Quartet in C Op. 33 no. 3 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Scherzando – Allegretto
Rondo – Presto
The six op. 33 quartets date from 1781, and in Haydn’s own words were “written in a new and special way”. Nine years had passed since the op. 20 quartets, and his now effortless mastery of the quartet form, developed through subtle inter-relationships between themes and between movements, resulted in works which seem immensely satisfying to the listener. The set is also characterised by light-hearted wit, and has become known as “gli scherzi“, not so much because they all have scherzo or scherzando movements, but because scherzo is the Italian for “joke”.
The third quartet has the nickname “the Bird”, and chirruping grace-notes set the style of the first movement, particularly in the second subject shared between the two violins. The development moves through magical key-changes to the recapitulation. The second movement succeeds through a startling contrast of moods, with a tender scherzando, sotto voce, with all instruments playing on their lowest strings, followed by the trio section for the violins alone. The classic book on chamber music for amateur players “The Well-Tempered String Quartet” remarks of this: “good tone is essential if it is not to sound like a pair of sparrows”! The slow movement has a gentle theme with increasingly elaborate decorations from the first violin. The rondo is based on a Slavonic folk-tune, and is full of fun before its surprising pianissimo ending.
Last ACMC Performance: the Endellion Quartet – October 1993
Quartet in E flat op. 74 Beethoven (1770- 1827)
Poco adagio – allegro
Adagio ma non troppo
Presto – piu presto quasi prestissimo
Allegretto con variazioni
Beethoven’s tenth quartet, op. 74, was written in 1809, the year of Haydn’s death. In comparison to the grand conception of the previous three quartets op. 59, it may be seen as a return to more Haydnesque dimensions, perhaps as a homage to the man whose quartet writing Beethoven had so much admired. It still bears however unmistakably Beethovian hallmarks; for example, it shares with the fifth symphony (of a couple of years earlier) a preoccupation with the motif of three short and one long note, “fate knocking at the door”, which dominates the third movement. There are also foretastes of the late quartets, as in the slow opening of the first movement. The flowing allegro that follows has a first theme divided between the first and second violins, one of many examples of the equality and individuality of writing between the four instruments. After a long development section comes the transition to the recapitulation, whose pizzicati are the origin of the work’s familiar name, “The Harp”. The pizzicati recur in the coda, accompanying a bravura first violin. The lyrical slow movement, which would have delighted Haydn, is in the form of a rondo, the theme recurring with varied decoration. The rugged third movement is a scherzo and trio, of form ABABA. Both sections are in 3/4 time, but give completely different effects, Beethoven directing that the beat of the faster trio section should be imagined as if in 6/8 time. It leads directly to the simple theme of the last movement, followed by a set of sharply contrasted variations, of which the second, spotlighting the viola, is perhaps the most beguiling, before accelerating to the conclusion.
Last ACMC Performance: the Belcea Quartet – November 1998
Quartet no. 3 Pēteris Vasks (1946 – )
Moderato – Allegro – Andante – Moderato
Petēris Vasks was born in Latvia, and grew up there through the long period of Soviet domination and suppression. He studied the violin and then the double bass at the Latvian Music School, then played in several orchestras, and worked as a music teacher, before finally being permitted to study composition in 1973. Since 1989 he has taught composition in Riga. Championed by his fellow-Latvian, violinist Gidon Kremer, his music has become increasingly recognised in the West, and has won many prizes, both inside and outside Latvia. In 2006 he was composer-in-residence at the Presteigne and Vale of Glamorgan Festival. His works cover a wide range, including three symphonies and five string quartets, and much other chamber music. His early music particularly shared something of the world of the Polish composer Lutoslawski with his use of “aleatory” techniques, where the music leaves something to random elements. He also has a fascination with nature, and the imitation of bird song. But, even after the so-called “Singing Revolution” and the formation of Latviaas an independent state in 1991, he sees the purpose of his music as “to bring light into the lives of my people, a people who have suffered so much and despite their regained independence are still far removed from actual freedom.”
The third quartet was written in 1996. The first movement begins with harmonics, quiet murmurings and pizzicati, giving way to a gentle meditative feeling of plain-chant. The angry rhythmic unity of the second movement moves into more cheerful memories of folk-music, at times hectic, at times playful, with little canons between the instruments. The third movement is a dirge, a lament full of pain. In the last movement, all of the preceding three are recalled, amidst the most obvious imitations of bird song, coming full circle to a quietly consoling end. In Vasks’ own words: “I live through the feeling of pessimism ultimately to affirm that with my last breath I will whole-heartedly say yes to the beauty of the world.”
First ACMC Performance