Program Notes: The Wyeth Quartet, March 26, 2013, 7:30pm at City Performance Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): String Quartet in G major Op.18, No.2
The String Quartet No. 2 in G major, op. 18, No. 2, was written by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1798 and 1800 and published in 1801. This charming work is a comedy, rich with wit and humor and reminiscent of Haydn’s quartets. Beethoven’s first movement Allegro begins with a delightful exchange of phrases that has been said to describe eighteenth century manners. In German-speaking countries, the graceful curve of the first violin’s opening phrase has earned the work the nickname of Komplimentier-Quartett, which might be translated as “quartet of bows and curtseys”. There is a deeper moment in the pianissimo change to Eb in the development, with a mysterious fugato; but it is quickly dismissed, and the movement returns to its witty course. The C major Adagio cantabile is almost plain, and harmonically almost avoids expression. There is a nod to Haydn here with a quick scherzo-like section written into the movement. Then the adagio returns in full force to the end. The real scherzo is brilliantly unpredictable, thematically and harmonically. Beethoven’s early scherzos show amazing variety and resource. The quartet’s finale shows what he has learned from Haydn with witty inversions and diminutions of its first three notes. This humorous movement also shows what can be done by constant flexibility in contrasting textures and phrase-lengths in music.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) ”Psalom” and “Summa”
A short piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, “Psalom” (Psalm), is described by writer Paul Hillier as “tiny, almost evanescent, its nine varied statements of a single melodic idea . . . vanishing into silence as soon as they are brushed into being.” And, in an interview Pärt said, “Silence is the pause in me when I am near to God”. It seems that the sacredness of silence is a view characteristic of Pärt’s musical thought.
Pärt’s “Summa” – a summary of life’s experiences – was originally created in 1978 as a setting for four solo voices of the church’s most convincing declaration of its faith, as expressed in the Latin words of the Mass: Credo in unum Deum (“We believe in one God”). The work winds its gently flowing lines around the ancient text, sometimes placing pairs of voices against each other (a technique greatly favored in Renaissance sacred music), sometimes creating haunting modal harmonies from the weaving together of all the voices. The transcribing of “Summa” into the realm of the pure, wordless music of the string quartet only intensifies its air of wonder, mystery, and timelessness.
Pärt refers to his writing style as “tintinnabuli.” He explains the term this way: “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.”
Robert Schumann (1810–1856): String Quartet in A major, Op. 41, No. 3 (1842)
Robert Schumann wrote all three of his string quartets in a burst of creative output in 1842, dedicating them to his friend Felix Mendelssohn. Such concentrated working periods were not unusual for Schumann. The third of the three quartets, in A major, is perhaps the best known. The opening movement begins with an introduction that establishes a signature motive: a falling perfect fifth like a sigh. The main exposition follows with a gentle calmness. Schumann chose the form of a theme and variations for the second movement, instead of the usual scherzo. The movement is marked agitato and most of the variations are energetic, except variation 4, the poco adagio, with the first violin and viola in canon. The third movement Adagio is the longest and most reflective movement of the quartet revealing Schumann’s typical lyricism and beauty. The finale movement sweeps away all that has gone before in a rush of dynamic energy, featuring syncopated, folk-like dance rhythms with a grand finish. Thus ends Schumann’s only set of string quartets, in essence the last word in the genre before Brahms.