Monday, 16 April 2012

Programme Notes April 2012

Programme Notes:

String Quartet in B minor, (Op. 33/1)  –––  Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)

i. Allegro moderato, ii. Scherzo — allegro di molto, iii. Andante, iv. Presto

Though numbered 31 of Haydn's 68 quartets, this Opus 33 set, dedicated to Grand Duke Paul of Russia and first performed in his wife's drawing room in Vienna on Christmas Day 1781, is regarded by many as the beginning of his mature concept of the string quartet, and a model for Mozart and Beethoven after him. Indeed, in a letter to his publisher Artaria, Haydn claimed that these quartets were composed in an "entirely new and special style". One easily-spotted feature is that the classical minuet is here replaced by a scherzo (a more vigorous, earthy version though still in 3/4 time). Another, is the way each of the 4 voices is treated as a melody line, making the works more contrapuntal, and more interesting for player and listener alike. Our quartet (33/1) hovers between B minor and its relative major (D maj.) though other keys are touched on transiently. Each movement contains extended passages in D major, but end in the minor with its characteristic shrunken feeling.   (For an intriguing 'visual analysis' see YouTube®:

String Quartet no. 3 in G major, Op.94   –––    Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)

i. Duets: with moderate movement, ii. Ostinato: very fast, iii. Solo: very calm

iv. Burlesque: fast - con fuoco, v. Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima)

Britten (born 99 years ago) was precocious. At 12 he had written 9 sonatas (and 3 suites) for piano, and 6 string quartets. In 1928 the 14 year-old began lessons with Frank Bridge who took an interest in the lad and took him to concerts. In 1930 (aged 16) he won a scholarship to the Royal College where he studied composition with John Ireland, but it was Bridge who was the deeper influence particularly in regard to the 3 mature quartets that Britten counted in his oeuvre. Of these, Nos.1 & 2 were written during the war, while No. 3 was, in the words of Hans Keller, his "last masterpiece". His deeply serious opera "Death in Venice" (premiered 1973) epitomized, in his words, 'everything that' he and Peter Pears had 'stood for'; Thomas Mann = Aschenbach = Britten. Open heart surgery in 1973 left him partially paralysed and failed to cure his condition. During 1975, a year before his death, he wrote what David Matthew called his "Aschenbach Quartet"; the last movement, written in 'La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia', contains 5 thematic references to the opera. Overall the texture is light, open and sparse, the thematic strands distinct, the mood reflective with only brief discords.  Its first movement, in a complex sonata form, explores tonality, and an interplay between two voices (the duet motif). The opening element is a gently shifting (semitone) oscillation. The 3rd movement is a violin solo largely consisting of a sequence of strange intervals, large and small, sandwiching a birdsong-like passage. The  restrained, searching, intricate final movement achieves a fitting tranquillity for Britten's last musical utterance. Britten heard the work in a private performance by the Amadeus Quartet 2 weeks before he died, and was content with it.

String quartet No. 12, in F major opus 96  ––––   Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)

i. Allegro ma non troppo, ii. Lento, iii. Molto vivace, iv. Finale: vivace ma non troppo

This famous quartet, now known as 'The American', was composed in 1893 in Iowa while Dvořák and family were on vacation from his New York teaching post and living with Czech compatriots. He had come to the United States the previous year with the explicit aim of exploring negro and 'first nation' music to encourage Americans to develop their own distinctive music, as Smetana and he had done so successfully in Bohemia. Many people have searched for negro tunes in this quartet, but the only musical reference to the New World confirmed by Dvořák's notebooks is to the song of the scarlet tanager (a bird whose insistent call annoyed the composer), to be heard as an intermittently repeated high warble in the 3rd movement. On the other hand, it is decidedly pentatonic; the big gaps of that ('black notes') scale give an open character and distinctive flavour to the melodies. This may have seemed to the composer distinctively 'American', for he said of his New World compositions in general that they differ "very much from my earlier works, as much in colour as in character...". However, to us the work sounds Czech; fast/slow tempi, off-beat rhythms, augmented intervals, 'gypsy' melodies. (It is well analysed on Wikipedia.)

(Programme notes compiled from various sources by Ian West.)



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