Tetzlaff Quartet

String Quartet in E-flat major, K. 428 (1783) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)

What happens when a genius consciously tries to outdo himself and works twice as hard as usual, making a concerted effort to impress an esteemed older colleague and friend? The result, in that case, may well be a set of extraordinary masterpieces like the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn.

Mozart composed these quartets over a period of three years, between 1782 and 1785. The quartet in E-flat came third in the set, after a G-major work (K. 387) that combined grace and rigor in a most original way, and the intensely tragic D-minor quartet (K. 421). In the present work, the tone is set by a most unusual opening melody, played in unison by the four instruments. Three times in the course of this brief theme, Mozart uses chromatic notes (ones outside the main key) in stressed downbeat positions, creating a certain tension which the rest of the movement will have to resolve. Tension and release is what the magical second-movement Andante con moto is all about as well: its opening melody is of irregular length, filled with rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity. Then the melody finds a temporary resting point, followed by new adventures.

The third-movement minuet was directly modelled on a work by Haydn, the minuet in the same key of E-flat major from the string quartet op. 33, No. 2 (known as “The Joke” on account of the unusual ending of its finale). Haydn himself had said of his op. 33, published in 1781, that it was written in a “very new and unusual manner”—referring, among other things, to the equality of the four instruments, a new technique of motivic development and, with regard to minuets, a more elaborate treatment of the form and even an anticipation of the Beethovenian scherzo. What Mozart took from Haydn in this particular instance were the heavy, folk-like accents, the complex phrases and, in the central trio, a very Haydnesque musical “joke”: a long drone in what turns out to be a “wrong” key, after which matters are straightened out by a sudden shift to the “right” key. The finale is Mozart’s take on another of Haydn’s favorite movement types: a fast contradanse with plenty of virtuoso runs as well as various harmonic and melodic surprises.

Mozart’s “Haydn” quartets did not fail to produce the desired effect on their dedicatee. When Haydn heard these works, he said the following immortal words to Mozart’s father Leopold: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is 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.”

 

String Quartet, op. 3 (1910) by Alban Berg (Vienna, 1885 – Vienna, 1935)

Atonality,” although still frequently used in discussions of the Second Viennese School, is in reality a rather unhelpful term since it refers to what the music isn’t and doesn’t do instead of what it is and does. The lack of a stable tonal center in a work like the 25-year-old Alban Berg’s String Quartet certainly caused bewilderment when it was completed exactly one hundred years ago. But we should think about this innovation in positive terms: the abandonment of the classical harmonic system was part of a whole new approach to form, rhythm, and texture, all of which combined to make listeners feel ‟the air from another planet,” to quote the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set to music in his Second String Quartet (1908).

One thing that is immediately striking in Berg’s op. 3 is its ‟gestural” quality: from the beginning, one hears a succession of brief motifs, each with a strong rhythmic profile, repeated and varied as they are passed from one instrument to another. The tempo fluctuates constantly, with some instruments taking occasional rhythmic liberties while others play strictly in time. Almost every note has some kind of performance marking like ‟espressivo,” ‟with momentum,” ‟leading [role],” etc. over it. In addition, special playing techniques such as harmonics, ‟near the bridge,” and ‟on the fingerboard,” create an extremely diverse range of expressive textures. Berg used these motivic and textural elements to create some original designs that functioned as modern equivalents of traditional rondo or sonata structures.

The quartet is in two movements of approximately equal duration; despite the frequent tempo changes, one may describe the fundamental movement characters as slow and fast, respectively. The two movements are connected by the reappearance of the first movement’s opening theme near the end of the second movement. Even though the stylistic means were radically new in 1910, the powerful emotional charge of the work comes across without the slightest difficulty. In the 1970s, musicologist Constantin Floros spoke to a friend of Berg’s wife, and learned that for Alban and Helene, this quartet was symbolic of a turbulent time during their courtship when Helene’s father, who opposed the match, was trying to prevent the young lovers from seeing each other.

Thus op. 3 shows Berg at a crossroads in more ways than one. It was in 1910 that he ended his formal studies with Schoenberg. The quartet, which may be seen as the beginning of his maturity as a composer, was completed in the spring. By the end of the year, Alban Berg and Helene Nahowski were engaged.

 

String Quartet in G major, D. 887 (1826) by Schubert

Schubert’s final quartet is a truly visionary work. Just like the late Beethoven quartets, written at about the same time, it opens doors to the 20th century—but different ones. Whereas Beethoven experimented with structure, changing the number and the character of movements, Schubert’s boldest innovations in this work lay in the area of harmony and texture—his famously abrupt juxtapositions of major and minor chords and an almost obsessive use of tremolo. Together, these innovations produced one of the most gripping works in the classic quartet literature.

The quite unprecedented G major - G minor sequence at the opening of the quartet establishes the half step between B natural and B flat as one of the work’s generating ideas. These two tones, that normally would be mutually exclusive in most classical contexts, are combined in a startling fashion, and from this initial move follow many other surprising instances where Schubert simply “jumps” from one key to another without the intermediary “pivot” chords that harmony textbooks call for. And the tremolos invest these revolutionary harmonic practices with an added sense of urgency.

Yet there are some islands of calm and stability amidst all the turmoil. The lilting second theme is based on the repetitions of a single rhythm and is repeated in its entirety no fewer than four times, resulting in a true “theme-and-variations” embedded in the movement. Even here, however, two of the variations involve sharp accents and melodic imitation, again raising the level of excitement. The development section is a study in extremes; soft and eerie at first, the music becomes highly dramatic without any warning. In the recapitulation, the themes are completely “re-orchestrated.” The first theme is embellished in the first violin and provided with a new accompaniment figure that changes its entire character, and the second theme, likewise, introduces new variations on its theme. In the astonishing coda, the cello descends an octave and a half in chromatic half-steps as the other instruments add harmonies touching on many different keys. The stark opposition between major and minor persists to the very end.

The second movement begins with a wistful cello melody that has some harmonic peculiarities of its own. As in many Schubertian slow movements from the Unfinished Symphony to the Cello Quintet, a quiet opening statement is followed by a turbulent B section. The form of the quartet movement is ABABA; the “turbulence” involves fast upward scales in the first violin, wild tremolos in all four instruments, as well as juxtapositions of completely unrelated key areas. It is a frighteningly “modern” moment whose violence cannot be entirely assuaged even when the opening melody returns.

The third-movement scherzo has been said to anticipate Mendelssohn’s “elfin” scherzo movements; the minor key, the soft dynamics, and the fast repeated eighth-notes all contribute to this impression. But the trio section, where the melody is once again in the cello part, is a quintessentially Schubertian “Ländler” dance with a quintessentially Schubertian “jump” into a new key in its second half.

Schubert wrote several finales in the fast 6/8 meter of the tarantella dance, such as the closing movements of the D-minor Quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) or the C-minor piano sonata. The finale of the G-major Quartet is the longest and most complex of these tarantellas, both harmonically (with major and minor alternating in close succession once again) and structurally: there are a great many themes in this sonata-rondo, all varied and developed in rather unusual ways. The fast eighth-notes of the tarantella are present throughout almost without interruption; the only respite is a majestic, chordal episode that is heard twice in the course of the movement. Both times, it is quickly brushed aside by the returning tarantella. The final return of the opening theme is followed by a gigantic crescendo in which the harmonic ambiguities underlying the entire work are restated one last time. Yet the concluding measures of the work are fashioned from one of the movement’s gentler, more graceful themes.

Peter Laki

 

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