Turning New PagesString Quartets by Mozart, Bartók, and Sibelius
Each of the three quartets on tonight’s program was a pivotal work in its composer’s career. Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, one of the six “Haydn” Quartets dedicated to his esteemed elder, looks both backward and forward, paying homage to Haydn’s classical poise and wit even as it anticipates the more overtly dramatic music of Beethoven and Schubert. Bartók’s search for a way to organize his music more organically yielded the innovative “arch” design of the Fourth Quartet, whose five thematically interrelated movements are arrayed symmetrically around a central slow movement, like the kernel of a nut. Sibelius won a reputation as a musical nationalist at the beginning of his career in a series of works imbued with the spirit of the great outdoors, many of which were inspired by the poetry of Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. With the brooding D-minor Quartet of 1908–09, however, he embarked on a radically different path that would lead to the spare, post-Romantic landscape of his late period.
Mozart’s Minor-Mode Lyricism
By the early 1780s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had completed his informal apprenticeship in string quartet writing under Haydn. If the elder composer had brought the classical quartet genre to full maturity, the younger invested it with unprecedented emotional depth and complexity. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in the six quartets composed between late 1782 and early 1785 and known collectively as the “Haydn” Quartets. In dedicating the set to his mentor, Mozart reciprocated the magnanimous gesture Haydn had made several months earlier, when he famously declared to Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, that his son was “the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”
Composed in June 1783, K. 417b (number 421 in the older Köchel catalogue) is the second of the “Haydn” Quartets and the only one in a minor key. Yet the quartet bears few traces of the high tragic style that Mozart often associated with the minor mode. The character of the music is, on the whole, warmly lyrical rather than vividly dramatic. Only the two outer movements do much more than hint at the weightier passions, and even there the predominant mood is genial and relaxed. The luminous intensity of the D-minor Quartet derives, instead, from the 27-year-old Mozart’s extraordinary economy of expression. The music seems to have been pared down to the bare essentials; even the sections in which Mozart elaborates and develops his themes are unusually compressed.
In the opening Allegro, the brooding D-minor theme, at first gentle, then assertive, soon gives way to a graceful counter subject in F major. Both melodies are introduced by the first violin, which clearly plays the leading role in the ensemble. But Mozart’s conception of the string quartet, like Haydn’s, was fundamentally egalitarian, and he apportions the thematic material among the four instruments in a democratic fashion. Listen particularly for the inner voices, which are full of interest and variety. After a concise, harmonically unsettling development, the original theme returns in darker guise, the climactic D-minor chord leading unexpectedly to a limpid triple-time Andante in F major.
The third-movement minuet further explores these contrasts of tonality, texture, mood, and rhythm. In the central trio section, for example, Mozart neatly reverses the driving dotted-note figure heard in the upbeat to the principal theme, altering the pattern from long-short to short-long. The springy delicacy of this middle section accentuates the more propulsive character of the surrounding minuets. The final Allegretto ma non troppo is a set of four variations notable for their harmonic elasticity. A brisk coda reaffirms the home key and brings the quartet to an exhilarating close.
Bartok’s Captivating Sonorities
Rooted in Middle European folk traditions and late– 19th century impressionism, Béla Bartók’s music was forged in the harsh crucible of the early 20th century. The six string quartets he composed between 1908 and 1939 chart a course from the colorfully impassioned romanticism of his early period to the bleak pessimism of his late works. Befitting their status as modern classics, the quartets have been subjected to microscopic analysis touching on every aspect of the composer’s musical language, from the finest points of pitch structure to large-scale formal organization. For the average listener, however, the most immediately striking aspect of Bartók’s distinctive sound world may well be his prodigious inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere and the captivating sonorities he coaxes from the four instruments.
The latter quality, in particular, is much in evidence in the Third and Fourth Quartets, written in 1927 and 1928, respectively. Bartók had recently heard a performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite and fallen under the spell of its richly coloristic atmosphere. At the same time, he was searching for new formal structures with which to present his innovative musical ideas. He had long been interested in organic musical processes, whereby the various movements of a work were unified by the recurring use of short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic motifs. This concept underpins the Fourth Quartet, for which Bartók devised a variant of the arch, or bridge, design that he had employed in a number of earlier works. Its five movements are related both structurally and thematically, as the composer pointed out in a preface to the published score: “The slow movement is the nucleus of the piece, the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it. The fourth movement is a free variation of the second one, and the first and fifth movements have the same thematic material. Metaphorically speaking, the third movement is the kernel, movements I and V are the outer shell, and movements II and IV are, as it were, the inner shell.” (That Bartók—or perhaps his publisher—felt compelled to offer such an outline as a guide to performers suggests how challenging the quartet was perceived to be at the time.)
Although structural analysis provides a convenient framework for listening to the Fourth Quartet, it doesn’t tell us much about the inner life of this powerfully expressive music. For instance, Bartók’s observation that the first movement is in tripartite sonata form, with a traditional exposition, development, and recapitulation, hardly begins to describe the multifarious activity of the emphatic six-note motif, rising and falling (and vice versa), that binds the heterogeneous musical fabric together. Nor does it do justice to the strangeness of Bartok’s swooping glissandos and shuddering tremolos, the amorphous skittering of the second movement, the impassioned, rhapsodic declamations of the third movement, the slithering, metallic pizzicatos of the fourth movement, or the sheer visceral impact of the finale’s stomping dance rhythms.
Sibelius’s “Inner Voices”
Jean Sibelius’s spirits were at a low ebb in the dreary winter months of 1908–09. Although his fame was gradually spreading beyond his native Finland, his mounting debts were a never-ending source of worry. Moreover, a tumor in his throat had raised the alarming specter of cancer, and his outlook did not improve when doctors ordered him to give up drinking and smoking. (“Life is something totally different without these stimulants,” he complained to his brother.) Always volatile, the 43-year-old composer fell prey to sharp mood swings and frequently wallowed in depression.
Whether consciously or otherwise, the brooding, inwardlooking character of the Quartet in D minor—subtitled Voces intimae, or “Inner Voices”—mirrors Sibelius’s state of mind during the half-year period of its gestation, from November 1908 to April 1909. Nearly two decades had passed since his last essay in the quartet genre; in the meantime, he had devoted himself chiefly to symphonies and symphonic poems. At last, feeling increasingly oppressed by the “weight of tradition,” he had resolved to cast off the plush romanticism of his early works in favor of the leaner, bleaker, more modern language of the D-minor Quartet.
Like Bartók’s quartet, the work is laid out in five movements rather than the traditional four. (The short, scherzo - like Vivace sounds almost like an appendage to the first movement. Indeed, Sibelius referred to it as the “first-anda-half movement.”) A sense of intimacy is immediately established by the opening dialogue between first violin and cello. Thereafter both plot and texture thicken, with frequent doublings and unison passages—a characteristically Sibelian device. The tenderly ruminative Adagio is the musical and emotional heart of the quartet. Here Sibelius allows himself to develop his ideas on an expansive scale before returning, in the last two movements, to a more compressed mode. Terse melodic and rhythmic motives impart a breathless intensity to the Allegretto and Allegro, the latter a kind of demonic moto perpetuo.
The D-minor Quartet was a milestone in Sibelius’s career. With it, he declared, “I have left the training ship and gained my master’s certificate. Now I shall set course for the open sea.” Yet although Voces intimae is generally considered a masterpiece, the composer himself gave it a mixed review. “The melodic substance is good but the sonorities are another matter,” he observed in his diary. “The texture could be more transparent and lighter and, why not say it, more quartetlike.” Apparently Sibelius had second thoughts, for as the score of the quartet was going to press, he revised the ending to make it even denser and more “symphonic.” At the same time, he continued to pursue the spare and increasingly elliptical style that found expression in his next major work, the Fourth Symphony of 1911.