These two elements dominate the first movement, taking on a variety of forms, and recur throughout the work. It is perhaps not too fanciful to see their link with the opening Presto of Beethoven’s original ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata (also illustrated). Tolstoy’s jealous husband was particularly wary of its power: ‘..how can that first Presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies wearing low-necked dresses? … [it leads to] an awakening of energy and feeling unsuited both to the time and the place.’
The second movement, in the remote 6-flats of Eb minor, starts with a speeded version of the earlier falling motif and soon leads us into a frighteningly icy world of tremolo played sul ponticello – close to the bridge. The ice melts into the 5 sharps of B major with faster relentless triplets. The Con moto opening of the third movement (illustrated) echoes the second subject of Beethoven’s opening Presto (illustrated); its timidness is interrupted by more of Janáček’s scary sul ponticello. The final movement starts calmly with the rising motif of the work’s opening, but the energy rises relentlessly with fast accompanying figures that become a manic gallop to the exhausted end.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet in C# minor Op. 131 (1826)
Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
Allegro molto vivace
Allegro moderato – Adagio
Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
Adagio quasi un poco andante
Beethoven completed the three string quartets commissioned by Prince Galitzin (Op 127, 132 & 130) in 1826 after his Ninth Symphony. According to Karl Holz, the second violin in Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s string quartet, who had effectively become Beethoven’s secretary: ‘While composing the three quartets… such a wealth of new quartet ideas flowed from Beethoven’s inexhaustible imagination that he virtually had to write the Quartets in C-sharp minor and F major involuntarily. “My dear fellow, I’ve just had another idea,” he would say jocularly and with glistening eyes when we were out walking, and would write down a few notes in his sketchbook.’
The C-sharp minor quartet is extraordinary in many ways. It is unique among Beethoven’s works both in having seven continuous movements (continuing the increasing complexity from Op 132 to Op 130) and also in starting with a fugue. Beethoven had recently finished writing the wildest of all fugues, the Grosse Fugue last movement of Op 130; by contrast, the opening of Op 131 is serene; ‘It is as though Beethoven were rendering a peace offering to the fugue gods’ (Michael Steinberg).
As in his two previous quartets, Beethoven builds Op 131 around two pairs of semitones: initially a G#-A  B#-C#  sandwich for the opening four notes of the fugue. The fugal line becomes more complex with syncopations and more rapid movement. Shortly before the end, the cello enters with the main theme at half the original speed against the first violin at normal speed. The movement ends on a simple C#-octave jump.
Then comes the Beethoven (ex-Haydn, see above) trick of simply sliding up a semitone, to a D-octave jump, and, ‘Hey Allegro molto vivace’, we are in the Scherzo second movement with a new arrangement of two semitones: A#-B  and C#-D . After an almost petulant fortissimo outburst, the music subsides to well-separated pianissimo chords that are not quite final, and we go straight into a short bridging recitative heralding the fourth movement – a set of extraordinary variations that form the heart of the whole work.
Again the theme starts with two pairs of semitones: A-G#  and D-C# . The silent or deemphasised first beat is an important part of the theme. Listening to these variations it is easy to see why Beethoven the young pianist was so lionised for his ability to improvise, and why he himself wrote of this, his greatest quartet, that it showed ‘less lack of imagination than before’. There is another tentative ending and then, like a Shakespearean jester, the cello bursts in with the whirlwind Presto: a Scherzo packed with wit and contrast. After a couple of cycles of Scherzo-Trio the music seems to get lost and the players scurry around scratching a thin sul ponticello before Beethoven brings them to heel, abruptly stops the movement and immediately switches key, tempo and mood, leading us briefly into a world as serene as that of the opening fugue.
But we are brusquely kicked out of this world into the stormy, harsh intensity of the finale. Again semitones shape the opening theme: B#-C#  and G#-A . We are now back in the ‘home’ key of C# minor for almost the first time since the first movement, and Beethoven establishes other links with the first movement to give a sense of closure. The climax comes with triumphantly majestic long descending octaves in the first violin, but the movement does not end easily: there are violent swings of mood and tempo before Beethoven swerves into C#-major for the final six bars of this huge work.
Coda: Five days before Schubert’s death in November 1828, Op 131 was played at his bedside. Karl Holz who was present wrote: “The King of Harmony has sent the King of Song a friendly bidding to the crossing.”
Programme notes by Chris Darwin