8th December 2019 – Maxwell Quartet – Programme notes by Chris Darwin

Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet Op. 74 No.1 in C (1793)
Andantino grazioso
Menuet & Trio
Finale: Vivace

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.Op. 74 No.1 introduction

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.Menuet's rising theme 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,Trio's A major is achieved by a simple device that Beethoven later loved to use: 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#.

Joey Roukens (b.1982) Visions at Sea (2011)

Joey Roukens, born in the Netherlands, studied composition in Rotterdam and psychology in Leiden. He has composed orchestral works, ensemble works, chamber music, solo instrumental works and an opera which have been performed widely in Europe and the US. His style is eclectic, as his biography says: “He seeks to organically integrate elements from highly diverse influences and aesthetics – including the rhythmic energy of early Stravinsky, the late-Romanticism of Mahler and Sibelius, the ethereal qualities of Debussy, Ravel and Takemitsu, American mavericks like Ives and Nancarrow, post-minimalism (John Adams), but also certain kinds of pop music and jazz. Not because Roukens cannot choose, but because he feels they are all part of the musical air he breathes.”

He says of Visions at Sea: “(it) is a 17-minute work that can be heard as a kind of dream sea voyage: on that journey the listener comes across all kinds of memories, all kinds of ‘visions’ of the Dutch maritime past – in particular the Golden Age (17th C), the time of the Dutch East India Company. In this piece, for example, fragments, quotes, have been incorporated from sailor songs that have been handed down from the Golden Age and that are known to have been sung on board the company ships. Sometimes echoes are also heard from other music that a seaman might have heard at the time, such as Sweelinck’s music. These quotes often sound alienating in the piece, like distorted memories that briefly emerge from the fog and then go back into it.

“The piece starts calm and ethereal, like a typically slowly changing Dutch sky above a still sea. Little by little the piece becomes more and more brooding and the sea increasingly wilder, turning halfway through the work into a particularly violent, turbulent sea leading to a moment of storm, panic and shipwreck. Gradually the hectic pace disappears and the calm and supported music returns from the beginning. At the end the music rises to ‘stratospheric heights’: here I had an image in mind, as described in a 17th century maritime book, about ‘the perfect ship’ with which (perished) sailors make their last journey, a journey not by sea but by air: the ship ascends to heaven.”

Scottish Folk Music (4’)


Franz Schubert (1797-1828) String Quartet in D minor, D.810 (Death and the Maiden) (1824)
Andante con moto
Scherzo: Allegro molto

Though composed in the same yearfortissimo triplet as the A-minor “Rosamunde” quartet, the opening four bars of this D minor quartet set it in a different world from Rosamunde’s understated charms. The hammered out fortissimo triplet figure (illustrated) demands our serious attention, but is immediately transformed into an almost apologeticallytender pianissimo tender pianissimo phrase (illustrated). After a pause, the tension mounts, driven by the triplets, to a reinforced version of the opening. This emotional roller-coaster continues throughout the movement. The triplets sometimes give way to the dotted rhythm of a yearning tune (illustrated)dotted rhythm of a yearning tune that Jack Westrup attributes to Schubert’s admiration for Rossini; this theme in turn gets transformed into more serious matter against running semiquavers.

The emotional intensity and tightness of construction of the movement recall the later Beethoven but it was written the year before the first of Beethoven’s late quartets. The repeated notes of the opening bars and their rhythm are echoed in the themes of the other three movements.

The themetheme for Andante con moto for the variations of the G minor Andante con moto comes from Death’s contribution to a short Schubert song of 1817, inviting a terrified young girl to sleep safely in his arms. The quartet version is lighter: a fourth higher and con moto. The calm of the first two variations is shattered by the brutal dactyls (–˅˅) of the third, in a more rapid version of the rhythm of the theme; calm returns only to be broken again by the long crescendo of the repeat of the fifth variation to yet more terrifying dactyls. The terror subsides to a serene end and a Schubert-hallmark switch to the major.

TheTrio's D-major theme fiercely syncopated energy of the Scherzo contrasts with a tranquil Trio, whose D-major theme (illustrated) is related to the work’s opening. The Scherzo leads to the tarantella-form Presto finale. The tarantella folk-dance hails from Taranto in southern Italy: a courting couple dance encircled by others as the music gets faster and faster. Taranto independently gave its name to the tarantula spider, the effects of whose allegedly serious bite could, it was thought, be ameliorated by wild dancing. Pepys records tales of itinerant fiddlers cashing in on this belief especially during the harvest when bites were more frequent. It is quite possible that Schubert intends the allusion to cheating death, but either way this energetic dance with its prestissimo ending provides a rousing climax to the quartet.

See Chris Darwin’s Programme Notes for other works on his web page.