Adventures in Harmony Program Notes

The third and fourth of Bartók’s six string quartets represent the acme of the composer’s modernism.  At first hearing, the listener’s attention may well be engaged by the highly advanced harmonic and rhythmic idiom of these works.  Yet the folk-music influence, so important in Bartók’s music, is never too far from the surface.  For all its “modernity,” the Third Quartet is full of references (sometimes veiled, sometimes more overt) to Hungarian folk music.  Bartók’s strategy consists in using only one parameter of his folk sources at a time:  he will either quote a typical pentatonic cadence from Hungarian folk music (G – C – A) without the rest of the tune, or use a symmetrical melodic structure derived from folk music, but filled out by markedly non-folkloric pitch material.  In this way, the traditional and non-traditional elements of his style are fused in a seamless unity.

The Third Quartet is in a single movement but is divided into four clearly demarcated segments.  A slow Prima parte and a fast Seconda parte are followed by a varied recapitulation of Part I and a coda based on Part II.  The Prima parte is a masterful example of “organic growth”:  a complex and variegated movement arises from two or three tiny motifs that are themselves interrelated.  One of the most important moments comes at the end of the section, where these tiny motifs coalesce into a long, pentatonic musical phrase (played by the second violin and the viola).  The Seconda parte brings together a string of themes in various dance meters both symmetrical and asymmetrical.  The dance becomes more and more excited; the themes are developed in contrapuntal imitation, almost as if the dancers tripped over one another.  The end of the section was best characterized by Hungarian musicologist János Kárpáti, in his book Bartók’s Chamber Music:  “The composer’s ‘scalpel’ continues to strip off the thematic and motivic layers—penetrating right down to the ‘skeleton’ of the themes.”  This is followed by the return of the slow tempo (Ricapitulazione della prima parte) in which the short motifs of the work’s opening are “reconfigured” to form a completely new musical entity.  Finally, the Coda presents the main thematic material of the Seconda parte in a condensed version, culminating in a climactic ending.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Even though they both lived in Vienna, Beethoven and Schubert moved in very different social circles and probably never met in person.  Schubert only admired his older contemporary from afar.  As for Beethoven, it is said that he read through some Schubert songs and was impressed.  

With his unique sensitivity to poetry, Schubert made the art song one of the central genres not only within his own oeuvre, but showed the way to the many great composers of Lieder who came after him.  The song played a less crucial role for Beethoven, but he, too, made numerous important contributions to song literature.

Tonight’s selections will begin with Der Kuß (“The Kiss”), a little story—not much more than a simple joke, really—by Christian Felix Weiße, who wrote everything from tragedies to children’s books.  The anecdote about the girl who protests, but not too much, could have fallen flat in the hands of a lesser composer.  Yet Beethoven was able to turn even such a trifle into a delicious musical comedy sketch.  

As a complete contrast, Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur (“The Glory of God in Nature”) is one of a set of spiritual songs after Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, an 18th-century poet and moralist.  Here Beethoven conveys the ineffable mysteries of divinity, using the simplest musical means possible.  It is this awe before the heavenly powers which Beethoven expressed on a much larger scale almost twenty years later in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, at the moment where “the Cherub stands before God.”

The famous ballad Erlkönig by Goethe, the Dichterfürst (“Prince of Poets”), was set to music numerous times, most famously by the eighteen-year-old Schubert in 1815.  It is not well known that Beethoven, too, attempted a setting, which, however, he never finished.  His draft, which probably dates from the years between 1805 and 1810, was first completed by Reinhold Becker, a German violinist and composer, at the end of the 19th century.  Surprisingly, Béla Bartók orchestrated this version of Erlkönig, although his orchestration was never published.  Yet Becker’s work was deemed unsatisfactory by many critics, so in 2003, Cees Nieuwenhuizen made a new version that is much closer to Beethoven’s spirit.  The Dutch composer has been studying the minutest details of Beethoven’s way of writing for decades, and completed several of his unfinished works.  Nieuwenhuizen’s realization of Erlkönig allows us to see some characteristics Beethoven’s setting shares with Schubert’s, the most striking being the recitative at the end, where the child dies.  Beethoven also highlighted the different speakers (narrator, father, child, the Erl King) by means of key changes, even if he did not do so as consistently as Schubert.  Other times, Beethoven did not dramatize the story the way Schubert did, preferring to simply narrate it.  (This interpretation is actually closer to Goethe’s original concept.)

The two Schubert selections are both intensely dramatic, portraying mythological characters enduring their tribulations with great strength and heroism.  Der Atlas, one of six songs Schubert wrote on poems by the great Romantic Heinrich Heine, was published as part of the posthumous song cycle Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”).  The song represents Atlas, the titan who was condemned to carry the entire world on his shoulders, and finds his suffering almost unbearable.  

Prometheus, another titan who was punished by Zeus for stealing the fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, becomes, in Goethe’s retelling, a quintessential Romantic rebel who openly challenges divine authority.  Schubert portrayed both heroes through a highly innovative musical language with what were radically modern harmonies at the time.  Prometheus is almost like an operatic scene combined recitative and aria; this magnificent soliloquy stretches the boundaries of the Lied as commonly practiced by composers, and is exceptional even among Schubert’s own works.  © 2023 Peter Laki

César Franck’s father had destined his son for the career of a traveling piano virtuoso à la Franz Liszt.  These dreams, however, did not come true, and Franck had to settle for a less glamorous existence.  For many years, he worked as an organist at the Parisian church of Sainte Clotilde.  His first major break did not come until he was fifty; in 1872, he was appointed to the Paris Conservatoire as a professor of organ.  But even that did not necessarily mean success as a composer.  His large-scale oratorios and other sacred works failed to make an impression.  It was only during the last decade of his life that he wrote the series of masterpieces (including the A major Sonata, the Symphony, and the String Quartet) for which he is remembered to this day.

The Sonata was written in 1886, as a wedding present for the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), like Franck, a native of Liège, Belgium.  The first public performance was given by Ysaÿe and pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène in Brussels on December 16, 1886, at a concert devoted to Franck’s works.  The Sonata was an enormous success.  The director of the Brussels Conservatoire congratulated the composer with the words:  “You have transformed chamber music:  thanks to you a new vision of the future has been revealed to our eyes.”

The director was not exaggerating.  Franck had introduced into chamber music certain techniques never previously used in that medium.  Inspired by Liszt’s symphonic poems, Franck linked the four movements of the Sonata together by a network of thematic recurrences. The characters of the themes are sometimes fundamentally transformed in this process.  Franck also used counterpoint more extensively than did most Romantic composers — in part because, as an organ player, he was deeply immersed in the music of J.S. Bach.  Moreover, Franck had been touched by the style of Richard Wagner, who had died in 1883 but was still the most controversial modern composer in Europe.  In the Violin Sonata, Franck repeatedly used a variant of the famous “Tristan” chord.  He combined all these influences, however, with a boundless melodic invention all his own.  

The Sonata has an unusual movement sequence.  In most sonatas, the longest and weightiest movement comes at the beginning.  In the Franck Sonata, this movement stands in second place, preceded by a dreamy Allegretto ben moderato.  The passionate second movement is followed by a Recitativo-Fantasia that, in what was an extraordinary move in 1886, entirely dispenses with the idea of a main tonal center. The key changes constantly as the violin plays two unaccompanied cadenzas, separated by a nostalgic recollection of the first movement’s opening melody on the piano.  The movement continues with an “aria” for violin that is in turn lyrical and dramatic, with a molto lento e mesto (“very slow and sad”) ending.  Finally, the fourth movement crowns the Sonata with a real tour de force:  its initial melody is played by the two instruments in canon—that is, the melodic lines are the same, with the string instrument starting one measure after the piano.  The remaining themes derive from the third movement, turning the “aria” into a major dramatic outburst.  A recapitulation of the canon theme and a short, exuberant coda ends this great sonata.  © 2023 Peter Laki



Alan Hankers, Elapse

I started writing this string quartet for the Great Lakes Music Festival in February 2020. A few weeks into composing, the implications of COVID-19 cast a shadow over life as we all knew it. Without knowing it at the time, the music took an autobiographical turn that documented my experience during the quarantine. Like most, I spent those spring and summer months in isolation, observing the change of seasons and passing of time through the windowpanes in my apartment, where the world was adapting and transforming rapidly on the outside. 

Though it wasn’t my initial intention, Elapse explores the malleability of time. The musical material expands, contracts, contorts, and plateaus – representing the temporal experience of watching the world change. There’s a consistent pulse that lies beneath the surface for most of the work, which captures the anxiety and hope surrounding the unfolding events. 

The work was commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival for the Pelia String Quartet.  © Alan Hankers