Welcome to Up Next

Program Notes with Elizabeth Morrison

Verona Quartet

Mainstage Concert
October 29, 2022 | 7:30 pm
Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka
Concert + Conversation
October 30, 2022 | 3:00 pm
Lutheran Church of Arcata

Program for Mainstage Performance, October 29, 2022

Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 No. 1  (1801)
   Allegro con brio
   Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
   Scherzo: Allegro molto
   Allegro

   (29 minutes)
 

Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945)

String Quartet No. 3  (1929)
   Prima parte: Moderato
   Seconda parte: Allegro
   Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
   Coda: Allegro molto

   (15 minutes)
   

Intermission

Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904)

String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106  (1895)
   Allegro moderato
   Adagio ma non troppo
   Molto vivace
   Finale. Andante sostenuto – Allegro con fuoco

   (36 minutes)

 

     For the second concert of the season, the Verona Quartet promises us an evening of great pleasure, like the pleasure we might feel encountering three masterpieces of art in a single room. Not a museum room, mind you–it’s a home, where each piece is treasured both for itself and for its connection with the other two. We are so lucky to be able to sit among friends and hear music played live just for us!

Beethoven, Opus 18 #1 in F Major

     The first work of art we will encounter is by Beethoven, the genius who took the string quartet, created by Haydn and made magical by Mozart, and perfected it to a form that still nourishes us today. His first entry into the field is Opus 18, is a set of six quartets which fall into the period called “early Beethoven.” They are in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but could not be mistaken either of these masters. Formally, they follow a familiar pattern: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a sprightly, dance-like movement, and a dazzling finale. But each quartet has a heightened intensity that could only be by Beethoven.

     The one we will hear, Opus 18 #1, is not the first one he wrote (that was Opus 18 #3), but it is the one he chose to lead off his debut collection. The moment you experience the first phrase–a short, breathless utterance, half statement, half question–you will understand why he gave this quartet pride of place. The four notes of the opening hardly make it to the status of melody; little melody-fragments like this are often referred to as motifs. Played softly first, then, almost immediately, loudly, it instantly transports us to Beethoven’s world. It is Beethoven’s genius to make sweeping amounts of music out of minimal motifs, and you will hear this one throughout the movement. 

     There are other Beethoven-y things to listen for. One is silence. Breathless silences abound in the second movement, but they are found in this movement as well. Called “grand pauses” in the score, they heighten the drama by pulling our attention in closer. Another is something called a “subito piano.” This is the effect where the music gets louder and louder, and then suddenly (“subito”) drops away to softness (“piano”). The first one comes along at about a half minute into the piece, and you will hear many. Performers say that the trick of making an effective subito piano is to keep playing louder and louder, careful not to pull back until the last possible moment. Miwako Watanabe, violinist in the Sequoia Quartet, once said if she played Beethoven’s subito pianos properly, she could feel it in her shoulder the next day. All for art, right?

     The second movement, marked Adagio (slow), is literally dramatic; that is, it is linked to one of Shakespeare’s plays. We do not often think of Beethoven as a programmatic composer, but he did compose with stories in mind surprisingly often. This one, it turns out, is about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The movement is one of the most gripping nine minutes in music; if you said it was from a late Beethoven quartet, not an early one, no one would bat an eyelash. 

     We know about the Romeo and Juliet connection from Beethoven himself. When his friend Karl Amenda told him that the movement “pictured for me two lovers parting,” Beethoven is said to have replied, “Good! I was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet.” Beethoven loved Shakespeare, whom he read in German translation; he may even have been contemplating an opera. The movement is made of hushed passages, sudden, operatic outbursts, and long silences, where we, and the quartet, hold our breath. As for the last measure, and Juliet’s long last sigh, just remember to breathe.

     The third movement is not a minuet but a scherzo, an Italian word meaning “jest.” Haydn had begun switching out his minuet dance movements for scherzos about 20 years previously, and Beethoven ran with the idea. Minuet movements derive from a decorous court dance; somehow an energetic “jest” movement seems better suited to Beethoven’s personality. 

     A scherzo takes up the same position and a similar role in the quartet, that of offering a few moments of humor between the drama of the second movement and the flash of the finale. This scherzo is the kind of jest that is more play than joke; it is made almost of one long flowing line. It has the ABA structure of a minuet: a beginning section, a contrasting middle section called a “trio,” followed by a repeat of the opening section. You can recognize the trio when you hear some hammering octaves with a bit of Haydn-esque hemiola (remember those from the Telegraph Quartet Up Next notes?) The trio then flows back to the beginning without a break, so deftly you will smile. 

     The last movement, unlike most of Beethoven’s finales, is marked allegro, lively, rather than presto, super fast, but performers like to show their speed chops as the quartet rounds into the home stretch. This finale opens with a flourish from the first violin which you will have the pleasure of hearing from all four players in the course of the movement. The inner voices have the honor of the last flourishes, before the final, satisfying chords.

 

Bartók, String Quartet #3, Sz. 85

     The second masterpiece of the evening is Bartók’s third quartet, out of six that he composed. Bartók is arguably the greatest composer of the twentieth-century; if we were in the metaphoric art-filled room, this is the painting that would challenge you to spend the most time gazing at, to appreciate its greatness. 

     That’s why, if you have time, you might consider listening to it once or twice on YouTube before the concert. It’s only 15 minutes long, so you actually do have time. A click here will take you to a performance by the Takács Quartet, a group famous for their Bartók interpretation. This recording allows you to watch the score, the written music, instead of watching the players, and I recommend you give it a try. It’s possible and interesting, whether you read music easily or not. The pages turn automatically with the music, so you can’t get too lost, and having something to watch along with the sounds is surprisingly helpful. It keeps your attention, and if nothing else, will impress you with the musicians’ astonishing skills. We’ll talk more about following a score at the OLLI meeting, so please join us if you can.

     The entire quartet lasts for fifteen minutes, without any breaks, However, Bartók tells us in the score that there are actually four parts, which he calls Prima parte: Moderato (first part, a moderate tempo); Seconda parte: Allegro (second part, lively), Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato (a return to the first part, moderate tempo) and Coda: Allegro molto (a concluding section, very lively.) The first and second parts are about five minutes each, the recapitulation three minutes, the coda two minutes. (Another advantage of following the score is that you see exactly when the four sections begin and end.)

     It’s useful to know this, because Bartók has made the first part rather unnerving. The quartet starts out vaguely, with hints of a melody. but within a minute or so the rising tension culminates in three strong chords and a grand pause. Now what, you wonder. And indeed, the next several minutes will sound strange, especially if you’re hearing the quartet for the first time. The violins make sharp little stabs of sound by playing right up against the bridge, an effect called ponticello. There are dissonant chords and slides. Hang in there. Soon you’ll hear a short solo cello passage, then some reassuring pizzicato notes, and the melody, hinted at in the beginning, will at last emerge. For a minute or two, just relax.

     The second part starts with a Bartók pizzicato–a snap of the string so hard it hits against the fingerboard–launching a thoroughly pleasurable five minutes of folk-inflected music. Bartók was passionately interested in Hungarian folk music, and spent years of his life travelling around Eastern Europe, recording folk songs on the newly-invented Edison Recording Machine. The thousands of folk songs he and his friend Zoltán Kodály collected inspired many compositions like this one 

     You can see why Bartók loved folk music. It is fascinatingly un-square. Watching the score, you see the time signatures flash by: three beats to a measure, then five, seven, six–it’s never the same for long. Listening, you hear the constantly shifting rhythms like an aural kaleidoscope. Some of the unusual effects from the first part, like the squeaky ponticello, return as well, but they sound more natural embedded in a folk context. Listen too for another special effect, called col legno, about half-way through. The players start playing with the wood part of the bow instead of the hair, making a strange clattery sound. 

     Part 2 winds down with a passage from the viola and cello, which draws you back to the stranger world you thought you’d left. We’ve come to the recapitulation, where Bartók brings back the music of the first part in a pared down, simplified way. The brief final section, the coda, is a recapitulation of the second part. Hearing the eerie first section and the folky second section side by side, closer and quicker, highlights the unity of the piece; we can grasp that they are part of a brilliant whole. 

     In a similar way, the programming of the first half of the concert, with Beethoven and Bartók side by side, highlights the genius of both. We see Bartók’s uncanny, Beethoven-like genius in making monumental music out of compressed material. Writing almost a century and a half later, Bartók treats Beethoven like a contemporary, and skips past the 19th century as if it had never been. If none of the great romantic quartets had been written, we realize, Beethoven alone could have taken us straight to the heart of the 20th century. 

 

Dvořák, String Quartet Opus 106 in G Major

     And yet, the nineteenth century did happen. The second half of the program makes that clear with Dvořák’s monumental final quartet, Opus 106. This is a rarely-played work that shows us what we would have missed. It was written fairly quickly, not long after he returned from his sojourn in New York and Iowa, where he had composed his most popular quartet, Opus 96, the “American.” Over the years Opus 106 has been thoroughly, and I would say unjustly, overshadowed by the American, so it is thrilling to have a chance to hear it here.

     Dvořák is also, of course, Beethoven’s heir, but he follows a different thread of his genius. Where Bartók invokes the Beethoven of short, pregnant fragments, Dvořák’s quartet blooms from the Beethoven of expansive melodies, like the slow-movement rhapsodies of his later quartets. (Be sure to attend the Concert+Conversation to hear one of the greatest, his Opus 59 #1.) He also draws on Beethoven’s programmatic side, especially his nature descriptions, like those in the Pastoral Symphony. Dvořák’s music overflows with nature: brooks, thunderstorms, bird song. Part of the scherzo of the American quartet, it is said, was originally composed by a red-eyed vireo who annoyed Dvořák by waking him up at dawn in Iowa.

     The first movement of Opus 106 opens with a violin leap and trill that could also be bird song, and proceeds through ten minutes or so of what you could easily hear as nature sounds, ranging in tone from tenderly melodic to exhilarating. It is a warm, cheerful movement; Dvořák had been terribly homesick in America, and sounds very glad to be back in Prague.

     After this celebration of Bohemia, though, the second movement takes us back to the New World. Unlike the American, with its direct quotations of Native American utterances, Opus 106 is a complete absorption into himself of all Dvořák had learned there. Listening to it, I almost forget Beethoven; this is music that Beethoven never even tried to write. It is pure Dvořák, from the deep-voiced opening that seems to come out of the depth of a forest, to the drumbeats in the cello, to the haunting pentatonic melody. It might be my favorite Dvořák movement. It feels like a gift to hear music so open to the sounds of our native land. 

     When the final deep chord dies away, prepare to be whisked from the forest of the New World to a Bohemian peasant barn. The movement is marked Molto Vivace, and it’s full of foot stomping rhythm. Wait until you hear the rhythmic accompaniment that Dvořák has devised for the viola and cello. We’re almost back in Bartok territory; Bohemian folk music, after all, is not so different from Hungarian, though Dvořák has tidied it up here à la Brahms. Dvořák’s insight that a nation’s music should properly flow from its folk traditions makes him, as well as Beethoven, one of Bartók’s forbearers. 

     The last movement starts with a slow introduction, gets going in traditional Finale style, and takes some turns that will surprise you, and I’m not even counting the sudden appearance of Three Blind Mice (listen for it). About halfway through, the viola sneaks in the bird song from the first movement, almost convincing the rest of the quartet to follow. Throughout the movement, Dvořák’s ideas overflow; you’ll hear forest whispers, whirling dances, and more, for an exhilarating conclusion to a fantastic evening.