This week’s music, which will complete our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, is the String Quartet No. 12, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet.
You may remember from one of the earliest installments in this series that all of Shostakovich’s string quartets were premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet. Because of this, Shostakovich dedicated each of his last four string quartets to a member of the Beethoven Quartet. The twelfth string quartet is thus dedicated to the first violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov.
Those of you who have been with us for a while are probably used to string quartets having four movements. And most of Shostakovich’s string quartets follow this pattern. The twelfth quartet, however, contains only two movements. The first movement begins with a 12-tone row on the cello, perhaps a nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s popular experiments with twelve-tone music. (Shostakovich, it should be said, was not a believer in Schoenberg’s system). This establishes a searching mood, a sense that the movement is seeking closure and is unable to find it. The second movement, however, offers the answers the first movement sought. Listen here for Shostakovich’s brilliant creativity when it comes to rhythm. He creates multiple shifting rhythmic texture that overlap in fascinating ways. After a long, dark passage for solo cello, Shostakovich brings back the initial melody in an epic, breathtaking switch to a major key, the ultimate answer to the unsettled 12-tone row that began the quartet.
It is worth mentioning that Shostakovich’s later string quartets (those composed after the eighth) are controversial. Some listeners like them, others despise them. I am not personally a fan of his later string quartets, with the possible exception of the twelfth, because they seem to get away from the brilliance of the eighth. With that said, I think there is much to enjoy in the twelfth string quartet, and its harmonic journey from dissonance to resolution is, I believe, a fitting way to end our series.
This week’s music is the most famous of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the eighth, performed by the legendary Emerson Quartet.
Shostakovich was in East Germany to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden when the inspiration for the eighth string quartet arrived. Three days later, the composition was completed. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “memory of victims of war.”
The eighth string quartet is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Indeed, it is one of the most emotionally powerful works of art to come out of the twentieth century. It is a work of shattering strength and tremendous depth, the kind of work that can leave a listener stunned in their chair, the kind of work that can raise memories long buried and remind us of the fragility and rapidity of life. It is a work that plumbs the depths of human psychology. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, it is a consumate artistic masterpiece.
All five movements of the quartet feature quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier compositions. For instance, first symphony and first cello concerto are reference in the first movement, and the reference to his own initials we saw last week in his fourth string quartet is scattered throughout the second, third, and fifth movements. Shostakovich is reported to have said about the quartet that it was “written in memory of its composer,” which suggests the references to his name were a sort of preemptive requiem.
What should you listen for? If I answered that question completely, this post would turn into a PhD thesis. But here are a few things to keep an ear out for:
Shostakovich’s name. It’s everywhere. As we saw last week, Shostakovich signed his name D-E flat-C-B natural in his tenth symphony, his fourth string quartet, and now his eighth string quartet (a permutation of his initials, DSCH, with the B natural substituting the H in German musical nomenclature). Shostakovich places this little signature all over the place, in every key and instrumentation imaginable.
The second movement. There’s simply nothing like it. This is Russian music at its fire-breathing, hair-raising best.
The symbolism in the fourth movement. The start of the fourth movement features a low drone in the first violin, interrupted by three loud strikes that get repeated several times until they reach a harmonic resolution. These strikes represent the gunfire of warfare, and the droning sound of the first violin represents the sound of distant aircraft. Once the strikes resolve, the droning becomes the first four notes of the dies irae portion of the Catholic requiem mass (which is ironically the same notes as Shostakovich’s signature, DSCH, just in a different order). To call this kind of musical symbolism powerful would be a gross understatement.
The fifth movement’s tribute to Bach. As we saw last week, Shostakovich could not resist paying homage to his hero, J.S. Bach, in almost everything he wrote. And the fifth movement is structured in a classic Bach-style fugue. It’s easy to miss because of the achingly sad, elegiac beauty of the fifth movement, but the fugue is there, hiding just under the surface.
This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Spanish cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in London’s famous Wigmore Hall.
After the composition and discovery of JS Bach’s six cello suites, no great solo works were written for the cello for almost 200 years. Kodály, although not a cellist himself, composed this sonata in 1915 in homage to the genius of Bach. Ironically, the performance of this suite was delayed in a manner similar to the performance of Bach’s suites because of World War I.
Kodály was fascinated by the music of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók, both of home he had encountered while studying composition in Paris many years earlier. He and Bartok eventually became two of the most well-known Hungarian composers in history. In fact, the two of them made several trips around the Hungarian countryside for the sole purpose of collecting folk tunes. You can therefore hear Hungarian folk and influences in this music at many different points.
The link above only contains the first movement of the Sonata, but you’re welcome to listen to the other movements at your leisure. This first movement is the grandiose exposition of the sonata. Kodály uses this movement to explore all of the main themes that he wants to develop throughout the rest of the sonata. The second movement simply takes one of these themes and meanders through it with a melancholy and introspective attitude. The third movement is a rollicking folk tune that Kodály transcribed entirely from a rural village musician.
Kodály was extremely confident that this sonata would become very popular. He even predicted that, within 25 years of its composition, every serious cellist would want to play it. Posterity has been friendly to him; almost every single international cello competition now requires a performance of this sonata if the cellist hopes to advance to the final rounds.
This week’s music is the Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, performed by Mischa Maisky.
Bach wrote six suites for solo cello between 1717 and 1723 while living Kothen, Germany. The first suite, a part of which you will hear today, has become the most famous of the six. Each suite consists of six movements that represent common baroque dance forms: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bouree/gavotte, and gigue. An Allemande was a type of German court dance that involved dancers linking arms and making full or partial turns down a line. Visually, the allemande gave the appearance of a large weave or braid. It was performed primarily by German royalty, and there is an air of courtly majesty in the music.
The six cello suites of J.S. Bach are the foundation of the cello repertoire. Every cellist learns them, and every cello competition requires their performance. They vary in complexity, from simple melodies to rumbling chords, and challenge the cellist in nearly every aspect of technical and musical interpretation.
Our music for Christmas Eve is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.
The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.
There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.
This week’s music, proceeding in our series on the three musical periods of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, is Beethoven’s string quartet no. 11 in F Minor.
We discussed last week how Beethoven began in his middle period to move away from the classicism of his early years and toward the romanticism of those who would come after him (Brahms, Wagner, etc.). No. 11, the last quartet in his middle period, reveals Beethoven at the cusp of this transition.
You will hear him exploring more lyrical styles in the second and third movements in particular, and there are passages that even sound almost Mendelssohn-esque. You’ll also notice the abrupt, almost violent opening passage of the first movement that is somewhat similar to the thunderous opening of his famous Fifth Symphony, which was also composed during his middle period. By this point in his career, Beethoven was compressing the emotional tension he had learned to create in his early period. As a result, the moments of explosive power and hushed whispering are pushed closer and closer together, until, in his late period (as you will see next week), they are subsumed into one inextricable whole.
We continue our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music by listening to the string quartet No. 7 in F Major today. This is the first of two quartets that we will hear representing the middle period of Beethoven’s work.
Let’s recap the early Beethoven quartets we listened to over the past two weeks. First, they have a typical classical structure (for the most part): presentation, slow, fast, finale. Second, they are stylistically similar to the compositions of early classical period composers like Haydn. And third, they show Beethoven’s genius with recycling phrases and motifs throughout a piece.
Beethoven’s middle period is where he began to mature and come into his own. It was during this time that he wrote most of the massive symphonic works that we have come to know and love, including his famous Fifth Symphony, his powerful Eroica Symphony, and his first two piano concertos. It is for good reason that his middle period is often referred to as his “heroic” period.
During this part of his life, Beethoven broke away from the Haydn-esque classicism and began to move toward the emotional expressivity of future composers like Brahms and Wagner. No longer was he content with simple, upbeat melodies; he now felt a drive to encompass transcendent themes like death, celebration, or grief.
The 7th string quartet (titled “Razumovsky” after the Russian duke it was written for) shows the start of this change. The first movement begins with a confident melody that is reminiscent of his early period quartets, but Beethoven soon takes us into a development section much more complex and introspective than anything we’ve heard from him before. Those of you familiar with the Eroica Symphony will hear traces of it in this development section.
I would also encourage you to listen carefully to the third movement (Adagio). Unlike his early period works, Beethoven freely explores the tragic element here with sensitivity and power. This is perhaps one of the first instances of Beethoven’s amazing capacity for communicating sadness through music.
This week’s music, continuing in our new series on the chronological development of Beethoven’s music, is the String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, performed by the Ying Quartet.
No. 4 is the only one of the six string quartets in Beethoven’s early period to be set in a minor key. It is also unique because it is not structured as most of his string quartets were. As we noted last week, the majority of Beethoven’s string quartets (indeed, the majority of all string quartets ever composed) proceed with four movements that follow the “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” and “finale” progression. However, No. 4 dispenses with the “fast” movement and replaces it with a C Major minuet that Beethoven referred to as “a joke.”
The first movement is the most well-known part of this quartet. In many ways, it is structured like Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony (also in C Minor). It oscillates between jagged unison chords and lyrical viola and cello solos. These solos get repeated throughout the movement, but each time they are in a different tonality. Beethoven showcases his mastery of harmony in the modulations between each of these tonalities. Listen for sharp dynamic changes as well; Beethoven was beginning to increase his use of contrasting volume levels at this point in his career.
Our music for this week is the string quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert.
Schubert completed this quintet two weeks before his death in 1828. Rather than write a string quartet, however, he added a cello part and produced a quintet that sounds almost symphonic in its proportions. Listen for the interactions between the two cello parts; Schubert sometimes treats them as a pair of soloists, with violin and viola playing the part of “orchestra accompaniment.”
In writing for this unique mixture of instruments (almost every chamber music composition of his time was for a string quartet, with only one cello), Schubert broke open a new realm of possibilities for composers to experiment with. Before too long, Mendelssohn (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/04/30/octet-2-mendelssohn/) and Enescu (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/05/08/octet-3-enescu/) had written string octets, and later American composers (like Samuel Barber and Amy Beach) would combine strings, winds, brass, and vocals into even more unconventional ensembles. In short, Schubert’s cello quintet-his last composition before he died-was the start of an era.
Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.
The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.