Quartet in D K575 Mozart (1756 – 1791)
In dire financial straits, Mozart jumped at the opportunity to travel to Berlin for an introduction to Friedrich Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia, lover of music and an enthusiastic cello player. As a result he was commissioned to write a set of six quartets, completing three, of which this was the first composed in 1789. In deference to the King, the cello part is highlighted, and in order to maintain the balance of the ensemble the music becomes close to that of the quatuor concertante, then popular in Paris, where each instrument has its chance to shine in the main themes. In hands less masterly than Mozart’s this can lead to a dull repetitiveness, but here the impression is of spaciousness and warmth, and of new sonorities, as the cello often soars above the other instruments.
The opening of the first movement is for the three upper instruments, marked sotto voce, before the cello rises to the fore. Other subtleties abound, for example the second violin’s version of the main theme is at twice the speed of that of the first violin. The Andante, also marked sotto voce, is in 3/4 time, its gentle themes embellished with turns. The minuetto is punctuated by sudden accents of fp, and just listen to the luscious cello in the trio, where the other instruments play an accompanying role. The last movement is a rondo, its theme and countermelody announced at the start by viola and cello, and this pervading theme is varied at each appearance. Mozart wrote that he found the composition of these quartets “troublesome”, but there is no evidence of this in this serene and happy work.
Last ACMC Perfomance: the Amphion Quartet, November 1983
Quartet no. 1 Métamorphoses Nocturnes Ligeti (1923 – 2006)
György Ligeti was born in Romania, but moved to Hungary while still a child, and studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. During the war, as a Jew, he was sent into forced labour, and the Nazi occupation destroyed his family. From 1950 he was on the staff of the Academy, before fleeing to Austria in the wake of the 1956 uprising. He then lived in several German towns, before his death in Vienna at the age of 83. His mature style, based on texture and sound density, has become one of the major influences on contemporary music, and he is recognised as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers.
He has described his early first quartet, written in 1953-4, as “for his bottom drawer” – the communist grip on Hungary’s cultural life at the time being so strong that any performance was out of the question, and the quartet was not played in public until 1958 in Vienna, by the Ramor Quartet which had similarly fled into exile. The music is influenced by Bartok, particularly the third and fourth quartets, which Ligeti had studied only from the scores as performance was then forbidden, and by Hungarian folk music. The quartet is written in one continuous movement, which can be divided into 17 contrasting sections. Ligeti explained the title as “a set of character variations, without a basic theme, but developed out of a basic motivic cell”, and said of the work: “it is modern in respect of its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic writing, but the articulation of the form is traditional.” In his admirable The String Quartet: a History, Paul Griffiths describes the quartet as “a continuous succession of images, as varied as a syrupy waltz, a mad clockwork prestissimo, a crystallisation into the stasis of sustained chords and, at the beginning and end, a moment of Slavonic heart-searching.”
Last ACMC Performance: the Contempo Quartet, February 2003
Quartet in C sharp minor, op. 131 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo
Allegro molto vivace
Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile
Adagio quasi un poco andante
Beethoven’s return to the quartet form after a gap of 15 years was instigated by a request from Prince Galitzin for three works, which in order of composition were opp. 127 (heard in our October 2001 concert), 132 and 130. The remaining two of the five great last quartets, composed in late 1826, seem to have come from a compulsion to exploit the form’s potential to the highest degree. It is impossible to encapsulate such a complex work in a few words, but part of Beethoven’s inventive genius is to unify the whole quartet, both in form and in the structure of the themes. Thus, although nominally in seven movements, the work is effectively played without a break, each movement leading directly to the next. The first movement is a reflective fugue looking back to the works of Bach, which Beethoven had studied deeply. It is built on a theme characterised by an emphasis on semi-tone intervals, and developed with a master’s touch by halving and doubling the time. The pp ending on C# then steps up a semi-tone to D for the dance-like second movement, with bagpipe drone accompaniment. The third movement forms a brief (11-bar) recitative bridge to the heart of the work, a theme and variations. The theme is structurally related to the fugue by again emphasising semi-tone intervals. The six variations range far from the original theme, and end with an elaborate coda. The following scherzo repeats the trio section (marked to be played piacevole, pleasingly) twice and closes with a wispy sul ponticello section. There is no true slow movement, the gentle song of the adagio acting only as an introduction to the tumultuous final movement, where hard-driving dotted sections are interspersed with moments of ecstatic contemplation.
Beethoven wrote of this quartet that he had found “a new manner of part-writing and, thank God, less lack of imagination than before”. It is the work which Schubert in his last illness most desired to hear, a wish that was fulfilled five days before his death. It is truly one of the greatest works in the whole quartet repertoire.
Last ACMC Performance: the Vogler Quartet, February 2002