String Quartet in C Major, Opus 54 No. 2 . . . . . . . . . . Franz Joseph Haydn
Finale: Adagio; Presto
String Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata” . . . . . . . . . . Leos Janacek
Adagio con moto
Con moto: Vivace – Andante
Con moto: Adagio
String Quartet in F Major . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Maurice Ravel
Allegro moderato – Tres doux
Assez vif – Tres rhythme
Vif et agite
By Rhys Samuel
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The exact number of string quartets composed by Haydn is uncertain but it is between 68 and 83. The uncertainty arises from questions of provenance, and early and unfinished works. Whatever the number, Haydn’s quartet legacy is prodigious not only for the sheer volume of works but for the unquenchable originality Haydn applied to each composition .
The Opus 54 Quartet in C Major is one of 12 string quartets Haydn dedicated to Viennese violinist Johann Tost. Composed between 1788 and 1790, these “Tost” quartets were issued under three opus numbers in two series of six quartets. The Opus 54 No. 2 quartet is considered by many as the finest of the series with its engaging harmonies and inventive scoring.
The first movement opens with a strong five-measure statement followed by an abrupt silence. After a third introductory statement the work gains momentum until the violin and viola introduce a second bright theme in which the violin reaches an excruciating high note, possibly in tribute to Herr Tost. After development, the movement ends with a long coda.
Haydn is at his best with the poignant Adagio movement that begins with all four instruments reinforcing the brooding C Minor theme. This theme is repeated three times by the lower instruments while the first violin plays an anguished lament . The Adagio movement leads without pause into the Menuetto third movement.
The bright and rhythmic Menuetto so captivated Prince Esterhazy, Haydn’s patron, that the prince had it incorporated into a musical clock mechanism at his summer palace.
Haydn’s Finale for the C Major Quartet once again departs from tradition in being a slow movement (Adagio) relieved briefly by a Presto section, possibly in token acknowledgement that a finale should be an assertive defining conclusion. The movement opens and proceeds in a most dignified manner until the Presto section alerts everyone that this movement is truly a finale. The movement concludes with a return to the courtly formality of the opening section.
Leos Janacek (1854-1928)
After a long career as teacher, choral master, and composer, Leos Janacek has emerged as one of the innovators of the twentieth century. While his works encompass every type of composition, his first love was the human voice, and for it he composed operas, stage plays, and choral pieces.
Janacek believed that music is closely related to speech patterns, and he worked out a theory of speech-in-music which associated the melodic and rhythmic qualities of music to the spoken language which, in his case, was Czech. This expressive music included instrumental works, and none more so than Janacek’s first and second string quartets, which are powerfully autobiographical.
The first quartet, subtitled “The Kreutzer Sonata”, has a bizarre history if one traces it back to Beethoven’s original 1803 work for piano and violin. The sonata was dedicated by Beethoven to the French violinist and composer, Rodolphe Kreutzer.
Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata became a pivotal device in the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s grim novella of the same name published in 1890. The story is one of marital miseries, imagined adultery, and, ultimately, murder of his wife by an enraged husband. While Tolstoy was writing this dark scenario, Janacek was living out part of the plot in an unhappy marriage of his own.
On his original score, Janacek wrote: “Inspired by L. N. Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata”. There is yet a final irony to this tale: It is doubtful that Rodolphe Kreutzer ever performed the sonata.
Janacek himself described this first quartet: “What I had in mind was the suffering of a (passive, enslaved) woman, beaten and tortured to death”. Indeed, this vivid music cannot fail to evoke imagery of desperation and pain, and Janacek conveys these emotions with exquisite dissonance and power.
In form, the quartet is notable for its four con moto (with motion) movements, and the absence of a conventional structure having different tempi and dominant keys. It was composed in 1923.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Born in the Basque region of southern France, Maurice Ravel grew up in Paris and entered the Paris Conservatory in 1889. During his long 16-year residency, he developed a compositional style that incorporated Basque, Eastern, and American jazz influences. He was especially affected by the “impressionism” of Claude Debussy, his senior contemporary.
Although both Debussy and Ravel disdained the description of their music as impressionistic, neither of their two string quartets adhered to classical quartet structure. Like Debussy, Ravel felt that traditional forms were confining. It is probably for this reason that Ravel and Debussy each composed only a single string quartet.
While more celebrated for his La Valse, the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, and Bolero, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major abounds in sensual melodies, tone colors, vibrant rhythms, and exoticisms that set it apart from other quartets.
The first movement (Allegro moderato – Très/doux/Moderately fast, Very softly) comes closest to a traditional structure in having an exposition-development-recapitulation-coda framework. The movement opens with an alluring theme from the first violin. A second theme, preceded by a series of notes repeated by the second violin, is picked up by the first violin and viola playing one octave apart. While both themes also appear in later movements, they are heard briefly in the development and in the coda that concludes the movement.
The fast-moving pizzicato that opens the second movement (Assez vif – Très rhythmé/Quite spiritedly – Very rhythmical) presents unique cross rhythms in which the opening theme is played in a combination of 6/8 and 3/4 times. The movement is a novel variation of sonata form, and is com-posed in ternary or A-B-A form.
In the Très lent/Very slow third movement, Ravel weaves a tonal carpet that is continually shifting in tempo and musical construction. He also manages to integrate the opening melody of the quartet with new themes. The total effect is kaleidoscopic; a continuing array and progression of new tone colors and melodic content.
The final movement (Vif et agitè/Spirited and agitated) opens with a gruff series of notes followed by a long held note repeated twice before the movement launches into an exposition of halting, fluctuating rhythms and contrasting melodies. Included are the opening and subsidiary themes from the first movement. All give the Finale a distressed, unsettled character.