Quartet in B flat op. 76 no. 4 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Allegro con spirito
Finale: Allegro ma non troppo
The eminent musical scholar Marion Scott remarked of the string quartet: “Haydn did not invent the form: he made it – an infinitely higher achievement.” In the forty or so years since his early divertimenti a quattro, Haydn had developed the form into works of completely satisfying music, where all parts are equally essential to the whole, and which can convey both the deepest emotion and the most joyous wit, and the set of six op. 76, written between 1796 and 1798, are arguably his greatest quartets.
The B flat quartet earns its nickname of The Sunrise from its opening where, over serene chords, the first violin sails up into the light, and the mists then shift with the different tone colouring of the viola. After spirited semi-quavers in the transition, the second subject is a mirror image of the first, with the cello sinking downwards again over held chords, a moment that is marvellously varied in the subsequent sonata form recapitulation. The adagio is a long-unfolding meditation on the opening five notes, lightened by delicate sextuplets. The strongly rhythmic minuet has a trio where the strong beat falls across the bar, and jolly drones come from the lower instruments. The theme of the last movement has been described as “having the vernal freshness of an English song”. The rondo form has a section in the minor, and then a surprise at the end as it accelerates first to più allegro, with quavers tossed between the four instruments, and then più presto to the rousing ending.
Last ACMC Performance: the Dante Quartet – November 2004
Quartet no. 2 op. 36 Britten (1913 – 1976)
Allegro calmo senza rigore
In February 1945 Britten completed his opera Peter Grimes, and almost immediately started work on his second string quartet, which had been commissioned by his close friend Mary Behrend. 1945 was the 250th anniversary of the death of one of Britten’s heroes, the English composer Henry Purcell, whose theme he was to use triumphantly in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra of 1946, so it is not surprising that the quartet, which Britten considered to be “the greatest advance I have yet made” is in part a deliberate homage to Purcell.
The first movement begins with three statements, each announced by a rising interval of a tenth (an octave and a third) and underpinned by an open-string drone, this time to more more melancholy effect. Spiky quavers follow, leading to tempestuous outbursts, mixed with moments of mystery, before tranquillity returns in the coda, where the interval of a tenth is again pervasive. The second movement is a scherzo, rushing past, played with muted strings, although full of dynamic contrasts, abrasive contrary-motion arpeggios, and stabbing chords. The tension is released a little in the middle section, before the scherzo reappears transformed.
The third movement, longer than the other two combined, is the “crowning glory of the quartet”. A chacony (a.k.a. chaconne), like the closely related passacaglia, was a slow dance, in 3/4 time, with the emphasis on the second beat of the bar, often with a repeating ground bass. Purcell’s Chacony in G minor of 1680 was well-known to Britten, and in fact he was to publish it in an edition for string orchestra, transcribed from the original version for viols. In this movement, his overt tribute to Purcell, Britten states his chacony theme (in the key of B flat) with the quartet in unison, and then follows it by a series of 21 variations. The first six vary the harmony, and are followed by a cadenza for the cello. The second six are rhythmic, then there is a cadenza for the viola, and afterwards six more variations, where the chacony rhythm serves as accompaniment to a new melody, derived from the first movement. After a cadenza for the first violin, the final three variations clearly recall the main theme, before the sun comes out in the confident chords of the C-major ending.
Last ACMC Performance: the Alberni Quartet – November 1980
Quartet in G major op.161 Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Allegro molto moderato
Andante un poco moto
Scherzo: allegro vivace
The quartet in G, Schubert’s last, was composed in Vienna in 1826, though not published until 1851. At the same time and in the same city, Beethoven was completing his C sharp minor quartet op.131, which we heard at our January concert, and it seems that Schubert, who had a great reverence for Beethoven’s music, had absorbed some of the techniques exhibited in the older composer’s great last-period quartets. Certainly Schubert’s op.161, although retaining the standard four-movement form, is at once more ambitious and original, if less immediately appealing, than its better-known predecessor the D minor quartet, Death and the Maiden, of 1824. Only occasionally do we find the lyricism so often associated with Schubert. The quartet writing becomes almost orchestral at times, with inventive textures, shimmering tremulandi contrasted with sonorous chording. The rigid demands of sonata form are loosened in favour of more general feelings of continuity and shape. A pervading influence almost to the end of the work is the struggle between major and minor tonalities, obvious from the first few bars.
The long opening movement contrasts the leaping first subject with the narrow range and hesitant quality of the second. The Andante opens with an elegiac cello theme but, as in the double cello quintet (completed in 1828), this is interrupted with more impassioned episodes. The fleet-footed scherzo sounds almost like Mendelssohn. In contrast, the trio is a delightful, lilting Ländler. The last movement is something of a tarantella, in 6/8 rhythm and rondo form, finally resolving the tensions in the serene major-key ending.
Last ACMC Performance: the Kodaly Quartet – October 2004