American String Quartet
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Adagio and Rondo in C Major, K. 617 (1791) The Glasharmonika: rare in Mozart’s day, rarer still in ours - but anyone who has circled the rim of a wineglass with a moistened finger would recognize its sound. The basic design of this instrument was Benjamin Franklin’s; Mozart first heard one as a youngster in London, and later played one belonging to Franz Mesmer (the inventor of hypnotism) - and was enchanted. Goethe claimed to hear in its tone "the heart’s-blood of the universe", while in parts of Germany the instrument was banned as having a deranging effect.
Nonetheless when the Glasharmonika virtuoso Marianne Kirchgässner appeared in Vienna, Mozart presented her with his Adagio and Rondo in C Major, K. 617. Her first performance of the work was criticized for near-inaudibility, though the reviewer appreciated the heavenly quality of what little he could make out.
After Mozart’s death his widow Constanze assured the work’s publication with the inclusion of an alternative piano part, and she suggested that in the absence of the original device, a harp (or celesta) might be employed. As it was his last chamber work, we relish it in all its guises.
Marcel Tournier: Féerie, Prelude et danse (1924) Nothing says atmosphere like harp music - but the real world of players, composers, and harp-makers has hardly been all gossamer and mist. The 20th Century opened on a contest for pre-eminence between the chromatic or cross-strung harp as built by the Pleyel firm and the double-movement model made by Erard. [Spoiler alert: the Erard design was adopted by both Lyon & Healy and Wurlitzer and is what you hear 99 times out of 100 in the present day]. Pleyel commissioned Debussy’s Danses in 1904, while Erard responded by commissioning Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro in 1905. Harpist/composer Marcel Tournier entered the fray with his Prelude et Danse, Féerie for solo harp in 1911. He revised the work in 1924, adding string quartet.
Although employed principally as accompaniment, the quartet brings variety and dynamic power and adds to rehearsal time. Over a chord in the strings, the harp essays arabesques before planting a simple theme, soon answered by the quartet. Dance rhythm emerges and recurs with rising heat and vigor before ending in a long and feverish crescendo.
Interestingly, although Monsieur Tournier was an Erard artist, his wife was the professor of chromatic harp at the Paris Conservatoire. Doubtless a strong marriage.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1799) Beethoven: a life-long innovator - but no composer springs fully-armored from Zeus’s brow. Young Ludwig’s aim in composing his first quartets was to please and inveigle wealthy amateur players who might become patrons. And this he did by emulating the music by the composers they enjoyed – Haydn and Mozart. Everything from their turns of phrase to quotes to movement structures can be found in the Op. 18 quartets, but it is in the Quartet in G Major Op. 18 no. 2 that we find the most explicit homage.
Beethoven was a famously poor student of Haydn, thrown out after his second lesson with the old master, but he pursued his studies by more prudent means: acquiring and copying out by hand the scores to several Haydn quartets, and the results are plainer in 18/2 than in any other from that opus.
The first movement opens with the polite teasing which Haydn raised to a high art, and the development seizes on a structural sleight-of-hand which was also one of Haydn’s. After only a few measures of development we hear what seems to be a premature recapitulation, but not only does it come far too soon, it’s in the wrong key. And by movement’s end, proper order has been restored - albeit masked by some dramatic dynamic effects.
But it is the second movement which rewards study of the score, side-by-side with that of the finale of Haydn’s very forward-looking Op. 54 no. 2, also in G Major. Slow and solemn is followed by skittish and ticklish. An introduction to a fast movement? In the Haydn one might expect that, but then [in both works] solemn returns, tolerates a recurrence of the fast material, and ends solemnly. To be sure, this is not plagiarism, but homage, and the main difference is that the older composer was brave enough to end with such a movement.
Over the course of Haydn’s many quartets he wrote minuets before switching to scherzos and then, with poetic license, returning to the name Minuet in the late quartets even though they were still as fast and as funny as Scherzos. Here Beethoven calls what sounds like a minuet a scherzo. And the finale manages to mesh wit with humor, Haydnesque virtues both.
Claude Debussy: Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) Claude Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane was commissioned to introduce a new instrument. Gustave Lyon invented the chromatic harp, which was developed by the Pleyel firm. It was a beast - larger than any before and equipped with twice the number of strings - and the launch was to be a grand affair, so Debussy (always open to the new and revolutionary) was employed. The sacred dance is all modal atmosphere and nuance, like a half-remembered dream of the opera he had just completed, Pelleas et Melisande, while the profane one is in a stable and pronounced triple meter and sparkles with wit and mischief, linking it more to the other score on his desk, la Mer. (By "profane" nothing irreverent is suggested, merely sensual).
Lyon’s chromatic harp is long forgotten - an experiment which failed - but Debussy’s masterpiece will endure as long as there are double-action harps and harpists who know the meaning of ravissant.
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F Major (1903) Of this work no comment could be more apropos than Beethoven's "Tastes differ." Naturally he was not speaking of this piece, but Ravel himself said of it: "[it] reflects a preoccupation with musical structure, imperfectly realized, no doubt, but which appears much clearer than in my previous compositions." It was dedicated to Gabriel Fauré, who took over as director of the Paris Conservatoire in the wake of the scandal which attended Ravel's elimination from the competition for the coveted Prix de Rome. Fauré, however, never acknowledged Ravel's dedication. Ravel was, in fact, thrown out of Fauré's class, but continued to attend as an auditor during the time he was writing this quartet. But let us ignore the opinions of Messieurs Ravel and Fauré. In the opinions of quartet-players and audiences around the world, this masterpiece entered the repertory in 1903, and has been heard hundreds of times each season since then. Why? Because it is perfectly crafted; its structure is lean - there is not one superfluous measure in the work; its part-writing is grateful - each instrument is given lovely things to say in registers that flatter it; and its suave sensuality charms listeners from start to finish. One of the plainest definitions of a "classic" is a work which bears repetition, and this one surely qualifies.
Our natty little French friend began as a revolutionary and ended up as the establishment; his musical tastes included the Spanish, Russians, Balinese, and the "jazzers" - and his idea of what a quartet should do in F Major awaits you. Our advice: sit back and enjoy, thinking instead of Debussy's note to Ravel: "In the name of the gods of music, and in mine, do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet."
~ Program notes by Daniel Avshalomov