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Program Notes with Elizabeth Morrison
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October 29, 2022 | 7:30 pm
Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka
Concert + Conversation
October 30, 2022 | 3:00 pm
Lutheran Church of Arcata
Oct 29 + 30, 2022
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
György Ligeti (1923 - 2006)
String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes) (1954)
17 Sections, one continuous movement
Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904)
String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106 (1895)
Adagio ma non troppo
Finale. Andante sostenuto – Allegro con fuoco
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.
György Ligeti, String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes)
The second masterpiece of the evening is by György Ligeti. His first string quartet, written in 1953 and 1954, is called Métamorphoses nocturnes. We were originally scheduled to hear Bartók’s third quartet, and if you prepared for the Verona’s performance by listening to the Bartók, your effort was definitely not wasted. Like Bartók, Ligeti is a Hungarian composer. Born in 1923, when Bartók was 42, he studied with Bartók’s friend Kodaly, and immersed himself in Bartók’s work, especially his third and fourth quartets. Bartók’s influence is so clear that the composer György Kurtág called Ligeti’s work “ Bartók’s seventh.”
Let’s start with a few words from Ligeti himself. Yes, composers do sometimes write their own program notes.
The first word of the sub-title Metamorphoses nocturnes refers to the form. It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific “theme” that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms - that is why “metamorphoses” is more appropriate than “variations”. The quartet can be considered as having just one movement or also as a sequence of many short movements that melt into one another without pause or which abruptly cut one another off. The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone. In this First String Quartet there are certainly some characteristics of my later music, but the writing is totally different, “old-fashioned”; there are still distinct melodic, rhythmic and harmonic patterns and bar structure. It is not tonal music, but it is not radically atonal, either. The piece still belongs firmly to the Bartók tradition (remember my situation as a composer in Hungary at the beginning of the fifties), yet despite the Bartók-like tone (especially in the rhythm) and despite some touches of Stravinsky and Alban Berg, I trust that the First String Quartet is still a personal work.
You may not find the Metamorphoses exactly old-fashioned, but it’s possible to enjoy it in the same way as the Bartók. It’s 20th century music, but it does have tunes, folk moments, and even a waltz. It’s a bit longer than the third Bartók, about 20 minutes rather than the Bartók’s 15, and it too is played without breaks, but has also sections. Many sections! Seventeen of them! It’s fun to listen to it with the score. Click HERE for the link to a performance on YouTube by the Adritti Quartet.
The titles of the sections are tempo markings, referring to how fast the players need to go. Prestissimo, very fast, is the quickest tempo, Lento, at the end, is the slowest. Subito, suddenly, is an important word: #10 is suddenly very sustained; #13 is suddenly faster. The changes are easy to notice, and as Ligeti says, often abruptly cut off the preceding section. Here are their names:
Presto – Prestissimo
Molto sostenuto – Andante tranquillo
Tempo di Valse, moderato, con eleganza, un poco capriccioso
Subito: molto sostenuto
Allegretto, un poco gioviale
Allargando. Poco più mosso
Subito allegro con moto, string. poco a poco sin al prestissimo
Allegro comodo, gioviale
Sostenuto, accelerando – Ad libitum, senza misura
Science tells us that in a 20 minute piece with seventeen sections, none of them can be very long, and indeed they are not. The longest sections are the slow ones: #4, Adagio mesto, slow and sad, is two minutes long, #6, molto sostenuto, very sustained, three minutes. So, as they say about the weather, if you don’t like a section, just wait a minute, and you’ll hear something else.
The opening section, marked Allegro grazioso, lively and graceful, is just half a minute long. The “concept” that Ligeti refers to, two major seconds, or whole steps, separated by a half step, appears here, in the first violin in the 7th measure, at the beginning of the second line in the score. It’s a good idea to listen to it a few times and fix it in your mind. This is the fragment or motive that is literally transformed, metamorphosed, throughout the quartet. It’s a little tricky to pick out in some of the sections, but I think you’ll find that by the time you get to the Lento at the end, when the violin plays the “theme” very clearly, you’ll feel a sense of familiarity and completeness.
The Waltz is the 8th section, and it comes just past the half-way point, about 11 minutes in. It’s a good landmark. You only have 30 seconds to enjoy it, but the whole piece is entertaining on many levels; you can enjoy the many special effect like Bartók pizzicatos, the amazing rhythmic complexity, the incredible skill required by the players. You can let your imagination run wild on the aural scenery. And you can appreciate another amazing masterpiece of the 20th century, and a composer who will expand your understanding and love of music.
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.
Program for Concert+Conversation, October 30, 2022
Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet Opus 59, No.1