Dana Lyn, Looking for Lady Gordon–A Suite for Fiddle and String Quartet
Featured on the new Apple Hill String Quartet CD
Henry Purcell, Fantasias for viols
Featured on the new Apple Hill String Quartet CD
Ahmed Adnan Saygun, String Quartet No. 1
Featured on the new Apple Hill String Quartet CD
Beethoven’s set of “late quartets,” opuses 127, 130-133, and 135, are sprawling, outrageously complex compositions, swirling with dark undercurrents and barely restrained chaos. They were greeted with skepticism and bewilderment by most of Beethoven’s contemporaries, who expected an orderly march from the legacy of Haydn and Mozart—innovation of a genteel and rational sort within a genre whose respectability had been established. But if Haydn had conceived the string quartet as a vehicle of poise and elegance, Beethoven demanded profundity of that elegance and molded poise into a strong framework from which to plumb the depths of the soul. Beethoven’s was arguably the most dynamic, creative, and innovative composing career in history, and during his tortured twilight years—deaf, frequently ill and in pain, preoccupied with his troubled relationship with his nephew—he focused his last blaze of creative energies solely on string quartets. The irresistible narrative of timeless sublimity emerging from the crucible of suffering has lent these works a unique combination of mythical status and intimate familiarity.
The finale of opus 130 was in fact the last piece of music Beethoven completed before his death. He originally wrote the towering Grosse Fugue (eventually published as opus 133) as finale; when his publisher balked at the composite length and complexity, Beethoven agreed to replace the Fugue with a tidier rondo finale. Still, the first movement sets a high bar from the outset: an expansive combination of (at least) two competing characters, an Adagio and an Allegro, it hints at the traditional sonata form while progressing according to intuitive and spontaneous rules of its own. Nothing seems logical—not the mysterious, shifting harmonies of the opening, nor the short convulsions of motion that subside as quickly as they spring up, nor the haunting scraps of melody that appear from nowhere in the development—yet that is precisely what gives the music such a strong sense of immediacy and intent. A larger vision exists just beyond the scope of our momentary comprehension, and the four voices are unified in realizing it. It is as if the normal ingredients of composition have been shredded, elaborated, and embellished, then reassembled into a microcosmic and entirely self-sufficient world.
In contrast to the complexity of the first movement, there are four short middle movements, each with a strong and distinct personality. The Presto is a sort of scherzo or intermezzo that begins elegant and nimble, jumps to a rollicking B section, then careens through some terrifyingly abrupt chords before slipping back into its polished guise. The Andante third movement belies its ominous opening to embark on a sunny stroll with only the most fleeting shadows. The next, Alla danza Tedesca (“in the style of a German dance”), is a rustic waltz that swoops and twirls with irrepressible high spirits. The famously eloquent Cavatina is an aria of sorts led by the first violin, with a delicate melodic line that sometimes soars and sometimes loses itself within the warm, chorale-like accompaniment. (So beloved is this movement that it was given the final place of honor on the “golden record,” the compilation of music from Earth included as part of humanity’s interstellar calling-card aboard the 1977 Voyager spacecraft.)
The finale offers a basically orderly progression of thematic material in rondo form. The main melody, though acrobatic, generally behaves itself—summoning joyful, stampeding outbursts to counterbalance, along with the obligatory devilish tangle of imitation and counterpoint. Like the entire work, it’s a labyrinth constructed and navigated successfully, with ingenuity and grace.
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Individuality and expression are the hallmarks of Romanticism. Elgar was the most famous British figure of the movement’s twilight years, and his skill was made all the more poignant by a heightened nostalgia brought on by the encroachment of modernism. In the same way that Schumann’s Kinderszenen evoke lost realms of childhood, or Brahms’s Hungarian Dances a carefree and swashbuckling vision of Gypsy life, the beauty and richness of Elgar’s music conjures aspects of England that are both immutable and mythologized: cool woods, country hamlets, an orderly way of life guided by tradition.
That these elements of classic Englishness were distinctly and complexly woven into Elgar’s personal history is what makes his musical voice so distinctive and compelling. He was born in a quintessential country hamlet—Broadheath, near Worcester—which he periodically returned to and which retained a special hold on his imagination, even as the cosmopolitan bustle of London and its promise of success exerted their pull. In the decade before the “Enigma” Variations finally brought him the fame he craved, Elgar had already mounted one failed attempt at making a name for himself in London, where the rigid class and social structure made him feel his outsider’s status sharply. Elgar was the son of a provincial shopkeeper and piano tuner who had supported himself since the age of 15 with the hustle of a freelancer’s life and married one of his piano students, an accomplished woman of superior social class eight years his senior. A lingering sense of inferiority brought on by his modest origins nagged at Elgar despite his achievement of every trapping and substantive indicator of success. His wife, Alice, remained his devoted partner, business manager, and artistic confidante throughout her life, never regretting a decision that led to her disownment. The self-taught composer who couldn’t afford his youthful dream of attending the Leipzig Conservatory ended up with honorary doctorates from Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale. Elgar was knighted in 1904, the same year that a three-day Elgar Festival was held at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (a first for a living composer). Yet as a shopkeeper’s son among aristocrats, a Catholic among Protestants, and a DIY learner among academics, he invariably felt excluded from the sanctum sanctorum of the elites.
Though convictions are flimsy armor against social pain, Elgar’s own romantic sensibilities had early on brought him to the conviction that the artist’s natural role was as outsider. The extra incentive to travel was occasion for absorbing the work of foreign musicians including Saint-Saens, Anton Rubinstein, and Wagner. Elgar also perfected the art of expressing his conflicted emotions and inner turmoil in his music while only hinting at the specifics. His style is like a fractured mirror reflecting hidden depths—the seductive puzzle, literally, of the breakthrough “Enigma” Variations. The ambiguity of Elgar’s passions gives the listener’s projections free reign, and this valuable service contributed in no small part to the widespread popularity of his music. One type of romantic carries his heart on his sleeve; the more effective type wraps his aching heart in semi-transparent veils of form and propriety.
Elgar wrote the Piano Quintet during the summer of 1918, while in retreat from the troubles of the wider, war-torn world in the groves of rural Sussex. Although reflection and spiritual rejuvenation brought on by natural surroundings played a major role in that summer’s effusion of chamber music, Elgar’s wife mentioned another, more gothic inspiration in her diary: a local legend of evil monks whose spirits inhabited a copse of gnarled trees. The Quintet does indeed display an evocative mix of the pastoral and the sinister, especially in the moody and far-flung first movement. Both imposing and intimate, it unfolds episodically and reveals a grand, dramatic vision. Recurring passages and motives include the creeping, fragmented melody of the opening; a yearning string interlude with a Wagnerian sigh in the cello; a brusque, martial 6/8; a lilting, seductive dance, and a soaring wash of impressionist harmonies in the strings over a rippling piano motive. In the middle of the movement, a fugal section leads to a booming climax.
The viola leads off the second movement, a noble Adagio. The lyrical melody navigates flourishes, murky diminished harmonies, and rhythmic bluster to emerge grand and triumphant, though rarely untroubled—a work of classic, mature Romanticism. The third movement is introduced by the return of the Wagnerian cello motive from the first movement, leading into the main theme, a headstrong waltz. Here Elgar finally unleashes the full extent of the ensemble’s power, with the rich, orchestral sound of unison strings and virtuosic cascades from the piano. Moments of individual rhapsodizing regroup again in groundswells of excitement. Later on, the impressionist episode from the first movement returns as well, then a slow version of the sultry dance—moments of nostalgia that shimmer like mirages amid the sound and fury of the tumultuous, exultant finale.
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One of the champions of the minimalist style is composer Philip Glass, who was born in Baltimore January 1937 and studied composition with V. Persichetti and Darius Milhaud and later in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. In Paris he got a job transcribing the music of Ravi Shankur into Western notation for a film maker and in the process, he discovered his true voice and began writing music that incorporated non-Western elements and techniques. His work culminated in his opera Einstein on the Beach, considered a landmark of 20th century music, and music for the film Koyanisquatsi, which was shown world-wide.
The String Quartet #4 was composed in remembrance of the artist Brian Buczak, a NYC avante garde artist who died of AIDS in 1988. The somber, muted mood is trademark Glass, with repetitive figurations, scale motifs, and undulating arpeggios. But the music of this quartet, perhaps due to the fact that it is written in memory of someone, has a harmonic richness and somber mournful feel to it that is very striking and hypnotically beautiful as it unfolds, inspiring a contemplative state in the listener willing to go with the flow.
Written in three movements, the first begins with a melancholy sequence of chords, in slow, regular, almost funereal succession. This theme is followed by a series of variations that explore the variances of arpeggios, scales, and figuration that are associated with Glass that we demonstrated earlier.
The slow central movement contains one of Glass’ most exquisitely scored melodies, first soaring high and slow in the violins an octave apart against thick, decorated whole-note chords in viola and cello creating a startling sensation – perhaps of the spirit leaving the body.
The final movement begins with a lighter more transparent chord sequence which leads to comforting scale-wise melodies and cadences, a warm and necessary return to the familiar but no longer quotidian or the ordinary world of the living.
Czech composer Pavel Haas is, sadly, best known for a career abruptly truncated by the Holocaust, and a last burst of creativity in the Terezín camp before he was sent to his death. Though Haas’s output was modest, it is distinguished by a freewheeling but cogent synthesis of influences, accepting the torch of Czech nationalism from Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček and combining it with a wealth of traditional and modern elements. Born in Brno, Haas’s most artistically formative experience was the two years he spent in Janáček’s masterclass at the Brno Conservatory. He worked in his father’s shoemaking business, then as a music teacher, while composing under a rigorously self-critical standard. (He only granted 18 of his works opus numbers).
Haas’s String Quartet No. 2, subtitled “From the Monkey Mountains,” is a rakishly creative meeting of unexpected bedfellows: evocative scene-painting, sketches of an elusive narrative, and snippets of nightclub jazz bumping up against folk flavors of his native Moravia. The Monkey Mountains were a nickname for the Vysočina region in the Moravian highlands, a popular summer vacation spot. Written when the composer was 26 and inspired by what must have been a high-spirited summer holiday, the quartet hops between the real and the fantastical, sunlit vistas and neon-lit nights—exploring the borderland between normal life and the seductive unknown that’s the territory of good vacations.
The quartet proceeds in four whimsically titled, continuously evolving movements, often underscored, as in the opening of the first movement, “Landscape,” with interlocking rhythmic motives. “Landscape” unfolds with grandeur, as the violin and cello shape an expansive and mysterious melody in octaves. Both the rhythmic motives and melody swirl and agitate, leading the traveler over rocky outcroppings and blustery knolls; later they subside into more placid contours before winding up again with increasing bouts of chromaticism and an emphatic rhythmic spasm that gives the last word to the second violin. “Coach, Coachman and Horse” is a surreal, buffoonish sort of scherzo that presumably illustrates the efforts of the titular trio—alternately a halting plod and a reckless gallop, with a hint of polka. “The Moon and I” follows up this circus atmosphere with a slow, suspended meditation that lingers on blue notes and dissonances; the viola emerges to lead a soulful lament set in relief among boldly drawn countermelodies. “Wild Night” is the quartet’s uninhibited conclusion, full of careening flurries and a cabaret-style dance tune that veers between carefree, coquettish, and raucous—although there’s also time for a poignant (tipsy?) reverie. Haas’s original scoring adds a percussionist to this movement, although this apparently tipped the scales, in the view of his refined audiences, far enough into depravity that he later felt compelled to remove it.
The contrast between the revelry of the String Quartet No. 2 and the devastatingly grim environment that gave rise to Haas’s Four Songs on Chinese Poetry could not be starker. These songs were written during the composer’s final months in the Terezín ghetto/concentration camp (Theresienstadt), where he was imprisoned from 1941 until his deportation and death at Auschwitz in October 1944. Despite its prison conditions, Terezín hosted a bustling cultural life due to a high concentration of prominent artists and the Nazi’s desire to present it as a model community to dispel rumors of their genocidal activities. Located in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Terezín counted among its inmates Jewish Czech composers including Haas, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, and Hans Krása, as well as numerous instrumentalists, poets, and artists. The inmates, nominally governed by a self-selected “Jewish council,” were allowed to organize orchestras, choirs, jazz and cabaret groups, as well as self-produced operas, plays, and music classes. Propaganda efforts intensified in spring of 1944, as the Nazis prepped Terezín for a Red Cross inspection; a performance of Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár was presented for the visitors. The Nazis decided to follow up in September with a film by actor and director Kurt Gerron, another prisoner. The participants of these key performances were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz when their time in the spotlight ended.
Deeply depressed upon his arrival in the camp, Haas was bolstered by his colleagues and ended up composing at least eight works. By this time he had fully merged the Czech nationalist tradition inherited from Janáček with his own personal but far-reaching vision. It is perhaps natural that trapped in the midst of a warped nationalist nightmare, Haas was drawn to the universal themes and distant perspective of the Four Songs’ texts. Originally written at the request of young bass Karel Berman for a lieder recital, the songs set four poems by different Chinese poets of the medieval Tang Dynasty in a classic Czech translation by Bohumil Matthesius. The poems’ subjects are loneliness, desolation, and longing for home. With their somber, occasionally angular lyricism over turbulent accompaniment, they display emotional clarity and force as well as a raw sting. The most striking contrast of all comes at the conclusion of the last song, “Sleepless Night,” as the speaker sinks into memory while “jackdaws already chirp the day awake.” In Haas’s setting, a merry “la-la-la” carries the song to its end in a sudden swirl of motion. This burst of manic energy, whatever its source—a need to create a semblance of gayety for his captors, a nod to absurdity, the conviction that life is only a dream, or something else—is one more facet of our glimpse into the troubled mind of an inventor confronting a world of beauty, cruelty, and chaos. The stark contrast between the vitality music of Terezín and the horror of the Holocaust opens up metaphysical questions about the nature of music. As Viktor Ullmann said, “our will to create culture was as strong as our will to live,” and so it is that we have a few rare gems from these composers’ final days.
Haydn, the “father of the string quartet” as he is commonly known, provided the music world with not only multitudinous offspring, but well-formed and individual ones. The 68 string quartets included in his oeuvre are unfailingly unique, concise, graceful, complex, and perpetually inventive. It is precisely the tidy façade of classicism that sets their subversive elements in relief, for Haydn was skilled at simultaneously celebrating and undermining traditional forms. Celebrated for his playfulness and wit, Haydn’s compositional ethos demonstrates what every lifelong humorist knows: wit is an unimpeachable—and therefore powerful—tool in the arsenal of a revolutionary.
Haydn spent the better part of the years between 1760 and 1790 in near-isolation, as Kapellmeister to the Esterházy court, a position that offered outstanding job security and resources but little freedom to engage with the outside world. This self-contained environment, with strict mores governing relations between the classes, undoubtedly magnified the insularity of the professional musician’s world, with its host of colorful characters and professional intrigue. One of these characters was Johann Tost, leader for a time of the second violins in Haydn’s orchestra. Tost left the position in 1788 to travel and freelance abroad, and Haydn, contractually tied to his Esterházy job, deputized him to seek foreign publishers for six of his quartets, opuses 54 and 55. There were as yet few rules in the field of international copyright, and Haydn had become savvy in maximizing his profits through multiple publishing contracts. Tost, as his delegate, seems to have brought a similarly entrepreneurial spirit to resales, as well as to sales of “authentic” manuscripts of dubious origin and items from the Esterházy library that somehow found their way into his luggage. Nevertheless, at the time Haydn was grateful enough for Tost’s efforts that he officially dedicated his next set of string quartets, op. 64, to him. Given the virtuosity of the violin writing, Tost must have been a skilled instrumentalist. Even so, he continued to pursue his business ambitions by returning to Eszterháza, marrying a housekeeper with a significant nest egg, and using the money to establish himself as a successful cloth merchant in Vienna.
Haydn’s appreciation for vagaries and juxtapositions, whether charming, cruel, or absurd, encompassed both his musical perception and his worldview—attributes which in the best composers are inextricably combined. Familiarity with his work brings the realization that playfulness is no mere decoration or witty aside, but a core characteristic. Courting zaniness and impetuosity, Haydn demonstrates a calculated willingness to sacrifice the niceties of style for something arresting, emotionally direct, and visceral. The second string quartet of opus 54 is no exception: it juggles characters and hops between wildness, elegance, froth, and profundity with disarming poise. The first movement’s opening motive begins with a brusque chord and a zigzagging plunge in the first violin which quickly peters out into a soft landing and one of Haydn’s trademark cheeky post-cadential tags—a preview of the mercurial nature of the entire movement, in which cascades of virtuosic triplets careen out of control one minute and segue into decorous restraint the next. The Adagio is brief and solemn, with the first violin rising out of a chorale-like texture in a plaintive recitative that is deeply passionate yet also suggests the overt drama of the opera stage. The minuet, a traditional form of courtly elegance, is infused with more than a little earthy rusticity; the trio hints, again, at operatic bluster. The finale brings an utterly unexpected turn: rather than the usual frothy rondo, Haydn devotes most of the movement to a sweet, cantabile Adagio. Any traces of rancor, instability, and shadows dissolve, leaving only the slightest tinge of melancholy; the simple, stately motive philosophically traverses a shifting harmonic tapestry. Finally a short Presto arrives—the expected blithe conclusion—but it cedes to a reprise of the Adagio for the quartet’s final, quietly satisfied conclusion. The entire work is so skillfully assembled that we have to take a step back to realize the emotional breadth and web of ambiguities wrapped up in its well-proportioned elegance.
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We’ve always been connected to our neighbors in the southern part of the New World. Our histories and identities have evolved in parallel branches, with patterns of conquest, upheaval, amalgamation, conflict, growth, and rebirth that contain similarities but also marked differences. To be a Latin American artist was (and still is), in many times and places, a dangerous thing. Art is so often a powerful statement of identity and values, and those whose creations are made from threads at odds with the official narrative of power threaten those who rule by force. The history of composition in 20th-century Latin America is dynamic and complex because it tackles that all-important question of how to define a nation and its culture organically rather than by force.
Like many of his contemporaries, Celso Garrido-Lecca, born in 1926 in Piura, Peru, undertook the challenge of creating authentic Peruvian and Chilean music in the classical tradition in the modern world. Over the course of a long and fruitful career, he has emerged as one of Peru’s leading contemporary composers. Garrido-Lecca himself divides the course of his artistic development into three periods, each influenced by his surroundings, events, and associates. As a young man he moved to Santiago to study at the National Conservatory of Chile, where he cemented his knowledge of classical techniques like counterpoint and immersed himself in the avant-garde trends of Europe, including serialism. He absorbed the aesthetic of the Second Viennese School and was fascinated by the mysticism of Russian modernist Alexander Scriabin. Through a student job as a sound engineer, he also became involved with the University of Chile’s Experimental Theater, where he became close to the distinguished director, poet, singer-songwriter, and activist Víctor Jara. Jara motivated Garrido-Lecca to write incidental music and set popular and political songs in a simpler, tonal style. Another influence was Aaron Copland, who was himself deeply interested in the role of the artist in society. Copland traveled extensively and brought many of his South American protégés to Tanglewood to study; Garrido-Lecca received a fellowship there in 1964. He also received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and spent time studying in New York and Washington, D.C.
This chapter of his life ended abruptly in 1973 with Augusto Pinochet’s coup. Víctor Jara was arrested, tortured, and shot, and Garrido-Lecca’s colleagues at the University, where he now taught, urged him to flee the country. He returned to Peru and threw himself into the musical life of Lima, accepting a professorship at the Lima National Conservatory. He became deeply interested in connecting his work to both the indigenous traditions and contemporary society of Peru, founding the Popular Song Workshop at the Conservatory. Works such as Danzas populares andinas (1979) followed the trend of weaving old melodies and rhythms into classical forms.
Beginning in 1985, Garrido-Lecca decided to move on from this simple, folk-inspired language by reincorporating influences from his earlier years, aiming for a synthesis of traditional Peruvian, modern Latin American, and contemporary and modernist European elements. The String Quartet No. 2, written in 1987, is dedicated to the memory of Víctor Jara in a nod to Garrido-Lecca’s personal history. It unfolds, fittingly, in a strong dramatic arc of five interconnected episodes, driven by forceful motives, a masterful sense of momentum and suspension, and an element of spontaneity—sudden outbursts, clashes, and contrasts that keep emotional rawness paramount despite the complexity of the music’s construction.
The opening Prólogo is tense and volatile, an abrupt awakening filled with both wonderment and fear. Sometimes the voices spiral in a primordial soup, sometimes they rise—unified or opposed—in violent flares, and often a single held tone connects flashes of consciousness, snatches of tunefulness, or recurring slashes of angular motives. Glassy sustained notes connect the ferocious end of the Prólogo to the first Cántico (Elegía Primera). Here mournful recitatives blossom and subside, soon rising into a crucible of high-register counterpoint. The cántico subsides again over dusky harmonies, and then the center of the piece, the propulsive pizzicato Interludio, emerges. This brief, taut eye of the storm traverses complex rhythmic modulations, imitation, and percussive bursts in an amped-up whisper.
A cloud of tremolando leads to the second Cántico (Elegía Seguno), whose melody begins this time fractured and sparse, backed by gently oscillating lines. Its development is likewise fractured, jaggedly climaxing and returning to scattered fragments. The Epílogo launches energetically, with dance rhythms and a swinging melody, though a dark undercurrent soon reveals itself. A sense of snowballing vitality drives through shifting meters and textures, but the energy disperses in a wintry coda—a final meditation and salute, perhaps, to a life of abundance and empathy cut tragically short.
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“Suite for Fiddle and String Quartet” is built around the idea that two traditions of string playing can coexist and complement each other without compromising the rhythmic, tonal, and textural elements that make each tradition unique. In these arrangements, the fiddle tunes are always played in a straight-ahead manner, as per the tradition. The string quartet, while occasionally filling the role of accompanist to the fiddle tune, offers enough thematic material, dynamic shape, and texture to stand independently.
“Poll Ha’penny” is a hornpipe that I learned from the fiddle playing of Bobby Casey, a musician from West Clare who spent much of his life living in London. A hornpipe is a type of traditional dance tune in 4/4, characterized by dotted rhythms and ornate triplet runs. My way of playing this hornpipe is less jaunty in character, but the string quartet arrangement is based on polyrhythmic patterns of sixteenth notes played at a low volume, as if to suggest hearing dance music (or the sound of dancing feet) from far away.
The two reels that comprise “Tommy Coens'” are from the East Galway tradition. Reels are also dance tunes in 4/4 and are probably the most commonly heard type of dance tune in traditional Irish music. The first of these tunes is unusual in that that it is in G minor, a key which lends itself to the fiddle but not to most other traditional instruments, like the keyless wooden flute or the uillean pipes. In the setting of this first reel, the quartet plays a series of interlocking patterns, creating a sonic density that gets dispersed at the top of the transition into the second tune, which is in G mixolydian.
“Madame Maxwell” was composed by the Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1738). It is usually played at a brighter tempo. In my setting of it, the string quartet plays an extended, scherzo-like introduction based on a C whole-tone scale and entirely in pizzicato (as a homage to O’Carolan himself being a harper). Over this, the fiddle plays “Madame Maxwell” in half-time and in the key of D, creating a feeling of unsettledness that is resolved in the B section of the tune.
The “Girl with the Long Dark Hair”, also known as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, was penned by West Clare fiddle player Junior Creehan in dedication to his daughters, one of whom was blond and one of whom was a brunette. In this arrangement, the first violinist and/or the violist is often in canon with the fiddle, albeit in a different register and usually in tremolo–as if hovering like a shadow. The harmonization of this tune lacks a resolution, further mirroring the cyclical quality that many Irish tunes possess.
The last arrangement in the Suite begins with an original tune called “Looking for the Early Opener”, which is a jig played in half-time. This tune is decidedly bleak, but the string quartet lifts it out of its depression and into the next two tunes, “Lady Gordon” and “The Bucks of Oranmore”, both common tunes in the Irish repertory, though the latter, usually played in the key of D, is presented here in A and set against a backdrop of wave-like arpeggios and choppy, off-center grooves.
Some composers can’t shake a cardinal trait: one feature of their life or character that looms over all others, shaping, accurately or not, the narrative of their career and legacy. Felix Mendelssohn dazzled with his precocity, and his death at the early age of 38 enshrined him as a figure of perpetual youth and vigor. Works like the celebrated Octet, composed at 16; the sheer abundance of his output; and his use of motion and speed as hallmarks of exhilarating virtuosity all contribute to a picture of a prescient genius striving to cram his allotted time on earth with talent and beauty.
Even from the youthful beginnings of his career, Mendelssohn possessed the qualities that make a young wunderkind no mere showman, but truly brilliant. It was not only his personal voice that was eloquent, but his appetite for learning, knowledge, observation, and assimilation—his absorption of surrounding greatness increased his own. Beethoven’s late quartets had just appeared when Mendelssohn began composing his first set of string quartets, in 1827. Although Beethoven’s complexity, disregard for traditional form, and audacious harmonic language left most critics scratching their heads, Mendelssohn was in awe, and expressed his admiration by incorporating distinctly Beethovenian elements into his own work. He was also a perceptive champion of Bach, whose music had fallen into obscurity since the Baroque period; Mendelssohn played a crucial role in Bach’s reascendency with his 1829 performance with the Berlin Singakademie of the virtually forgotten St. Matthew Passion.
Mendelssohn’s third through fifth string quartets were written in rapid succession and published as his Opus 44 in 1840. By this time, he had achieved a place of prominence in the music world and particularly in Leipzig, where he led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to great acclaim and distinction. He had married Cécile Jeanrenaud the previous year, was in high demand as a guest conductor, and enjoyed a wide network of personal and professional friends and acquaintances resulting in a busy travel schedule. Not for Mendelssohn the role of the misunderstood genius or artistic loner!
Although the D Major quartet was actually written last, in July of 1838, he chose it to lead the collection, indicating perhaps a special pride in the work. The opening movement is classic Mendelssohn, marked—naturally—Molto allegro vivace, with a lusty sixteenth-note motor, a main theme both bold and gallant, and a starry-eyed contrasting theme. The movement opens in a starburst of energy with a leaping arpeggio, which becomes a pervasive motive. Despite the prolific heat at which he composed, Mendelssohn is known as being one of the most conservative of the Romantics in terms of form and style. Like much of his work, this movement displays a classic sense of balance, unity, and proportion. It’s a pleasure to follow the quicksilver path of the motivic arpeggio as it volleys between the voices in the development, while a hushed, minor-tinged chorale passage is the yin to the yang of the first violin’s blustery acrobatics.
Mendelssohn’s veneration for the airy structures of Classicism continues into the second movement, a gentle Minuet that unfolds in a continuous blossoming of harmonies. The wandering melody picks up speed in the trio, led by the first violin but taken over by an upswelling from the lower voices. The third movement, Andante espressivo, is in a light, lilting intermezzo style, with a puttering obbligato line to offset the graceful melody. Still, the meeting of these contrasting figures results in an underlying tautness that leads to two dramatic climaxes in which the first violin spirals upward in passionate recitatives. Everyone unites for the final Presto con brio, a perpetual-motion caper that easily morphs into a jauntily poised melody.
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From his own day up to the current one, Mozart has enjoyed a remarkably long-lasting reputation as a composer of incomparable subtlety and wit in chamber music. His professional friendship with Haydn led to a lively string quartet exchange, the two composers benefiting from a mutual admiration society that is well documented in letters and dedications. But Mozart also excelled in a similar genre, one that Haydn never touched: the string quintet with two violas, colloquially known as the viola quintet. In his child prodigy days, under the tutelage of his father, the renowned pedagogue Leopold Mozart, young Wolfgang performed with his sister in the salons of the rich and titled on the violin as well as the harpsichord. In comparatively later life, he gravitated to the viola in the parties and reading sessions that fed his inspiration. Interested in thorny counterpoint and dark textures as much as melodic grace, Mozart created some of his most treasured chamber works for the viola quintet. Adding this one extra part to the string quartet increases the demands on the inner-voice web and calls for a heightened sense of balance and color—perhaps the most important element of compositional virtuosity. Mozart’s only contemporary to write viola quintets was Luigi Boccherini, who, as a cellist, tended to shine more in his quintets with two cellos, and whose taste for the agile flash and sparkle of the galant style often suggested a mini-concerto.
The D major quintet is Mozart’s penultimate entry in the genre, composed in Vienna in 1790 and published in December of that same year. Although Mozart was plagued by financial worries at the end of his life, his works were popular with Viennese publishers and circulated among a wide audience. (“I have now been obliged to give away my quartets…for a pittance,” complained Mozart of the results of hard-nosed business dealings, “simply in order to have cash in hand.”) The quality of his work went unaffected by bitterness, however, and the D major quintet maintains the high standards of ingenuity and elegance set by its predecessors. Mozart had also recently returned from a trip that included a stop in Leipzig, where he studied scores of J.S. Bach—an occasion that renewed his inspiration to pursue contrapuntal richness in his own music.
The opening movement of K.593 starts with a striking Larghetto introduction that takes the form of a call and response between the cello and the upper four voices, the lone cello stating an arpeggiated chord and the others evolving the harmonic thread into a reflective chorale. The dotted-rhythm undulations of the introduction’s last measures make their way, transformed, into the Allegro, which begins with ebullient offbeat accents and a shower of triplets from the first violin. As usual, Mozart revels in the harmonious blend of disparate motives: the martial, trilled opening theme and the silky eighth notes later found in the cello, chords softly tiptoed together and carefree dotted figures sashaying around the group, violent outbursts and suave melodies. The biggest surprise, though, is the reinsertion of the embellished opening Larghetto before the final brief iteration of the Allegro theme that closes the movement.
The harmonic and textural richness of Mozart’s palette is on display in the Adagio, which is a constantly shifting catalogue of instrumental combinations and musical characters. He sets the upper three voices against the lower three, blends all five in rich harmonic modulations, layers them in tightly interlocking figures, and etches the highest and lowest in relief against a background alternately turbulent and ethereal. The Minuet soothes with its gentle cycles of rocking, overlapping figures—although it builds to a surprisingly emphatic climax—while the trio converses in adorably coy fragments. The first violin begins the rondo theme of the Finale seemingly in mid-stride, with a foreshadowing of the chromaticism that grows more complex and intricate as the movement evolves. Several contrapuntal interludes are launched by a trilled figure that is picked up in imitation. Later on we are treated to the rondo theme and the contrapuntal trills in counterpoint, as well as vertiginously scissoring chromatic lines: sophisticated, cheery, daring, and cerebral all at once, in Mozart’s inimitable style.
The viol consort, like the modern-day string quartet, is the closest four ensemble players can come to a creating a single instrument. The word “consort” came into use in the Renaissance period, as a term to describe any of various instrumental or instrumental-vocal chamber groups: a “whole consort” was comprised of instruments of the same family, while a “broken consort” could mix winds, brass, strings, and even voices. The viol family, precursor to the violin family of today, was uniquely suited to consort formation. The viol had six (gut) strings, a flat back and sloped shoulders, frets, and a soft-spoken, plaintive sound quality; they ranged in size from the contrabass to the miniature pardessus, all played either between the knees or upright on the lap with a tapered bow held underhand. In harmony, a viol consort produced a sound that ballooned magically. It was an ensemble that depended on blend and balance, the resonance of each voice strengthened and amplified by its fellows.
By the time Purcell was active, the viol consort, a favorite of composers such as John Dowland and William Byrd, was past its Elizabethan heyday and regarded as something of an anachronism. The violin was on the rise, and the contemporary Baroque fashion was for high melodic lines over a basso continuo (comprised of a sustaining bass instrument plus active chordal accompaniment by harpsichord, lute, or other plucked instrument). The Italians led the way in verve, vigor, and virtuosity. Yet in the late 1670s and early 1680s, Purcell composed a steady stream of fantasias for four- and five-part viol consort. It seems that no one had much interest in playing them—some scholars have even wondered if it was purely a theoretical exercise, given that most of the works remain only in score form, without parts—and yet Purcell clearly felt that this antiquated genre was the right vehicle for expressing some of his most unusual, provocative, and audacious musical thoughts. In another couple of centuries, he probably would have been right at home in the dense, chromatic late-Romantic world of Strauss, Wagner, and Schoenberg—and the new consort of the string quartet would have been ready to welcome him.
The term fantasia connotes a certain dreaminess and a loose, improvisatory approach—yet the greater the license, the more adept the artist must be to rise to the challenge. The Spanish Renaissance composer and writer Luis de Milán described the form as exactly as good as its composer, constructed as it was “solely from the fantasy and skill of the author who created it.” Purcell offers a brilliant blend of imitative counterpoint and unexpected harmonies, often planting the seed of the entire work in the opening motive. His use of harmony is a recognizable precursor to the functional (and much simplified) harmonic language codified in the Baroque and Classical eras, yet it is not bound by the same strictness—he can spin out a passage indefinitely via suspensions and constant modulation before arriving at a resting place. Most of the fantasias are multi-sectional, and sections of rigorous counterpoint are balanced by others that are dance-like, chorale-like, ruminative, or merely providing the respite of a gentle cadence. Sometimes the four voices seem to follow an idea through every possible permutation, and sometimes they’re content with a brief, witty comment. The glue that ties each work together is the unity of the ensemble: the inherent contrapuntal equilibrium of Purcell’s four-part writing ensures that each section is well-proportioned, and each transition effected by mutual agreement.
In contrast to the latest fashions of the period, Purcell’s fantasias are all about what happens beneath the surface. His melodies are beautiful, but also brief and incomplete; once a motive begins, its reaction, rebuttal, compliment, or elaboration always occurs in another voice—often an inner voice. This constant ensemble activity is what gives the fantasias such a rich palette of dissonance and also the agility to change direction at a moment’s notice—each voice has the power to affect the whole, and the whole is attuned to respond to smallest details in each voice.
In the fall of 2014 the Apple Hill String Quartet traveled through the Middle East to Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, and Jordan. While researching works by composers from the region for our concert program, an acquaintance suggested Ahmed Adnan Saygun, a composer unknown to the four of us. We googled him, learned that he was known as the “Turkish Bartok”, and thus began a wonderful journey of exploration and discovery which led to this recording.
The first event on our tour was a concert and master class at the Avni Akyol Fine Arts School at Kadikoy in Istanbul, sponsored by the U. S. Consulate. Imagine our wonder when we were told that Saygun started the school! We were a little shy about playing a “Turkish” piece for Turkish students, but the school went wild when we performed the dramatic and exciting last movement of the quartet. This exuberance and connection would continue throughout the tour. We also gleaned information from musicians and professors along the way which enhanced our interpretation of the piece—specific folk songs were brought to light; styles of playing which might better imitate the whirling dervish music of the ney, a traditional Turkish flute (specifically in the haunting second movement); and thoughts on Saygun’s inner world and emotions regarding his mandate to create a new Turkish sound, one that merged traditional Turkish songs and culture with Western music.
There is truly too much to write about this great composer! Our hope is that in recording this String Quartet No. 1, audiences will fall in love with Saygun’s music and world as we did, and further their own discovery of his works.