Quartet in G minor op. 10 Debussy
Animé et très décidé
Assez vif et bien rythmé
Andantino doucement expressif
Très modéré – très mouvementé et avec passion

Debussy’s forays into chamber music were limited to the quartet, dating from 1893 at the start of his musical career, and three sonatas from the last years of his life. The quartet is unusual in that it is the only work to which he gave an opus number. It is also one of the few to lay claim to a key, although this may be stretching a point as much of the music is closer to the ancient church mode known as the Phrygian than to strict G minor. The quartet shows the variety of influences which Debussy was beginning to mould to his mature ‘impressionistic’ style – the Russian school including Borodin, the French school of Franck, and the music of the Orient, particularly that of the Javanese gamelan orchestras which he had heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

Throughout the quartet there is a cyclical treatment of themes, with the opening bars containing the fundamental subject, which reappears in various guises in all but the slow movement. The first movement shows a remarkable proliferation of tempo changes, with accelerations, decelerations, and sudden shifts, which together with the somewhat fragmentary nature of the musical ideas were to give a new direction to the quartet form. In the second movement the main theme appears as a scherzo, and is given first to the viola, with pizzicato accompaniment. The lyrical slow movement is more conventionally ‘romantic’, with soliloquies for viola and cello, though it also contains some unusual sonorities. The last movement begins with an introduction (très modéré), which again develops the generating theme, before driving impetuously to its conclusion.

Last ACMC Performance: the Contempo Quartet – February 2003

Five Pieces Szymanski

(1954 – )

Pawel Szymanski is one of the foremost Polish contemporary composers, whose many works are performed throughout the world. He has won numerous competitions, including in 1989 the Britten Composing Competition in Aldeburgh with a concerto for amplified harpsichord and orchestra. His music draws on tradition, often that of the music of the baroque – when a student at the Frederick Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw he took part in the International Summer Academy of Ancient Music in Innsbruck – while bringing it into a modern context. He has written: “Tradition, in the sense of music from the past .. is a raw matter for composing. But something that has become raw matter of this kind is already dead. I take from this matter what I can dissemble, take apart into pieces, and then put together in a different whole.” The Five Pieces for String Quartet (all quite short) were written in response to a BBC commission for the Brodsky Quartet in 1993, and clearly exemplify this approach. Thus the first piece sounds at the outset almost like Handel or Haydn, but then begins to disintegrate into fragments, and soon slides (literally with Doppler-effect glissandi) into something very different. The opening clockwork rhythm of the second piece becomes rapidly more complex, and is interrupted by brief declamatory statements. In the moving third piece the use of instrumental harmonics gives a glassy, ghostly effect. Its still intensity reminds us that the Five Pieces were dedicated to the memory of Symanski’s friend Jerry Stajuda, one of Poland’s most outstanding artists, who had recently died at the age of 55. The fourth piece is intense in a different way, a wall of sound, in rapid arpeggios, becoming increasingly decorated with rapid runs. The final piece, the strangest, has a squawking, angry first violin set against grieving chords from the other instruments. First ACMC Performance


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Quartet in D major op. 11 Tchaikovsky
Moderato ma semplice
Andante cantabile
Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco
Finale: Allegro giusto

In 1863 Tchaikovsky gave up his employment as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice to devote himself to becoming a musician, enlisting in what was soon to become the St Petersburg Conservatoire, and then in 1865 becoming a poorly-paid professor at the Moscow Conservatory. His first quartet of 1871 was written for an all-Tchaikovsky concert intended to supplement his income, which also included piano pieces and a group of songs. In contrast to his other works of the period (Romeo and Juliet written in 1869 was a flop in Paris, and hissed in Vienna), the quartet was success from the start. A great deal of its appeal lies in its feeling of Russian folk-music, although only the andante is based directly on a folk-song. In 1868 Tchaikovsky had met his near-contemporaries Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, and been impressed by their enthusiasm for nationalism in art. Years later, writing to his patron Madame von Meck, he commented that the affinity of his melody with folksongs, sometimes intentional sometimes subliminal, came from “having spent my childhood in the country, and having … been filled with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk-music”.

The opening movement, in sonata form, begins with a rocking series of syncopated chords that leads through running figures to a simple but impassioned melody, before accelerating into a spiky little rising phrase, which permeates the development section. The famous andante is built on two ideas, the first a working out of a folk-song, which has been translated as “Vanya one night sat sadly on the divan, a glass of rum in his hand, to drown his sorrow and forget tomorrow”. Whatever its mundane words, the poignant melody, alternating between bars of 2/4 and 3/4, becomes almost sublime. The second idea is a more straightforward tune over a persistent pizzicato bass line. It is said that this movement moved Tolstoy to tears when performed at a concert in his honour in 1876. The energetic scherzo, afoot-stamping dance, has a gentler trio, followed by the repeat of the scherzo music, this time dying away to its finish. The finale, also in sonata form, has an invigorating, bright first subject, and a second subject that spotlights the viola, with an abrupt little accompaniment, which reappears, slowed down, before the rip-roaring final allegro vivace.

Last ACMC Performance: the Prague Quartet – November 1938

January 2012 Programme Notes