Quartet in B flat K589 Mozart (17560- 1791)
In 1789 Mozart visited Berlin with his friend and pupil Prince Lichnowsky (later one of Beethoven’s principal patrons) in the hope of improving his precarious financial position. Commissions from Friedrich William, King of Prussia, resulted: six easy piano sonatas for the young princesses, and a set of six quartets for the King who was an enthusiastic and competent cellist. Back in Vienna, Mozart quickly produced the D major quartet D575, but then his energies were absorbed in the composition of Cosi fan Tutte, first performed in January 1790. The B flat K589 and the F major K590 date from the following June, and were his last works for quartet. Mozart found the composition “troublesome”, perhaps because he was developing a new string texture, with prominent cello-writing to compliment the King. The three quartets, published together shortly after his death, were described as quatuor concertante, reflecting the unusual equality between the four voices.
The first movement of the B flat quartet is in reflective mood, spiced by accompanying triplet passages. The prominence of the cello in its high register is continued in the larghetto, where it states the theme, supported from below by the second violin and the viola. The minuet and trio is perhaps the most original movement, particularly the long trio with its bariolage (string crossing) figuration and abrupt key changes. The last movement is a concise romp, a 6/8 rondo where the thematic material is transformed through inversion, imitation and contrapuntal tricks.
Last ACMC Performance: the Atrium Quartet, March 2008
Quartet in F Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Allegro moderato – Très doux
Assez vif – Très rythmé – Lent – Tempo primo
Vif et agité
Ravel grew up in Paris, and early decided on a musical career, entering the Conservatoire in 1889. He was not a great success, being dismissed from both the harmony and piano classes in 1895. His interest in composition continued however, and in 1898 he joined the class given by Gabriel Fauré. At this period he also began to be part of the musical life of the city, meeting Debussy, d’Indy and Eric Satie. The quartet dates from 1902-3. The first movement was submitted as part of his fourth unsuccessful attempt for the Prix de Rome, and was dismissed by the judges as laborious and lacking in simplicity. The completed work, dedicated to “mon cher Maitre” Fauré and first performed in 1904, provoked divided reactions. Debussy was said to be enthusiastic, while Lalo criticised it as too closely resembling Debussy. Certainly there are close parallels with Debussy’s own quartet, written ten years earlier, although its light, transparent textures are in contrast to the denser writing of its predecessor.
The four movements are tightly constructed individually, but are also inter-related by the thematic material. The first movement is lyrical, and in pure sonata form. The second is a scherzo with the unusual time signature 6/8 (3/4). The pizzicato opening leads to the broad central section, including a section where the second violin is instructed to play “quasi arpa” – like a harp. The rhapsodic third movement has many changes of time, and variations in tone colour by use of mutes, or by playing over the fingerboard. The final movement is by turns stormy and calm.
The years around the turn of the century were ones of great change for the string quartet form. Dvorak’s last quartets were written in 1895, Bartok’s first in 1908. Although it took some time for its virtues to be recognized, the Ravel quartet, with its vitality and fresh harmonies, is a distinctive and deservedly popular addition to the quartet repertoire.
Last ACMC Performance: the Emperor Quartet, March 1994
Quartet in D minor D 810 Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Andante con moto
Scherzo Allegro molto
In his youth Schubert wrote several quartets, undemanding cheerful pieces for performance in the family circle with his father and his brothers, Schubert himself playing the viola. In contrast, the string chamber works of his maturity, the D minor and G major quartets (1824 and 1826), and the double cello quintet (1828), contain some of his most intense and deeply felt music.
The D minor was written as Schubert was recovering from a severe illness. Its familiar title comes from the theme of the slow movement, drawn from his song “Death and the Maiden”, and many have seen the whole work as depicting aspects of a struggle with Death. Certainly it is generally sombre and impassioned, and predominantly in the minor. The first movement’s driving opening introduces the pervasive triplet motif which recurs to dramatic effect particularly in the coda, first at a quickened pace and then, as if all energy fails, at the original tempo. The statement of the theme in the slow movement is hushed, sounding almost like a chorus of viols. The words of the song, written seven years before the quartet, are those of Death himself, calming the fearful Maiden and promising her quiet sleep in his arms. The moods of the five variations change from melancholy musing to stormy intensity, with a gleam of autumnal sunshine in the major. The scherzo is marked by powerful syncopation, and although the trio is in the major key, it still seems full of wistful yearning. The last movement has been described as a dance of death, a mad tarantella, which whirls to a prestissimo conclusion.
Last ACMC Performance: the Piatti Quartet, October 2012