Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet in Bb Op 33 no 4 (1781)
Famous string quartets have a problem in daring to perform this work. In his book ‘The Great Haydn Quartets’ Hans Keller includes 44 of the 45 quartets between Op 20 and Op 103. But Op 33 no 4, uniquely, doesn’t make ‘greatness’. Here is Keller in typically magisterial mode: “It has, unfortunately to be admitted that by playing the Bb quartet as often and as importantly as any of the other quartets from Op 33 many a famous quartet … proves its utter ignorance and incomprehension of what matters in a great quartet and what doesn’t …” (p.7) !! So, thank you Doric for braving Keller’s posthumous scorn to bring us this delightful if uneven work.
Unusually, the piece opens (illustrated) half-way through the bar before a little dotted figure that seeds many of the motifs in the quartet. The following repeated trilled figure provides material for the accompaniment in a movement which is dominated by the first violin. The Scherzo second movement’s theme is a simple modification of the work’s opening, preparing us for the glorious slow movement – the emotional heart of the work. Its theme starts with another version of the dotted figure (illustrated) and again the first violin gets the lion’s share.
The last movement’s speed and wit provides a splendid contrast. Again the dotted motif shapes the theme, but this time the dotted note is replaced by three repeated notes (illustrated – under x). Again, the first violin has most of the fun, but Haydn makes rather mean amends to the two inner parts by giving them over 60 bars of manic accompaniment shortly before the first violin further transforms the theme with grotesque jumps and the work ends with a typical Haydn surprise.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) String Quartet No 5 BB110 (1934)
Scherzo: alla bulgarese
Finale: Allegro vivace
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge inherited substantial wealth from her Chicago-based wholesale-dealer father. She used it most generously and effectively to encourage the writing and performing of chamber music: auditoriums in Washington and New Haven, the Coolidge medal for services to chamber music and the Tanglewood Festival all sprang from her support, along with directly commissioned new works. Bridge, Britten, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky all received commissions, as indeed did Bartók. He had been recommended to her by the Pro Arte Quartet, themselves supported by Coolidge. Bartok’s Fifth String Quartet was the result, composed in just one month in 1934 and premiered in the Coolidge Auditorium in April 1935. Bartók had toured the States on a two-month concert tour in the winter of 1928-29, and finally emigrated there with his wife in 1940.
1934 saw the start of a new phase of Bartók’s life. Dohnányi’s appointment to be head of the Budapest Academy of Music in the summer of 1934 allowed Bartók to realise a long-held ambition to transfer to a position in enthnomusicology in the Academy of Sciences. The post allowed him to devote himself to a ‘complete, rigorously critical and exact publication’ of Hungarian folk music, in collaboration with Kodály, with whom he had collected about 14,000 items. Release from his everyday music teaching lead to a golden period of composition. Four major chamber works were written between 1934-39: the last two string quartets (nos 5 & 6), the Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. His folk-music collecting provides rhythmic and melodic material for the fifth quartet. For example, the third movement has one Bulgarian time signature – 9/8 grouped as (4+2+3) – for the Scherzo, and another – 10/8 grouped as (3+2+2+3) – for the Trio.
The fifth quartet, though chromatic, has a melodic and tonal flavour that comes from Bartók’s ‘melodic new chromaticism’. With this, as reported by Yehudi Menuhin, Bartók ‘wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal’. By interleaving the notes from two different modes (the whole tone Lydian mode and the Phrygian) he could use all 12 tones but preserve a common base (illustrated).
Bartók was also fascinated by different structural symmetries. At the largest scale the Fifth Quartet is an arch shape, centred around a Scherzo & Trio. But within this arch is a wealth of different structures. For instance, the first movement is itself an arch: the different sections of the exposition are played in the recapitulation in reverse order, and also inverted in pitch. The last movement is also arch-like: ABCB’A’ plus a final coda. Between these movements are two slow movements in Bartók’s ‘night-music’ style. In addition, the keys of the different sections progress through a whole-tone scale: the exposition is in B♭, C and D; the development is in E; and the recapitulation is in F♯, A♭and B♭. The whole tone scale contains the tritone, which is a particularly important interval in this quartet: it divides the octave symmetrically into two equal halves.
Despite all these erudite constructions, the work is a captivating emotional roller-coaster. You never know what is coming next. For example (spoiler alert!), just before the end of the last movement there is a bizarre episode: marked Allegretto, con indifferenza. The second violin plays a simple rising tune (illustrated) whose banality is emphasised by the barrel-organ style accompaniment. No one quite knows who is the target of its unexpected irony.
The very definite ending (illustrated) gives a final symmetric twist, with the contrary-motion scales inverting one another.
And all this in just a month!
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) String Quartet Op. 44 No.2 in E minor (1837)
Allegro assai Appassionato
Scherzo – Allegro di molto
Felix Mendelssohn was born into an intellectual and affluent household: his grandfather Moses was the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, and both his father and mother’s family were bankers. Felix and his sister Fanny were outstandingly precocious and were driven hard by their parents – their day started at 5 am at the latest. In 1818 the 9-year old Felix publicly performed a Dussek piano concerto from memory, and his first datable composition was performed in Berlin the same year. His copious early compositions outshone even those of Mozart. When Mendelssohn was 12 he played for Goethe who had also heard the young Mozart. Goethe was impressed: “…what [Mendelssohn] already accomplishes bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.” At the age of 16 he produced his first undoubted masterpiece, his String Octet Op 20, incidentally at the same time as a metrically accurate German translation of a comedy by Terence which was published by his tutor the following year!
Mendelssohn’s string quartets fall into four groups: an early (even for Mendelssohn) quartet from 1823; the Op 12 & 13 quartets written in 1829 & 1827 respectively; the three Op 44 quartets including today’s from 1837-8, and finally the Op 80 quartet, a personal outpouring of grief written in 1847 in response to Fanny’s unexpected death, and only a few months before his own. The A minor Op 13 quartet appeared shortly after Beethoven’s late quartets were published; Mendelssohn studied them closely and incorporated many compositional techniques especially from Op 132 & 135 into his Op 13, giving us an interesting link between “classical” and “romantic” quartet writing.
Mendelssohn started work on today’s E-minor quartet in the spring of 1837 while on honeymoon, with his young French bride Cécile (10 years his junior and “fresh, bright and even-tempered” in Fanny’s view); he finished it in Frankfurt on 18 June. That October it was given its first performance by a quartet led by Ferdinand David who coincidentally had been born a year after Mendelssohn in the same house in Hamburg.
The first movement opens (illustrated) with syncopated crotchets pushing forward, and an optimistically rising theme on the first violin. Soon an even more energetic figure appears – unison semiquavers in all four instruments, which are subsequently fragmented and tossed between the players. Some repose and reflection comes with a transformed version (illustrated) of the opening theme. Mendelssohn develops and combines these contrasting ideas with apparently effortless fluency, ending tranquillo in the major with the two main themes happily reconciled.
The E-major Scherzo is heir to the light, staccato, tripping, scherzo writing of his Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. The G-major Andante also moves onward (Mendelssohn warns the players “This piece must never be allowed to drag”) with two bars of fluid, pulsing semiquavers from the second violin stretching and opening the windows to allow in the first violin’s beautiful song. (Well, it was written on his honeymoon!)
The last movement opens with a restless figure in the minor key; relentlessly energetic quavers carry us along until we reach this expansive theme in the major (illustrated). The quavers are persuaded to go into the major for a while too, but return to the minor and power on tirelessly to a triumphant conclusion.