October 19, 2003

Juilliard String Quartet


Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink
Copyright 2003 by Notes, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Mozart:  String Quartet in D Major, K. 575
". . . I am composing six easy clavier sonatas for Princess Friederike and six quartets for the King. . . ." wrote Mozart to his friend and benefactor, Michael Puchberg, in July 1789. The King was Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, Princess Friederike was his daughter, and the works Mozart referred to were commissions resulting from Mozart's visit to Berlin and Potsdam earlier that year. As it turned out, Mozart was able to complete only three "Prussian" quartets (K. 575, 589, and 590), and these were the last string quartets he was ever to compose.

It seems that the King was an amateur cellist, and it was Mozart's challenge to write music which would feature the cello at times without becoming either too difficult or too concerto-like. In order to maintain the soloistic balance, Mozart was obliged occasionally to emphasize the viola and even the second violin. Thus, the D major quartet does have its concertante moments. For the cello this often takes the form of a dialogue with the first violin, as in the first movement. The very lyrical middle section of the second movement is also led by the cello. The Menuetto's Trio section focuses closely on the cello, using the first violin as a foil. In the Finale, which re-employs the "singing allegro" main theme of the first movement, the cello and viola are each tested by rapidly cascading scales and leaping arpeggios.

Very likely, the king received and perhaps even played the D major quartet, for Mozart entered the work in his catalog with the special note, "for His Majesty the King of Prussia," and it is believed that the composer received for the quartet 100 gold pieces and a golden snuff box.

Haydn:  Quartet in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 2 "The Razor"
Johann Tost had been a fine violinist hired for the Esterhazy orchestra in 1783. Haydn had thought enough of him to make him the dedicatee of six of his quartets. In 1789, Tost left for Paris, where he got Haydn's quartets published as Opp. 54 and 55. After leaving Vienna, Tost was involved in some rather shady dealings, and Haydn had some difficulty receiving payment for the sale of the quartets. But Tost's love of music never wavered, and he continued for years to maintain connections with Haydn and the house of Esterhazy.

Those are the facts. Now for the apocrypha. The quartet's nickname, "The Razor," derives from a story involving the composer and the British publisher John Bland, who was at Esterhazy in 1789, the year after the six quartets were first heard. The story goes that Bland visited Haydn while he was shaving with some very poor equipment, and the composer reportedly exclaimed, "I'd give my best quartet for a pair of good razors." Hearing this, Bland rushed back to his Gasthaus, returning with a pair of fine English razors. In return, reportedly, he received this quartet.

"The Razor" quartet opens with a novel form, which Haydn developed himself: the double theme and variations. A melancholy F minor melody leads to its major-mode counterpart, skeletally based on the former but clothed in Italianate style. Similarly, minor and major variations alternate in flowing, continuous motion through the movement.

Beginning in F minor but ending in F major, the prickly second movement has its share of=20 other surprises as well. Sudden gran pausa rests are the most obvious. The one that follows the fugal development introduces another surprise: a jump in keys from A major to A-flat major.

From the end of the second movement to the end of the finale, the home key is F major rather than minor. For the Menuetto, Haydn flexes his contrapuntal muscles at first for the first violin and viola, then gradually filling in the rest of the ensemble. This main section of the minuet is unusual in Haydn for containing no repeats. The Trio section makes a brief bow in the direction of F minor.

Haydn authority Rosemary Hughes calls the quartet's finale "...pure hilarity." The music's bouncy vitality gives us a glimpse of what Haydn might do in late works like the London Symphonies. The main theme's rhythmic style leads our expectations in the direction of a rondo. However, the foxy Haydn gives us instead a sonata form bubbling with vitality and full of delicious details.

Dvorak:  String Quartet in C Major, Op. 61
With the premiere of the Slavonic Dances in 1878 came instant recognition for Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Immediately, musical Europe flooded him with requests for new works tinged with Slavonic flavor. This demand led to an entire period of composition between 1878 and 1890 in which native elements predominated. During those years, Dvorak composed no fewer than nine pieces of chamber music. Most of these contain numerous "Czech" themes and dance rhythms in keeping with what the public expected.

The C Major Quartet, however, is notable for not containing many of these cultural references at least not in the first two movements. Completed in November 1881, the quartet was Dvorak's response to a commission from the Hellmesberger Quartet, presumably arranged by Brahms. This ensemble held leading position in the music of Vienna, where the long shadows of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven still loomed. Because the quartet would premiere in Vienna, Dvorak purposely cast the music in an extremely Classical style, owing much of its inspiration to the string quartets of Beethoven. Biographer Karel Hoffmeister effusively asserts:
       "So far, Dvorak has led us through his native land . . . [but] here he spreads his wings and soars in bold flight up to the classic sun to Beethoven's ideal beauty. It seems as though he would shut out all vision of his own land."

If folkloric color is at first hidden in the C Major Quartet, harmonic color is not. The first movement in particular is a tour of some unexpectedly remote regions. In form, the movement loosely follows the classic sonata-form model. However, Dvorak starts his second theme in the unusual key of E-flat major, then veers to the more conventional key of G major. The development section does not lead back to the principal theme as expected, but to a subordinated theme. The principal theme appears in A major (perhaps a counterpart to the E-flat major passage in the exposition) then down to E major. When, in the coda, C major is finally reestablished, Dvorak obscures it with an unexpected harmonic excursion.

The Poco adagio is one of Dvorak's more romantic, melodically conceived movements. The focus on the two violins in dialogue during the opening sets the tone for this intimate, songlike essay. The middle section in a new key presents a new theme, one perhaps more melancholy than the first. A return to the first theme (now developed further) and a brief allusion to the second bring the movement to a dreamy close.

As the main theme of the Scherzo, Dvorak transforms the main theme of the first movement. In doing so, he seemingly cannot resist giving us a glimpse of his Czech colors. Experts on Czech music tell us that this theme is also related to both his own cello Polonaise of 1879 and a theme from Smetana's opera The Secret (1878). Through the spirit and colorful harmonies of the Trio, the composer delves even deeper into Bohemian culture.

By now, Dvorak the Czech is thoroughly warmed up, and for the quartet's sonata-rondo finale, he unabashedly gives us his best. His "best" consists of shaping and balancing the movement according to the highest Beethovenian principles, while infusing it with energetic Slavonic feeling. The first movement theme, now something of a motto, is transformed yet again into what John Clapham characterizes as "a skittish Slavonic tune in 2/4." In a brief respite, the first violin presents a reflective, lovely cadenza just before the jubilant, powerful conclusion.

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