Quartet in F K590 Mozart
(1756 – 1791)
After the six quartets dedicated to Haydn, Mozart intended to dedicate a set of six to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, in the hope of receiving patronage and with it financial security. However, he wrote only three (K575, 589 and 590) before dire necessity forced him to sell them for “a wretched sum”. The quartets date from 1789-90, the period of Cosi fan Tutte, and Haydn’s op. 64 quartets.
To flatter the King, a keen cellist, Mozart featured this instrument prominently in all three quartets. The consequent need to balance the texture led him towards the quatuor concertant style, where different instruments take the melody in turns. This is immediately apparent in the first movement of the F major quartet, where the broad, lyrical themes are given to the first violin and the cello, with the viola getting its share in the recapitulation. The development makes much of two tiny phrases, rising chromatic quavers and widely spaced crochets, which reappear in the mocking coda.
The andante is a simple, almost hesitant theme in 6/8 time, developed with gentle semi-quaver decorations for all four instruments. The minuet and trio are more adventurous, with contrasts in texture, harmony and dynamics. The last movement bursts with invention, the initial semi-quaver theme being turned and twisted and tossed between the players, with tantalising pauses to keep you guessing right up to the witty end; and a fitting end at that, for this was Mozart’s last quartet.
Last ACMC Performance: the Emperor Quartet – October 1998
Pavan Thomas Tomkins
(1573 – 1656)
A pupil of William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins became organist at Worcester cathedral in 1596, remaining there until his death. He was a prolific composer of madrigals, keyboard music, verse anthems, and consort music, in a style which looked backwards to the renaissance rather than forward to the baroque. In his long life he saw troubled times: the Civil War and the destruction by Cromwell of the organ at Worcester, and in 1649 the execution of Charles I. Shortly after this, he composed the keyboard piece A Sad Paven for these Distracted Tymes. The Paven (or Pavan) was a seventeenth century dance, described as slow and stately.
First ACMC Performance
“A Sad Paven for these Distracted Tymes” Maxwell Davies
(1934 – )
Peter Maxwell Davies, one of our most distinguished composers, and Master of the Queen’s Music, and since 1971 an Orcadian, is no stranger to the string quartet. His ten works for the medium are known as the Naxos Quartets after their commissioner, Naxos Records. Tonight’s short piece was completed in 2004, for the Paulo Borciani International String Quartet Competition. It was inspired by the Tomkins work, and the Herald described it at its UK première at the St. Magnus Festival as “short and to the point, its intentions clear from the melancholic opening bars – a brief but lovely vignette with memorable melodic writing, especially for the violins”.
First ACMC Performance
Tea, coffee or juice, and biscuits are available at 50p
Two Pieces Copland
(1900 – 1990)
Early in his career Copland studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and it was here in 1923 that the Rondino was written for string quartet. Later, in 1928, he composed the Lento Molto for the same medium, and realising that the two went well together they were then published as a pair, at the same time as he transcribed them for string orchestra. The spare astringent harmonies of the Lento Molto are already recognisably Copland, building to an intense climax, and then dying away. Boulanger wrote of it as “a masterpiece – so moving, so deep, so simple”. The earlier Rondino was written at the time of Faure’s death, as a homage, built loosely on the sol-fa versions of the letters of his name. Alternating spiky rhythms with more tranquil sections, it is reminiscent of Stravinsky in his neo-classical mood.
First ACMC Performance
Quartet in G op. 18 no. 2 Beethoven
(1170 – 1827)
Allegro molto quasi presto
Although he already had sizeable achievements, and a growing popularity in Vienna, it was not until 1799, the year in which Haydn published his last two complete quartets op. 77, that Beethoven began working on the op. 18 quartets. Perhaps he was wary of tackling the forms in which Haydn and Mozart reigned supreme. Op.18 no. 2 shows a civilised elegance, which has earned it the nickname “the Compliment”. The first movement mixes a thorough understanding of Haydn’s style with a new dramatic thrust that is unmistakably Beethoven, for example at the beginning of the recapitulation, where the main theme is shown in a new light, rhythmically charged with accented octaves. The following adagio cantabile has an unusual formal layout, with a fleet-footed allegro sandwiched between the slow, lyrical theme and its more decorated later version. The scherzo and the finale again show a combination of Haydnesque technique with Beethovian rhetoric – the resulting energy derives from this tension between a refined, courtly elegance and a more earthy directness. Perhaps the most apt description of the last movement is the one given by Beethoven himself: ausgeknöpft, meaning unbuttoned!
Last ACMC Performance: the Almira Quartet – January 1998