This week’s music is the String Quartet, Opus 11, by the early 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber.
Barber, who ranks alongside Aaron Copland and Charles Ives as one of the greatest American composers of all time, wrote a number of famous works throughout the course of his tragically short life. None are more famous, however, than the Adagio for Strings, arguably one of the most moving pieces of music in the world today. (We listened to it a while ago – check it out here: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/08/top-25-17-barber-adagio/). As it turns out, the Adagio for Strings was not a stand-alone composition. It was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s string quartet, the piece we will hear today.
The structure of this piece is rather strange. Most string quartets – in fact, most multi-movement compositions in general – feature distinct movements that showcase their own unique thematic material. In addition, most string quartets have four movements. This quartet, however, includes only three movements, the first and third of which utilize the same thematic material. The third movement is essentially a reprise of the first. It is almost as if Barber wrote an extended first movement, then cut it in half and inserted the second movement. Luckily for us, that second movement turned out to be the basis for the Adagio for Strings.
Strange structure aside, this piece reveals a musical genius at his best. There is not a wasted note in the entire quartet. For me, this piece has the feel of a Hemingway novel – concise, punchy, edited to the bone, and so alive you feel it might singe your eyebrows if you got too close.
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 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.
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 this week is an old favorite of ours here at This Week’s Music: String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Borodin Quartet, one of the greatest ensembles in history.
The inscription on the front of Shostakovich’s manuscript for this quartet reads: “In memory of victims of war.” He wrote it while visiting Dresden, a city that had been destroyed in WWII. More lives were lost in the bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shostakovich was so deeply affected by this experienced that he penned this entire quartet in only three days.
The quartet has a central harmonic motif that you will hear right away at the beginning. It is referred to by the composer as DSCH. Translated from the German tradition of calling B “H” and E-flat “S,” this becomes D-E flat-C-B. This is the same tonal structure Shostakovich uses in several of his other works, including his First and Tenth Symphonies.
The quartet has five movements. One can hear in the first movement the sombre, reflective shock of Shostakovich’s confrontation with death and loss. This gives way to a violent second movement (at 5:18) that depicts the fury and devastation of the Blitzkrieg. The third movement is a spooky, erie dance reflecting Shostakovich’s jarring experience of watching Jewish children dance in the streets of an obliterated Dresden. Shostakovich creates this unsettling atmosphere by constantly juxtaposing a B-natural (in the cello) against a B-flat (in the viola). The fourth movement, which begins at 12:31, expands into a powerful elegy laced with hope. Listen for the harmonic reprieve at 13:09 – this is one of those few moments of hope. After being repeatedly struck with these abrupt sets of foreboding chords, Shostakovich inserts a major chord that lifts the listener out of the pain of war and into the hope of the future. My personal favorite part of the quartet is the elegy, which starts at 15:12. I am hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment in all of music.
This week we will hear Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“a little night music”). No list of the greatest hits would be complete without it.
We may know Mozart best for his piano compositions (or even this piece), but at the peak of his popularity he was primarily an opera composer. In fact, at the time he wrote the Nachtmusik, he was simultaneously composing his famous opera Don Giovanni (which, to be honest, also could have been featured on this list). He considered the Nachtmusik as an insignificant side project that was not worth publishing. In fact, the Nachtmusik was never performed in Mozart’s lifetime. It was discovered after his death by a German researcher who convinced Mozart’s widow to sell it for publication. It is therefore ironic that it has become one of his most well-known compositions.
Everything about the Nachtmusik is quintessentially Mozartian: the lightness of the bow strokes, the sense of barely-contained excitement, the operatic solo lines, etc. Notice the similarities between this piece and the format of an opera. For instance, each movement uses the 1st violin line to introduce a solo theme (essentially an aria) that returns at the end to wrap everything together.
Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by
Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and
Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.
As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to
see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most
symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most
concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas,
however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes
four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an
expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to
sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and
Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).
A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the
greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest
of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very
well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as
you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully
stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might
do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms).
Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but
certainly not subtle (as in Bach).
The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.