As a service to our concert-goers, we offer program notes on select events as possible. Please enjoy these notes provided by Fischoff Competition Grand Prize winner, Callisto Quartet, to gain insight into the emotion and the inspiration behind the music you’ll hear. Join us on Sunday, October 28 at 2 p.m. for the ensemble’s Presenting Series debut!
String Quartet No. 66 in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1; Haydn
Haydn’s last set of string quartets, Op. 77, marks a turning point in the history of the string quartet. Mozart had died and Beethoven was just becoming a prominent composer in his wake, ushering in a new and important era for the string quartet genre. Some scholars speculate that Haydn may have heard Beethoven’s op. 18 String Quartets, published in 1801 (the year before the publication of Haydn’s op. 77 quartets), for the reason that these last quartets of Haydn’s contain some distinctly Beethovenian characteristics. The form of the string quartet, which had been firmly established by Haydn, was heading in a more complex, virtuosic direction, for which Beethoven would be responsible. The late quartets of Haydn were a sort of passing of the torch to Beethoven, and to the new era of the string quartet.
The String Quartet op. 77 no. 1 is an incredibly interesting and adventurous work. The first Allegro moderato movement begins with a resounding G Major chord and develops into a charming, conversational first theme. The movement is full of humor, lively passing of lines, and exploration of chromaticism and distant key areas. Perhaps the most striking feature of the movement is the extended development section, much longer than that of a standard Haydn quartet, with several “fake” recapitulations before the real recapitulation arrives authoritatively with the same material from the opening. The closing theme of the movement sounds less like typical Haydn and more like Mozart, beautiful lyricism and good-natured wit, bounding to the end of the movement with excitement.
The Adagio second movement is in the very distantly related key of E Flat Major, an important key for both Mozart and Beethoven, and begins with a unison melody in all the voices which is reharmonized and re-voiced throughout the movement. This movement is also very Mozartian, with a highly virtuosic first violin part and exploration of key areas, including a beautiful foray into D Flat Major.
The third movement is a Presto, which was unusual for a dance movement at the time. Also beginning in unison, the A section of the movement is full of odd phrase lengths, emphasis on second beats, and resembles nothing like a minuet as it is far too fast and raucous to dance to. The B section takes us back to the E Flat Major of the second movement and is even more unusual than the A section, feeling very strongly of a late Beethoven Scherzo movement. The Finale, also Presto, also beginning in unison, is a playful, exciting last movement, full of energy and conversation and finishing the work with joy.
Notes by Hannah Moses
The Four Quarters; Adès
The Four Quarters, written in 2011 for the Emerson String Quartet, is Thomas Adès’s second string quartet. The piece is intended to describe the passage of time, as suggested by the movement titles, and each movement, or quarter, deals with time in its own distinct way. The first movement, Nightfalls, begins on two contrasting tonal planes, split between high notes and harmonics in the violins and very low sustained tones in the viola and cello. There is a clockwork feeling to the pulse in the short violin notes, the composite rhythm creating a “long-short-short” pattern. The sound world Adès creates in this movement is not unlike the night music of Bartok, highlighting the darkness of the night as well as the strange noises of nightlife. The voices begin to overlap until they come together in a beautiful, haunting chorale, which rises in pitch slowly until the climax of the movement halts all motion entirely before starting over with a variation of the opening material. The movement grows slower and quieter until it ends almost abruptly into nothing.
The second quarter, Morning Dew, is best categorized as a Scherzo movement in pizzicato with an arco Trio section. Despite the fairly straightforward form, the movement is anything but straightforward—it is sharp and chaotic, each voice carrying its own line in complete rhythmic and tonal dissonance with the other voices except for the few shocking moments of abrupt unison. The B section contains some semblance of rhythm and coherence, dancing in a lilting 6/8 meter before the A section returns to chaos once more.
The third movement, Days, is a complete contrast to the previous movement, monotonous and internal. The second violin establishes the motor which permeates the entire movement, a “short-short-long” pattern similar to that of the first movement, and the other three voices float on top. The constant pulse is somehow nebulous, timeless, carrying on without any particular momentum or sense of meter. Gradually, the undercurrent of the pulse takes over the entire movement and intensifies until all four voices are pounding it out as loudly as possible in unity. The music dissipates from here, and the movement trails off without a pulse to nothing.
The fourth quarter, The Twenty-Fifth Hour, takes its name after the meter of the movement. Adès deals with temporality in this movement by writing a very unusual meter – 25/16, broken up into subdivisions of 8+3+8+6, which gives the effect of a lilting yet lopsided dance. The meter is outlined in the gentle pizzicato of the viola and cello, and the violins dance on top, passing harmonics and high notes like beams of light. The piece ends with two beautiful, clear D Major chords.
Reference: Chris Darwin
Cantos was written in 2017 as a commission for the Cuarteto Casals. Coll based the work on his earlier composition for solo violin, Hyperlude V, which was composed in 2014. Lasting only about six minutes in length, Cantos is a very meditative incantation between the voices of the quartet, each voice joining the previous softly and seamlessly, creating the feeling of a single wave of energy swelling through the quartet as dynamics range from pppp to f, only reaching the high point of fff once at the very climax of the piece. The piece is highly vocal, full of sighing gestures and glissando indications in the score, and the quartet is muted throughout the piece, which creates an almost otherworldly color. The piece ends very quietly, with ghostly harmonics.
Notes by Hannah Moses
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden; Schubert
Composed in 1824, Schubert’s great String Quartet no. 14 in D minor, Death and the Maiden, is arguably one of the most masterful works he ever composed—and one of the great pinnacles of string quartet literature. The last three quartets of Schubert are considered to be his most complex, most profound quartets, and this second of the three is particularly personal for Schubert.
During the composition of this work, Schubert himself was grappling with mortality after experiencing a bout of very poor health. The sickness he experienced during this time was likely to have been early onset symptoms of syphilis—which would eventually kill him just four years later.
Whether or not this quartet is indeed an autobiographical struggle with the concept of death, it is clear that Schubert was a deeply tormented human being. In March of 1824, he wrote to a friend: “I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better, think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offers nothing but acutest pain, whose enthusiasm for the beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn’t a miserable, unfortunate fellow. My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I find it never, nevermore…”
Despite his disappearing enthusiasm for beauty, the 14th String Quartet is by no means lacking in beauty. The quartet is based on a song composed by Schubert in 1817 with the same name, which is a conversation between a young dying girl and death. In the song, Death takes on the role of a reassuring, almost seductive figure, telling the terrified girl that everything will be OK and soon she will be resting in his arms.
The first movement of the quartet, driven by a frightening triplet motive (much like the knock of fate in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, for example), is a gripping journey through a whole range of emotion. In the opening 15 measures alone, there is a world of feeling—terror, vulnerability, tenderness, regret, and longing. The movement, in standard sonata form, is both extremely motivically driven and also contains unmistakable Schubertian melodies, closing with a frenzied coda.
In the second movement of the quartet, we find the melody from the song, which becomes the theme on which variations are developed throughout the movement. The theme reappears at the end of the movement this time in G major, almost like a rainbow after a storm, to close the movement softly and peacefully, no longer in any pain or fear. The Scherzo third movement is almost a welcome relief from the intense emotional journeys of the preceding movements. The shortest movement by far, it contains a devilish, dancing A section contrasted with a beautiful, heavenly trio section. The Presto finale is a tarantella of sorts, a frenzied jig which comes to a head at the final prestissimo coda, finishing as fast as possible.
Notes by Hannah Moses