Franz Schubert : String Quartet No. 10, (D 87) in E-flat Major
György Ligeti : String Quartet No 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes)
Maurice Ravel : String Quartet in F Major
BEFORE THE CONCERT
Learn about this concert’s composers and their works. Gain deeper insights into the music with Kai Christiansen, noted San Francisco musicologist and founder of earsense.org an online chamber music exploratorium.
Lecture starts at 6:45 PM in the Sunset Center concert hall, and is free-of-charge.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828) String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, D. 87 (1813)
Schubert’s “late” quartets, beloved and frequently performed, comprise his last four, numbered 12 through 15. They were composed between 1820 and 1826, the great series inaugurated by the dramatic single movement “Quartettsatz” in C minor, written when Schubert was the “ripe old age” of 23. But Schubert had been composing since he was a child, with his first surviving string quartet likely dating from around 1810, when he was a young teenager at boarding school. According to Austrian musicologist Otto Deutsch, who published a comprehensive catalog of Schubert’s work in 1951 along with the famous “D” number system (“D” for Deutsch), Schubert apparently created around 20 string quartets in total. Two were lost, four are incomplete, and perhaps most astonishing of all, only one was published during Schubert’s lifetime. The initial state of Schubert’s posthumous legacy was in such disarray that, for many years, the so-called tenth quartet on the program tonight was erroneously assigned the date 1824, perhaps in an attempt to pass it off as a quartet from the hand of the “mature” Schubert. When the autograph manuscript ultimately surfaced, it revealed the correct date: November 1813. At the time, Schubert was 16 and had just left boarding school but would continue taking weekly composition lessons from the famous Antonio Salieri, the highly respected teacher and composer who was made undeservedly infamous by his fictional characterization in the play and movie Amadeus. The string quartet in E-flat, perhaps the most celebrated of his “early” quartets, was ultimately published posthumously by Czerny, who gave it the apparently arbitrary designation of op. 125, no. 1.
The quartet is bright and bountiful, complete with four movements, though there is some flexibility in the movement ordering: the piece was published with the lively Scherzo movement placed second, which many have regarded as another arbitrary choice by the publisher, as the young, fastidious Schubert would most likely have adhered to the standard program of a third-movement scherzo. For this reason, the ordering of the inner movements may vary from performance to performance. One curious detail about the quartet is that it is sometimes called “homotonal:” unusually, all the movements are in the same key, E-flat major. In lesser hands, this uniformity might become tedious for want of tonal contrast, but Schubert’s musicality makes the quartet sufficiently engaging to obviate any problems that might otherwise arise from such homotonality. Commentators especially love to remark the finale, with its lively rhythm and humor, the style of Haydn in the language of young Schubert. This early but winning quartet would presumably world premiere in the Schubert house, with Schubert (of limited facility) struggling on cello and two older brothers on first and second fiddle. It is perhaps because of this nostalgic image of domestic music-making that the quartet sometimes bears the nickname “Haushaltung,” German for Household.
György Ligeti (1923–2006) String Quartet (Métamorphoses nocturnes)
Hungarian composer Ligeti is widely regarded as among the most important avant-garde composers of the second half of the twentieth century. His evocative and occasionally terrifying music reached broad audience through its effective use in films by director Stanley Kubrick, most famously 2001: A Space Odyssey. A riveting, otherworldly atmosphere much of music, rendering it both modern and gratifying. Ligeti wrote his most provocative and legendary music for orchestra or chorus, a clutch of chamber works frequents the repertory: a cello sonata, two wind quintets, two string quartets, and, in homage to Brahms, a kind of post-Romantic horn trio.
Ligeti (pronounced in the characteristically Hungarian way, with the accent on the first syllable) composed his First String Quartet in 1953 and 1954 while still living Hungary. He was born in what was originally Romanian Transylvania Jewish parents; during WWII, the Nazis would place his entire family in camps, where both his father and his brother perished. Following the war, the young composer found himself living under a severely repressive communist regime, with even the music of compatriot Béla Bartók banned from public performance. Ligeti had neither ready access to the music of the wider European scene nor the opportunity, without serious risk, to compose the radically exploratory music he already imagined. Looking back, Ligeti would therefore refer to his First String Quartet as “old-fashioned” music of the “prehistoric Ligeti” before he fled Hungary following the uprising of 1956, at which point he commingled with the European avant-garde and dazzled the world with his with his emergent signature sound. At this relatively early stage, the influence of Bartók is strong enough that fellow Hungarian composer György Kurtág referred to Ligeti’s First Quartet as “Bartók’s Seventh.” Yet there are other influences—Stravinsky, in particular—as well as the already solid and brilliant originality of Ligeti himself, who offers a suggestive orientation to the piece:
The first word of the subtle Métamorphoses 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.”
The “single movement,” as most great variation movements do, encompasses a universe of sonorities, techniques, textures, rhythms, and moods. Particularly striking is the wealth and complexity of polyphony, a rich entanglement of close canonic imitation, call and response, and the dense weave of threads that would eventually establish the “micropolyphony” of Ligeti’s mature style, his famous “clouds” of sound. Silence is a potent ingredient as well as rhythmic vitality and a wide range of dynamics, from whispers to shouts. Humor by way of parody will be found particularly within the dancing scherzos and woozy waltzes juxtaposed with the mysterious, layered textures as well as the violently muscular and visceral. This astonishing variety is held together by the recurrent four-note motif, a pair of major seconds (whole steps) subjected to transformations but always familiar and grounding in an enthralling game of hide and seek.
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) String Quartet in F Major (1903)
Ravel wrote his only string quartet in 1903, at the age of twenty-eight. During this period, he was enamored of Debussy’s music, and it is clear that he was influenced by Debussy’s only string quartet, published just ten years earlier. There are numerous similarities between the two quartets: both feature modal scales and novel harmonies, a whole new range of string quartet textures and colors, a second-movement scherzo dominated by pizzicato, a slow third movement with an impressionistic cast, and a cyclic design whereby themes recur throughout the entire quartet. For each composer, the string quartet came early in his career and would eventually be regarded as his first masterpiece. The two quartets have been closely associated ever since, much as Debussy and Ravel themselves are associated as the chief exponents of French Impressionism within an intimate context of place and time. Much as the Parisians of the time passionately chose sides in a lively debate about the two composers, listeners ever since have continued to delight in the comparison and contrast of these two exquisite quartets.
Both quartets begin their musical exploration with a fairly traditional first movement form that establishes the principal themes heard throughout the quartet. While both quartets are based on a cyclic design, they employ their recurring themes in different ways: Debussy uses a single theme that constantly transforms across all four movements; in this sense, he is primarily fascinated with continuous variation, an evolution of ever-changing sensations. Ravel employs multiple themes—the two main themes of the first movement and one from the second. The themes recur with less variation, their essential natures intact, functioning much like themes in a single sonata, to give his quartet a strong sense of order as a large-scale process of integration and balance. In at least this way, the quartets differ. Ravel’s tendency toward neoclassical craftsmanship contrasts with Debussy’s more impressionistic freedom. The final parallel is the astonishing fact that both composers wrote exactly one and only one quartet at a relatively young age, and they both created masterpieces.
The two inner movements of Ravel’s quartet are particularly rich and fascinating. The second movement is a lively scherzo in a triple meter with a contrasting trio section. The dominant use of pizzicato perfectly punctuates a delightful rhythmic complexity based on the syncopated cross-rhythms of playing 6/8 and 3/4 in alternating measures as well as simultaneously on different instruments. Further subdivisions of the beat overlay this Iberian dance rhythm with triplets (three to a beat) in the main theme and thirty-second notes (eight to a beat) in the middle parts. Combining displaced accents, trills, the shivering rasp of rapid tremolo, and swiftly changing dynamics, the scherzo dazzles with the precise choreography of its interlocking parts. The trio slows into languid repose with an elegant melody in the lower strings tinged with still more Spanish perfume. But unlike most trios, this one is essentially a reconfiguration of the scherzo, made of the same musical materials: one of the two scherzo themes can be heard in nearly every measure of the trio, transformed by the slow tempo, fragmented, and shifted into the background. Most trios finish with definite closure: in a single clear gesture, they return to the beginning of scherzo, thereby emphasizing a strongly sectional form. Ravel has his scherzo gently creep back in, overlapping with the trio to create a continuity that is subtle and expertly crafted.
The other inner movement is a beautiful nocturne, an exotic dream of longing that, once again, brings Debussy’s quartet to mind. Usually described as “rhapsodic” or “improvisatory,” its musical wanderings are more theatrically calculated than they might first appear. A sensuous melody grows slowly out of the lower strings, interrupted throughout its gestation by short, isolated recurrences of themes from both the first and second movements, like fleeting, displaced memories of the day that ultimately succumb to the heaviness of nightfall. A dark, insistent cello portends the further depths of night, and, twice, the soft upper strings stir the quiet with a barely perceptible breath of wind in what might be the five most remarkable measures of the entire quartet. Out of the stillness, the thwarted theme finally swells into a passionate, sustained cry, a fever of swirling night visions that eventually subsides, spent, back into the folds of recurrence, the final sounds of the first-movement theme conveying an unfathomable peace.
© Kai Christiansen and earsense.org, the chamber music Exploratorium.