Four By Four For Four, Part IV

Four By Four For Four, Part IV

Part IV

Elliot Carter

Elliot Carter

I had difficulty narrowing down my choice for the fourth and final entry in this series on string quartets.  There is so much music written for four strings, and the majority of it seems indispensable to me.  Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Ravel, Debussy all wrote masterpieces for the genre.  Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, John Adams, Philip Glass and many other notable American composers have all contributed to the repertoire.  I almost finished this series with a work by Elliot Carter, whose five String Quartets are some of the most challenging pieces ever conceived.  The players often have independence of not just melody and harmony, but rhythm and meter as well.  In fact, in Carter’s second string quartet, he instructs the players to sit as far apart as possible, so that it appears they are playing four completely different pieces simultaneously.  I abandoned the idea of writing about Carter’s quartets, as I am not sure I even have the words to describe the experience of listening to them.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Ultimately, I chose the prolific Dmitri Shostakovich to represent part four of my series.  His 15 string quartets are a priceless contribution to the quartet repertoire.  Unlike the big public symphonies, Shostakovich’s quartets were more intimate, private works.  As such, they garnered less scrutiny from the Stalinist dictatorship.  I wouldn’t say Dmitri was completely free to compose as he liked in the quartets, but certainly had more latitude than in the orchestra works.  His String Quartet Number 8 in c minor is one of the most performed of the group.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet was composed quickly over a span of three days in July of 1960.  Dmitri had visited Dresden to write film music for Five Days, Five Nights, a film about the World War II bombing of Dresden.   On the surface, the somber tone of the composition might seem to be a reaction to the wartime devastation of that fire bombing.  In fact, the score is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”.  In reality, the eighth is a very personal work about Shostakovich himself, who was despondent and nearly suicidal at the time.  Two major life events were depressing Shostakovich at this time.  First he received a devastating diagnosis about his health, that he suffered from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  This crippling disease of debilitating muscle weakness is often known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The second personal crisis for Dmitri was his reluctant joining of the communist party, a move made for survival, and to preserve a chance at employment in his compositional career.  Shostakovich attended meetings he had to attend, and said in public the things he was told to say, and all the while hated himself for it.

quartet 8It is relatively easy to see that the eighth quartet is all about Shostakovich himself.  The very first movement opens with the DSCH motif that is the personal signature of Shostakovich.  He included this in a number of his works, and it is worth giving a little explanation of this musical cryptogram.  Dmitri’s name in German transliteration would be spelled Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  Taking his initials from that spelling, we get the letters DSCH, or in German De, Es, Ce, Ha.  Again, in German musical notation, those letters correspond to the notes D, E flat, C and B.  Shostakovich happened upon this likely in a study of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, where a B-A-C-H motive appears in many prominent works.  Once the DSCH motif is recognized for what it is, it is like Dmitri is shouting “ME, ME, ME” all over the opening of the piece.

Shostakovich had an incredible memory, for both his compositions and any other music he ever heard.  The eighth quartet is littered with quotations from his other works.  The first movement has allusions to Shostakovich’s First and Fifth Symphonies, as well as a disguised bit of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.  The second movement includes quotes from his Dmitri’s Second Piano Trio, as well as more of the DSCH motive.  The third and fourth movements have quotes from other of his own compositions, with the fourth movement including a little “Muss es sein?” recalling Beethoven’s Opus 135 quartet.  All of these self-referential snippets woven into the fabric of the eighth quartet are about Shostakovich himself, not the wartime bombing of Dresden.

Fortunately for us and string quartet players everywhere, the depressed Shostakovich did not commit suicide after this quartet.  He went on with life, and finished seven more quartets for the repertoire.  His String Quartet Number 8 remains one of the most personal and intimate pieces he ever composed.  It was chosen to be played at his funeral years later, and more appropriate music is hard to imagine.

The hope is that my short exploration of string quartets in the last four posts might inspire someone to listen to some music they might not previously considered.  A live concert by a top quality quartet ensemble is a powerful, intimate musical experience.  It is one I highly recommend trying.  Recordings of string quartets are plentiful, and well worth your time to listen.  I hope you enjoy.

String Quartet No 8, in C Minor, Op. 110 Dmitri Shostakovich, Kronos String Quartet

 

Four By Four For Four, Part III

Four By Four For Four, Part III

Part III

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

Another fundamental cycle of music of the string quartet repertoire is the set of six quartets by Béla Bartók (1881-1945).  Like the collection of Beethoven quartets, Bartók’s cycle spans the length of his compositional career.  Bartók developed in his music a very personal and individual solution to the chromatic crisis that was early twentieth century music.  Like our pal Ludwig, Bartók was an accomplished concert pianist, as well as composer.  Béla Bartók also was one of the earliest persons to study, record, and describe folk music.  In doing so, he became one of the founding academic authorities on ethnomusicology.  I absolutely adore and identify with all of the music of Béla Bartók, and have for many years (as my musical brother Mike could attest to).

contentAs chromatic and hyper-organized as Bartók’s music is, it almost always has a tonal center.  He is not a completely atonal composer in the sense of Schoenberg or Webern.  His fascination with mathematics and symmetry is evident in the way he incorporates The Golden Ration and the Fibonacci Sequence into many of his compositions.  The chromatic harmonic language of his works is often derived from whole-tone, octatonic, and other non-traditional scales (sometimes borrowed directly from his folk music research).  Small intervallic cells of notes become fundamental structural elements connecting themes and entire movements with one another.  The Bartók specialist Ernő Lendvai wrote a revealing 115 page volume describing many of these organizing features of some of Bartók’s music. (Béla Bartók, An Analysis of his Music)

In true OCD fashion, the best place for me to start a discussion of the Bartók quartets is with his String Quartet Number 1, Opus 7 in A minor.  The first edition of the work was published with the title “ Vonósnégyes”, which is simply Hungarian for “First String Quartet”.  I am not entirely sure why this title was removed in subsequent editions of the score.  One should not put too much emphasis on the “A minor” indication in the title.  While it is true that many of the structural points of the quartet center on some harmony built on the note “A”, this is a highly chromatic work that does not use an A minor scale as its foundation.  The opening of the first movement is a wonderfully constructed slow fugal section, starting with the violins, who are then joined by the viola and cello seven bars later.  This opening has reminded some listeners of Beethoven’s Quartet in c sharp minor, Opus 131, which also opens with a slow fugue.  Bartók was surely aware of the late Beethoven quartets when he put a pen to paper to start his own.

StefiGeyer-1-1

Stefi Geyer

These opening melodic figures become structural elements of all three of the quartet’s movements.  There is an interesting story behind the opening melody.  At some point in 1906 or 1907, Bartók fell passionately in love with a young violinist named Stefi Geyer.  She was a talented musician, and the two exchanged many long letters.  Clearly, the most personal thing a composer can do for a violinist he loves, is write a concerto for her, which is what Bartók did.  Unfortunately, this was one of the many unsettled times in Béla Bartók’s life.  He was raised a Roman Catholic, but at this point in time had lost faith and declared himself an atheist.  As one can expect, this is not a peaceful serene sort of declaration.  Bartók wrote long tirades in his letters to Geyer against Roman Catholicism, and also the middle class.  (I’m not sure what Béla had against the middle class).  Stefi Geyer must have found all of this a bit of a turn off, because the relationship did not work out.  Bartók took the violin concerto he wrote and put it in a drawer.  It was never played until after his death.  What he then did was use a melody from that concerto for the opening motif of his First String Quartet.  In a letter to Geyer he described the first movement of the quartet as a “funeral dirge”.  The entire work is built on elements from this opening motive.  In this sense, Bartók’s First String Quartet is a masterpiece of a breakup letter.  Not bad if you ask me; I was lucky to get half of my record albums back after any of my breakups.

Less than a year later, the 28 year old Bartók married the 16 year old Márta Ziegler, in a marriage that lasted 15 years before they divorced.  About two months after the divorce, the 42 year old Bartók married a 19 year old  Ditta Pásztory, who was a piano student that he proposed to just 10 days before.  I suppose we can draw two conclusions from this, that  Béla Bartók did not like to be alone, and he did have an attraction to younger women.

Many string quartet ensembles have made a project of recording all six of Béla Bartók’s quartets.  There are quite a few marvelous modern recordings from which to choose.  The video below is from the fine cycle done by the Takács Quartet, an Hungarian group now based in Colorado.  I think they have a very personal affinity for the music of their fellow Hungarian, and I hope you enjoy their performance as much as I do.

Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 1 in A minor – Takács Quartet

 

Four By Four For Four, Part II

Four By Four For Four, Part II

Part II

beethoven4altLudwig van Beethoven, the great deaf one, is an absolute giant in the history of music.  Some label him a Classical composer, including him in the great Viennese school with Haydn and Mozart.  Others call him the first great Romantic composer.  Many history texts deal with Beethoven in a class by himself, starting with one foot in the Classical era. With the other foot he shatters the conventions of the Classical era, laying the foundation for the next generation of musical Romantics.  Whatever chapter you want to include old grumpy Ludwig in, his musical genius is a looming shadow over everyone who has tried to write music since.  His string quartets are a foundation of the chamber music repertoire.

Beethoven wrote cycles of piano sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets among many other masterpieces.  Piano was his main instrument, and many of his innovations were first worked out in the piano sonatas before other genres.  His series of string quartets span all three periods of Beethoven’s compositional career.  His early quartets take their cue from Haydn, but still have Ludwig’s personality and fingerprints all over them.  (Beethoven “studied” with Haydn for a time, although those lessons were not the most productive sessions in history.)  Beethoven’s late string quartets are some of the last works he completed, and are examples of the most moving, intimate, expressive, and intricate works of music ever set to paper.

In Beethoven’s late quartets, the order of publication is not the same order in which they were composed.  The sequence of composition is Opus 127, 132, 130 (with the Grosse Fuge op. 133), 131 , and finally Opus 135.  I would like to visit the String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 130, composed in 1825, for our listening today.  The history of the B flat Major quartet includes a story that happens nowhere else in the biography of Beethoven.  Beethoven was a grumpy, disagreeable, ill-tempered, ill-mannered, paranoid man.  He took advice from no one, least of all any advice about his music.  He used and abused every one of his personal assistants (not one of which was ever paid a penny), and accused everyone he knew of trying to cheat him at some time or another.  But somehow, people were able to change Ludwig’s mind about the Opus 130 quartet.

The B flat Major quartet, Opus 130, is a lengthy, emotional work in six movements.  Beethoven has expanded on the standard four movement plan (developed in no small part by Haydn) by including two different slow movements, and two different dance-like scherzo movements.  One of the most powerful pieces of music anywhere is the fifth movement Cavatina of this quartet.  A performance of this Cavatina was included on the Golden Record that was sent into space on both of the Voyager probes in the 1970’s.  The original final movement of the work was the massive Grosse Fuge.  This “Great Fugue” is the single longest chamber music movement Beethoven ever wrote.  It is not a traditional fugue in the strict Bachian sense, but rather an apotheosis of counterpoint that includes four different fugal sections connected with other material.

Grosse Fuge Manuscript

Grosse Fuge Manuscript

I absolutely love the Grosse Fuge.  If anyone ever wondered what it would be like to crawl inside my head and hear what goes on, I would suggest listening to this piece.  (I can be soft and cuddly on the outside, but quite intense in the back of my brain.)  Not everyone at the premier of the quartet was as enthusiastic as I am.  Some of the players, Beethoven’s colleagues, suggested the Fugue was too much.  They urged him to replace it with another finale.  Beethoven’s publisher made a similar suggestion, with concerns about the sales of sheet music.  Normally, Ludwig would greet such suggestions with instructions to shove them somewhere that would interfere with one’s digestion.  But he didn’t do that in this case.  The astounding thing that happened, and had never happened before in the history of Beethoven, is that he LISTENED to the suggestion.  He separated the Fugue from the rest of the quartet and wrote a new, pleasant rondo-finale in its place.  No one would have ever bet money that Ludwig would have done that, but he did.  (I expect the argument about sales and money from the publisher was a large motivation.)

Kerman BeethovenThe original fugue finale was not the only concern about the quartet.  As Joseph Kerman writes in his book about The Beethoven Quartets:

“In the B flat Quartet the play of contrast is pushed …. to the point at which the sense of continuity becomes, if not a matter of doubt, at least a recurrent subject of ironic inquiry.  The problem of continuity comes up both among the movements and also within certain movements…”

In other words, the movements don’t seem to go together as they usually would in a classical quartet.  They are all high quality music, but a bit of a potpourri.  I think I found the answer to such concerns in the lectures Professor Robert Greenberg gave on the Beethoven Quartets for The Learning Company.  Here, Greenberg explains that the movements do not progress in a linear fashion, starting in one place and moving in one direction, one after the other.  Rather, each of the first five movements do not relate directly to each other, but all look forward and connect to the Grosse Fuge at the end.  The fugue is not just an apotheosis, but a synthesis of ideas presented in each of the preceding pieces.  Beethoven has hit upon a different way of organizing the forms in a large scale work.  (And he has done so with absolute genius.)

I have to admit, it took me quite a bit of listening to the Grosse Fuge to come around to this viewpoint.  The Fugue is intense, overpowering, and is as concentrated music as anyone has ever written.  After I had the Fugue firmly in my ears, I could listen to the first five movements and hear how each related to the original finale.  It became a completely different listening experience for me, and revealed an entirely new depth to Beethoven’s musical thought.  For this reason, I humbly put forth the opinion that Ludwig should not have replaced the Grosse Fuge with the new rondo finale.  It removes the thing to which each of the preceding movements relate.  So what if it is challenging to the listener?  A little bit of challenge is healthy.

You are, of course, free to form your own opinions.  Below you will find a high quality performance of the Opus 130 Quartet with the Rondo that was Ludwig’s last thought on the matter.  The second video is the same musicians playing the Grosse Fuge that was the original finale of the Quartet.  Each has its merits, but you know which I prefer.  Please enjoy!

Beethoven String Quartet No 13 Op 130 in B flat major

Beethoven – Große Fuge B-Dur Op. 133