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Amherst String Quartet Concert
January 10, 1999

Schubert: Quartettsatz | Haydn: "Quinten" Quartet | Tchaikovsky: Quartet No. 1

The most prominent type of chamber music, the string quartet is not only a genre, but also a form and an ensemble.  The interplay of the parts (two violins, viola, and cello) is essential. Since the early classical era the form has been established as a multi-part work consisting of four movements: fast; slow; minuet/scherzo, fast. Journalist and chamber player Joseph Wechsberg describes this medium as that which "engenders an atmosphere of warmth and a degree of psychological rapport that are unknown to most virtuosos, prima donnas, or members of large orchestras. It is based on give-and take; it is civilized and egalitarian; it is a garden of musical fellowship from which the law of the jungle has been banished." Listeners are invited to partake of the composers' and performers' intimate music-making without excess variety of tone colors, virtuosity, or bombast. In the string quartet one finds the essence of music without the distractions of the larger forms of music. The three works presented tonight provide a sampling of some of the most beloved works in the string quartet repertory.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Quartet No. 12 in c minor, D. 703 (Quartettsatz)

Allegro assai
By 1820, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) had written more than 500 works of nearly every type of composition. Music seemed to flow from him spontaneously. He did not need to work out ideas, and only rarely revised what he had written. His friend, the poet Franz von Schober, wrote that Schubert often slept with his eyeglasses on so that upon awakening he could continue composing without a moment's delay. So few of Schubert's works had been published, or even performed during his lifetime that, upon his death, few in the musical world were aware of his tremendous accomplishments. It took a great deal of dedicated detective work by a number of determined music lovers to track down the works that we have today.

Although the number of his chamber compositions is small compared to his total output, they include some of Schubert's most loved works. The "Trout" Quintet, the Octet, the String Quartet "Death and the Maiden", and the Quartettsatz are particularly popular. During his early years, Schubert composed eleven quartets which demonstrated his great melodic gifts, but it was with the composition of the Quartettsatz (quartet movement) and his last three complete quartets that he proved his mastery of the genre. What was completed of the Quartettsatz was probably written in 1820.  The original manuscript was once owned by Johannes Brahms, and was finally published in 1870.  Schubert probably intended to complete the work (part of a second movement exists), but, like the Unfinished Symphony, this portion stands by itself, truly the work of genius.  This compact movement begins with a dramatic, agitated theme which makes way for more lyrical material, but never loses its momentum.  A final short statement of the opening theme lures us into thinking that it will continue, but surprises us with its sudden conclusion.

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Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Quartet in d minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (Quinten)

Andante o più tosto allegretto
Menuet.  Allegro ma non troppo
Finale.  Vivace assai

Behind the masterful accomplishments found in Joseph Haydn's (1732-1809) last quartets lay more than forty years of hard, methodical work which contributed to the growth of  the genre from the light, informal divertimenti popular in his youth to a more serious, formal, and sophisticated musical form. Early manuscripts contained simplified cello parts as cello and viola had not been considered solo instruments at that time.  However, Haydn developed a style sporting a high degree of equality, independence, and interplay between all the various parts. Each of his mature quartets is a masterpiece of warmth, variety, logic, and balance.

Haydn spent thirty years of his creative life as court musician to the Esterházys, an aristocratic family who had large estates in Austria and Hungary. Following Prince Nicholas's death and the subsequent decline of music at the court under the new Prince, Haydn returned to Vienna and from there was invited to England for two highly successful concert tours. It was following the second of these journeys and during the intensely productive time in which he composed the Creation that Haydn wrote the six quartets, Op. 76. They were dedicated to another wealthy aristocrat, Count Joseph Erdödy, and were published in 1799. There is no mystery to the nickname, Quinten ("Fifths"), that has been attached to the second quartet of the set.  Haydn relentlessly pursues the central motive of descending fifths (introduced in the opening measures) throughout the first movement. Like the first movement, the second is also monothematic, a charming melody for the first violin, while the lower instruments accompany simply.  Following the middle section, which is really a fragment of the first theme, the violin is given opportunity for virtuosity in a highly ornamented recapitulation. No charming court dance or scherzo is offered in the third movement. Haydn surprises with a canon at the octave, the lower instruments following the violins after a measure. The heavy, sinister sound produced has earned this movement its nickname of Witch's Minuet. Sudden, reiterated d minor chords jolt us to the trio in D Major. The key relationship of the movements is unusual in that all the movements of the quartet share the same tonic, D. Although the Finale, a peasant dance with a hint of gypsy, begins in d minor,  the shift to D Major tells us that the quartet may be serious, but it's not grim.

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Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11

Moderato e semplice
Andante cantabile
Scherzo.  Allegro non tanto e con fuoco
Finale.  Allegro guisto

Compared with Schubert and Haydn, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) came to significant composition relatively late. He received some musical education as a child, but law was the career chosen for him by his parents. In his 20's he took up serious musical study in addition to his legal studies, but eventually gave up the bureaucratic life to devote himself  to composition and a professorate at the newly founded Moscow Conservatory. Although he wrote several pieces of chamber music as a young man, it comprises only a very small part of his total output. The major works are the three string quartets, a piano trio, and the sextet for strings Souvenir de Florence.

In 1871, the composer being in need of money, his mentor Nikolay Rubinstein suggested an all-Tchaikovsky concert. A large-scale work was necessary for such an event, and as he couldn't afford an orchestra, he settled on a work in the genre that only required four players. The first of the three string quartets was written rather hurriedly for this concert. Following a rather unassuming opening movement, the muted strings take us to the magic of the Andante Cantabile.  Although the rest of the quartet may not be as familiar to concert goers, this movement contains some of his most famous melodies. The great writer Tolstoy was an early admirer of this movement. "I never felt so flattered in my life," the composer confessed, "or so proud of my creative power, as when L. Tolstoy, sitting beside me, listened to my Andante while tears streamed from his eyes." The two themes, a Ukrainian folk tune and a salon-like melody, are tenderly and elegantly presented.  The rhythmically robust scherzo and finale in the style of a sturdy Russian dance complete the work.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 1999.
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Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts