String Quartet in D Minor, K.421 . . . . . . . . . Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Dark Vigil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kevin Puts
String Quartet in D Minor, Opus 56, “Voces Intimae” . . . . . . . . . Jean Sibelius
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by Rhys Samuel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
According to his early biographer, Otto Jahn, Mozart was composing the Minuet and Trio of the D Minor Quartet in the same room where his wife, Constanze, was giving birth to their first son, Raimund Leopold: “When she complained of pain, he would come to her to cheer and console, resuming his writing as soon as she was calm”. The infant, born June 17, 1783, died two months later.
The quartet begins with a melancholy theme presented with a decreasing octave. A brighter subject follows and the movement develops in a serious mode in which the introductory and secondary themes are repeated. At the close of the exposition, the first violin plays a repeated three-note sequence that will be heard in succeeding movements. The development section is rich with thematic figuring, and the recapitulation further demonstrates the emotional state of the composer. A brief coda ends the movement.
Composed in A-B-A form, the Andante begins, like the Allegro first movement, with a somber almost melancholy introduction followed by a more spirited development with variations. The repeated three-note motto introduced in the Allegro first movement reappears in the Andante. The movement concludes with a short repeat of the introductory A section.
Sharp in its contrast, the brief Menuetto opens in spirited fashion; the short introductory theme is treated to variations before the Trio begins with the first violin stepping off brightly to a pizzicato accompaniment of the other players. The movement concludes with a repeat of its last section.
The bright Allegretto is based on the 6/8 meter of a Siciliano, an old Italian dance, and comprises four sets of rhythmic variations. The first violin presents the first in florid fashion; the two violins share the second variation with spirited off-beat accents. The third variation is a dolorous presentation by the viola that emphasizes the three-note motto heard earlier. In the fourth variation, the players return to the starting theme. The ending coda encompasses the original theme and ends with three repetitions of the three-note motto of the quartet.
Kevin Puts (b. 1972)
Kevin Puts was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Alma, Michigan. He studied composition and piano at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University, earning the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Eastman. He is composer-in-residence with the Fort Worth Symphony and teaches composition at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Puts’ compositions encompass both operatic and orchestral works; including four symphonies. In 2012 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The award cited his opera “Silent Night” based on a Christmas incident from the first world war.
The string quartet piece, “Dark Vigil” was composed in 1999 and is in a single movement. Dr. Puts describes this work as follows:
“Dark Vigil was a reaction to the unrelenting pattern of violence that plagued our country’s elementary and high schools during the year it was written, 1999. The title was inspired by news footage I saw of a high school in the midwest whose students and faculty staged a student shooting incident as a means of preparation for such an event. For me, this conjured up an horrific image of the students as soldiers on a battlefront, their eyes and ears always alert to the threat of attack.
“Written in one movement, the work explores the emotional complexities and turmoil of adolescence as well as my own struggle to understand the capacity of America’s teens to commit these acts. In the broadest sense, the piece depicts a struggle between innocence and depravity. This central conflict fades away in the concluding section, in which quietly pulsing harmonies are superimposed by lyrical counterpoint to represent both a memorial to those whose lives have been cut short by their peers, and a spiritual transcendence by those who are forced to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones.”
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Finnish composer and violinist Johan Julius Christian (Jean) Sibelius is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and a national treasure. A prolific composer most of his life, Sibelius produced dramatic, symphonic, and chamber pieces as well as many choral and voice works. Included are seven symphonies and numerous tone poems.. Much of Sibelius’ music was influenced by Finnish folk melodies and rhythms, and reflects the trees, snows, and mountains that he loved so much.
His chamber works are varied and numerous, including several string quartets. With the exception of his String Quartet in D Minor, however, few are performed publically because they are considered “juvenilia” and fall outside the popular repertoire.
The D Minor Quartet has five movements making for a symmetry where the outer movements enclose two scherzi and a central movement, which is the emotional core of the quartet. The subtitle “Intimate Voices” for this quartet comes from a cryptic note Sibelius attached to the score of the third (Adagio) movement. Although Sibelius never explained this notation it is fitting for a chamber work.
The quartet opens with a mournful duet from the first violin and cello. Principal themes are extensions of the duet melody. The spritely second movement follows without a pause; its melodic material is derived from the first movement.
The Adagio third movement conveys a darker mood. Early in the movement progress is briefly halted to make way for three hushed chords. It is at this point Sibelius wrote “voces intimae”on the score. In contrast to the Adagio, the fourth movement presents lively peasant tunes and rhythmic figures that clear the way for a cheerful Finale that erupts fortissimo as the four instruments combine to create a powerful concluding movement.
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by Rhys Samuel
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Puccini was an admirer of Amadeo of the House of Savoy, the Duke of Aosta,and a member of the reigning Italian royal family. Puccini composed this quartet piece as a musical elegy to the Duke upon his death.
In Italy, the chrysanthemum is associated with funerals and remembrance rites.
Published in 1890, Crisantemi is one of Puccini’s few instrumental works, and it has remained in the chamber music repertoire. Puccini later used this music as an intermezzo in his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut, in 1892.
Crisantemi, a single-movement work, is composed in ternary or three-section form, the third section being a repetition of the first. .
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven completed the three Opus 59 quartets in 1806 and dedicated them to his patron, Count Andreas Rasoumovsky, an accomplished violinist and the Czar’s ambassador to Vienna. These three works have since been known as the “Rasoumovsky” quartets. The E Minor Quartet is the second of the triumvirate group.
It had been six years since Beethoven completed the last of his six Opus 18 string quartets which, while basically in the traditional sonata quartet form, contained seeds of change. The Opus 59 quartets erased any doubts that changes had begun.
Beethoven believed that a composer’s work should evolve, and each piece should represent something new and different. The quartets of Opus 59 were born into a different world of vivid expression and use of the quartet as a personal medium rather then a formulated creation. But Beethoven’s contemporaries found the quartets difficult to play and to accept, while the composer expressed contempt for his critics.
The first movement begins with two extraordinary chords played forte. These attention-getting chords set the theme for the brusk and intense first movement in the manner of the opening chord of Beethoven’s Eroica Third Symphony. These chords are followed dramatically by two measures of rest. The remainder of the movement, including the coda, is dominated by the opening chords.
The Molto Adagio second movement is nearly hymn-like in its sensitivity. In fact, Beethoven instructed that it be played “very slow” and that “this piece is to be played with much feeling.” The effect is to isolate one from pain and turmoil. This trancelike movement ends with the serenity with which it began, as all parts blend in fading, peaceful chords.
The Allegretto third movement is essentially a scherzo – a light-hearted rhythmic work that often contains a contrasting trio section. It begins with syncopated playing by the first violin in a sharp change of mood that leads to the trio. At this point Beethoven inserted a Russian theme thought to be at the request of Count Rasoumovsky. It is based on a Russian folk song, “Slava” or “glory.” We hear it first from the viola followed by the other instruments. Beethoven develops the theme in canon fashion before returning to the scherzo. All is repeated before the movement ends.
The last movement is a spirited romp in sonata/rondo form in which elements of the rondo alternate between the keys of E Minor and C Major.
Based on a rousing country dance the movement abounds in melodic phrases as it races to a bright conclusion.
The music of composer/saxophonist Amos Gillespie includes chamber and orchestral works for film, theater, and the dance. He received a master’s degree in composition from the Chicago College of Performing Arts, and has recently completed an artist residency in Lucerne Switzerland awarded to him through the Chicago Sister Cities Program and the Swiss Benevolent Society.
Gillespie describes his string quartet as follows:
“The Chicago-Lucerne string quartet was written for the Chicago Ensemble in 2012. Half of it was completed in Chicago and the other half written in Lucerne, Switzerland, while on fellowship in August. The fellowship program was offered through the Swiss benevolent society, Northwestern University and the Chicago Sister Cities Program. The second and fourth movements were written in Switzerland and the other two in Chicago.
“Despite its worldly travels, there is no worldly narrative the music is describing. I was simply focusing on contrasting moods (and maintaining concentration while in a gorgeous place full of distractions); the first movement is perpetual, rhythmic, and fast; the second is characterized by abrupt juxtaposed ideas, the third cantabile (song-like), and the fourth is fast and lighter than the first three.”
Astor Piazzola (1921-1992)
Astor Piazzola was an Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger. He revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style, Nuevo Tango, that incorporated elements of jazz and classical music.
Piazzola was a master performer on the bandoneon, a square-built button accordion, on which he performed many of his compositions with a variety of ensembles. Early in his career he studied in Paris under the eminent teacher Nadia Boulanger, who urged him to devote his talents to his native music – the tango. Piazzola is credited with 750 works composed in this form.
The three quartet pieces are representative of much of his work. “Esqualo” (shark) was composed in 1979 for the famous tango violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, and refers to shark fishing, which was one of Piazzola’s favorite pastimes. Esqualo is one of the most rhythmically challenging among Piazzola’s compositions.
“Fuga y Misterio” was composed in 1968 for Piazzola’s opera “Maria de Buenos Aires”, which he completed in 1968. Many arrangements have been made of this piece, including this one for string quartet. The work begins with a fugue that soon evolves into a tango. The music progresses through the slower Misterio section before the tango returns and the piece races to a close.