Emerson String Quartet: Romantic Visions Program Notes

Few composers in the 1820s were more familiar with Beethoven’s recent works than the young Felix Mendelssohn.  At a time when Hummel, Clementi, and Spohr were at the height of their fame, not everyone recognized that Beethoven was a greater genius than they; but Mendelssohn had no doubts about that.  The opening of his Quartet in E-flat, Op. 12, makes that point absolutely clear with its unmistakable allusion to Beethoven’s quartet in the same key (Op. 74, “Harp”), written in 1809, the year of Mendelssohn’s birth.  The allusion occurs in the pensive slow introduction to the first movement, which lends extra weight to the Allegro that follows.  The latter is a marvel of motivic development:  everything flows organically from a simple melodic idea, yet there are always unexpected melodic and harmonic turns to ensure variety.

The second movement is a Canzonetta, that is, neither a minuet nor a scherzo but a “little song”—a “song without words,” as it were.  This movement certainly has nothing Beethovenian about it; it is the voice of a young generation, delicate, innovative, and witty.  The “trio” (middle section) of the canzonetta is a whirlwind passage that has reminded commentators of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, composed three years earlier.

The third movement (Andante espressivo) is a lyrical song that, on two occasions, becomes more agitated (the second time even more so than the first), only to return to its initial tranquil state soon afterwards.  It is followed without pause by the finale (Molto allegro e vivace), which—unexpectedly—begins, and for a long time stays, in C minor, adding a touch of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress,” the name of a dramatic way of writing that was a precursor of Romanticism in some works of Haydn and Mozart).  The home key of E-flat isn’t reached until shortly before the end; at that point, the melodic material of the first movement returns to provide a feeling of symmetry that is itself a novel feature in the music of the 1820s.  The movement, much of which was intense and passionate, ends surprisingly in a hushed pianissimo.

The E-flat major quartet is sometimes referred to as No. 1.  In reality, it was written two years after the official “Quartet No. 2,” the A minor work that was published after the E-flat major, as Op. 13.  There is also an early E-flat major quartet with no opus number at all, written in 1823 when Mendelssohn was only fourteen and published after the composer’s death, so the present work is actually the third string quartet Mendelssohn completed.  It was a product of his 1829 journey to the British Isles, which also inspired the “Scottish” Symphony and the Hebrides Overture.  The manuscript is dated “14th September, 1829, London.”  © 2023 Peter Laki

Much ink has been spilled over whether Brahms was a ‟conservative” or a ‟progressive” composer—that is, whether he must be faulted for not going along with the radical ideas of his older contemporaries Liszt and Wagner, or whether he should be given more credit for his novel structural and harmonic solutions.  One way out of this academic quandary would be to realize that the two adjectives in quotation marks are really two sides of the same coin:  Brahms’s genius lay in the way he was able to innovate within an existing framework, and to reconcile his originality with the tradition that was sacred to him.

Few works show this duality better than his third and last string quartet, so daring in a lot of ways and still so comfortable in observing the classical rules of the genre.  After two turbulent and dramatic minor key quartets (Op. 51), Brahms composed one that is mostly light and happy, though by no means simple, in tone—and Brahms once said that it was his favorite quartet of the three.  The composer dedicated the work to his friend Theodor Engelmann, whose wife, Emma, was an accomplished pianist.  

The opening theme of the first movement is a direct descendant of Mozart’s ‟Hunt” Quartet (they have similar motivic materials, and share the same meter and the same key).  Yet within a few measures, rhythmic complications arise that are never found in Mozart.  Most unusually, the meter changes in the folksy second theme and for a short while, two different meters are heard simultaneously.  The development section covers an enormous range of keys and characters.  And yet, the end of the movement manages to settle happily back into the classical world as if nothing had happened.

The second-movement Andante contains one of Brahms’s most glorious melodies:  it has an unusually wide range and draws an extremely long musical arc.  It is followed by a typical Brahmsian moment with powerful angular rhythms, played together by all four instruments.  A beguilingly beautiful and rather adventurous development section leads back to a restatement of the opening melody, followed by an idyllic coda.

In the third movement, the viola plays ‟first fiddle”; the other three instruments accompany with their mutes on.  An expressive melody in the style of Brahms’s Liebeslieder-Walzer (‟love-song waltzes”) opens the movement which is in ABA form.  The central ‟B” presents little contrast:  it is another sensuous waltz melody led, once again, by the viola.

The last movement is a classical theme and variations with many subtle surprises.  First of all, the melodious theme has a slight but very noticeable irregularity in that its second half is two measures shorter than the first.  This asymmetry is maintained in all the variations, which at first follow the classical pattern of introducing faster figurations and giving each instrument a turn in playing the melody.  The later variations go farther and farther afield until we reach a point, in a fairly distant key, where the melody seems entirely to dissolve in a series of chords accompanied by a pizzicato—plucked—bass line, itself alternating between the cello and the viola.  It is a variation where timbre, or sound color, seems to take over as the most prominent musical parameter, more important than melody and rhythm!

After this magical moment, the opening melody of the first movement unexpectedly returns, and we realize that its melodic outline is related to that of the variation theme.  The two themes are brilliantly combined in the final section but once again, after so many complicated compositional maneuvers, the work ends in a simple and straightforward manner.  © 2023 Peter Laki

The German music publisher Fritz Simrock felt that the Czech form of his star composer’s first name, Antonín, did not look good on the title page of a respectable German score.  He tried hard to persuade Dvořák to use the German form, Anton, instead, but the patriotic composer insisted on the two extra letters.  They finally struck a compromise by abbreviating the name to a neutral and non-committal Ant.

In a way, Dvořák’s entire life and career revolved around the issue of Anton vs. Antonín.  As a proud Bohemian whose country was part of the Austrian Empire, he always resisted the German culture of the rulers.  And yet, the road to recognition led through Simrock and the German-speaking world—at least until Dvořák was able to bypass that world by going first to England and then to the United States.  Still, Dvořák was much more than a Czech nationalist.  His unique contribution lies precisely in the fact that he was able to express his Czech identity within what was essentially a Germanic tradition – forms of symphonic and chamber music he had inherited from Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

In his greatest works, Dvořák found the perfect balance between the nationalist Antonín and the universalist Anton.  The A major Quintet, for instance, overflows with beautiful melodies in a Czech folk style, and contains both a dumka and a furiant (see below).  At the same time, it is without a doubt the only successor to the great piano quintets of Schumann and Brahms that is worthy of the great models in every respect.

The first movement opens with an unforgettable cello melody.  The second theme, equally lyrical, is introduced by the viola.  Both themes are eventually developed by all five players and acquire considerable rhythmic energy in the process, although the character of the entire movement still remains predominantly lyrical.  Only the coda strikes, all of a sudden, a more heroic tone.

The second movement is a dumka—a type of melancholy folk song, originally from Ukraine, that inspired Dvořák in many of his works, most famously in the “Dumky” Piano Trio of 1891.  The trio contains six dumka movements, greatly varied in tempo and mood. The dumka of the A major Quintet manages to fit some of the contrasting characters into a single movement:  the brooding Andante con moto of the opening is followed by a second idea in a more fluid tempo.  The opening melody is heard again, first in the original tempo and then in the form of a Vivace variation.  The first two segments (the brooding opening and the more fluid second idea) return, and the movement ends molto tranquillo (“very calmly”).

The third movement is titled Scherzo-Furiant—a double label reflecting, once again, the Anton-Antonín duality.  To German ears, this movement fits neatly in the category of the scherzo, familiar since the days of Beethoven.  Yet Dvořák’s immediate inspiration was the Czech folk dance, the furiant, whose pedigree was established by Bedřich Smetana, whose landmark opera The Bartered Bride contains a classic example.  The most important characteristic of the furiant is its metric ambiguity resulting from the frequent duple articulations within an essentially triple meter.  Dvořák’s furiant in the quintet is based on two dance melodies, one energetic and one more tender.  The trio (middle section) is in a slower tempo but its theme is derived from the energetic motif heard earlier.  The recapitulation of the Scherzo is much abbreviated.

The last movement has the inflection of another folk dance, the polka, embedded in a rondo scheme with lyrical episodes and a lively fugato (section with contrapuntal imitation).  The movement has a coda where the motion momentarily slows down, only to pick up again and end on an exuberant note.  © 2023 Peter Laki