This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.
It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.
We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.
The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.
I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.
This week’s music is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. (Fun fact: I played Brahms’ piano quintet with the first violinist in this ensemble at the Apple Hill Chamber Music Festival in 2009).
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!
This week’s music brings us to the close of our series on the three periods in Beethoven’s music. As you know, we have been learning about each of these periods through Beethoven’s string quartets. Today we will conclude with the monumental Grosse Fugue, a single-movement work for string quartet that pushed chamber music to its outermost limits. It is for this reason that the Grosse Fugue was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft as one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
There is perhaps no better way to end our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music than with the Grosse Fugue. It represents Beethoven’s most daring experimentation phase, in which he takes the conventional forms of musical structure and stretches them as far as they will go. In the Grosse Fugue, Beethoven pushes the four instruments to the brink, waiting until they are on the edge of the cliff before pulling them back. It is the ultimate adrenaline rush, the ultimate risk-taking adventure. It has a jaggedness that we aren’t using to hearing in Classical Era repertoire. It varies between lyric whispers and explosive octave runs in which the four instruments are tangled in combat as they tumble through the air. Yet it’s external chaos belies the perfectly ordered fugal structure that Beethoven underlays the entire work with.
The renowned twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky famously said that the Grosse Fugue would forever be considered a contemporary composition. He was right. It is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s generational genius.
This week’s music is Beethoven’s string quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.
None of the three periods within Beethoven’s music made a complete break from the period that came before it. They were natural evolutions from the musical ideas Beethoven had previously explored. This is particularly true of the third period, which ran from 1817 until his death in 1827. This aspect of Beethoven’s work showcases the full flowering of his inventive capacity, complete with all the structural complexities of the heroic period and emotional tension resulting from his near-complete deafness. This maturation, combined with the personal struggles of his later life, makes the music of this late period immensely satisfying to listen to. It is humorous, yet meditative, anguished, yet peaceful, jarring, yet mysterious. It is the string quartet in its most complete form.
That is not to say, of course, that Beethoven did not begin to experiment quite often with musical ideas that would later become mainstays of the Romantic era. He certainly did. For instance, you will hear lyrical violin lines that resemble Mendelssohn more than the Haydn-esque style Beethoven began with. You’ll also hear jarring, shocking moments of explosive power, juxtaposed with serene, almost operatic serenades between the cello and the violins. In short, Beethoven’s late period exemplifies the beginning of the transition to a Romantic era that would create a musical home for Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Liszt, and many more.
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.
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.
This week’s music, in continuation of our series on the octet, is Felix Mendelssohn’s octet for four violins, two violas, and cellos.
While we commonly think of the Octet as the pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire, Mendelssohn (who composed it at the ripe old age of 16) did not view it as a chamber composition. In fact, he viewed it as a condensed symphony. This is reflected in both the structure of the piece and the inscription that Mendelssohn placed at the beginning of the manuscript: The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type. These words clearly place the Octet within a symphonic framework, which is helpful when thinking about how to listen to it.
For instance, the structure of the Octet unfolds like a symphony. You will hear a brilliant first movement allegro leading to a lush andante. The third movement, a scherzo, frolics through chamber-music-like textures before the presto finale explodes into a fully symphonic finale. You’ll also hear Mendelssohn utilizing the full range of expressive qualities available to this combination of instruments, much like a symphony might do. You can also sense Mendelssohn’s movement away from the Classical traditions of his predecessors (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) an into the Romantic style of his contemporaries. This can be heard in the dreamy, enchanted quality in the second movement and the frenetic restlessness of the third movement (of which he wrote that it “is to be played staccato and pianissimo… the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning”).
I had the amazing opportunity of performing Mendelssohn’s Octet at the Lincoln Center in New York City while studying at the Foulger Institute, a summer music performance school, in the summer of 2012. The performance took place in the penthouse of the Lincoln Center, which is encased with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that provide a panoramic view of the entire city. I had the good fortune of having been assigned to play the virtuosic first violin part, and I have magical memories of soaring through the finale of Mendelssohn’s octet while, thousands of feet below us, the city sparkled in the night. It turned out to be one of those performances where the connection with the audience is electric. I’ve never understood why such performances occur; they just do.
Our music this week is the “Kegelstatt” trio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It features three instruments that are not commonly associated with one another: piano, clarinet, and viola.
Mozart apparently loved to play “skittles,” which is his era’s name for what we now call bowling. The contestants threw or rolled a wooden ball or disk in an attempt to knock down a row of nine pins. The manuscript for the Trio contains the inscription: “Wien den 27.t Julius 1786 untern Kegelscheiben” (which translates as “Vienna, 27th July 1786 while playing skittles”). “Kegelstatt” literally means “The Skittles Trio.”
Like most trios of Mozart’s time period, this trio has three movements. The first is Andante (a gently flowing tempo) that begins with an iconic five-note ornamental figure. Listen for the repetition of that five-note figure throughout the entire sonata. The second movement is a Menuet that is predominantly a conversation between the clarinet and the viola. Mozart experiments with chromaticism here (the playing of successive half-steps to create an erie, unsettling atmosphere). The third movement, Rondo, is structured with a returning theme: A-B-A-C-A-D-A. Between the B, C, and D developments, the A theme returns. Listen for the fascinating ways in which Mozart recycles the A theme with a different flourish each time.
This week’s music is the 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.
Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.
The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.