Quartet in F op. 18 no. 1 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Allegro con brio
Adagio affetuoso ed appasionato
Scherzo: Allegro molto
What a hot bed of music Vienna must have been in the last decades of the eighteenth century: Mozart before his death in 1791, Haydn between his visits to London, and the young Beethoven, who arrived from Bonn in 1792, to take composition lessons from Haydn. It was not until 1798 that Beethoven wrote his first set of six quartets, op. 18. Though he had learnt much from his predecessors Mozart and Haydn, he was to develop the medium much further, taking it to extremes in later works, and this creative thinking is already apparent in op. 18 no. 1. In fact, there exists a version of this quartet from a year earlier, of which Beethoven wrote to a friend “Be sure not to hand on to anybody the quartet, in which I have made some drastic alterations. For only now have I learnt to write quartets.”
In the first movement Beethoven takes a very brief motif, stated in isolation in the first bar, as the basis for the entire musical development. One is immediately aware of the equality with which he treats the four instruments and the extraordinary variety of sounds he creates by changing their roles or pairing them in different ways. The second movement, reputed to have been inspired by the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, is a slow movement of great beauty and intensity. The mood is relaxed in a lively scherzo, already showing Beethoven’s hallmarks of sharp dynamic contrasts, and strong sforzandi, and with a trio that allow full rein to the first violin. The finale contrasts a slithering triplet motif with a four-square arpeggio second subject and brings the work to a rousing conclusion.
Last ACMC Performance: the Bingham Quartet – February 1997
Quartet in G op. 54 no. 1 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Allegro con brio
The two sets of three quartets op. 50 and 54, and the set of six op. 64, were all dedicated to or commissioned by Johann Tost, a violinist in the Esterhazy orchestra, who subsequently married a rich wife (and with whom incidentally Haydn and Mozart had played the Mozart quintets). Many of these quartets are characterised by brilliant (and difficult!) first violin parts, presumably a reflection of Tost’s violinistic abilities.
In the three op. 54 quartets, written in 1788 – 1790, Haydn abandoned his monothematic experiments of the preceding set op. 50, returning to the more conventional sonata form with two distinct themes. Instead he experiments anew with daring harmonic modulations that at times prefigure Schubert. In the opening to op. 54 no. 1 the first violin declaims over a buoyant pulsing accompaniment, while the second subject is a more graceful figure, shared between all the instruments. The development plunges into the minor, before the restatement and a brief coda which returns to the opening theme. The gentle allegretto is in 6/8, with a hint of siciliano dotted rhythm, and full of complex modulations, where note is piled on note “as a child builds bricks”. The minuet is interesting for its five-bar phrases, the trio for the simple folk-tune wreathed around by the cello accompaniment. The last movement is an exhilarating rondo, which unfolds itself with typical Haydnesque humour.
Last ACMC Performance: the Wihan Quartet – January 2004
Langsamer Satz Webern (1883 – 1945)
Vienna again – Webern is well known as one of the founders, with Schönberg, of the 12-tone so-called Second Viennese School. However, the Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) is a youthful piece, written in 1905, well before the invention of 12-tone technique, and rooted rather in post-Brahmsian romanticism. It was inspired by a walking holiday in the Austrian woods, with his fiancée Wilhelmine Mörtl and reflects Webern’s own words: “To walk like this … with my beloved beside me … as free as a lark in the sky. Oh, what splendour … Our love filled the air.”
First ACMC Perfomance
Quartet no. 1: the Kreutzer Sonata Janàček (1854 – 1928)
Janàček’s first quartet was written in 1923. Like the second quartet (Intimate Letters), it was written for Kamila Stosslova, the much younger married woman who provided much of the inspiration of his later works. The Kreutzer Sonata referred to in the title is not that by Beethoven, but a brief novel by Tolstoy, dealing with the potential destructiveness of marriage, and championing relationships achieved without formal wedlock.
Passionate feeling runs deep through the quartet, and formal movements are replaced with an episodic structure. There can be few quartets where all four movements are marked con moto, and few that have so many abrupt changes of tempo and mood, mixing elements of vivacity with more lyrical moments of song. The contrasts are apparent at the start of the first movement where two declamatory adagio bars are followed by a folk-song marked con moto on the cello. Much of the thematic material used throughout the work is closely related, for example the declamatory theme reappears at the start of the last movement. A further characteristic is the use of tone colours, some achieved, as in the third movement, suI ponticello i.e. playing very close to the bridge of the instrument, and others by the use of agitated accompanying figures.
Janàček wrote later of the quartet that he had “felt every note”, and of how “glowingly the notes dropped one after another from his pen”.
Last ACMC Performance: the Panocha Quartet – January 1992