In 1799, two years after completing his celebrated series of six string quartets for Count Erdödy (Op. 76), Haydn started work on yet another set, this time for Prince Lobkowitz. He only completed two of the six, however. Were the 67-year-old master’s creative powers waning? Or was there another reason for his withdrawal?
Around the same time Haydn was working on string quartets for Lobkowitz, a younger composer by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven was doing the very same thing. Beethoven completed his set of six quartets (later published as Op. 18) in the spring of 1800. It may well be that Haydn stopped work on his project at least in part because of the arrival on the scene of the unruly young genius. Haydn used to call Beethoven, his rebellious former student, the “Grand Mogul,” in a mocking reference to the younger man’s boundless ambition, though he was the first to recognize Beethoven’s exceptional talent. Haydn understandably wanted to avoid direct competition with Beethoven, who was already a darling of the aristocratic salons in Vienna and one of the most sought-after musicians in the city.
The least one can say of the two quartets of Op. 77 is that Haydn rose to his younger colleague’s challenge in every way. Some moments in the two works have even been said to be echoes or reflections of what we now call “early” Beethoven. The first of the two quartets opens with an Allegro moderato that fills out its regular sonata-form scheme with many subtle surprises and delicate touches. The second movement is in E-flat major, a tonality rather far removed from the original key of G. It is one of Haydn’s greatest Adagios, with themes of a rich singing quality and a harmonic range that is sometimes reminiscent of Beethoven. The first violin part adds some elaborate ornaments to the highly expressive melodies.
The third movement (Minuet and Trio) is even more ‟Beethovenian.” Many of the movement’s features are most unusual for Haydn and announce a new era. The tempo is extremely fast for a minuet. Off-beat accents abound in the theme. Almost all repeats are written out (instead of being indicated by repeat signs), and important changes are introduced the second time around. Most astonishingly, no clear separation exists between minuet and trio; the trio arrives without warning by way of an unexpected jump into the key of E-flat major, visiting that remote tonality for the second time in the quartet. The ending of this highly dramatic trio is left open, as the music gradually modulates back to G.
The following Presto is Haydn’s last word on the ‟contradanse” finale, one of his favorite movement types for decades. The main theme is presented twice at the beginning: the first time in unison and then with harmonies. This duality of simplicity and sophistication remains the principal driving force throughout the movement, right up to the ending, for which Haydn saved some delicious last-minute surprises. © 2023 Peter Laki
No composer has ever been able to match the unbelievable precocity of Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight. Saint-Saëns, however, came close. He first played the piano in public at the age of five, and at ten gave his formal debut at Paris’s Salle Pleyel, performing Mozart and Beethoven concertos and offering to play any of Beethoven’s sonatas from memory as an encore. Saint-Saëns eventually grew up to become a national institution in France, one of the country’s most prominent composers, pianists and organists, who was universally respected, though far from uncontroversial.
Though not a string player himself, Saint-Saëns had a strong affinity for string instruments. He wrote three concertos and numerous other solo works for violin, as well as two concertos and two sonatas for cello (not to mention “The Swan,” that most beloved of cello solos from The Carnival of the Animals). A third cello sonata survives in fragmentary form, and has recently been completed and published.
The first cello sonata was written in close proximity to the first cello concerto, and premiered at the Société Nationale de Musique, a society for the promotion of chamber music which Saint-Saëns had co-founded in 1871. Auguste Tolbecque played the cello part, with the composer at the piano.
The key of C minor traditionally inspired works that were intensely dramatic in tone, and the present sonata is no exception. The first and last movements continue the best Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) tradition in Classical and Romantic music, with the central Andante, which has echoes of Bach and Schumann, as a much-needed respite. The piano part is so difficult that some commentators have spoken about a “piano sonata with cello accompaniment,” but that description is not quite accurate. The cello has many of the great melodies, and they are often placed in the low register of the instrument, which requires the pianist to be careful not to drown out the cello. While the upper strings of the cello can sing like an operatic tenor, the low C and G strings, if not covered up, have a very special, powerful ring to them, which Saint-Saëns exploited to the fullest.
There is an amusing anecdote about this sonata, reported by Charles-Marie Widor, the great French organist and composer (1844-1937) who had at one point been Saint-Saëns’s assistant at the church of the Madeleine. According to Widor, Saint-Saëns’s mother did not like the last movement, and, in just a few days, the composer wrote a new finale, which is the one we know today. Swedish cellist Mats Lidström, who recorded the sonata, noted that the last movement contains quotes from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera L’Africaine (1864)—“possibly a favorite of Saint-Saëns’s mother’s.” © 2023 Peter Laki
Beethoven arranged two of his early wind compositions for string quintet, and wrote two more (partially completed) quintets in his late period. The present work, however, is his only full-fledged original composition for the “enhanced” string quartet. But the scoring is not the only unique feature of Op. 29. It is in many ways an exceptional work, with many features that appear either for the first time, or even the only time, in Beethoven’s music.
The quintet used to be known under the nickname “The Storm,” on account of the opening of its last movement, with the thunder-like tremolos in the four lower instruments against the “lightning” theme in the first violin. Yet we don’t have to wait until the finale to be surprised. Already the first movement features some distant modulations and other novel forms of thematic development that announce what we recognize, with hindsight, as Beethoven’s middle period—a period that the composer, at the age of thirty, was just about to enter.
As in the Mozart string quintets, the addition of a second viola strengthens the lower end of the sound spectrum. The second viola can either reinforce the middle voices (second violin, first viola), or else double the cello at the octave, thereby achieving a quasi-orchestral effect, similarly to the way the contrabasses double the cellos in an orchestra.
The C major quintet has one of Beethoven’s most effusive slow movements. It is an expansive lyrical song introduced by the first violin, but it is the ever-changing inner voices that give the movement its special character: pizzicatos (plucked notes), quick note repeats, pulsating syncopations and more make sure that something new is happening at every turn.
The third movement is a scherzo—a playful, fast piece of the kind that Beethoven, building on Haydn’s example, had thoroughly made his own already in his early Viennese works from the 1790s. Here, like elsewhere, he makes the most of a simple theme of only a few notes; the high energy of the movement doesn’t diminish, even in the central trio section.
Yet it is the “stormy” last movement that has the greatest number of stylistic novelties. Following that most unusual opening already mentioned, Beethoven wrote a rhythmically intricate development section where a whole fugato (section based on imitation) is superimposed on top of the storm music. And if that were not enough, the recapitulation is interrupted by a graceful minuet that seems to come out of nowhere. After a return of the “storm,” the minuet even reappears for a second time. As a final surprise, the last appearance of the storm theme suddenly veers off into a distant key, from which Beethoven then has to make his way back to his home tonality of C major. © 2023 Peter Laki
Carlos Simon, be still and know
This piece was inspired by an interview with Oprah Winfrey which she quoted:
“I have felt the presence of God my whole life. Even when I didn’t have a name for it, I could feel the voice bigger than myself speaking to me, and all of us have that same voice. Be still and know it. You can acknowledge it or not. You can worship it or not. You can praise it, you can ignore it or you can know it. Know it. It’s always there speaking to you and waiting for you to hear it in every move, in every decision. – Oprah Winfrey, May 25, 2011