Emerson String Quartet: Turning Points Program Notes

A chaconne (like its close relative, the passacaglia) is a set of variations over a recurrent ground bass or a recurrent harmonic progression.  Purcell was very fond of this form, which he used in several of his stage works, most famously in Dido and Aeneas.

The present ‟Chacony” (to use the original spelling) is an independent piece, in which the composer handled the variation form with remarkable freedom and virtuosity.  In addition to altering the rhythm and ornamenting the melody, he varied the instrumentation as well, occasionally omitting the bass altogether and at one point assigning the bass melody to the treble.

Benjamin Britten had a life-long love for Purcell’s music.  He performed and recorded it frequently with his partner, the great tenor Peter Pears, and published many modern editions and realizations which contributed considerably to the Purcell renaissance in the 20th century.  © 2023 Peter Laki

‟They are written in a new and special way, for I have not composed any for 10 years.”  With these words did Haydn introduce his most recent set of six string quartets in December 1781 to prospective buyers of the sheet music.  The exact same sentence appears in three different surviving letters (and there were probably even more similar announcements that have been  lost).  Some musicologists have dismissed this description as a mere sales pitch, while others have seen it as a sort of stylistic manifesto.  

Without falling into either extreme, it cannot be denied that, if we compare the quartets of Op. 33 to Haydn’s previous set, Op. 20 (1772), the differences are enormous.  The novelties include a more pervasive technique of motivic development involving sophisticated ways of thematic transformation.  Another significant innovation is the appearance of a lighter tone in general, and clear signs of a delicious sense of humor that became, from this point onward, a hallmark of Haydn’s style.  Op. 33 includes the quartet known as ‟The Joke,” where you never know exactly when the piece is over.  And it is the set that used to be referred to as Gli Scherzi, for it was here that Haydn, for the first time, replaced the traditional minuet by a scherzo—a witty, fast movement filled with musical surprises of all kinds.  The great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon noted that Haydn had a special reason to be in a good mood in 1781:  trapped in a bad marriage, he was in a happy relationship with the Italian singer Luigia Polzelli.  (The six quartets of Op. 33 are also occasionally called the ‟Russian quartets,” because they were published with a dedication to Grand Duke Paul, the future Czar Paul I.)  

The very beginning of the G major quartet is a subtle joke:  it is a closing figure in an opening position that defines the progress of the movement in a multitude of fascinating ways.  Syncopations (strong notes on weak beats), unexpected harmonic changes and general rests punctuate this Vivace assai, which ends exactly as it began, with the closing figure now assuming its proper concluding function.

The second movement Largo cantabile is a gorgeous instrumental aria where the first violin reigns supreme throughout, with the expressive accompaniment of the other three instruments.  In the Scherzo, the humorous effect is produced by a motif of two beats that runs counter to the triple meter, and a general rest that delays the end of the phrase.  The middle section, or ‟Trio,” is more regular; it provides a brief respite before the return of the Scherzo proper.  The last movement is a set of variations on a theme in the form of the siciliano dance.  In the course of the variations, the instruments take turns embellishing the theme; the tempo then speeds up for the coda, or concluding section.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Mozart did not always compose with the ease and speed one usually associates with his name.  Even he had to struggle with some of his compositions.  The six string quartets dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn are a case in point.  In paying homage to his older colleague and friend, Mozart subjected himself to an enormous challenge.  Haydn had turned the string quartet into one of the most highly developed instrumental genres of his time and, especially after his epoch-making set of six quartets, Op. 33 (1781), he became the undisputed master of the form with an international reputation.  Mozart, eager to live up to these high standards, took three years to complete his set of six quartets which constitute his response to Haydn’s Op. 33.  Here was music for the connoisseur, sophisticated in technique and complex in elaboration—the work of a genius making a conscious effort to outdo himself (if that is possible at all).  For the publication of these quartets, Mozart wrote a beautiful dedicatory letter to Haydn (in Italian, the international language of music) in which he acknowledged the “long and hard work” the quartets had cost him, and asked Haydn to be a loving “father, guide and friend” to these “children” which the composer was sending out into the world to live their own lives.

The D minor quartet was the second in the set of six.  Mozart followed Haydn’s custom of including one quartet in a minor key in the group; such works were usually darker, more tragic in tone and more innovative in harmonic language than their “siblings” in major tonalities.  The D minor quartet is no exception: its mood is agitated almost from beginning to end.  One area of relative calm is the second theme of the first movement, in which the tonality switches to major, in accordance with expectations.  Yet when this theme returns in the recapitulation (after a rather stormy development), it undergoes some striking melodic transformations that effectively change its character from lyrical to dramatic.

The second movement is a (mostly) calm Andante in F major.  The third is a minuet, but without the usual graceful character of the dance; this minuetto serio (serious minuet) in the tragic key of D minor is filled with chromatic harmonies and complex imitative textures.  Its stern atmosphere is relieved by the Trio, in which the first violin plays a tune reminiscent of yodeling (a kind of folk singing from the mountainous regions of Austria, characterized by wide melodic leaps).

The last movement is a set of variations on a theme in which the rhythm of the siciliano dance is imbued with a strong proto-Romantic feeling.  Contrary to what happens in many minor key works where the tensions are eased by a final modulation to the major, in this movement the variation in the major remains a passing episode and the work ends on a rather disconsolate note.  © 2023 Peter Laki

The three quartets of Op. 59, known as the “Razumovsky” quartets, were written shortly after the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) and the F minor Piano Sonata (“Appassionata”).  In those works, Beethoven made a bold leap into the future:  music had never expressed such intense emotions before, nor had the formal conventions of music been changed so radically in such a short time.  With Op. 59, Beethoven extended his musical revolution to the quartet medium, producing three masterworks after which the genre was never the same again.

One of the most striking features of Beethoven’s “heroic” style is a reduction of the thematic material to a small number of motifs and an expansion of the techniques that serve to develop those motifs.  The most extreme example is probably the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, with its famous four-note theme, but the opening of the E minor quartet is equally striking.  Beethoven begins suspensefully with a pair of chords, followed by a short phrase, which is punctuated by rests and repeated a half step higher, immediately calling the E minor tonality into question.  Eventually, continuity is restored, but the form remains rather fragmented, reflecting an agitated state of mind.  We hear many insistent syncopated rhythms and rapid passages in unison or parallel motion, in dramatic contrast with the occasional gentler moments.  

Beethoven inscribed the second movement Molto Adagio with the words Si tratta questo pezzo con molto sentimento (“This piece must be treated with much feeling”).  Here is one of his great hymn-like slow movements, with the quiet majesty of the later “Emperor” Concerto and Ninth Symphony—yet entirely within the intimate world of chamber music.  The melody is enriched by chromatic harmonies and surrounded by complex figurations.  Then, at the end of the movement, all embellishments are stripped away and the melody is stated by the four instruments in bold fortissimo chords, with harsh harmonies and strong accents—before the gentle closing measures end the movement in an idyllic mood.

Beethoven refrained from calling the third movement a “scherzo,” and surely the first section of the movement is too serious to qualify as a “joke.”  Yet its syncopated motion and sudden dynamic and harmonic changes are definitely scherzo-like features.  The high point of the movement, however, is the second section (which elsewhere would be called “Trio”).  In honor of his dedicatee, Beethoven inserted a Russian theme here (marked thème russe in the score).  The source of the theme was the important folk-song collection published by Nikolai Lvov and Ivan Prach in 1790.   (This melody, “Glory to the Sun,” was famously used again by Mussorgsky in the coronation scene of Boris Godunov.)  Beethoven had the four instruments take turns in repeating this melody identically over and over again, against a fast-moving counterpoint that also makes its rounds among the four players.  As in several other Beethoven works, the usual A-B-A scheme of the scherzo is expanded to A-B-A-B-A, with the thème russe section appearing twice and the opening section three times.

The finale is a galloping sonata rondo where Beethoven constantly plays games with our (possibly subconscious) tonal expectations.  Seemingly reluctant to establish the home key of E minor, he keeps the first few measures in C major before making a sudden shift just before the end of the phrase.  (The last movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 58, written around the same time, uses a similar strategy.)  The rhythmic momentum never flags, though the galloping pulse is temporarily replaced by quieter motion in the lyrical second theme.  Yet the main theme never stays away for very long; and as if the initial Presto tempo weren’t fast enough, Beethoven demands Più presto (“faster”) for the final measures.  © 2023 Peter Laki