Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in D, Op. 18 No. 3
- Andante con moto
The direct descent through the line of Haydn and Mozart is easily discernible in the six Opus 18 Quartets of Beethoven. Some of his notes and transcripts make it quite clear that he made a particular study of the Opus 20 set of Haydn and the inclusion of a set of six quartets in one opus number is an indication of his role models. These quartets were written between 1798 and 1800 and being his first works in this form fall into his ‘early’ period. They were dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz, who was of Bohemian origin and one of the composer’s greatest patrons, and were first performed at his Friday morning musical gatherings at his home in Vienna.
Although the D major Quartet is numbered third in the sequence, dating from1798 it was almost certainly the first to be written, thus leaning most towards Beethoven’s early influences. Overall the quartet gives the impression of being quiet and pensive, particularly in the calm and tender opening with the first violin floating in on the first subject with its striking dominant seventh over the soft sustained chords of its companions. A little disquiet enters with the second, more agitated, subject, above its staccato bass line. The movement continues with key modulations which bring frequent changes of mood. It is the second violin which, unusually, announces the simple theme of the Andante. Serious in nature, of considerable length, and rich in texture, it is almost in rondo form.
The third movement adopts neither the rhythmic verve of the minuet or the high spirits of the scherzo, but it continues the contemplative mood of the quartet with what is akin to a graceful intermezzo. It is marked by strange pauses and unexpected tonalities, often turning to minor keys, especially in the trio section.
The Presto finale restores the D major high spirits, with rhythmic drive and a feel of perpetual motion, punctuated with abrupt changes of dynamics, until the movement says its farewells in a whisper.
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) : La Oración del torero, Op. 34
Turina composed the single-movement Toreador’s Prayer, Op. 34 in 1924. For the first thirty seconds or so of the piece, one would swear this was a newly discovered quartet of Debussy or Ravel, not only for its “impressionism” but also for its spicy Iberian flavor that both Debussy and Ravel borrowed from Spanish idioms which they helped to immortalize decades earlier. Shimmering atmospheres peppered with pizzicato and guitar-derived idiomatic ornaments set an exotic scene for adventure, bravado and passion as the toreador approaches the potentially fatal spectacle. Thoughts of mortality, the test of courage and honor, and perhaps a sudden nostalgia for the amorous sensuality of life turn the Toreador inward in a dreamy reflection full of longing and hope. Bright and languid harmonies suggest the amorphous and flowery romantic soundtracks of vintage movies that borrowed so much from this period of French and Spanish technicolor impressionism. The toreador’s private revere turns ultimately to prayer as humility and supplication lift the music up in a chaste, golden glow. The string quartet proves to be an admirably “colorful” ensemble for rendering this deliciously programmatic mood painting. Here, Turina demonstrates the unique power of music to vividly express a complex of conflicted, nuanced thoughts in an organic whole that captures the otherwise ineffable human condition.
Franz Schubert: String quartet no.14 (Death and the Maiden) in D minor, D 810
- Andante con moto
Schubert wrote over 30 chamber works including two complete Piano Trios and the popular Octet for wind and strings. However, it was the string quartet that he regarded as the supreme achievement in this field and in 1824 he planned a series of three of them. The first two, including this Death and the Maiden Quartet, were written in February of that year, but they had to wait until 1831 for publication, while there is no clear record of any public performance in the composer’s lifetime. The title is not on the autograph, but it is an apt one, since the slow movement is a wonderful set of variations on a harmonic sequence from Schubert’s 1817 song Tod und das Mädchen.
The allegro opens with a powerful rhythmic call to attention after which the first subject energetically carries on, with triplets a prominent feature. The more suave second subject appears on the violins in thirds, but this also becomes more and more energetic, with scurrying semi-quavers on the first violin. The development is mainly concerned with aspects of the second subject and the recapitulation is announced with the original call to attention, though it is extended with a strenuous fugue-like section. A long held note on the ‘cello dies away and the coda starts speeding up to a climax which subsides to a quiet ending with triplets in the bass.
The theme for the set of five variations that make up the andante con moto is ideal for the purpose; it consists of a simple repeated rhythmic pattern with little melodic or harmonic movement, allowing the composer full opportunity to add musical decoration and expressive content – an opportunity of which he takes full advantage.
The scherzo is full of fierce dotted rhythms and slashing syncopation, contrasted with a slower, more graceful trio, which nevertheless has the same persistent dotted rhythm as the main part of the movement.
Few quartet movements can match the frenzied driving intensity of the final presto. When the second subject arrives, after a pause, in longer notes, it is no less driven and is soon accompanied by scurrying patterns of notes, mainly on the first violin. Finally the speed heats up to a prestissimo, and the work ends with great force.