The three pieces in this concert are all examples of how a single idea can permeate a musical work, giving it – without the listener being aware- an integrity lacking in randomly chosen movements. The Haydn quartet is built on scales, the Dutilleux on its initial 6-note chord and the Beethoven on just two pairs of semitones.
Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet in E♭ Op 76 no 6 (1797)
Menuetto: Presto, Alternativo
Finale: Allegro spiritoso
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 it 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.
Ever since Haydn had invented the mature string quartet in his Op 20 group of 6 quartets he had been experimenting with its form. Today’s quartet is no exception. The first movement is a leisurely Allegretto cast as a theme and variations. The theme (illustrated) is a sequence of ‘laconic phrases until the lilting expansive cadence of its final bars’ (Rosemary Hughes). Notice that each of the illustrated four initial phrases contains three notes of a rising scale. This scale motif is central to the whole quartet. Three variations at the leisurely Allegretto tempo follow before the starting gate is raised on an Allegro fugue which then metamorphoses into a final variation.
Haydn is disingenuous with the Fantasia second movement. Unlike Mozart who rarely strayed outside key signatures of 3 sharps or flats, Haydn was given to writing in lots of them. This movement is really in B major – 5 sharps, but it starts (illustrated) with no key signature albeit with the notes liberally sprinkled with sharps. Was this a riposte to complaints from his players about dreadful keys, or is the lack of key signature granting him licence for his upcoming fantastic explorations of the key-space? These explorations are facilitated by a series of four rising scales (echoing both the start of this movement and of the first movement) first on the violin and then on the cello. They lead the music off all around the block to Ab before a second lot of cello scales brings us home to B major and a proper key signature. The second half gives us a serene and poignant development of the theme.
Scales continue to figure in the scherzo-like Menuetto, and return in spades for its ‘Alternativo’ trio section which consists of almost nothing else: first rising, then falling. Four falling scales also make up the theme of the spirited final movement (illustrated).
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) String Quartet ‘Ainsi la nuit’ (1976)
Nocturne; Miroir d’espace; Litanies; Litanies II; Constellations; Nocturne II; Temps suspendu
Dutilleux’s published output is rather small. He did not lack creative spirit, but rather was too self-critical:
“I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That’s why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work and spend a lot of time changing it. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it?”
His care is appreciated by conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen: “His production is rather small but every note has been weighed with golden scales… It’s just perfect – very haunting, very beautiful. There’s some kind of sadness in his music which I find very touching and arresting.” Not everyone agrees. That skilful skewerer of reputations, Philip Hensher, calls him “the Laura Ashley of music; tasteful, unfaultable, but hardly ever daring … Personally,” Hensher admits to his Daily Telegraph readers, “I can’t stick him.”
Dutilleux’s only string quartet ‘Ainsi la nuit’ is a good piece to judge whether you are with Salonen or Hensher. Dutilleux’s sound-world builds on his compatriots Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen but also includes Bartók and Stravinsky, with a preference for the modal and atonal over the simple tonal. Many of the quartet’s intriguing sounds are based on the opening six-note chord (illustrated) which particularly contains the intervals of the fifth (C#-G#, F-C) and the second (F-G, C-D). The seven short movements explore different string techniques: pizzicato, glissando, harmonics, very high and very low, very quiet and very loud. Dutilleux, like Sibelius, has in his own words “a tendency not to present the theme in its definitive state at the beginning. There are small cells which develop bit by bit”. So, see what you think and do talk about it in the interval.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) String Quartet in A minor, Op.132 (1825)
Assai sostenuto – Allegro
Allegro ma non troppo
Alla marcia, assai vivace – piú allegro
Finale (allegro appassionato)
Beethoven’s last three years (1824-7) were predominantly occupied in composing what we now refer to as his late string quartets: Ops 127, 132, 130 (with its original ending the Great Fugue Op 133 ), 131 and 135. In November 1822, it had been 12 years since he had completed a quartet – the F minor Op 95 Serioso – and his interest in quartet writing might never have seriously revived had he not had a commission for “one, two or three quartets” from Prince Nicholas Galitzin, an excellent young amateur cellist from St Petersburg, living in Vienna. It is said that the commission almost went to Weber, whose recent opera Die Freischütz, had excited Galitzin; but fortunately Karl Zeuner, the viola player in Galitzin’s own quartet, nudged him towards Beethoven instead. Completing the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony occupied Beethoven for another eighteen months, but he finished three quartets for Galitzin, Ops 127, 132 and 130, in February, July and November of 1825. Op 131 followed, uncommissioned, immediately after.
The germinal idea of Op 132 is a pair of semitones (G#-A, E-F) in the cello’s opening phrase (illustrated), which is joined by the other three instruments playing variants of the same motif. This slow introduction is broken by rapid semiquavers from the first violin leading into an important motif (illustrated) which starts with one of the opening’s semitone pairs (E-F). The dotted rhythm (under y) provides a rhythmic engine to the movement and ends with the other semitone pair (G#-A).
The lilting opening of the following movement – a sort of Minuet and Trio – is again rich in pairs of semitones. Its mixture of the gentle and the acid always surprises, as does the curious Trio section with its bagpipe-like drone, its tricky part for the viola and the violent buffeting of a section in duple rather than triple time.
Beethoven had become worryingly ill with stomach problems in April 1825. His doctor strictly implored him (he admired Beethoven’s music) to forgo wine, coffee and all spices. Beethoven obeyed, the change in diet worked and a few weeks later Beethoven was back to composing. The gratefully heartfelt slow movement is entitled “A Hymn of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to God, in the prayerful Lydian mode”. Like a Bach chorale prelude, the movement opens (illustrated) with the lines of a hymn (under x) interleaved by faster moving phrases. After the hymn, there is a dramatic change to the optimism of D major for a faster variation section marked “New Strength” in which the two violins dance around each other. A more syncopated version of the hymn returns followed again by a variation and finally by a yet more syncopated fantasia on the hymn marked “with the most intimate feeling”. The convalescent falls asleep with gentle sighs…
…only to be woken by a disturbing March, with stresses on the wrong beats and a sinister fading of the motif in the second bar. This March is very soon interrupted by a recitative from the first violin. It is similar in form to the cello/bass recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, but here the mood is anguished, terrified, culminating in what Joseph Kerman describes as a scream as the violin holds a high F and then cascades down to a desolate bar of the semitone E-F that leads into the final movement.
The E-F semitone forms the second violin’s neurotic accompaniment (illustrated, under x), to the first violin’s restless theme with its G#-A semitone (under y). A gentler theme with decorative trills brings some hope, but wild cross-rhythms augment the tension culminating in an anguished outburst high on the cello as the tempo hits Presto. But the key then shifts to a radiant A major, and the quartet ends in a mood of joyful optimism.
Angus Watson’s “Beethoven’s Chamber Music in Context” was helpful in preparing these notes.