String Quartet in B-flat major, K.458 ("Hunt")
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-1791)

The friendship between Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Mozart is one of the greatest in music history, rivaled perhaps only by that between Schumann and Brahms in terms of its positive impact on both composers.  Haydn and Mozart played chamber music together, studied and learned from each other's music, and enjoyed one another's company.  

It seems likely they first met in winter 1781, when the older composer had come to Vienna to oversee performances of his new Op.33 string quartets at the imperial court.  Mozart was rightfully impressed by these marvelous new works, which Haydn described as being written "in an entirely new manner."  Struck by Haydn's emphasis in Op.33 on equality of parts and the scope of musical development, Mozart was inspired to emulate his new friend's accomplishments.  For the first time in nearly a decade, he turned his attention to the string quartet.  

Generally speaking Mozart composed easily and rapidly.  The quartets he began working on did not come easily, however.  He labored for several years before completing the customary set of six and releasing them for publication.  The first, K.387 in G major,  was completed on 31 December, 1782; the last (popularly known as the "Dissonance" Quartet, K.465) was not finished until January 1785.  The set was published in 1785 with a dedication to Haydn, as a result of which they have collectively become known as the "Haydn" quartets.  The formal dedication is a moving public statement, in which Mozart acknowledged his musical and personal debt to Haydn, and the great effort he had put into the quartets, referring to them as his "six children."  

The fourth among them, in B-flat major, has acquired the nickname "Hunt" because of its opening in 6/8 meter, which has been likened to a horn call. That first movement theme has perhaps more in common with the folk-like melodies so characteristic of the Haydn string quartets. Mozart's handling is a masterpiece of economy and compression: virtually the entire movement derives from the material of the first twelve measures. His reliance on such limited thematic ideas is a salute to Haydn, who often adopted a monothematic approach to his sonata form movements. The contrapuntal coda furnishes an admirable summing up. 

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls the "Hunt" quartet "the most relaxed of the six." Mozart's father Leopold considered it to be, overall, lighter in tone than the earlier quartets in the set.  That is not to say it is superficial or lacking in invention. In the minuet, for example, Mozart employs a singular technique of pairing second violin and viola together staccato. The effect is quite novel, and underscores the occasional sforzato [a sudden strong accent] on a normally unstressed beat - quite a break from tradition in a dance movement.

The Adagio - Mozart's sole use of this tempo indication in the six "Haydn Quartets" -- is intensely expressive, with exquisite, elaborate ornamentation in the first violin part. Mozart's shimmering second theme looks forward to Beethoven's sublime slow movements.

The concluding Allegro assai bounces with rhythmic vitality, replete with perky melodies and animated dialogue enclosed within a tightly constructed sonata form.  Though the meter may not coincide with the traditional 6/8 time associated with hunting music, here as much as in the first movement we have the spirit of the chase.

String Quartet No. 1, "The Kreutzer Sonata" (1923)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)    

 Most of us are familiar with the "Kreutzer" Sonata, Beethoven's splendid Sonata No.9 in A minor for violin and piano, Op.47.  Fewer are acquainted with Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889).  The tale is one of deception, jealousy, suspected adultery, and an innocent woman wrongly accused and tragically murdered.  In the literary original, the abusive spouse relates the tale to the author during a train trip.  His wife was a pianist, the suspected lover a violinist with whom she played Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata at a private performance for friends.  The music elicited powerful feelings in the husband that later mushroomed into uncontrollable rage and jealousy.  Tolstoy wrote his story after having heard Beethoven's sonata performed.  

The Czech composer Leoš Janáček was a keen admirer of Russian literature.  Tolstoy's tale is one of several Russian works that he took as his point of departure for musical compositions.  As early as 1908, Janáček considered setting Tolstoi's story as a piano trio.  Only fragments of that piece have survived, and we will never know how closely the two works are entwined.  We do know that 15 years later, he reworked some of its ideas into this first quartet.  

Janáček was a late bloomer.  He encountered little success for his music during his youth and middle age.  The most bitter disappointment for him was the failure of his operas to gain an audience outside his native Moravia (now the eastern half of the Czech Republic).  In 1915, however, when Janáček was 61, the Prague opera produced his Jenůfa, with great success.  His other music garnered more attention almost immediately, and he launched into an efflorescence of musical productivity that remains one of the most remarkable outpourings of the 20th century.  Both his string quartets were part of that rich harvest.  

There was a second reason for his rediscovered creative energy:  Kamila Stosslová, a woman 38 years his junior with whom Janáček fell headlong in love.  Married to a Moravian antique merchant who had helped Janáček with daily provisions during the Great War, Kamila met the composer in 1917.  He was strongly attracted to her.  She became his obsession, inspiring an almost unceasing stream of letters, a "Kamila diary" in the last year of his life, and, most important, an autumnal rainbow of major compositions.  While his obsession with Kamila is believed to have been unrequited, she was undoubtedly the catalyst for most of his late music.  Certainly she provided the romantic model for the First String Quartet's unnamed heroine.   

 While the quartet certainly demonstrates Janáček's essentially dramatic approach to all music, it is not an exact rendering of Tolstoy's story, but more an evocation of feelings and ideas present in the literary model.  Certainly it has elements of sonata form in the outer movements; Janáček clearly had a command of the conventional chamber idiom.  He imprinted this quartet with his intensely personal style via both musical and programmatic means.  Ultimately, it is his keen dramatic sense that causes the music to seethe with implications of seduction, passion, and rage.  

Throughout the quartet, Janáček interrupts muted, yearning phrases with nervous and agitated responses.  The contrast between the two methods of delivery gives the effect of rapidly changing moods and different characters expressing a spectrum of emotions.  A canonic duet between violin and cello at the beginning of the third movement provides one of the more readily recognizable references to Beethoven's violin sonata.  Perhaps the greatest irony of this powerful piece is that Tolstoy regarded music as a leading encourager of adultery, whereas Janáček wanted to protest what he regarded as the unfortunate tyranny of men over women.  In Janáček's thoughtful hands, the thrust of sympathy shifted decisively, even though the tragic climax could not be averted.  

String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op.135
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 The late Beethoven quartets constitute not only the crown jewels of the string quartet repertoire, but also Beethoven's supreme artistic achievement.  That does not make them one whit easier to digest or understand.  Nearly two centuries after they were written, Beethoven's late-harvest chamber works continue to confound, mystify, and enrapture us.  The five final quartets are both concentrated and expansive, the ultimate absolute music, pregnant with a philosophy words cannot express.

What may come as a surprise in hearing this evening's closing composition, Beethoven's last quartet, is its brevity. The other late quartets are lengthy and monumental. The Grosse Fuge takes 17 minutes. Opus 131 in C-sharp minor comprises seven movements, and the five movements of Opus 132 in A minor exceed three quarters of an hour in performance. What, then, are we to make of Opus 135, whose modest and apparently conventional four movements elapse in a mere 25 minutes, the approximate length of a mature Haydn or Mozart quartet?

The answers to this question are complex. The simple response is akin to the aphorism "Don't judge a book by its cover." For Opus 135 is as extraordinary as its siblings. Its slow movement is as transporting, its scherzo as wild and experimental, its finale as mysterious and thought-provoking as anything that Beethoven composed. Part of the quartet's mystery is its terseness. Opus 135 is economical in the extreme. Beethoven wasted not a note, composing with an intensity that recalls the Quartetto Serioso, Opus 95 in F minor.

Beethoven sketched Opus 135 when he was completing the C-sharp minor quartet, Op.131. His concentrated work on this F major quartet commenced in late July, 1826. On 30 July, his nephew Karl attempted suicide. That catastrophe does not surface openly in the music of Opus 135, but knowledge of its occurrence heightens the quartet's enigmatic character. Beethoven completed it in October during a visit to Gneixendorf, where he visited his brother Nikolaus Johann (Karl's other uncle). This quartet was Beethoven's last completed composition.

The opening Allegretto is the most traditional of the four movements and the least confounding. Its melodic material is fairly straightforward and the dialogue among the four players is direct. From the second movement on, however, Opus 135 gets progressively more challenging, subtly drawing the listener into Beethoven's private demons and ecstasies. His Vivace, a wild movement of less than four minutes, is formally lopsided, allotting disproportionate time and musical substance to its middle trio section. It opens with a lurching, syncopated ride and a decidedly sarcastic undertone. The middle section shifts startlingly to G major, launching into a buzzing, virtuosic scramble among the three lower strings, while the first violin dances demonically up above. It is a strange, unsettling movement. 

The slow movement is one of Beethoven's sublime variations sets. The Lento assai cantante e tranquillo is a ten-measure theme in D-flat major with four variations. In two of them, we hear the theme as an undercurrent. Rather than state it explicitly, Beethoven implies it through the shimmer and richness of his string writing.

The finale bears a German superscription in the printed score: Der schwer gefaßte Entschuss, usually translated "The hard-won decision" or "The difficult resolution." This motto is followed by a musical example and the words "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" [Must it be? It must be!], the name of a canon Beethoven also composed in 1827. Musicians have long debated whether Beethoven was probing the fundamental questions of existence. 

At least two stories associated with this canon are considerably more down to earth. According to one anecdote, a music-loving Viennese court official named Ignaz Dembscher had missed the Schuppanzigh Quartet's performance of Beethoven's Op.130 in March 1826. Beethoven was adamant that Dembscher should honor his financial commitment and send Ignaz Schuppanzigh the price of his subscription all the same. Dembscher allegedly asked, "Must it be?" Beethoven sent  him the canon in response. The other version of the story is that Dembscher wanted to borrow the parts to Op.130 for a private performance and Beethoven insisted he pay for them since Dembscher had not been an original subscriber at the quartet's première.

Whichever tale is true, there is a dichotomy between the weighty implications of two German headings and the practical explanation implied by these stories. Beethoven's finale is similarly divided. The introduction (based on the first phrase of the canon) is mysterious and questioning. The bulk of the movement (based on the canon's second phrase) is lighter: if not capricious, then certainly more accessible and direct. Beethoven's strange introduction is part of this quartet's enigma, just as his allegro is part of its reassuring charm. He leaves us considerable leeway to arrive at our own conclusions as to his motivation. 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2018