top of page

Verona Quartet, Saturday, September 30, 2023


Programs Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Crisantemi, 1890


In 1890, Puccini was 32 years old. Born in the Tuscan city of Lucca, the scion of a long - established musical family, he had seemed destined for a brilliant musical career. But his first two operas had been failures, and his publisher was growing worried. Moreover, he had recently eloped with his married piano student, to generally raised eyebrows. He was still six years away from composing La bohème, ten years from Tosca, fourteen from Madama Butterfly. This is the moment when he turned briefly from opera to compose this intense and beautiful piece.

On February 6, 1890, he wrote to his brother Michele that he had written a work for string quartet in a single night. It was dedicated to the memory of his friend Prince Amadeo of Savoy, formerly King Amadeo I of Spain, who had died on January 18 th . Puccini called his composition Elegy, and gave it the subtitle Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums,) because in Italy the chrysanthemum is a flower of mourning.

Crisantemi lasts just six minutes, and the tempo marking, Andante Mesto, slow and sad,
suggests that it will not require an inordinate amount of music to fill that time. It has just 99 measures, and is in A-B-A form, with an opening section (A), a contrasting middle section (B), and a return of the A section. Puccini had only to compose about 60 measures for the A and B sections, bring back the A section for its second outing, add a short coda, and voilà. A genius like Puccini could certainly do this in one night.

But a string quartet? Puccini himself said that his talent was for the stage alone. However,
the difference between writing a string quartet and an opera is perhaps not as huge as one might imagine. All operas, even Wagner’s, have moments that are essentially chamber music. The Ride of the Valkyries in Die Walküre blares forth from 32 different instruments at full volume, but Fricka’s arioso, just a little further on, is accompanied, essentially, by a string quartet, with an occasional woodwind thrown in for color. Wagner didn’t write quartets, but he certainly could have.


And it works both ways. If you hear a quartet inside an opera, you might equally hear an
opera in a quartet. Listening to the heart-rending poignancy of Crisantemi, you might picture an operatic death scene like Mimi’s in La bohème. As a matter of fact, so did Puccini. His first popular opera, Manon Lescaut, came out in 1893, and he chose to use the music of Crisantemi for some of its most touching moments. The first theme turns up in the opening of Act IV, when Manon and her lover Des Grieux are wandering through the deserts of Louisiana (!). The second theme becomes an orchestral passage in Act III. Crisantemi itself has been transcribed for orchestra, and is very effective; but we are fortunate to hear it in its pure, original form, straight from Puccini’s heart.


Béla Bartók (1881-1945) String Quartet #3, 1929

The next piece is the third string quartet, out of six, by Bela Bartók, arguably the greatest
composer of the 20 th  century. Like Crisantemi, it is brief; unlike Crisantemi, it is dense, chewy, and bristling with life. It is played straight through without breaks, but Bartók indicates that there are 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 (concluding section, very lively). 


The first and second parts are about five minutes each, the recapitulation three minutes, the coda two minutes. Even if you’re hearing it for the first time at the concert, you’ll be able to hear the four sections; they are quite clearly delineated. Being aware of them is helpful, especially during the first part, which is admittedly a bit unnerving. The music 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. The next several minutes are arresting. 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. Soon you’ll hear a brief turn from the cello alone, then some reassuring pizzicato notes, and the melody, hinted at in the beginning, will at last emerge.

The second part starts with a Bartók pizzicato–a pluck of the string so hard it hits against
the fingerboard–launching a pleasurable five minutes of folk-inflected music. Bartók was
passionately interested in Hungarian folk songs, and spent years of his life travelling around Eastern Europe, recording them on the newly-invented Edison Recording Machine. You can see why he loved this music. It is fascinatingly un-square. There are constantly shifting rhythms, like an aural kaleidoscope. Some of the unusual effects from the first part, like the squeaky ponticello, return, but they sound more natural embedded in a folk context. There is another special effect, called col legno, about half-way through Part 2. The players strike their strings 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, though 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, right next to each other and stripped to their essentials, highlights the unity of the piece. Clearly, they are part of a brilliant whole.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. posth. 163, 1828

The evening concludes with what many consider the greatest chamber music ever
written, Schubert’s C major Cello Quintet. It is called a “cello quintet” not because it is played by five cellos, but because when Schubert was ready to write his only string quintet, he chose a different combination of instruments from the quintets by Mozart and Beethoven. Where they added a second viola, a combination known as a viola quintet, Schubert added a second cello. It was the last piece he wrote; it was completed just two months before his death in 1828, at the age of 31. The first public performance of the cello quintet did not occur for 22 years; it was finally published three years later, in 1853.

Once published, its reputation rose quickly. Brahms was an early admirer, and originally
composed his F minor piano quintet as a cello quintet, in homage to Schubert. Arthur Rubenstein (and many others) asked to have it played at their funeral. The violinist Joseph Saunders went so far as to have the second theme of the first movement engraved on his tombstone. It will not take long to move to the top of your list as well. It has everything you could possibly want: ravishing melodies, dramatic harmonies, charm, profundity, every imaginable mood from stormy to serene, and of course, two cellos. Schubert did not invent the cello quintet; that was the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), who wrote 113 of them. Boccherini was a cello virtuoso, and his quintets are mainly vehicles his amazing skill. But Schubert wrote his cello quintet because his music demanded nothing less.

It begins deceptively, with ten bars played not as a quintet but as a conventional string
quartet of two violins, one viola, and one cello, while the second cellist rests. This is a case study in quartet sonority: a four-voiced C major chord, a change in harmony by the inner voices, and a simple melody from the first violin, taking us to the key of G major, the closest you can go from C and still have gone somewhere.

But then! The second ten bars are also a string quartet, but a different one. Now the first
violin rests, and the second cello joins in. What if, Schubert suggests, the string quartet had taken a different direction? What if, instead of two high instruments, it had evolved with two low ones? For the second round of sonority, the highest voice is the first cello, the bottom drops down by almost an octave, the key switches to D minor, and we hear a richness of sound never heard before.

For the next few bars, the two versions of a quartet negotiate, with the viola constantly
switching teams. Finally, more than a minute in, the whole quintet is invited to play. Which they do, gaily and boisterously, culminating in a couple of grand chords. And now the two cellos, from a luminous unison G, take us to the famous second theme, the melody engraved on the tombstone of an enraptured violinist. Schubert has already shown us that adding a second cello makes the music richer and darker, transports it from major to minor, and so on. Now he takes it all back. Having two cellos means the music will be more beautiful than you ever dreamed. Instead of an alternate, low-voiced string quartet, we now have a transcendent ensemble: the cello quintet.

The slow movement, one of Schubert’s rare adagios, is perhaps even more sublime. It’s
almost as long as the first movement, but where that one was eventful, this one unfolds as
leisurely as a summer day. Andras Schiff remarked that Schubert is the great artist of nature. He was thinking of Schubert’s many depictions of water, but here it is the sky, the heavens themselves. The melody is one of the longest in music, a long-breathed 14-bar phrase. The tune is carried by the middle voices, while the high violin and the low cello frame the melody as the horizon frames the sky.

After a tranquil opening section in E major, there is an abrupt move to F minor, and an
enormous storm blows up. Finally the sky clears and the first section returns. The inner voices reprise their melody, the first violin adds ornamentation, but the main event here is an obligato, a kind of commentary almost always played by the first violin above the melody, but here played by the second cello at the bottom of the range. Yes, Schubert says, the string quartet could have had two cellos instead of two violins, and this is how it would have been. There is nothing like this passage anywhere in chamber music, and the chance to play it is one of the things we cellists live for.

The movement finishes in the quietest pianissimo. The third movement, Scherzo–Presto,
begins in fortissimo. Not that you were sleeping, but this will wake you up. There is a surprise waiting for you in the trio section of this movement: a second slow movement, marked Andante sostenuto. If the boisterousness of the scherzo had made you nostalgic for the beautiful adagio, this will be balm. The key is D flat major, the remotest key yet, and Schubert finds its profound resonance.

The last movement is a lively rondo, with a distinct Hungarian inflection. Like many of
Schubert’s melodies, the tunes have the inevitability of folk songs. From the first hearing, you feel you have always known them. There are brilliant fiddling passages, mostly in the first violin but eventually played by everyone. There is another soulful duet between the two cellos. The tempo gets more and more brilliant; the players are asked to speed up not once but twice. The ending could have been simply a rush to the end, but –you’ll just have to wait for it–somehow at the very close of his monumental piece, Schubert pulls back the curtain of C major exuberance and shows us the melancholy that he hinted at from the start. It’s all there in the last note.

bottom of page