Emerson String Quartet: Final Farewell Program Notes

Ravel was twenty-seven years old when he wrote his first and only string quartet.  He was still, at least nominally, a student, as he was auditing Gabriel Fauré’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire.  But he had been active as a composer for years, with numerous public performances under his belt.  He had failed, however, to win a prize from the Conservatoire, which was a condition for graduation.  In particular, the prestigious Prix de Rome continued to elude Ravel, who was eliminated from the contest no fewer than five times.  This situation became more and more ludicrous and it finally led to a much-publicized scandal in 1905.  The director of the Conservatoire had to resign, and Ravel confirmed his status as one of the leading French composers of his generation.

Ravel’s string quartet—dedicated “to my dear master Gabriel Fauré”—is clearly modeled on Debussy’s celebrated Quatuor from 1893, yet Ravel displays a sense of color and melody that is all his own.  To both composers, the string quartet as a medium suggested—in fact, demanded—adherence to classical tradition.  Yet nothing was farther from them than academicism of any kind.  The defining characteristic of both works is precisely the tension between the classical forms and a positively non-classical sensitivity that is manifest at every turn.

Melody, harmony and rhythm are usually thought of as the most important ingredients of music.  In Ravel’s string quartet, written at the beginning of the 20th century, a fourth element, sound, appears as a factor of equal importance.  The alternation of playing techniques (pizzicato, con sordino, arpeggio, bow on the fingerboard) is as crucial to the unfolding of the piece as the alternation of themes.  Their succession, especially in the second and third movements, creates a musical form of its own, entirely non-traditional this time.

In the first movement, classical sonata form is realized with great clarity and ingenuity.  Note the characteristic pianissimo rallentando (extremely soft and slow playing) at the end of the movement, similar to the analogous moment in Ravel’s Piano Trio of 1914.  (On the other hand, the opening movement of Debussy’s string quartet ends with a loud and fast coda.)

The second movement of Ravel’s quartet is based on the contrast between two themes of opposite character:  one pizzicato (plucked), and one bien chanté (“sing out!”), with bow.  Again, it seems that the movement looks into the future (ahead to the Piano Trio of 1914) rather than into the past (back to the Debussy quartet).  The middle section, in which all four instruments use mutes, is an expressive slow movement in miniature, with subtle variations on both scherzo themes.

The unique beauty of the third movement emerges by fits and starts, as it were, through the juxtaposition of segments in different tempos, keys, and meters.  An expressive melody, whose primary exponent is the viola, is interrupted by memories of the first movement’s opening theme.  After a more animated middle section, culminating in a passionate outburst, the initial slow tempo returns with its exquisite harmonies.

The last movement is based on an ostinato (“stubbornly” returning pattern) in an asymmetrical 5/8 meter.  After a while, this ostinato yields to a more regular 3/4 which, once more, contains echoes of the first movement.   A different musical character—the first aggressive, the second more lyrical—corresponds to each of these two meters.  Their contrast carries the movement forward, right up to the singularly forceful conclusion.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Bartók’s Second Quartet was written during a time of personal and artistic crisis in the composer’s life, due in part to the hardships of World War I, and in part to the vehement opposition to his music on the part of the Hungarian critics.  In fact, the composer’s environment became so hostile that in 1912 he decided to withdraw from the musical life of Budapest and to move to a relatively distant suburb.  A mood of pessimism took hold of Bartók during these years – witness the tragic endings of the Four Pieces for Orchestra and the Suite for Piano, Op. 14, and the two dark song cycles Opp. 15 and 16, all from the years immediately preceding the Second Quartet.  The Second Quartet, too, ends with a desolate slow movement, preceded by a Moderato filled with nostalgic longing and an extended, ferocious dance.   

In addition to these extreme contrasts between the movements, the first movement contains its own inner polarity, between the opening theme (a languid melody with ever-widening intervals) and a second, “bittersweet” idea that appears only twice, harmonized in a much more consonant way.  The contrast of these two themes could correspond to an imagined contrast between a melancholy state of mind and the world of ideal dreams.   Powerful surges and desperate climaxes punctuate this movement which roughly follows the outlines of sonata form.  One of the most memorable moments occurs shortly before the end:  a five-note motif, played by all four instruments in a menacing, fortissimo unison, turns out to be identical to the beginning of the “bittersweet” theme, which immediately follows, ushering in a coda in which both themes are unites in a farewell gesture of great tenderness.

For most of its duration, the second movement has a single interval—the minor third—for its theme.  It is hammered home in a relentless ostinato in which Hungarian musicologist János Kárpáti saw a reflection of the Arabic drumming Bartók had heard during his visit to Biskra, Algeria in 1913.  This ostinato is developed in spectacular ways, in turn serious and comic.  Toward the middle of the movement, the tempo slows down for a while and a lyrical melody appears, only to be brushed aside by the returning ostinatos that become wilder and wilder to the end.  The concluding fortissimo unison recalls the similar passage from the first movement mentioned above.  Only this time there is no relief in a dreamlike conclusion; the third movement that follows is one of the darkest pieces of music Bartók ever wrote.

Isolated melodic fragments, played with mutes, set a desolate stage, preparing the appearance of the melody modeled after a certain type of Hungarian folksong of a mournful character.  The contours of the melody, and the fact that the phrase is repeated a fifth higher, are reminiscent of folk music, but the chromatic inflections of the theme speak an intensely personal language of Bartók’s own.  In fact, the pitches derive from the languid opening theme of the first movement.  The two kinds of sadness—the personal grief of the composer and the communal lament of folksong—reinforce one another as the music moves through successive stages of anxiety and despair.  The final sonority of the work is the same minor third that figured so prominently in the second movement—now played twice, pizzicato (plucked) by the viola and cello, muffled and austere.  © 2023 Peter Laki

The three masters of the second Viennese school—Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern—had a lifelong devotion to the string quartet medium, which inspired them to formulate their musical thoughts with the utmost clarity.  Their quartets span all three phases of their parallel developments, from the early tonal works to free atonality and then to the compositions using the twelve-tone system.

The Six Bagatelles represent the summit of the aphoristic style Webern developed in the early 1910s.  They are the shortest works of a composer who always favored extreme brevity.  Webern wrote about the way he composed the piece:

I had the feeling that when the twelve tones have been played the piece is over…In my sketchbook I wrote out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes.  Why?  Because I had convinced myself that the note was already there.  It sounds grotesque, incomprehensible, and it was incredibly difficult.  The inner ear decided absolutely rightly that the person who had written out the chromatic scale and crossed off individual notes was no fool.  In short, a law came into being. Until all twelve notes have appeared none of them must appear again… We were not then conscious of the principle but had been sensing it for a long time.

We can’t stress too strongly that Webern, as always, made the inner ear the supreme judge.  The quote shows that the twelve-tone system, as codified some years later by Schoenberg, was not created by a purely cerebral process:  it was the ear that demanded that all twelve notes be used before one of them was repeated.  (In spite of this systematic use of the twelve pitches, the work is not a ‟twelve-tone” piece strictly speaking, since the pitches do not form a row and are not subject to inversion, retrogradation and transposition as full-blown serial theory would entail.) 

The idea that the lifespan of the piece is related to the gradual unfolding of a twelve-tone sequence is highly significant even if the piece isn’t exactly over after only twelve notes.  In the first bagatelle for instance, we have heard all twelve tones by measure 3, but the movement consists of a total of 10 measures.  In the remaining seven measures, Webern draws musical ‟consequences” from his first presentation of the twelve notes, varying and developing the motivic relationships he set up there.  As Schoenberg put it so beautifully in his often-quoted preface to the Bagatelles:

Every glance can be expanded into a poem, every sigh into a novel.  But to express a novel in a single gesture, joy in a single breath—such concentration can only be found where self-pity is lacking in equal measure.

What’s more, each bagatelle is a different ‟novel.”  By varying the tempo, the playing technique and the character of the gestures, Webern created considerable variety within the cycle.  Almost every note carries a special performance instruction, whether a new dynamic marking, an accent, or a particular way of playing (plucked, harmonics, near the bridge, with mute); this extraordinary detail work gives the piece a unique atmosphere.

Shostakovich’s biography resembles nothing more than a wild roller-coaster ride with the dramatic ups and downs of highest praise and harshest condemnation.  After the age of sixty, his official troubles with the Soviet regime seemed to be over and he could have finally begun to enjoy his celebrity status if his health hadn’t seriously deteriorated in the meantime.  Living in the shadow of death, Shostakovich turned increasingly inward and the tone of his music became more intensely personal than ever before.  At the same time, he no longer felt the need for any concessions to politicians or anyone else.  

The present work is the second in a cycle of four (Nos. 11-14) dedicated to each of the members of the Beethoven String Quartet, who were old friends of Shostakovich’s who had premiered all of his quartets except for No. 1.  The Twelfth Quartet was the composer’s personal gift to first violinist Dmitri Tsyganov (1903-1992).  It is in two extended movements, each of which further subdivides into several smaller sections.  The composer himself called this quartet ‟symphonic” in its conception.

In commentaries of this work, one particular feature is mentioned more frequently than any other, namely the use of twelve-tone themes throughout the work.  The very opening features a theme containing all twelve tones, but Shostakovich doesn’t manipulate his theme the way the members of the Second Viennese School manipulated their tone rows.  Shostakovich’s theme remains a melody, contrasting with other melodies of a more traditional diatonic type.  In a way, the entire work can be seen as a kind of struggle between these two melodic worlds.  

The gloomy Moderato introduction soon gives way to a more dance-like Allegretto section in 3/4 time; the two characters consistently alternate throughout the movement.  The second movement begins as a scherzo (of the sarcastic Shostakovichian variety), incorporates an extended, and extremely stark, Adagio section and concludes with a finale that integrates all the elements previously heard.  The quartet ends with one of those ambivalent ‟resolutions” where all the tonal tensions are smoothed out yet something deeply disturbing remains.  © 2023 Peter Laki



Sarah Kirkland Snider, Drink the Wild Ayre

Drink the Wild Ayre is my second string quartet. I wrote my first over twenty years ago, while poring over recordings by the Emerson String Quartet. At that time, I was new to composition and bought every CD of theirs I could find, obsessively studying counterpoint and voice-leading via their recordings. Their performances became my benchmark for the masterpieces they recorded; their sounds became synonymous, in my mind, with the composer’s intent. For me, theirs was the definitive interpretation of all the great string quartets in history.

So, when the invitation to write this piece came in — the Emerson’s final commission, to be performed during this, their final season — I nearly fell off my chair. I am still awestruck and humbled to have written this piece for some of my earliest heroes.

The title is a playful nod to one of the most famous quotes by their transcendentalist namesake essayist/philosopher/poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, Drink the wild air’s salubrity.” An ayre is a song-like, lyrical piece. The title seemed an apt reference not only to the lilting, asymmetrical rhythms of the music’s melodic narrative, but also to the questing spirit, sense of adventure, and full-hearted passion with which the Emerson has thrown itself into everything it has done for the past 47 years. Here’s to the singular magic of these artistic giants, and the new adventures that await them.  © Sarah Kirkland Snider