- Quartet in D major for Strings, Op. 44, No. 1 (1838)
Molto allegro vivace
Menuetto: Un poco allegretto
Andante espressivo ma con moto
Presto con brio
Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers, Ryan Meehan, violin • Jeremy Berry, viola • Estelle Choi, cello)
- Jagdquartett for Strings (2003)
Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland, violin • Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola • Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello)
— INTERMISSION (Q&A with the artists) —
- Quartet in E minor for Strings (1873)
Scherzo-Fuga: Allegro assai mosso
Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips, Todd Phillips, violin • Steven Tenenbom, viola • Timothy Eddy, cello)
Felix Mendelssohn (Hamburg, 1809 – Leipzig, 1847)
In 1838, Felix Mendelssohn was in the market for a dedicatee for a new set of quartets he had recently completed. Ferdinand David, a violinist and close friend of the composer, was a strong candidate; but Mendelssohn ultimately decided to give in to “becoming noble,” in his words, and dedicate the work to a member of the royalty. In this case, the recipient was Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden, whom Mendelssohn had met in Frankfurt the previous year and “whose character pleased [him].” There may have been a motivation for the choice beyond the pleasing character of the Prince—the arrangement seems to have involved a possible inheritance of diamond rings in the Mendelssohn family.
The first of these three quartets, Op. 44, No. 1 in D major, opens with a burst of energy in the first violin. The whole first movement is defined by these explosive arpeggio gestures, which continually propel the music forward and quickly undo brief moments of stillness. This unrelenting motion abates in the second movement, a lush and inward minuet. In the middle, the first violin sings out a melancholy line while the other three strings play a stark drone beneath. The third movement is a sensitive Andante full of expressive portato, a technique where string players pull out a long line but stop briefly on every note. It lends the music the illusion that it is softly spoken; that every note has some corresponding, whispered word. The final movement brings back the energy of the first with yet more triumph. Triplet fanfares and skipping melodies traverse all four instruments in a victorious and virtuosic drive to the very last chord.
Dedicating a piece of music to a member of a royal establishment was not as simple as putting somebody’s name on a manuscript. Because the dedication implied a formal relationship, it was extremely important for a composer to seek the approval and blessing of the nobleman before proceeding with the dedication. This was one of the reasons that Mendelssohn was hesitant about dedications in general—in Germany at least, it required a highly formal inquiry and the composer had to write to the dedicatee begging for their permission. He was relieved to learn that the process in Sweden was less bureaucratic—he had a friend of his based in Stockholm do the begging for him, and the prince responded that “a dedication from such a distinguished composer would always flatter him.”
Jörg Widmann (Munich, 1973)
Composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann’s music is complexly and critically in conversation with music of the 18th and 19th centuries. He uses fragments, allusions, and stylistic tricks from the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, and Schubert, but he radically transforms the meaning of these gestures by creating worlds of new sound around them.
His 2003 Jagdquartett, or “Hunt Quartet,” plays with the long tradition of noble hunting music. At the outset, the full quartet plays the main theme of the work, a triumphant horn call lifted from the end of Schumann’s Papillons. The strings are in double stops much of the time, creating an enormous, bright texture the composer wanted to sound like “eight horns.” But the cheery opening is quickly deconstructed. The players begin to separate, introducing extended techniques, off-kilter rhythms, and grating scratch tones. In Widmann’s words, “the situation of the four players alters, as those exuberantly hunting become successively the hunted, the driven. In another (mortal) change of perspective, the three upper strings conspire against and blame the cello.” All the while, the players are engaging in theatrics, calling out with their voices and clearly dramatizing the ugly demise of the cellist.
The quartet is a sharp critique of the joy of the hunt, a violent leisure activity that might appear fun but in fact celebrates death. The energy of the music is appropriately infectious: the composer takes all that is exciting and visceral about Schumann’s hunting tune and amps it up, pushing the rhythmic and sonic possibilities of the simple melody to the extreme. But at the end, when the audience inevitably giggles at the cellist’s dying scream, the composer wants them to feel some regret at the pleasure of the piece: “what I wanted them to feel was that they might start laughing, but that it dies in their throats. It’s ambivalent.”
"What I wanted them to feel was that they might start laughing, but that it dies in their throats. It’s ambivalent.”
Giuseppe Verdi (Roncole, 1813 – Milan, 1901)
Boredom likely plagued Giuseppe Verdi in winter of 1873 when a production of his opera Aida was unexpectedly delayed due to the illness of the lead soprano. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in his Naples hotel room, he used the extension of his stay to work on a musical diversion: what turned out to be the composer’s sole work of chamber music, his String Quartet in E minor. The piece was premiered at a private concert for a few friends. Verdi did not give the quartet his strongest endorsement, writing that he “had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it…I don’t know whether the quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a quartet!”
Though his primary medium was the opera, Verdi vigorously studied the chamber music masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The result of his attempt at the genre is a synthesis of complex instrumental forms and operatic string writing. It is funny, singing, melodramatic, and yet at key moments, “it’s a quartet”—a thoughtful, even critical piece that makes a unique contribution to the tradition of its Germanic antecedents.
The first movement is occupied with working out the conflict between a lyrical line played at the opening and some driving, virtuosic figuration introduced shortly thereafter. In the second movement, Verdi presents an almost drunkenly sweet tune that isn’t quite in major or minor, which spirals into a series of creative modulations and vivacious textures. In the third movement, the swashbuckling outer sections enclose a passionate aria for the cello. This interlude is a chance for that most vocal of instruments to channel a tenor on a Verdi melody that is up there with his greatest operatic hits.
The final movement is a “joke” fugue based on a chromatic, perhaps even “ugly” to use Verdi’s word, theme. The composer chips away at the subject until it yields a beautiful and joyful melody toward the end of the movement, leading to a quick and humorous close. This ugly-to-beautiful fugue form is highly reminiscent of Ludwig van Beethoven’s magnificent but dense Grosse Fuge. Verdi also drops in goofy quotations from the overture to “The Barber of Seville,” the light Italian opera by Gioacchino Rossini. Here, more than anywhere else in the work, Verdi can be heard combining elements of comic opera with the formal seriousness of the genre of the string quartet. Perhaps in this fugue, and in the piece as a whole, Verdi is commenting on the place of humor in music—how even in the most serious of genres and compositions we can and must look for irony and playfulness.
Cellist, writer, and researcher Nicky Swett is studying for a PhD in music at the University of Cambridge.