In a letter to his close friend the Czech musicologist Josef Srb, Smetana explained his first quartet, written in 1876, thus:
“I had no intention of writing any quartet according to the customary formulas. For me, the design of each composition depends on its subject. And so this quartet brought about by itself such form as it possesses. I wanted to represent in sound the course of my life.
First movement: Love of art in my youth, my romantic mood, the unspoken longing for something which I could not name or imagine clearly, and also a warning as it were of my future misery….. the fatal high-pitched whistling in my ear which in 1874 announced my deafness.
Second movement: Like a polka, bringing reminders of the happy times of my youth, when as a composer I strewed the young world with dance pieces and was known everywhere as an enthusiastic dancer. Trio: meno vivo, D flat major … in this section I depicted in sound reminders of the aristocratic circles in which I lived.
Third movement: Largo sostenuto, recalling the happiness of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife.
Fourth movement: Knowledge of how to make use of the elements of national music, joy at the outcome of following this path, until the ominous interruption and catastrophe, the beginning of deafness; a glance towards the sad future, then comes a brief sign of improvement, but at the thought of the beginnings of my career, nevertheless sadness.”
Last ACMC Performance: the Belcea Quartet – October 2002
The great contemporary composer György Kurtág was born in Romania, though he began his studies at the Academy of Music in Budapest. This, his fourth work for string quartet, was written between 1999 and 2005. Its title is reminiscent of Schubert, little moments that stand alone rather than being part of a whole sonata. The six brief movements last only about 14 minutes, but cover a wide range of moods and sonorities. The first is short and raw, with a central section marked ppp. This is followed by the more sonorous, spooky Footfalls, and the bouncy syncopations of Capriccio. The fourth movement is the heart of the piece, written for the Hungarian-born pianist, who became a Professor at Indiana University, in a sustained dirge. Then there is a memory of bird-song, full of chirping harmonics. The final piece is marked in the manner of Janáček, and indeed reminds one of his quartet Intimate Letters, though here in miniature.
First ACMC Performance
After the composition of the quartet op. 95 in 1810, Beethoven suffered a decade of crippling financial and personal difficulties, and his output was limited to a handful of sonatas. Although still beset with many problems, in 1822 his creative vigour returned triumphantly in the ninth symphony and the Missa Solemnis. In the same year a commission from the Russian Prince Galitzin for “two or three quartets”, provided the stimulus to return to the form. So it was that, in spite of plans for more large-scale works, the remaining years of his life were devoted to the quartet medium. Thus we have the series of five great works that have become the touchstone of the chamber repertoire, stretching the form to extremes, and yet expressing the deepest of human sentiments.
The first of these works, op. 127, was completed in 1824. It is the most “normal” in structure, with a conventional four-movement form, and perhaps the most accessible. The maestoso opening – a brief six bars – has been likened to the illuminated capital letter at the start of a paragraph. With the flourish of a trill, it dissolves into the deceptively simple allegro theme. The maestoso appears again at the start and in the middle of the development, but then, by stroke of genius, the recapitulation slips in without it, leading to a gentle coda. The adagio is a series of variations, the introspective theme being introduced by the gradual building-up of harmony. The variations distil the essence of the theme in a variety of subtle elaborations in rhythm and texture. There is a more urgent andante with a perky staccato accompaniment, other sections in mysteriously remote keys, and in the last variation running semi-quavers that come to an abrupt halt before the final reflective coda.
The scherzo is dominated by a hopping, dotted theme, but varied by cross-rhythms, silences, and bars in 2/4 rather than 3/4. The trio section, presto, goes like the wind, reappearing briefly at the end of the movement. The finale seems Haydnesque in character, with moments of foot-stamping jollity. But it is then succeeded by an amazing coda, where garlands of triplet scales decorate a completely new and ethereal version of the theme.
Last ACMC Performance: the Heath Quartet – January 2011