STRAVINSKY Three Pieces for String Quartet (7′)
SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No.3 Op.73 (32′)
BEETHOVEN String Quartet Op.135 (26′)
“Must it be? It must be!” Beethoven inscribed these words on the manuscript of his profoundly moving final string quartet. This Op.135 quartet was written towards the very end of his life, and is touched by the wisdom of his years yet as full of contrast, quick wit and struggle as any of earlier works.
Two masterpieces of the 20th century are presented alongside Beethoven’s quartet: Stravinsky’s wonderfully inventive short pieces and Shostakovich’s masterful third quartet, which encompasses the scope of a symphony in an intimate chamber work.
STRAVINSKY Igor, Three Pieces for String Quartet
Composed in 1914, Stravinsky revised these pieces in 1918 when he dedicated them to the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. The first performance was given in Paris in May 1915 by a quartet which included the composer Darius Milhaud playing violin, while the 1918 version had its premiere in London on 13 February 1919. The work comprises three short movements without titles or tempo markings. Though the dimensions of the pieces are slight, Stravinsky managed to baffle (and infuriate) early critics with the unusual sound effects and performance markings in places, and the deliberate absence of any conventional forms or traditional thematic development. Instead, the mood is by turns stange and grotesque. The second piece was inspired by the comedian Little Tich (Harry Relph) whose jerky stage act had impressed Stravinsky during a visit to London in 1914. The result might almost be described as an anti-quartet, and as the critic Paul Griffiths later remarked, these little pieces are ‘determinedly not a “string quartet”. The notion of quartet dialogue has no place here, nor have subtleties of blend: the texture is completely fragmented, with each instrument sounding for itself.’
SHOSTAKOVICH Dmitri, String Quartet No.3 in F major Op.73
Shostakovich began his Third String Quartet in January 1946 but made no progress beyond the second movement until May when he went with his family to spend the summer at a dacha near the Finnish border. According to Beria (head of the Soviet secret police) in a letter to Shostakovich, this retreat was a personal gift from Stalin. It was a productive summer and the quartet was completed on 2 August 1946. The same day Shostakovich wrote to Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet: ‘I have never been so pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. I am probably wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.’ The Beethoven Quartet gave the first performance at the Moscow Conservatory on 16 December 1946. Though there was an ominous silence from official critics, Shostakovich’s reputation was still high among the nation’s leaders: on 28 December he was given the Order of Lenin and each member of the Beethoven Quartet received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. Just a year later the Third Quartet was denounced in the journal Sovetskaya musika as ‘modernist and false music.’
Although Shostakovich had no overt programme in mind, he invested a great deal of private emotion in the work – sufficient, as Fyodor Druzhinin (violist of the Beethoven Quartet) recalled, for the music to move the composer to tears when he attended a rehearsal in the 1960s, twenty years after he had written it. The start of the first movement, in F major, recalls the Haydn-like mood of the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1945) and this is followed by a contrasting idea, played pianissimo. The development includes some turbulent fugal writing, injecting a sense of unease that hovers over the rest of the movement. The Moderato con moto (in E minor) is based on a series of sinister ostinato figures and frequent repetitions while the third movement is a violent scherzo in G sharp minor. The Adagio is an extended passacaglia (ground bass) that gives way to a Moderato in which some kind of resolution is found in the closing bars, ending with three pizzicato F major chords.
BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in F Op.135
Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [The difficult decision]. Grave, ma non troppo tanto (Muss es sein? [Must it be?]) – Allegro (Es muss sein! [It must be!]) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro
Beethoven’s final string quartet (only the replacement finale of Op.130 is later) was completed in October 1826. After an awful summer during which his nephew Karl had attempted suicide and been imprisoned, Beethoven was able to escape to the tranquillity of Gneixendorf, a village near Krems about fifty miles from Vienna. He arrived at the end of September and his last masterpiece was finished in the following month, much of it composed outdoors (the locals were amused to observe Beethoven singing and waving his arms as he worked). It is dedicated to his friend and supporter Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, who was originally to have been the dedicatee of the C sharp minor Quartet Op.131. The F major Quartet Op.135 is much the shortest of the late quartets, and there’s a conciseness and simplicity that perhaps point forward to the direction Beethoven might have pursued in his music had he lived longer. Its less serious mood can also be explained by the circumstances in which it was written: at the end of his tether after his nephew’s problems in the summer, the composer could at last be refreshed. Op.135 seems to be imbued with this new found sense of well-being, and within a relatively conventional movement structure (unlike several of the other late quartets), Beethoven expresses both humour and the deepest seriousness with astonishing brevity. The expressive heart of the work was probably the first part to be composed: the Lento assai, barely fifty bars long, was originally intended for the Op.131 Quartet. The finale has the famous superscription ‘The difficult decision’, based on a question-and-answer motif: ‘Must it be? It must be!’ The origins of this are a Canon jotted down at the end of July 1826, ‘half-humorous, half-philosophical’ as Barry Cooper puts it, providing the ideal theme for a movement that encapsulates the ‘difficult decisions’ taken throughout Beethoven’s career.
Nigel Simeone © 2011