Danish Quartet

String Quartet No. 1 (1908)
by Béla Bartók (Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary [now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania], 1881 – New York, 1945)

Looking back on his early years from the vantage point of his mid-forties, Béla Bartók considered his String Quartet No. 1, written at the age of 27, to be his first composition truly representative of his mature style. He had written a great deal of music before that time, including highly successful orchestral works like the Kossuth Symphony. But these were written in a nationalistic-Romantic manner that Bartók later disavowed, after discovering the old Hungarian peasant music that changed his life and his artistic outlook forever.

The First Quartet, completed in 1908, is one of the first Bartók works to show signs of this major change. The work stands on the cusp of a new era, combining the influence of folk song with the other important influence that had reached Bartók at around the same time, namely, the new French music of Debussy and Ravel. On a personal level, Bartók was going through an emotional crisis at the time, having been rejected by the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was passionately in love and for whom he had written a violin concerto that started with a characteristic ascending motif identified by Bartók himself as Geyer's theme. The opening motif in the quartet’s mournful first movement is a kind of reversal of the Stefi Geyer theme, turned upside down; it is developed in a dense, highly chromatic post-Romantic polyphonic style introduced by a duo of violins. Then the fog lifts, and we hear an impassioned viola solo written in a distinctly Hungarian style (though not yet in the style of the old folksongs Bartók had discovered), followed by a flowing pentatonic melody intoned by the cello. One feels why Bartók’s friend and colleague Zoltán Kodály referred to this quartet as “return to life.” The polyphony later returns, but, as Hungarian musicologist János Kárpáti has noted, it has been “transposed an octave higher into an ‘ethereal sphere’ [representing] a tone of ‘transfiguration’,” and bringing “solace” to the music.

The “return to life” continues in the second movement, which is in a moderately fast “allegretto” tempo, reached gradually after a transitional passage written, like the beginning of the first movement, for instrumental duos (viola-cello followed by first and second violins). The “Allegretto” begins as a lyrical waltz but it eventually gathers momentum; tender, expressive passages alternate with intense dramatic outbursts. The ending, once more, is quiet and almost “transfigured.”

The third and last movement is preceded by an “Introduzione” which presents a cello recitative, somewhat like in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But this cello recites in a distinctly Hungarian manner. It is still closer to 19th-century popular songs than to the ancient repertoire Bartók had discovered in the villages, but even so, it serves to announce the stylistic change that is about to occur, in the manner of Beethoven, who had his soloist in the Ninth Symphony sing: “nicht diese Töne!” (not these sounds!) And in fact, the “Allegro vivace” that ensues makes the “return to life” complete with its exuberant and playful tone. At the movement’s culmination point, the tempo suddenly slows down to a solemn Adagio, and the first violin plays an expressive pentatonic melody which is, finally, in the style of the ancient folksongs which Bartók had saved up until this strategic moment. The folksong episode is rather brief, and is followed by a return of the “Allegro” material, including a humoristic fugato. The excitement keeps increasing to the end. There is a single moment of introspection before the end, when the ancient folksong makes a second appearance, even shorter than the first, evidently to drive home the point that this old-new style, which symbolizes spiritual renewal and the attainment of a new authenticity, is definitely here to stay.

Folk music from Nordic countries, arranged by the Danish String Quartet
The ensemble has provided the following note from its new recording, “Wood Works” (Dacapo DAC-LP001): 

Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed slowly from region to region. Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while. On this recording we have borrowed and arranged a selection of tunes that are all very close to our hearts. We perform them as a string quartet, one of the most powerful musical vehicles we know of. The string quartet is a pure construct: four simple instruments made of wood. But in all its simplicity the string quartet is capable of expressing a myriad of colours, nuances, and emotions — just like folk music. Our idea is to marry these two simple but powerful things: the folk music and the string quartet. Normally the string quartet has been reserved for the classical masters. Now we want to see what happens when we let the Nordic folk music flow through the wooden instruments of the string quartet.
Does it work? We hope so. And remember: We simply borrowed these tunes. They have already been returned.

String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (1806)
by Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 - Vienna, 1827)

Count Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, and the Princes Lichnowsky and Lobkowitz, two Viennese aristocrats to whom he was related by marriage, together received the dedications of more than a dozen major works by Beethoven. One might almost say that their “clan” underwrote a great part of what later became known as Beethoven’s “heroic” or middle period.

The three quartets of Op. 59, known as the “Razumovsky” quartets, were written for a count who was a good enough musician to play second violin to Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s first at the premiere. In these quartets, written shortly after the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) and the F-minor Piano Sonata (“Appassionata”), Beethoven made a bold leap into the future. Music had never expressed such intense emotions before, nor had the formal conventions of music had 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 which serve to develop those motifs. The most extreme example is probably the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, but the opening of the Quartet in F major shows the same tendency. The main melody, introduced by the cello, is rather simple in its outline; it only takes its full meaning as Beethoven makes it rise through the higher and higher registers of the first violin. It is a gently singing, lyrical theme, but the pulsating accompaniment of the second violin and the viola, which sometimes clashes with the melody at unusual intervals, gives it a certain edge that foreshadows some more dramatic moments to appear very soon. Beethoven subjected his theme to more far-reaching transformations than he had ever done before, especially in the development section which unites such textural extremes as a long solo line for first violin and a densely woven four-part fugato passage. The range of modulations also far exceeds Beethoven’s earlier practice. As often in his middle period, Beethoven appended a coda in which the theme, consistently accented on the “wrong” part of the beat (on the second and fourth quarter-notes instead of the first and the third), shows yet another of its many sides. Then the theme is taken up in canon by the viola and the cello. The texture finally stretches out into a second space spanning a full five octaves from the lowest note of the cello to the highest of the violin.

The second movement is sometimes referred to as a scherzo, yet Beethoven’s title “Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando” is more precise: scherzo is a musical form, but scherzando is a general character. In fact, Beethoven aimed for something more ambitious here than the usually playful and fast movement with a contrasting Trio section in the middle. Instead, he composed a complex movement that doesn’t quite fit any of the standard classical schemes such as sonata or rondo. The opening is as playful as any scherzo: the dance rhythm of the cello, consisting of a single pitch, the unaccompanied melody of the second violin, and a repeat of this whole exchange a step lower, thrusting the music into an unexpected new tonality. Two more dance melodies are added in due course, one reminiscent of an Austrian ländler, the other, perhaps, of a melancholy Polish mazurka in the minor mode. (Or could Beethoven have intended an allusion to Russia at this point? In the finale, of course, he would honor the dedicatee of the quartet with an authentic thème russe.) With boundless imagination, Beethoven sends these three themes on a journey full of surprising turns and fantastic adventures. It is musical humor at its most sublime, where the wit of a genius gives us access to something transcendent.
We move into even more transcendent realms with the extraordinary “Adagio molto e mesto” in F minor. Its noble and elegiac melody, played by the first violin and repeated by the cello, becomes more agitated when the higher registers are reached. The melody is developed amidst dramatic outbursts, lavish embellishments, occasional imitation among the voices, and moments of major-mode sunshine. The movement ends with a brilliant cadenza for the first violin than leads without pause into the finale, based on a Russian melody Beethoven had found in a collection of folk melodies. This melody begins in F major and ends in D minor, and Beethoven made the most of this peculiarity not often found in Western European themes of the Classical era. He used the tonal ambivalence to build a spirited sonata movement that nevertheless has its wistful moments. As the theme already has a double character (and in order not to slight his thème russe), Beethoven did not introduce a second theme, only a short and harmonically very simple closing idea in a lively dotted rhythm. After an unusually active development section, which turns the previously presented motifs upside down and inside out, a modified recapitulation reveals yet other potentials in those motifs. One of Beethoven’s favorite closing devices, the sudden slowdown before the end, makes the Presto ending all the more irresistible.

Peter Laki

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