From Vienna to London with ESQ

Sunday, July 15

© Eric Bromberger, 2012
print | close

String Quartet in D Major, K. 575
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

In the spring of 1789, Mozart made an extended visit to Berlin. His fortunes in Vienna had waned, and he hoped that in the music-loving King Friedrich Wilhelm II he might find a royal patron who would understand his worth and commission new music. Mozart returned to Vienna early in June with the news that the trip had been in all ways a success: he had performed before the king and queen, who were so enthralled by his playing that on the spot the king commissioned a set of six quartets and six easy keyboard sonatas for his daughter. Mozart even had the money in hand to confirm his story.

 Yet this inspiring tale, which has been part of the Mozart legend for two centuries, remains a troubling episode because the evidence suggests that it never happened. There is no record of a royal reception at Potsdam (the king in fact refused to meet Mozart and sent him instead to the court Kapellmeister), and scholars have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that Mozart, humiliated and unable to face returning to Vienna in shame, made up the whole story of the commission and borrowed money so that he could pass it off as the king’s payment. He made a great show of starting to compose the cycle of quartets, but soon lost interest and wrote only three of the projected six. These were eventually published with no mention of a royal dedication.

These three quartets, inevitably (if ironically) known as the“King of Prussia” Quartets, feature unusually prominent parts for the cello. The king was an amateur cellist, and (the story went) Mozart gave that instrument a leading role as a bow to his royal patron. Mozart actually began work on the Quartet in D Major, K. 575 on the way back to Vienna from Berlin and had it done about the time he arrived home. The quartet is full of refined and agreeable music, but the surprise is how restrained this music is. Three of its movements are marked Allegretto, a marking that implies not just a tempo slower than Allegro but also a more relaxed and playful character; further, both the first and second movements are marked sotto voce, suggesting a subdued presentation. The first violin immediately introduces the main theme of the opening Allegretto, and its rising-and-falling shape will recur in a number of forms. The second subject is announced by the cello (characteristically, it is marked dolce), and the music proceeds in sonata form, with a fairly literal recapitulation and a short coda. The Andante is music of inspired simplicity. Mozart sometimes sets the three upper voices against the cello here, and these unison sonorities contribute to the movement’s atmosphere of clarity and simplicity. Both themes of this sonata form movement sing gracefully, and the sotto voce marking at the opening might apply to the entire movement. There is more unison writing in the Menuetto, though the second strain breaks the melodic line nicely between the three upper voices in turn. By contrast, Mozart turns the trio section over to the cello, which sings its graceful song as the upper strings accompany.

The concluding Allegretto is the most contrapuntal—and the most impressive—of the four movements. It begins with something quite unusual in Mozart’s music—a main theme that is clearly derived from the main theme of the first movement. He then offers extended polyphonic treatment of this singing idea, sometimes setting it in close canon between the various voices, at other times varying this simple melody in surprising ways—this music flows and sparkles and seems constantly to be in the process of becoming something new. In its good spirits, intelligence and utter ease, it is music fit for a king (even if it wasn’t actually written for one).

“The Four Quarters” for String Quartet
Thomas Adès (b. 1971)

Trained at the Guildhall School of Music and at King’s College, Cambridge, Thomas Adès has become the leading British composer of his generation. He has had works commissioned by the New York, Berlin and Los Angeles philharmonics, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and many others, and Adès’ two operas—Powder her Face and The Tempest—have been performed in the United States, Europe and Australia; a third opera has recently been commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. The composer has served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, Music Director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, composer-in-residence at the Ojai Festival and Britten Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The New Yorker has noted that Adès “has outgrown his status as the wunderkind of a vibrant British scene and become one of the most imposing figures in contemporary classical music.”

Commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Foundation and composed in 2010 for the Emerson String Quartet, “The Four Quarters” was premiered by the Emerson at Carnegie Hall on March 12, 2011; they have subsequently performed the work throughout Europe and the U.S., and it has been taken up by a number of different quartets as well. The titles of the four movements have seemed to some observers to suggest the cycle of a single day, but “The Four Quarters”is not descriptive music per se, and audiences should not approach it expecting a tone poem that paints scenes inspired by different times of the day. Adès’ titles are evocative rather than descriptive, and it is far better to listen to “The Four Quarters”simply as music than to search for pictorialism, for this is most impressive music on its own terms, rich in sound and complex in its voicing and rhythmic subtlety. The opening Nightfalls is meditative and quiet, a nocturne in the most literal sense of the term, while Morning Dew makes imaginative use of pizzicato sonorities. Days is built on a series of imposing ostinatos, and the concluding movement, titled The Twenty-Fifth Hour, appears to take us into a realm outside the normal cycle of twenty-four hours. This movement is remarkable for its rhythmic complexity: Adès invokes the movement’s title in his unusual meter 25/16, and he then subdivides and accents those twenty-five beats in completely unexpected ways. This is exhilarating music to hear—and extraordinarily difficult music to perform—and it brings “The Four Quarters”to an impressive conclusion.

String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven composed the Quartet in B-Flat Major between July and December of 1825, and the music had its premiere in Vienna on March 21, 1826, almost exactly a year to the day before the composer’s death. This massive quartet, consisting of six movements that span a total of nearly 50 minutes, concluded with a complex and extremely difficult fugue that left the first audience stunned. Beethoven, by this time totally deaf, did not attend the premiere, but when told that the fourth and fifth movements had been so enthusiastically applauded that they had to be repeated, he erupted with anger at the audience: “Yes, these delicacies! Why not the Fugue? Cattle! Asses!”

But it was not just the audience at the premiere that found the concluding fugue difficult. With some trepidation, Beethoven’s publisher asked the crusty old composer to write a substitute finale and to publish the fugue separately. To everyone’s astonishment, Beethoven agreed to that request and wrote a new finale—a good-natured rondo—in the fall of 1826. Since that time, critics have debated which ending makes better sense artistically, and this is one of those debates that will probably continue forever. For generations, the Quartet in B-Flat Major was performed with the substitute rondo as the finale, but recently that practice appears to have evolved, and quartets today are increasingly following Beethoven’s original intention and concluding the Quartet in B-Flat Major with the Grosse Fuge. The present performance offers the quartet in its original form.

In either version, this music presents problems of unity, for its six movements are quite different from each other. The issue is intensified when the Grosse Fuge is used as the finale, for this movement is so individual, so fierce, that it does seem an independent statement. In its original form, the quartet consists of two huge outer movements that frame four shorter movements (two scherzos and two slow movements). The music encompasses a huge range of emotion, from the frankly playful to some of the most deeply felt music Beethoven ever wrote. The unifying principle of this quartet may simply be its disunity, its amazing range of expression and mood.

The first movement, cast in the highly modified sonata form Beethoven used in his final years, is built on two contrasting tempos: a reverent Adagio and a quick Allegro that flies along on a steady rush of sixteenth notes. These tempos alternate, sometimes in sections only one measure long—there is some extraordinarily beautiful music here, full of soaring themes and unexpected shifts of key. By contrast, the Presto, flickering and shadowy, flits past in less than two minutes; in ABA form, it offers a long center section and a sudden close on the return of the opening material. The solemn opening of the Andante is a false direction, for it quickly gives way to a rather elegant movement in sonata form, full of poised, flowing and calm music. Beethoven titled the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca, which means “Dance in the German Style.” In 3/8 meter, it is based on the rocking, haunting little tune that opens the movement.

The Cavatina has become one of the most famous movements in all Beethoven’s quartets. Everyone is struck by the intensity of its feeling, though few agree as to what it expresses—some feel it tragic, others view it as serene; Beethoven himself confessed that even thinking about this movement moved him to tears. Near the end comes an extraordinary passage that Beethoven marks Beklemmt (“Oppressive”): the music seems to stumble and then makes its way to the close over halting and uncertain rhythms.

This performance concludes with the Grosse Fuge Beethoven had intended as the original finale. Let it be said right from the start: the Grosse Fuge is a brilliant piece of music and a very tough one, and it should come as no surprise that it has excited quite different responses. Though he was no particular admirer of Beethoven, Stravinsky near the end of his long life came to know and respect the late quartets, and his admiration for the Grosse Fuge led him to call it an “absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” At the other extreme, the iconoclastic American critic B.H. Haggin was adamant that the Grosse Fuge should be considered “inaccessible—except for a quiet and lovely episode—by some music lovers who have listened to it repeatedly.”

The Grosse Fuge is in fact not one fugue, but three different fugal sections, each in a contrasting tempo—Beethoven described it as a “Grand Fugue, freely treated in some places, fugally elaborated in others.” The brief Overtura suggests the shape of the fugue subject in three different permutations (all of which will reappear and be treated differently) and then proceeds directly into the first fugue, an extremely abrasive Allegro in B-Flat Major that demands a great deal from both performers and audiences. Much of the complexity here is rhythmic: not only does the fugue subject leap across a span of several octaves, but its progress is often obscured by its overlapping triple, duple and dotted rhythms. The lyric, flowing central section, a Meno mosso e moderato in G-Flat Major, is fugal in character rather than taking the form of a strict fugue. It gives way to the Allegro molto e con brio, which is derived from the second appearance of the fugue subject in the Overtura; here it bristles with trills and sudden pauses. Near the close, Beethoven recalls fragments of the different sections, then offers a full-throated restatement of the fugue theme before the rush to the cadence.

Individual listeners may draw their own conclusions about the use of the Grosse Fuge as a fitting close to this quartet, but there can be no doubt that the Quartet in B-Flat Major—by turns beautiful, aggressive, charming and violent—remains as astonishing a piece of music for us today as it was to that first audience in 1826.


print | close