Emerson String Quartet

String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772)

By Joseph Haydn (Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732- Vienna, 1809)

Conventional wisdom calls Haydn the father of the string quartet. Conventional wisdom often
oversimplifies or is just plain wrong, but in this case, it contains more than a grain of truth. While
there were certainly others, most notably Luigi Boccherini, who made significant early
contributions to the genre, with his quartets op. 20 Haydn certainly opened a major new chapter
in quartet history. It would be no exaggeration to say that Viennese classical style as we know it
was born in 1772, with Haydn’s fourth published set of six quartets. Individualization of the four
instrumental parts, a sophisticated way of thematic development, and a prodigious diversity of
musical characters are only a few features that distinguish these path-breaking
masterworks—features that were further developed in the later works of Haydn, as well as those
of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.
While observing the standard four-movement framework (opening sonata-form—slow
movement—minuet—finale), each movement of the C-major quartet is unmistakably unique. The
first, proceeding in an unhurried Moderato instead of the usual Allegro, surprises at every turn with
its irregular and quite unpredictable phrases, the simultaneous development of three distinct
thematic materials, and many daring key changes. The slow movement is even more
extraordinary: it opens with a dark, recitative-like theme played by all four instruments in unison
and wends its way through many dramatic interruptions until the recitative receives its “aria”—a
soaring, song-like melody played by the first violin which itself breaks down in the middle. The
movement’s inscription ‟Capriccio” refers to its highly unusual musical form. In a further
surprising move, Haydn doesn’t bring this Adagio to a full close; instead, he leaves it open with a
half-cadence and segues directly into the third-movement minuet. Whatever expectations we
might have about a minuet, Haydn confounds them here: by the numerous slurs across the
barlines, he completely obscures our perception of the three-quarter time, only to suddenly burst
into dance a moment later. A brief, enigmatic and, once again, open-ended trio section does little
to help us get our bearings.
Our quartet is one of three in op. 20 to end with a fugue. Haydn marked the C-major
fugue as a 4 soggetti, or four subjects. What this means is that, at various points, the main theme
is joined by three different countersubjects. Haydn uses several learned devices from the Baroque
era such as thematic inversion and overlapping thematic statements (stretto). At the end,
however, counterpoint is replaced by a powerful dramatic unison, similar to what we heard in the
second movement. Haydn wrote a Latin phrase into the score: ‟Sic fugit amicus amicum” (thus
does friend flee from friend), playing on the word fugue and affording a glimpse into the thought
associations evoked in him by his own music.

 

STRING QUARTET No. 2 in C Major (1945)

By Ben jamin Britten (Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, 1913 – Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 1976)

By the end of World War II, there was a widespread sentiment that the traditional tonal system of
the Classical and Romantic eras had outlived its usefulness and could no longer be used in musical
compositions laying claim to any kind of originality. Benjamin Britten was of a different opinion:
he knew that there was more new music to be written in C major; the originality had to come from
the creative mind, not from any techniques used. This was a somewhat risky position to hold in
1945; it made Britten look, in some quarters, as a hopeless conservative. Yet the young
Englishman was willing to take that risk and, 41 years after his death, we may say that he has
been fully vindicated by history.
Britten’s String Quartet in C major is like no other piece written in that simplest of keys.
Not only did he place his C-major chords in novel harmonic and melodic contexts; the formal plan
of the work—with the monumental closing ‟Chacony”—is also unique, as is the string writing,
with its persistent drones, wide ranges of register and many other compositional touches, large
and small. It is clear that, in spite of the firm C-major tonality, this work could not have been written at any earlier point.
The use of traditional tonality, of course, has something to do with the initial impulse that
led to the creation of the quartet. 1945 marked—among other, far more momentous, things—the
250 th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Britten had a very special love for his great
English predecessor; he made many arrangements of Purcell’s music and one of his best-known
works, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, is a set of variations on a theme by Purcell. (It
was composed immediately after the Second Quartet in 1946.)
The very opening of the quartet contains an unmistakable Purcellian echo: the music
begins to unfold over a persistent drone played by the viola, inspired by Purcell’s Fantasia Upon
one Note, which is famous for its viola part that consists of a single pitch (Britten actually played
this part on the viola!). The tempo marking, ‟Allegro calmo senza rigore,” expresses the peculiar
mood contrasts that prevail throughout: the basic tempo is fast, yet the mood is mostly tranquil,
with the animated sections always counterbalanced by more introspective ones. The fundamental
outlines of sonata form are followed (albeit freely, ‟without rigor”); the ethereal Coda makes the
C-major triad sound like pure magic.
The second movement is an energetic scherzo in C minor, played con sordino (with mutes),
with a middle section beginning in F major where fortissimo dynamics is combined with an
expressive quality. As in a traditional scherzo, the C-minor tonality returns at the end.
Britten saved his most important musical statement for the concluding ‟Chacony,” which is
longer than the first two movements combined. It is another obvious homage to Purcell, whose
spelling of the word ‟Chaconne” Britten adopted. The chaconne is a Baroque variation form over
a brief melodic or harmonic progression in which a rather simple initial idea gradually assumes
greater and greater complexity (as it does in the most famous Chaconne of all, the one from J. S.
Bach’s Second Partita for solo violin). Britten’s ‟Chacony” begins with a statement of the melody
played in unison by all four instruments. The sharply dotted rhythmic profile is a typical feature of
all Chaconnes, but Britten adds an element of irregularity by making his Chaconne theme nine
measures long (instead of eight). There are a total of 21 variations, interrupted, after each group
of six variations, by a solo cadenza by one of the instruments. The final three variations form a
coda.
The first six variations add a great deal of harmonic and textural contrast to the Chaconne
theme. The ensuing cello cadenza, in free rhythm and spanning almost the entire range of the
instrument, leads into the next group of variations which emphasize sharply profiled rhythmic
figures. The second cadenza, in a faster tempo, is played by the viola, with the second violin
playing a high-pitched drone (the note C) all the way through. From this high note flows the next
group of variations, which are all intensely melodic and lyrical. A final cadenza—for the first
violin—prepares the way for the coda, which begins with the cello playing the Chaconne melody in
its original form and then builds up for the powerful conclusion, with yet another set of C-major
chords that drive the idea of tonality home with the force of an aesthetic manifesto.

 

String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144 (1974)
by Dmitri Shostakovich (St. Petersburg, 1906 – Moscow, 1975)

The fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich stand as a veritable
autobiography of a man who, in his sixty-nine years on earth, lived through a revolution, two world
wars, political oppression sometimes milder and sometimes deadly, and received both the highest
accolades and the most brutal denunciations. That he was able to write any music at all under
these circumstances is nothing short of a miracle; that he could complete such a large and diverse
oeuvre ranging from concertos to movie scores is even more remarkable. Perhaps the greatest
tragedy of his life was that, just when his political troubles seemed to be over and he was finally
above any kind of criticism, his health collapsed. He continued to compose to the very end, but
his music turned increasingly inward. The fifteenth quartet was written mostly at the hospital, and
although violinist Dmitry Tsyganov reported that the composer mentioned to him his plans to write
Quartet No. 16, he probably knew deep down that it was not going to happen. At least that is what the music suggests.
Shostakovich's last quartet is in six interconnected movements, all of which are in Adagio
tempo. In spite of this apparent uniformity, the quartet maintains a dramatic tension that never
lets up and, in fact, presents a composer who, in his 144 th opus, was still able to surprise his
listeners by doing something he had never done before.
The extended first-movement “Elegy” takes us to a desolate winter landscape where the
four instruments, often playing just alone or in pairs, take turns playing an extremely simple
melody consisting mostly of a single, repeated note, alternating with its immediate neighbors. The
“Serenade,” beginning most unusually with rapid, piercing crescendo on single notes, evolves into
a languid waltz, but we shouldn't think of a ballroom, rather of a freezing, snowy field in the
Russian countryside. The temperature rises slightly in the “Intermezzo,' largely an agitated
cadenza for the first violin. In the fourth-movement “Nocturne,” a lyrical melody is framed by an
undulating two-part accompaniment in contrary motion. At one point, a characteristic dotted
rhythm appears which will form the main motif of the fifth-movement “Funeral March,” where the
already slow tempo becomes even slower. Often played by uninterrupted solo instruments, the
march rhythm takes on the character of a very personal mourning. The closing “Epilog” brings
back the opening melody of the first movement, first in a bright E-flat major that seems to promise
a lightening of the tragic tensions, but the theme of the funeral march also returns. Finally, a
series of dramatic solos and shivering tremolos in all four instruments dashes all hopes and the
quartet ends on a dark E-flat minor sonority.


Notes by Peter Laki

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