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Parker Quartet Concert Report

Parker Quartet Concert Report

Review of the concert by Joan Champie

On Sunday, March 12, the Parker Quartet returned to Yellow Springs, presenting a varied and interesting program for the CMYS concert series.

Founded in 2002, the Quartet is renowned for its dynamic interpretations and polished, expressive colors. They are in demand worldwide and have appeared in the most important venues. During the summer of 2016 they played at festivals across North America, and in January 2017 they toured Europe. The Parker Quartet strongly supports new compositions and has premiered many works at Harvard University, Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, and Lincoln Center in New York. They have recorded for Zig-Zag Territoires, Inova Records, and Naxos, including the world premiere recording of American composer Jeremy Gills’ Capriccio, written for the Quartet.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 12, which began with a reflective and quiet melody for violin, soon interweaving with the other voices. Restrained and sensitive playing created an atmosphere of delicacy and charm, the essence of early 19th century music. The Canzonetta had moments reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and its exuberant playfulness. The Quartet maintained a superb balance among the instruments, performing with shared interpretation and grace. Sonorous tones began the Andante movement followed by assertive, vibrant energy in all the musicians. The first violin had passages showing brilliant technique and rich tonal quality that musically interpreted the phrases. The piece ended with a slow diminuendo into the gentle close.

In a total change of affect, the HELIX SPIRAL for string quartet by Augusta Read Thomas celebrates a DNA replication experiment. The Parker performed the first and third movements of the piece. The first movement, LOCI, portrays the location of a gene, a DNA sequence, or a position on a chromosome. Novel effects were produced by the use of pizzicato (plucked strings) and also using the wooden, reverse side of the bows. Lengthy passages of pizzicato for separate instruments or for ensemble work created a delightful and unique impression of precise, fleeting entities. The kaleidoscopic range of combinations produced a capricious and effervescent image of the LOCI. SPIRAL, the third movement, was lyrical and innovative with harmonies and melodies portraying the life force and the DNA molecule’s potential for the development of all living things. Beautifully played by the Quartet, this composition merits a large public awareness of its concepts.

Continuing the exciting variance of the night’s program, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 provided a third insight into the string quartet repertoire. As with most Shostakovich compositions, this work balances introspective, sombre sections with tongue-in-cheek, comic contrasts. At times the themes interlock and a definite impression of progression or development carries the listener. His music is never static but moves in unexpected, almost startling ways. The Allegretto movement was technically challenging and masterly performed. The Moderato showed especially brilliant violin playing, and all the instruments played with precision and great warmth. Extremely soft passages provided contrasts to the forceful energy. The Allegro began with harsh, dissonant chords played by all four and then the solo violin soared above this with a yearning melody. Repeated series of these abrasive chords contrasted with the lone melody, and the movement ended abruptly with a surprising finality. The fourth movement Adagio opened with two contrasting statements, a low funereal unison and a high, delicate grieving melody. The opening theme continues with a long melodic line eventually fading away. The final movement began with a lyrical theme beautifully played by the cello, a contrast to the force and anguish of the previous movements. Other themes emerged and then the music slowed to a dying ember as the violin quietly played eerie harmonics. Shostakovich masterfully combines unpredictable intervals, contrasting moods, unusual chords and creative rhythms to produce refreshing, memorable music worthy of many repeated listenings.

The Parker Quartet presented a satisfying program with the variety of selections, each one played with devotion to the composer’s intent. Particularly notable was the refined ensemble playing and excellent balance of the group throughout the evening.

Charles Larkowski gave the pre-concert lecture with examples of melody and rhythm demonstrated on a keyboard.

Calmus Ensemble Concert Report

Calmus Ensemble Concert Report

Review of the concert by Joan Champie

The Calmus Ensemble presented a memorable evening of vocal music on Sunday, January 22, for the third program in the Chamber Music of Yellow Springs 2016-2017 concert season. This program was a stimulating change from the predominately string ensemble offerings, and the large audience reflected this novelty.

Members of the Calmus group are graduates of the prestigious St. Thomas Church Choir School in Leipzig, Germany, and this background was evident in their unified interpretations of the music. The program was entitled “All the World’s a Stage.” To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the selected pieces were based on the plays of Shakespeare or, in the case of the Sonnets, quoted them verbatim. Composers ranged from Orlando Gibbons of the late 16th century and Henry Purcell of the late 17th century to contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughn Williams of the early 20th century. As a result, there was a range of styles and effects: traditional harmonies and melodies, or dissonances and more angular melodies. Of special interest were the four selections of “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest, with composers across a 300 year span of musical compositions. Songs were inspired by the plays Twelfth Night, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymbeline, the Tragedy of Othello, as well as by Sonnets 3, 18, 54 and 75.

The five members of the Calmus Ensemble sang as with one voice, always with exceptional balance and intonation. They approached each song with the appropriate spirit for the words. Songs from the Midsummer Night’s Dream were especially notable for their effervescent charm and whimsical effect, whereas the song “Come Away Death” from Twelfth Night was appropriately somber, dark and haunting. In solo passages, each singer demonstrated a rich, round tone quality, and together they maintained an elegant and pure sound. Using little to no vibrato, the vocal quality was evident. Many of the modern compositions had vocally challenging elements: close harmonies, dissonant chords to resolve (or not!), unusual intervals for singing. All were accomplished with musical skill and facility, seemingly effortlessly. The long soprano solo was beautifully sung with even a repeated large interval maintaining grace. The counter tenor’s unique vocal quality added special resonance to the quintet, and his solo was lyrical and lovely. Each member had moments to shine individually, but most memorable were the flawlessly warm, controlled, absolutely fine sounds of the group as a whole. Singing of this quality is a great and rare pleasure for the listener.The audience’s enthusiastic response to this excellent program prompted an encore, and the group responded by singing a five-part Bach Fugue. Each voice had a technically challenging and intricate line to unite in the Fugue, and the ensemble sang with breathtakingly wonderful skill and beauty. This ended the evening in a joyous, full-voiced romp.

The pre-concert lecture was given by James Johnston.

David Piano Trio Concert Report

David Piano Trio Concert Report

Review of the concert by Joan Champie, followed by the program notes:

The David Trio appeared on Sunday evening, October 23, for the second program of the Chamber Music of Yellow Springs concert series. Composed of piano, violin, and cello, the David Trio made its debut in 2004 with a prize-winning performance. Since then it has appeared in venues throughout Europe and the Americas, and has made recordings for the Stradivarius label. Members of the Trio are Claudio Trovajoli, piano; Andrej Bialow, violin; and David Cohen, cello.

The concert opened with Notturno in E flat Major, Op. 140 (D897) by Schubert. Written in the last years of his short life, the Notturno is a jewel of grace, melody, and delicacy. It began with gentle, arpeggiated chords for the piano, soon joined by the violin and cello playing a song-like duet. This reversed to the strings playing arpeggios while the piano carried the melody. Delightful Schubertian phrases maintained the quiet, meditative peace with only a brief martial section. To this listener, there were moments when the tonal strength of the piano seemed to exceed the string sounds.

Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op, 32, followed the Schubert with a complete change of affect. Written 100 years later than the Notturno, the composition had a forceful, dissonant style. Initial solemn minor passages for piano evolved into a thunderous cascade of all the instruments. Intricate parts requiring technical proficiency were well played and formed the impression of active aggression. Intervals of lyrical playing by the violin and cello were a welcome respite to the exuberant energy of the composition. All three instruments produced a greater range of dynamics than had been required by the Notturno. The second movement of the Arensky was a scherzo expressing lighthearted whimsy, and the unexpected playfulness was accentuated by pizzicatos in the violin and cello. The ensemble’s interactions were crisp and sensitive, and at all times they were united in a single conception of the piece. However, at times the balance suffered when the piano, with its enormous capacity for sound, eclipsed the violin and cello tones. A piano, by its very nature, creates a potential for imbalance, which should be monitored at all times. The final movement started fortissimo with all three instruments playing forcefully. Later there were lyrical passages and rich tones until the almost violent conclusion of the work.

The Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 by Tchaikovsky concluded the program. Although Tchaikovsky had been reluctant to compose a piano trio, having said that “the timbre of the instruments will not blend,” he eventually completed the score for this work. It has become an acclaimed favorite. There are only two movements, each one essentially a theme and variations. This again was assertive music, with all the instruments united in forceful playing. Violin and cello played with radiant lyricism in the four-note yearning theme, and the group played with great expression and dynamic contrasts. The piano was precise and elegant, showing a dazzling technique and crystalline clarity. Balance again was weighted on the piano, despite valiant efforts by the violin and cello. Particularly notable was a long unison passage for the strings, played with excellent intonation and lovely tone quality. The second movement was described as Allegro risoluto e fuoco, which aptly described the energy and unrelenting forcefulness expressed by the players. Surprisingly, the movement ended with a solemn and mournful melody, rhythmically fading into silence.

The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore: a brief and mischievous scherzo by Beethoven….a delightful way to end the evening.

Dennis Loranger, who wrote the program notes, also provided the pre-concert lecture.

submitted by Joan Champie

 

Program Notes

Franz Schubert, Notturno in E-flat

Franz Schubert is surely best remembered for his songs and song cycles. Any lovers of nineteenth century music will be familiar with the thrilling introduction to his Erlking, and that song’s masterful depiction of the terrified boy, the clueless father, and insatiable specter that stalks them. And just as memorable is his song cycle, The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter: how the cheerful, folk-songlike introduction leads to the singer’s broken heart at the cycle’s conclusion.
Many feel that Schubert’s chamber music, while not as famous as his songs, is as moving, as powerful, and as significant as his vocal music. Chamber music was certainly an important part of his development as a composer. He first began studying music as a violinist, and would perform string quartets and other chamber music with his family. He was so taken with this genre that by his late teens he had put in the effort to compose seven string quartets, works not necessarily of professional caliber, but nevertheless important apprentice work. And, although he spent most of the 1810s writing songs, he returned to chamber music in the 1820s, composing such lauded works as his Quartet in D minor—so called “Death and the Maiden” after his song that provides the theme of the second movement—and his String Quintet in C Major, generally considered one of the finest works in the chamber music repertory.
The Notturno may be not be as familiar to audiences as those other works, but it is a fascinating moment in Schubert’s compositional career and an attractive work in its own right. Scholars believe Schubert began working on the Notturno in 1827 during the time when he was working on his two Piano Trios. He may have been inspired to write for this ensemble for social reasons; he had become close friends with three musicians who happened to play respectively piano, violin, and cello. And Schubert may have originally intended the Notturno to serve as the slow movement of one of those Piano Trios; since he cast the piece in E-flat he could have reasonably fit it into either. But the Notturno seems to have gotten away from Schubert, to have grown so large that it could not fit comfortably into the already substantial expanse of either the Trios it was intended for. Left in manuscript, the work was published posthumously in 1845, its original title “Adagio” replaced by the publisher with the more evocative “Notturno.”
But, while the Notturno is large, it is not slovenly. Indeed it has a perfectly transparent form. The opening of the work features the piano strumming some lovely chords that accompany a beautiful song-like duet between the violin and cello, who in turn then accompany the piano’s version of that same theme.
The next section opens with a strident, march-like duet between the strings, while the piano accompanies them with a flurry of arpeggios. The section gradually fades back in volume, with the violin and cello trading off that section’s motive, and then leading back into another statement of the opening theme.
The fourth section repeats the march theme, while the fifth section repeats the opening theme, the piano now accompanying the tune with ornamented figures, and that theme slowly fades away into a timeless atmosphere that recalls the placid stasis of the opening.


Anton Stepanovich Arensky, Piano Trio No. 1, Op.32

Anton Arensky’s life was all too short. He was born in Novgorod, Russia, in 1861 to a musical family. He shone early on: the Russian composer and teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was so confident of the younger composer’s musical skills that he enlisted the twenty-year old Arensky’s help in the preparation of scores and performances. After Arensky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory he was immediately recruited by the Moscow Conservatory to teach harmony and counterpoint. While professing these disciplines he also wrote numerous original works including the very successful opera, A Dream on the Volga. Unfortunately, Arensky suffered from dual addictions to gambling and alcohol, and after a bout of tuberculosis in 1906 he died, not yet 45 years of age.
The Piano Trio no.1 in D minor is one of Arensky’s most famous works, and is generally considered one of his most successful longer pieces. The first movement is written in a relatively straightforward sonata-allegro form, with an opening theme that surges quietly over the undulating piano accompaniment, and a second theme that evokes a lyrical operatic duet. The development shows off Arensky’s considerable compositional invention.
The second movement is a scherzo, whose whimsical and light-hearted emotional effect provides a startling contrast to the somber third movement, an elegy to the Russian cellist Karl Davïdov. Davïdov had been a mentor to Arensky while the young musician was studying in St. Petersburg, and Arensky seems to have poured his heart out in the composition of this movement. The fourth movement serves as a dramatic summary of the whole work, and refers back to themes from the first and third movements.
Listeners might be interested to learn that there is a recording of the Trio featuring Arensky on the piano part, performing with Jan Hrimaly, violinist, and Anatoly Brandukov, cellist. The sound quality of this recording is sketchy at best, but through the racket of the medium we can hear Arensky and his colleagues playing the work at surprisingly fast tempos, tempos that stop being surprising and become simply incongruous in the elegiac third movement. Whether that tempo comes from the limits of the medium or from Arensky’s own wishes is impossible to know, but the recording provides a tantalizing glimpse into performance practices at the turn of the last century.
Although Arensky had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the older master’s influence might not be apparent in the D minor Piano Trio. In fact Arensky’s piece sounds more like the work of another Russian master, a fact that did not escape Rimsky-Korsakov’s attention. After Arensky’s death, the older composer provided a pocket biography of the younger man’s work and life, and concluded by saying, “In his youth Arensky had not escaped entirely my own influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky. He will soon be forgotten.”
Well, every composer’s crystal ball has a cloudy spot, especially when it is directed towards that composer’s own influence, and certainly Arensky’s reputation is not out-sized in our own time. Nevertheless, we can be thankful this lovely work escaped Rimsky-Korsakov’s baleful gaze and came down to us as an elegiac memorial for both the original dedicatee and its own, dead-too-soon composer, Anton Arensky.


Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A minor

Tchaikovsky was a lucky man in his friends and patrons. Perhaps one of the most important of these friends was the pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein. After Tchaikovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865, Rubinstein secured a position for the young composer at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory, and provided him with lodgings. Not content to serve as employment agent and landlord, Rubinstein also put him in contact with the publisher Pyotr Jürgenson, and with Nikolay Kashkin, a newspaper critic who published favorable articles on Tchaikovsky’s compositions. And finally, Rubinstein also provided entrée to Moscow society; within a few months of his arrival in the metropolis, Tchaikovsky was a man about town.
Despite all these benefits Tchaikovsky was not completely appreciative of Rubinstein’s efforts on his behalf, nor was his career untroubled. Though he was securely housed in Rubinstein’s house, he was not well-to-do, and he had a fraught relationship with his students, who were unappreciative of his often demanding pedagogy. Worst of all, though his compositions were gaining him some attention, real success seemed to elude him. Finally, Rubinstein, whatever the generosity of his spirit, had a foul temper, and often visited his protégé with towering fits of rage.
Despite the complicated nature of their relationship, they remained close, and Tchaikovsky dedicated several works to him, including the Piano Trio in A minor. One of the most important of these works was his Second Piano Concerto, written in 1879. Besides the dedication, the concerto is significant because of the orchestration of the andante movement in which Tchaikovsky uses a concertino group of piano, violin, and cello. When Rubinstein died in 1881, Tchaikovsky apparently felt that ensemble would serve as a fitting group for a memorial for his friend.
Tchaikovsky, however, was a neurotic man, and could do nothing without considerable dithering. In 1880, when his patron Nadezhda von Meck asked him to write a piano trio he quickly demurred:
You ask why I have never written a trio. Forgive me, dear friend; I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me … I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend … it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings.
Despite this avowed antipathy for the genre, and perhaps under the influence of Rubinstein’s death, Tchaikovsky soon decided that he could after all write something for piano trio. In letters to von Meck, he suggested that he was “experimenting” with the ensemble. By January of 1882, he had completed the score. At that time he wrote again to von Meck:
I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad…but I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments.
History has come to the conclusion that the work is indeed “not all bad,” and is actually a startlingly original work. It consists of two movements. The first is in sonata allegro form, while the second is an extensive set of variations on a hymn-like, memorable little tune. The variations are written in a variety of styles: a waltz, a fugue, a mazurka, a sweet little tune in the penultimate variation.
The last variation opens with a vigorous dance, featuring brilliant scale passages in all the instruments. But the party soon comes to an end, the music grows more soulful and dramatic, and then concludes with whisper.

–Dennis Loranger, Lecturer in Music, Wright State University.

The Auryn Quartet Concert Report

The Auryn Quartet Concert Report

Review of the concert by Joan Champie, followed by the program notes:

Chamber Music of Yellow Springs opened its 2016-2017 season on Sunday evening, October 9, with a memorable performance by the Auryn String Quartet.

Formed in 1981, the Auryn is notable for its individuality, interpretive mastery, and intensity of expression.  The group has performed in most of the major musical centers of the world and regularly tours in North America, having appeared at Lincoln Center’s Tully Hall and at the Frick collection, and in Chicago, Quebec City, Montreal, Vancouver, and many other venues.  It is a strong champion of contemporary music and has premiered a number of works.  Members of the Auryn Quartet include Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann, violin; Stewart Eaton, viola; and Andres Arndt, cello.

Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, no. 1, began the program with a brilliant chord followed by a filigree of delicate passage work.  This dramatic contrast was repeated several times before development into a longer, melodic section.  Immediately apparent in the group was the total coordination and excellent ensemble playing, plus the beautifully balanced quality of all four instruments.  The Allegro movement was succeeded by an Adagio with a pulsing rhythm under the violin melody which became bright and golden, or mellow and subdued.  The Menuetto movement was lively from the outset, rather than the traditional sedate dance, with its crisp tempo and energetic pace.  All members blended and balanced each other for a delightful romp.  The finale, a Presto, was memorable for its mischievous affect.

String Quartet No. 2, Op.17 by Bartok brought an entirely new experience for the listeners with its angular phrases and unexpected harmonies.  The initial Moderato had four individual lines twining and intersecting in complex ways.  This seemed like a kaleidoscope of tone colors with the separate parts merging and diverging.  This intricacy was fascinating and fresh to the ears.  The second movement Allegro molto capriccioso began with a burst of energy, with repetitive rapid eighth notes adding momentum.  Pizzicato passages for each instrument provided punctuation in contrast to the intricate murmuring of softly bowed passages.  The concluding Lento was quiet and introspective, with descending passages for each instrument amid an impression of choral writing.  This sombre quality continued until the ending with two pizzicato notes played by viola and cello alone.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet brought new colors and harmonies to the evening’s program.  In the initial Danse movement a prolonged note held by the viola was then joined by the violin playing a repetitious tune with the cello providing a drum-like rhythm.  The music was angular and asymmetric, with brief moments of silences expanding the impact.  Sometimes the four instruments joined in coordinated passages, and other times there were separate parts creating the whole.  At all times the Quartet played with impeccable finesse, lovely tone, and excellent ensemble.

The String Quartet in C Major, K 465, by Mozart concluded the evening with a calmer, more predictable but still satisfying group of movements.  The opening Adagio emerged from a soft, sustained cello note and developed into a sprightly Allegro with some traditional duet passages for the two violins.  A singing and graceful Cantabile followed, and the Minuetto was melodically and dynamically unique.  The work concluded with another light and charming Allegro.  In many ways, this quartet showed a maturing Mozart able to incorporate some (for him) unusual harmonies.

This fine concert presented an ideal balance between classical and contemporary compositions.  The Auryn Quartet played with warmth, precision, and total congruence among the players: an evening to cherish.

Charles Larkowski presented the pre-concert lecture, giving highlights and significant melodies from each composition to enhance the audience’s awareness and enjoyment.

Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in G Major, op. 77, No. 1

At the midpoint of his career as a composer Joseph Haydn realized how lucrative the market for his works could be. He began publishing his compositions throughout Europe and, while doing so, would sometimes practice some modest self-promotion. One famous instance of this aggrandizement was his touting his Opus 33 collection of string quartets, published in 1781, for their “new and special manner.” Haydn’s claim is controversial, and critics and historians still debate just how “new and special” these quartets actually were.

Nevertheless, the broader implication, that Haydn was an innovative composer, is not controversial. Even in his own time he was highly regarded for the originality of his work, what the eighteenth-century British composer John Marsh called Haydn’s “wonderful contrivance” and his “variety and eccentricity in modulation.” When asked by a friend to explain the source of this novelty he pointed to the security of his position at the Esterhazy court, and the approval of his master.  In that atmosphere of security and approbation Haydn could be, as he put it, “as bold as I pleased. I was cut off from the world; there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.”

Unfortunately, novelty, or even sophisticated originality, has a short lease. Haydn had been successfully publishing string quartets throughout the 1790s, and always in sets of six. But when the opus 77 set was published it contained only two quartets. Several explanations for this light set of quartets have been proposed, but Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon most convincingly argues that Haydn saw his own star fade in the light of Ludwig van Beethoven’s growing importance as composer in this genre. Beethoven’s opus 18 set of quartets had just been published with a considerable impact on the sophisticated musical audiences of the day. Haydn felt he could no longer compete in that genre and stepped away from it, though it is worth noting that—notwithstanding Haydn’s judgement of either Beethoven’s or his own quartets—the opus 77 quartets are now considered among the finest works that Haydn wrote in the genre.

Like most string quartets from the eighteenth century, opus 77, no. 1 is in four movements. The first movement follows the standard sonata-allegro form: the first theme is march-like, while the second is more gracefully melodic. The second movement is a slow Adagio, written in an intensely lyrical style. The third movement is in minuet-trio form. While the minuet had been around since the 17th century as the exemplary form of courtly dance—and it still retained some of those royal associations for audiences of his day—Haydn completely stripped away any elements that implied his minuet was a dance, instead writing a quick, almost eccentric piece. The trio provides a vivid contrast with much stronger and regular rhythms.

The fourth movement is written in style that Robbins Landon says comes out of Eastern European folk music. Haydn writes accidentals and accents into the music that gives the tune great flair, and he adds to the tune’s interest by treating it contrapuntally. Haydn’s writing also affords the performers the chance to show off their skills, bringing the quartet to an exciting conclusion.

Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 2

Bela Bartók did not originally intend to make a career as a composer. He first focused his considerable musical talents on the piano, and before he was twenty years old, he had begun a career as a performer touring Europe. Unfortunately, that career stalled when he was in his early twenties, and he returned to Budapest where he took up a teaching post at the Academy and devoted more time to composition. He had written a number of works already—works often influenced by late Romantics like Richard Strauss—but he also began writing pieces influenced by folk music.

That a musically educated composer like Bartók might adapt folk music for concert performance was not surprising. Throughout the nineteenth century such adaptations were a familiar musical staple in both concert venues and middle-class homes. But Bartók started to see that he might use folk music not simply as a source of catchy tunes or as a way to lend his music an exotic flair, but also to transform his own compositional work.

It was at this point in his life that Bartók met Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian musician and ethnologist, and they resolved together to research the music of the various ethnic groups indigenous to Central Europe. Together they produced a significant body of research on Slovak, Bulgarian, and Serbian folk music, as well as the music of Hungary.

So important was this research that it even influenced Bartók’s romantic life. He wrote a piece for violin using folk material as way to court the young musician, Stefi Geyer, a skilled performer on the instrument. The relationship went nowhere, but Geyer nevertheless proved to be a kind of muse for Bartók, since folk materials became an element of all his subsequent compositions. Piano students, for example, might be familiar with his For Children, from 1910, a set of pieces based on folk tunes, or his series of progressive pieces, all collected under the title Mikrokosmos, which feature tunes written in folk modes and rhythms. But he also used folk rhythms and tunes in his concert works as well, as in the Second String Quartet.

The Second String Quartet was written under trying circumstances. Bartók began working on the piece in 1915, the year after World War I had broken out. He had been visiting France in 1914, and he returned to a Budapest under siege by the Russian army. Though he could have been recruited by the Hungarian army, his health was so bad that he was given permission to serve the nation instead by collecting folk songs. He wrote several adaptions of this folk material but he also found time to compose original works, including the Second String Quartet.

Bartók’s assimilation of folk material into his own work informs both the overall form of the Second String Quartet and its three movements. The first and third movements are both slow in tempo and brooding in mood. The first movement opens with a leaping motive, a figure repeated obsessively throughout the movement. The second movement, marked “allegro molto capriccio” takes as its main theme an Arabic tune Bartok had discovered in North Africa, and sets it to a drumming accompaniment. Although the tune is several times interrupted by music that is sometimes noisy and impetuous, sometimes angular and emotional, the forward motion dominates the mood of the movement.

By contrast the third movement is slow and brooding. We can easily hear this piece as another example of what Bartók would later call “night music,” a slow, sustained, and quiet music perhaps evoking the mysterious night in the mountains of Eastern Europe, where Bartók so often found inspiration for his work.

Igor Stravinsky, Three Pieces for String Quartet

Most concert goers will be familiar with Stravinsky as the composer of the masterful, modernist, and controversial ballet The Rite of Spring, famous for its riotous premier. How did the composer of such a shocking work later write such emotionally cool, neo-Classical masterpieces as the Symphony in Three Movements or the Symphony of Psalms? The explanation lies in the compositional work he undertook during World War I, when he exiled himself in Switzerland.

When he did turn to aAs early as 1914, Stravinsky began composing in a style that most obviously depended on smaller ensembles: pieces for voice and piano, or sui generis works like The Soldier’s Tale. He took this new approach partly in response to the austerity imposed on musicians and composers by the outbreak of the war. He knew he could no longer count on access to the huge and colorful orchestras like those he used in the Rite. But he also turned to smaller and less traditional ensembles because he was increasingly determined to express what he felt was the true spirit of Russia, a spirit that required he reject the forms and ensembles that came out of traditional European culture. He began writing songs using Russian texts, he began to use smaller, sometimes eccentric ensembles, like that of Les Noces, and the works he wrote no longer used European forms.

conventional ensemble, as in the Three Pieces for String Quartet, he treated the quartet completely unconventionally. During the 1920s, in a discussion of current string quartets, the critic George Dyson quoted a passage from the Three Pieces and wrote, “If this type of a passage has any proper place in the art of the string quartet, then the end is near.” More recently the scholar and critic Richard Taruskin, while not taking so dire a position as Dyson, nevertheless acknowledged that Stravinsky wrote the Three Pieces in a fashion “as thoroughly and willfully against the traditions of the medium as possible.”

Stravinsky’s anti-traditional approach to the quartet is obvious from the first moments of the first movement. A drone in the viola ushers in the first violin playing a short-winded, repetitious tune, accompanied by a drumming figure in the cello. The violin and the cello’s figures both repeat, but they are written so that the repetitions never line up. The effect is a musical “mobile,” stable figures revolving around each other, but never in sync.

The second movement is written in a style sometimes called “moment form,” a form in which radically distinguished blocks of musical material are juxtaposed side by side—or moment by moment—in a fashion that might evoke the startling and unmediated contrasts of Cubist paintings. In a 1915 article Ernest Ansermet, a conductor and close friend of Stravinsky, further described the piece as from the “region of the musically fantastic and bizarre,” though we leave that judgement to the listener.

The third movement is also written in moment form where the contrasting sections are distinguished chiefly by their general range, some being in the lower register and others higher. The tempo remains slow, the tunes and harmony almost static, and the piece brings the set to a mysterious conclusion.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quarter, K. 465

Mozart was a prodigiously productive composer, famously tossing off such impressive works as his last three symphonies in about six weeks’ time. So we might be surprised to learn that his op. 10 set of quartets—the so-called “Haydn” quartets and the set that includes String Quartet, K.465—took almost three years to complete.

This apparently dilatory progress has, in part, a mundane explanation. Mozart was becoming more and more successful as a free-lance musician, constantly concertizing and providing private lessons in both keyboard performance and composition. But beyond these practical demands on his time, Mozart increasingly devoted himself to composition, and not just composition to meet an occasion, but composition that would stand as artistic work, as the work of a master composer. So, when he began op. 10, he set himself a high standard: that set by Haydn in his opus 33 quartets. In the dedication to op. 10, a dedication directed to Haydn, Mozart described the quartets as the “fruit of long and laborious study.” His claim is no mere brag. The manuscripts of the quartets are filled with the evidence—erasures, deletions, additions, emendations—of the careful, sometimes painful, attention he devoted to the work.

This painstaking labor in the composition of the op. 10 quartets arose from Mozart’s interest in Baroque music in general and Johann Sebastian Bach’s music in particular. This interest in Sebastian Bach’s music was a relatively new development. When Mozart had been a child he had esteemed above all other composers Bach’s son Johann Christian, and used that composer’s works as models for his student efforts in composition. He might have continued in the galant vein that was Johann Christian’s specialty had not one of Mozart’s patrons, Baron von Swieten, not introduced him to the baron’s extensive collection of Baroque music. The effect on Mozart was profound, an effect testified to in Mozart’s correspondence. Beginning in the late 1770s, Mozart referred more and more to Johann Christian as the “English Bach” (after Christian’s long time residence in London) while Sebastian became simply Bach.

Despite Mozart’s interest in developing a musical style that took into account Baroque practice, particularly the use of counterpoint, he might still have produced nothing but pastiche: credible imitations of an older style of composition, but nothing vital, and nothing with which he could develop as a composer. So, when he first encountered Haydn’s op. 33 quartets he must have heard them as a revelation. Haydn’s quartets were not just brilliant music; they were a way forward for Mozart, a way for him to incorporate serious Baroque counterpoint into tuneful galant compositions.

The “Haydn” Quartets quickly gained a positive reputation. When the publishing house Artaria first brought the quartets out, they touted, unsurprisingly, the set as “a masterpiece.” But Haydn himself was so moved by the quartets that he told Mozart’s father Leopold: “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” The public seemed to share Haydn’s opinion; the quartets were brought out in several editions over the following years, and to this day remain an important part of the string quartet repertory.

Dennis Loranger, Lecturer in music and English, Wright State University