Simon Rowland-Jones viola
Josef Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in D, Op.76 No.5
Largo ma non troppo. Cantabile e mesto
In 1795 Haydn returned from his spectacularly successful visits to England to the relatively light duties prescribed by the new Esterházy Prince Nikolaus II. Nikolaus had abandoned his father’s palace at Esterházy, sacked its extensive musical establishment, and divided his time between Eisenstadt and Vienna. Haydn was kept on, but his main duty was just to write a Mass for the Princess’s name day. He was free to accept other commissions. One such came from Count Joseph Erdödy, the Hungarian Court Chancellor.
Although Erdödy’s father had employed an orchestra to play in their family’s three palaces, on inheriting the title in 1789 his son responded both to contemporary taste and financial stringency by replacing the orchestra with a string quartet. In 1796 he placed a generous commission with Haydn for six quartets. The resulting ‘Erdödy’ quartets are a triumph, perhaps the pinnacle of Haydn’s long quartet-writing career.
The overall form of the fifth quartet is unusual, as one might expect from Haydn – the genre’s creator. Quartets usually have a first movement that is in sonata form; the middle movements tend to be a slow movement, which may be a set of variations or something more rhapsodic, and a minuet or scherzo. The final movement is often a fast movement in rondo form with a theme returning after each of a variety of sandwiched episodes. In this quartet though the first movement is a series of variations on a siciliano theme, the slow movement and the last movement are in sonata form, and only the Minuet obeys the rules.
The opening themes of the second and third movements (both illustrated) are closely linked: they start with the same sequence of four notes (under x & y) – a rising triad in the home key starting on the dominant. The Largo slow movement starts on an upbeat C# on the violin which you might think would lead into the home key of D; but no, this is Haydn and it turns out we are in F# major – the sharpest key signature in all his chamber music. After a pause, the slow movement continues with what Hans Keller described as ‘the deepest viola solo in all Haydn’ accompanied by the violins’ ethereal linked quavers. The cello takes over and leads us gloomily down through semitone modulations to pause again, now, briefly, in the even sharper C# major. The violin recaps the theme in the home key, lifting the clouds.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
String Quartet No.2 in C, Op.36 (1945)
Allegro calmo senza rigore
Chacony: Sostenuto – molto più andante – Molto più adagio
Britten’s compositions for string quartet fall into three groups that were written at very different times of his life: first, a number of early works from his teens (1928-33) reflect his growing independence from his teacher, Brightonian Frank Bridge; second, his first two numbered quartets, the first finished in 1941 in America and the second in October 1945, a few months after the premier of Peter Grimes. Finally, his third quartet was composed after the opera Death in Venice, shortly before Britten’s own death.
Britten had met Bridge through his first violin teacher, Audrey Alston, who had been a fellow student with Bridge at the Royal College. Although Bridge, an established composer, was only teaching violin rather than composition, he was so impressed by Britten’s precocious compositions that he befriended him and took him under his compositional wing, probably also encouraging Britten’s pacifism. When Britten and Pears left England at the end of April 1939, sailing on the SS Ausonia for Canada, Frank Bridge saw them off, giving Britten his viola. It was their last sight of him, since he died in 1941, the year Britten finished his String Quartet No 1. That work was commissioned by Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to whom Britten had been introduced through Bridge.
Today’s second quartet was written after Britten’s return to England and the success of Peter Grimes. In July 1945 Britten and Menuhin spent a gruelling 10 days touring Germany including a visit to Belsen where they played for survivors. Britten said that his visit to Belsen coloured everything he subsequently wrote. The despairing and angry mood of his song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne stems from this visit. The second quartet followed shortly afterwards and like the Sonnets was written in commemoration of Purcell’s 250th birthday that year; it was premiered exactly on Purcell’s birthday. The work was commissioned by arts patron and friend Mary Behrend to whom he wrote of it from Aldeburgh: ‘to my mind it is the greatest advance I have yet made’.
The opening bar shows Britten’s unsurpassed ability to conjure sound: a simple rising tenth with the four strings in octaves and the viola also holding the initial bottom C, the whole on a diminuendo. Simple. And magic. We are entering a different world – part Purcell, part the sea swell of Grimes, part Balinese gamelan – and all grounded in Britten’s ‘home’ key of C. In fact the whole quartet is firmly grounded in C, emphatically so with the 23 consecutive C-major chords at the end of the last movement. It is remarkable that Britten can produce such variety throughout the piece despite keeping so close to this home key.
The second movement’s series of nightmare episodes is a complete contrast to the first. It is in C minor and starts with fortissimo stabs against the muted flutterings of unsettling moths. The unease is augmented by echoing, parallel descending scales one note apart (illustrated). A ghoulish tripping accompaniment introduces anguished howling octaves from the first violin. Finally the moths flit away into the night and the nightmare is over.
The third movement brings us home from these torments to the security of C major and a Purcellian Chacony. The portentous opening
(illustrated) heralds a substantial movement, and indeed it is longer than the first two together. The Chacony theme is first played by all four instruments in octaves and is followed by 21 variations in four sets separated by cadenzas from cello, viola and then first violin. As Britten explained in a short program note for the première: ‘The sections may be said to review the theme from (a) harmonic, (b) rhythmic, (c) melodic, and (d) formal aspects’. This massive structure ends with a final variation interleaved with those 23 consecutive C major chords: an impressive and original ending to a profound and moving work.
– Interval –
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
String Quintet No.1 in F, Op.88 (1882)
Allegro non troppo ma con brio
Grave ed appassionato — Allegretto vivace
Finale. Allegro energico
Although less common than the string quartet, there were many well-known precedents for Brahms of a string quintet either with added cello or with added viola. Boccherini (himself a cellist) had written 113 two-cello quintets for the Spanish court; Mozart (who loved playing viola) had written 5 mature two-viola quintets, Beethoven one, and the dying Schubert had written his two-cello quintet in 1828. In fact Brahms himself had written a two-cello quintet in 1862 (along with a string sextet), but the doubts of his friends and his own self-criticism turned it eventually into his only piano quintet and the two-cello version was lost. Twenty years later, after writing three string quartets in the 1870s, Brahms returned to writing for a larger group of strings with this two-viola quintet.
An extra viola allows Brahms to indulge his liking for rich textures, and a consequent challenge for the players is to allow the appropriate individual parts to penetrate this richness. But an extra viola can also help liberate a viola or cello from providing the harmonies, and some of the finest moments in the work are when one of these sings out.
Although written when he was nearly 50, this quintet is not in a distinctly different style from Brahms’ chamber works written 20 years earlier. Brahms, unlike Beethoven, does not have distinctive early, middle and late periods. Although Brahms’ late works for clarinet, inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, do have a distinctive late feel to them, for the rest we can go along with Robert Schumann’s description of the young Brahms ‘springing fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove’.
Brahms was however always aware of the inheritance of Beethoven: ‘You don’t know’, he said ‘what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us’. But Brahms was generally happy to stick to Beethoven’s classical models for the form of his works, and this quintet is no exception. The first movement is in sonata form, indeed so clearly in this form that Brahms’ adored Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (née von Stockhausen) rather frankly wrote ‘It is refreshing to see the framework exposed in such bald, prosaic fashion’. The second is more novel, sandwiching slow with faster tempi, as if merging a conventional slow movement with a minuet, and the third a lively fugue. The whole work is permeated by key sequences that are built on the interval of a third: F – A – C#. Brahms was pleased with his quintet, describing it to Clara Schumann as “one of my finest works” and telling his publisher Simrock, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me.”
The opening theme is broad and genial; the second violin’s shadowing of the first’s theme after four bars highlights the richness of this 5-instrument combination. The second theme ‘baldly’ slips up a third from F to A and employs one of Brahms’ trade-mark rhythmic tricks: pitting triplets against duplets. The released, animated first viola sings the triplet theme against simple quavers in the first violin (illustrated).
The slow movement alternates two themes and their variations: a Grave theme (illustrated) based on a Sarabande Brahms wrote in 1854, and an Allegretto theme (illustrated) based on a Gavotte that he wrote in the same year. The movement starts in C♯ major, and ends down the mediant in A major.
Finally, we have an energetic fugue started by the first viola (reminiscent of the last movement fugue of Beethoven’s last Razumovsky quartet). There are more F to A key changes, and more duplet vs triplet fun before the pace quickens to a rollicking end.