Robert Schumann (1810-1856) String Quartet in F Op 41 No 2 (1842)
- Allegro vivace
- Andante quasi variazioni
- Scherzo. Presto – Trio. L’istesso tempo
- Allegro molto vivace
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’.
The first movement of today’s second quartet, like many of Haydn’s, is based substantially on a single theme with which the first violin opens the work. Sunny geniality pervades this movement, which though unambitious shows a mastery of the contrapuntal techniques necessary to let everyone have something to say. The next movement is more unusual – a set of variations, with a generally subdued mood. The first variation uses a device that Schumann was fond of: misleading the listener as to where the beat is – it is actually a quaver later than it sounds.
The Scherzo lightens the mood in a movement reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The Trio again plays a rhythmic trick (illustrated), with the opening accompaniment sounding to be on rather than off the beat. (Schumann again uses this device in the first movement of his third quartet, in a way which is even more awkward for the players.) The movement’s brief coda unites material from the Scherzo and the Trio. The last movement is an energetic romp, with a fluent Mendelssohnian cheer triumphing over the darker, more sinister episodes characteristic of Schumann. Its opening employs another device of Schumann’s: he doesn’t start at the beginning – it is as if the players are already playing when you open the door on their performance.
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.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) String Quartet No 3 in B flat, Op 67 (1875)
Agitato (Allegretto non troppo)
Poco Allegretto con Variazioni
Compared with his second quartet which the Heath played for us last month, Brahms’ third quartet is more genial and relaxed, bucolic even. It was written in the summer of 1875, two years after the first two. Perhaps Brahms’ successful publication of these first two quartets had stopped the ghost of Beethoven from looking over his shoulder quite so often, or at least had diverted its attention to Brahms’ struggles with his first symphony (which finally appeared the following year as Op 68). Brahms was staying just outside Heidelberg in Ziegelhausen on the river Neckar – ‘a very pretty place‘. ‘I stay sitting here, and write from time to time highly useless pieces in order not to have to look into the stern face of a symphony.‘ Doubtless, Brahms did not seriously include his third quartet among these ‘highly useless pieces’; he preferred it to his first two, and his violinist friend Joseph Joachim thought it among his most beautiful chamber music. After Joachim told Brahms that he had been fingering some passages, Brahms wrote that he wanted Joachim to change the part so that no fingering was necessary: ‘The necessity for fingering is proof of bad writing’. Sadly, not all composers are as thoughtful to their performers!
The work is dedicated to an amateur cellist friend Theodore Engelmann who was professor of physiology at Utrecht. Perversely the work has no cello solo, but unusually favours the viola. Brahms suggested to Engelmann that he might like to change instruments in order to enjoy the viola part in the third movement.
That the viola is going to receive special treatment is evident from the opening bars of the cheerfully playful first movement: the viola in thirds with the second violin plays an off-beat accented flourish (illustrated) very reminiscent of the two-viola opening of Mozart’s last string quintet (K. 614). Being Brahms, we soon get a competing phrase which divides the bar’s 6 quavers into three groups of two rather than two groups of three. The play between twos and threes continues as the time-signature changes from 6/8 to 2/4 so that 4 quavers now occupy the same time as 6 previously did. But these rhythmic games just serve to enhance the fun.
The second movement has one of those glorious Brahms melodies (illustrated) that you want to just go on: this one gives the first violin 24 bars of bliss and a reprise towards the end.
The viola is the star of the third movement. Unhandicapped by the muting of its colleagues, it leads with an agitated theme related to the opening flourish of the first movement. It even gets a mini-cadenza towards the end of the first Minuet-style section.
The last movement is a set of variations on a graceful theme that Brahms might have had in mind when he wrote to Engelmann that ‘this quartet resembles your wife somewhat – it is dainty and original!’