By Balourdet String Quartet
Mozart String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”
In 1785, after studying Haydn’s “Russian” String Quartets, Opus 33, Mozart composed six quartets, which he dedicated to Haydn. This Quartet, K. 465, earned the title “Dissonance” because of the opening of the first movement, which begins with the cello creating a dark, intense atmosphere with repeated notes. The upper voices enter and add tension through particularly crunchy dissonances, creating a sense of ambiguity and suspense. This shocking opening was so surprising to listeners that many people were certain that Mozart had written wrong notes. Haydn himself was so confused by the opening that he said “if Mozart wrote it he must have meant it.” However, Mozart’s reciprocal influence on Haydn through this piece is clear: Haydn’s Creation illustrates Chaos in its opening, before similarly resolving into C major. After this brooding introduction, Mozart takes us into the exuberant C major and keeps us in a mostly playful and jolly world.
The second movement takes us into F major. The opening statement envelopes the listener in its warmth and features an intimate dialogue between the first violin and the cello. Beneath this is repeated lilting eighth notes, transformed from the dissonant opening of the entire work into a more tender undulation. This movement is very operatic, between its soaring soprano melodies in the first violin and its use of melodic duets. It is only toward the end of the movement that the most intimate theme is introduced in the first violin part. The movement concludes with chromatic lines, this time descending into an inner pain — the feeling of something beautiful yet fleeting.
The Minuet takes us from the regretful end of the second movement into a more playful, dancing mood. The first violin begins with a poised statement, which is responded to by a rustic unison played by the whole group. The spirited dance gestures create a fun dialogue before the more brooding Trio section. This Trio is quite stormy and features a similar use of imitative writing to the Minuet, but with a sense of terror. This nervousness proves fleeting as well as we are soon taken back to the friendlier Minuet.
The Finale features fast paced melodies as well as virtuosic and exciting passages. Filled with humor and energetic outbursts, this movement has a huge range of character. Mozart is still playing with chromaticism, but here it is used in order to create a sense of whimsy. We are taken back into the more fearful and ambiguous world of the earlier movements at various moments, but these atmospheres are quickly resolved and we are taken back into the humorous world of opera buffa. Mozart takes us into an ecstatic finale with virtuosic sweeping high notes before finally slamming the door in our face abruptly, the inner voices getting the last laugh on the way out.
Debussy String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Claude Debussy is remembered as a visionary of what would become the genesis of a renaissance of French composition, and by extension inspired so many of modernist composers to come in the next century. 1893 became perhaps the precursor of 20th century music as we’ve come to know it, heralded by the premiere of Debussy’s landmark controversial Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Not to be overlooked from his output of this year, however, is the equally cherished String Quartet. It’s a shame that this would be Debussy’s only foray into the genre, but it is a crowning work — a groundbreaking piece full of the coloristic writing defining Debussy’s language. Often portrayed as the great Impressionist composer, along with the work Maurice Ravel to follow, Debussy held disdain for this title, owing his often decadent and evocative expressive world to the Symbolist poets he admired, such as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé.
This quartet, while conforming to classical stylistic formal elements such as a sonata-form first movement, a scherzo movement, and a ternary form slow movement, does feature a diverse set of musical influences, and ties together the all movements cyclically. One of the most memorable features is the tribute to Javanese gamelan music, which Debussy was introduced to four years prior at the World’s Fair in Paris, with the multitude of pizzicato textures in the second movement. Harmonically, Debussy uses several old church modes which would become a staple of Impressionist style, as well as a further Renaissance borrowing with the chant-like music in the middle section of the third movement.
From a listener’s perspective, the way that the movements progress and tie into each other evokes possibilities of emotional narrative in the music, even though each particular moment is worth savoring in its own right as a beautiful image or painting.
Beethoven String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131
“After this, what is left for us to write?” -Franz Schubert
“...seem[s] to me to mark the furthest limits yet attained by human art and imagination.” -Robert Schumann
“‘Tis the dance of the whole world itself...His day is done.” -Richard Wagner
These statements are reactions to Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 from composers who have all had immense influence on the world of classical music themselves. Written as a continuous seven-movement work without a break, the Quartet follows a protagonist’s footsteps through his life surrounded by indescribably intense emotions. Composed in 1826, Beethoven broke all conventions of a string quartet or any other composition, creating a monumental piece that stands out from his already revolutionary set of late quartets. Beethoven jokingly described this quartet, which is known to be his favorite, as “stolen together from a miscellany of this and that.”
The piece begins with the first violin introducing a slow fugue subject, a rearrangement of the last four notes of the harmonic minor scale. The painful rising figure is answered by a sforzando landing. This movement evolves into a constant build of entrances of the fugue subject, which form vertical chords creating increasingly emotionally heightened peaks. At the end of the movement, the cello plays the augmentation, or the extremely slow-motion version of the subject, creating a powerful atmosphere to close the spiritual first movement. The transition to the dance-like second movement is a simple half-step up from C# to D. Although the two notes are as close as they can be, the mood change is like day and night, and the rise of the D octave brings us to a pleasant lilting sound world.
A short recitative third movement connects into the fourth movement, truly changing the scene on stage to prepare for a huge theme and variations. This fourth movement is the heart of the piece and is considerably the longest movement. The warm and nostalgic atmosphere of the theme brings the listener into a vulnerable state, cycling through light motion created by empty downbeats. This pattern of avoiding the downbeat gives a weightless flow and an opportunity to sentimentally sing each phrase. After a gradual increase of energy, the last variation before the return of the theme is a heavenly sotto voce (echo-like) oscillation of a chorale. Beethoven creates a space that is quite ethereal, perfectly placed to bring the lengthy movement to an end. The celebratory final iteration of the theme is decorated with violin trills and fast cello arpeggiated figures. As if to poke fun at the tender emotions of the previous movement, the fifth movement bursts out with a four-note motive laughter. This scherzo is filled with classic musical jokes, including long pauses, subito accents, and fake-outs. Just as it begins to feel like the movement will be on repeat forever, Beethoven writes sul ponticello (playing on or near the bridge). This special sound effect adds another humorous aspect with metallic screeching, but perhaps he was desperate enough to hope for this piercing sound to shake him out of his near-complete deafness for a brief moment.
The sixth movement aria is usually seen as an introduction to the finale, although it has its own layers of an emotional depth incomparable to any other part in the work. This painfully beautiful movement sounds like it has been shortened and not fully developed for the purpose of denying its full existence, never reaching the explosive high point of a symphonic slow movement. The resolution of a desperate reach and fall of the first violin line becomes the beginning of the dramatic final movement. Beethoven finally gives us a sonata form returning to the home-key, C-sharp minor, reminding listeners that this is after all a dark work. There is no escape for the listener from the defiant opening statement and dotted-rhythm ostinato, other than a couple of heavenly interludes. The piece ends rather abruptly, not fully establishing a major mode transformation and remaining ambiguous as to its tonal center. Beethoven leaves his listeners to reflect on this complex forty-minute emotional journey, and allows the complexity to exist without clear answers.