Dover Quartet

String Quartet in D minor, K. 421 (1783)

by Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)

Mozart did not always compose with the ease and speed one usually associates with his name.  Even he had to struggle with some of his compositions.  The six string quartets dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn are a case in point.  In paying homage to his older colleague and friend, Mozart subjected himself to an enormous challenge.  Haydn had turned the string quartet into one of the most highly developed instrumental genres of his time and, especially after his epoch-making set of six quartets, op. 33 (1781), he became the undisputed master of the form with an international reputation.  Mozart, eager to live up to these high standards, took three years to complete his set of six quartets which constitute his response to Haydn’s op. 33.  Here was music for the connoisseur, sophisticated in technique and complex in elaboration—the work of a genius making a conscious effort to outdo himself.  For the publication of these quartets, Mozart wrote a beautiful dedicatory letter to Haydn (in Italian, the international language of music) in which he acknowledged the “long and hard work” the quartets had cost him, and asked Haydn to be a loving “father, guide and friend” to these “children” which the composer was sending out into the world to live their own lives.

The D-minor quartet was the second in the set of six.  Mozart followed Haydn’s custom of including one quartet in a minor key in the group; such works were usually darker, more tragic in tone and more innovative in harmonic language than their “siblings” in major tonalities.  The D-minor quartet is no exception: its mood is agitated almost from beginning to end.  One area of relative calm is the second theme of the first movement, in which the tonality switches to major, in accordance with custom.  Yet when this theme returns in the recapitulation in the minor key as the rules demanded (after a rather stormy development), it undergoes some striking transformations that effectively change its character from lyrical to dramatic.

The second movement is a (mostly) calm Andante in F major.  The third is a minuet, but without the usual graceful character of the dance; this minuetto serio (serious minuet) in the tragic key of D minor is filled with chromatic harmonies and complex imitative textures.  Its stern atmosphere is relieved by the Trio, in which the first violin plays a tune reminiscent of yodeling (a kind of folk singing from the mountainous regions of Austria, characterized by wide melodic leaps).

The last movement is a set of variations on a theme in which the rhythm of the siciliano dance is imbued with a strong proto-Romantic feeling.  Contrary to what happens in many minor-key works where the tensions are eased by a final modulation to the major, in this movement the variation in the major remains a passing episode and the work ends in minor on a rather disconsolate note.


String Quartet in D major (1897)

by Arnold Schoenberg (Vienna, 1874 – Los Angeles, 1951)

At the end of his life, Schoenberg reminisced about his early days as a composer:  “In 1892, Meyer's Konversationslexikon (an encyclopedia which we bought on installments) had reached the long-hoped-for letter 'S,' enabling me to learn under 'Sonate' how the first movement of a string quartet should be constructed.”  Up to that point, the eighteen-year-old had been entirely self-taught as a composer, aside from some advice received from more experienced school friends such as Oskar Adler and David Josef Bach.  He had also learned to play both the violin and the cello, so soon he was able to play in an amateur orchestra called Polyhymnia, whose leader, Alexander von Zemlinsky, had a profound influence on his development.  Zemlinsky, only three years Schoenberg's senior, was the closest thing to a teacher the young composer ever had.  He worked with Schoenberg closely on this quartet, which was extensively revised by the composer before its public premiere in the fall of 1898.  The revisions were probably made after an initial, private performance earlier in the year.   (In 1901, the two musicians became brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's younger sister Mathilde.)

Armed with this rather unorthodox musical education, the 23-year-old Schoenberg wrote his first large-scale work with the present string quartet, which precedes the completion of his official Quartet No. 1 by eight years.  As might be expected, Schoenberg's principal model was Brahms (who died during the year Schoenberg's quartet was composed); perhaps more surprising is the fact that the melodic style, especially in the first and last movements, sounds like pure Dvořák—a composer whose works were frequently on the young Schoenberg's music stand as he played quartets with his friends.   

As indebted as Schoenberg was to his models in this early work, there are signs of originality that bear out the words of the critic after the public premiere in 1898.  (The quartet was not printed until 1966.)  The critic, reporting on the “unusual success” of the work, found “genuine talent” in it and confidently predicted more great things to come from the young composer.  In fact, the quartet is much more than a student exercise.  While the themes themselves are relatively conventional, their harmonic development and instrumentation contain many novel features.  The key sequence of the four movements (D major—F-sharp minor—B-flat minor—D major) outline an augmented triad, that is, an equal division of the octave into three major thirds, allowing Schoenberg to juxtapose keys that were quite distant from one another.  Atonality was still a good decade away, but Schoenberg was already assigning structural roles to all twelve chromatic tones in his piece.

Thus, the Dvořákian opening theme of the first movement evolves in ways clearly indicating the arrival of a new generation, with a rather stunning Höhepunkt (climax) before the recapitulation.  In the second movement, an “Intermezzo” paying tribute to Brahms, a relatively simple melody, played by the viola, is surrounded by some rather spectacular flourishes in the other instruments.  The third movement is a set of variations over a simple theme, first presented by the cello; once again, the textural diversity and the variety of instrumental colors seems to go far beyond the practice of Schoenberg's elders.  At the beginning of the last movement, Schoenberg included a brief modulatory passage from the Andante's B-flat minor back to D major; this passage later turns out to be more than a bridge and becomes an important motif that returns consistently throughout the movement.  Such solutions and others like it show that Schoenberg had not only learned how to write a string quartet, but was able to write one that could hold its own among the very best during the waning years of the 19th century.


String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 (1913-15)

by Alexander von Zemlinsky (Vienna, 1871 – Larchmont, NY, 1942)

Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, related by marriage since 1901, remained friends through the years, but Zemlinsky didn't follow his brother-in-law's bold foray into atonality, which resulted in new compositions, increasingly radical, from the first years of the 20th century onward.  In 1905, Zemlinsky's 45-minute tone poem Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”) shared a program with Schoenberg's equally weighty Pelleas und Melisande, which soon overshadowed Zemlinsky's work.  Six years later, Zemlinsky moved from Vienna to Prague where he began a new life as music director of the German theater.  It was there that he composed the second of his four string quartets, which is clearly a response to such seminal Schoenberg works as Pelleas or the String Quartets No. 1 (1904-05) and No. 2 (1908).  We know from a letter that Zemlinsky intended to dedicate his quartet to Schoenberg, although the dedication does not appear in the printed score.

Zemlinsky's style was never closer to his brother-in-law's than in the present quartet, in which commentators have suspected resonances of the family drama that had taken place in 1908.  (That year, Mathilde Zemlinsky Schoenberg had an affair with the young painter Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide when the affair became known.  Husband and wife eventually reconciled, but the events took a psychological toll on everyone who was affected by them.)

Zemlinsky's 45-minute Second Quartet is an extremely turbulent work.  Within its single movement, one may easily recognize the outline of a four-movement quartet, with an Adagio and a Scherzo framing two complex outer movements.  This is a compositional strategy familiar from Alban Berg's Piano Sonata and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, First Quartet and Chamber Symphony, with Liszt's Sonata in B minor as the ultimate model.  Zemlinsky's realization of that model is unique in that each segment of the large-scale form subdivides into several shorter units, contrasted in tempo, harmonic language and musical character.

As mentioned before, Zemlinsky's music cannot be called atonal:  there are several clear arrival points where the key is unmistakably confirmed by clear major triads.  Yet in between those points, the chromaticism is so intense that our sense of tonality may become completely blurred.  This creates alternating moments of tension and relaxation that assume dramatic meaning as the complex musical structure of the quartet unfolds.

The quartet opens with a three-note motto (D-E-G) that will recur, in various forms, throughout the entire piece.  This simple motif may be harmonized in many different ways and presented in a wide variety of contexts, yet it is always recognizable and gives the sprawling work a strong sense of structural unity.  In the first movement, the motif initiates a dynamic process:  the music starts out passionate, energetic, and harmonically complex, before quieting down in a tender, expressive slower passage where the tonality is a pure D major but the rhythmic interplay among the instruments involves many unusual asymmetrical divisions.  A highly nervous section follows, with agitated violin figures over accompaniment figures played pizzicato (plucked) or sul ponticello (by the bridge), leading into the Adagio.  Here the same three-note motto (now transposed to A-B-D) appears from a completely different side, presented in a big, singing tone and elaborate counterpoint.  After a searing emotional climax, the motto theme returns in the same calm form as we heard it at the beginning of the Adagio.

In the scherzo section, a fourth note is added to the motto theme, turning D-E-G into D-E-A-G.  It is played by the viola as a kind of mysterious dance (Zemlinsky marked it ohne Ausdruck, “without expression”).  A second theme, first presented separately, is subsequently heard in conjunction with the motto as the tension escalates and finally erupts in a series of wild glissandos.  The second half of the scherzo grows from eerie and distant to frantic and rough, until a dramatic restatement of the three-note motto, in triple fortissimo, brings the motion to a halt and ushers in the final movement, which incorporates the free recapitulation of certain elements from the first and the second movements.  In the course of its tortuous trajectory, the initial calm soon turns into desperate fury; it is only after a whole series of dramatic adventures that we reach the safe haven of an ethereal D major at the end.


Peter Laki

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