Chamber Music Houston Chamber Music Houston




    DATE: Tuesday, March 25, 2014

    TIME: 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM

    Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music
    Rice University

    The Elias String Quartet has been designated as an Emerging Young Ensemble, in recognition of and in tribute to the gift from the Barbara Osborne Trust.

    Beethoven, Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 "Razumovsky"

    Molto adagio
    Finale: Presto

    In 1805, Russia’s ambassador to Vienna, Prince Andreas Razumovsky, commissioned Beethoven to write a set of three quartets incorporating music from his native Russia. Razumovsky’s contributions to the first Viennese School of string quartets deserve to be better known. Although he was the grandson of illiterate Cossack peasants, Andreas grew up in the court of Empress Catherine the Great. Unfortunately for Andreas, but fortunately for us, the now handsome young naval officer became involved in a family tragedy for which Catherine the Great sentenced him to permanent exile. He spent the rest of his life as her ambassador to various states, ultimately to Vienna. Charming and highly educated and with considerable skill on the violin, he came to exert a major influence on the cultural life of Vienna as a strong supporter of the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He was the founder and sole benefactor of the Schuppanzigh Quartet – the first independent, permanent professional string quartet, freely available to Beethoven and ultimately important for Schubert. In the early 1800s Count Razumovsky was finally invited back to Russia by Tsar Alexander. On his return to Vienna he brought a collection of folksongs, Sobranie Russkykh Narodnykh Pesen for the commissioned works. It was almost certainly Razumovsky who chose the particular songs.

    As to Beethoven, in the six years since his Opus 18 quartets, Napoleon’s army had come and gone from Vienna. Beethoven had continued to compose while struggling with depression, economic insecurity, and deepening deafness. By 1805 he had completed the first version of Fidelio, the Fourth Symphony, and the Violin Concerto. Work on the Opus 59 quartets began in the spring of 1806. All three were finished by the end of the year.

    They were not well received. Even the most musically sophisticated were unprepared for their increased length, complexity, expanded instrumental range, and a musical language that could be fragmented and condensed. He had given symphonic scope to an intimate genre. The music was met with scorn and ridicule by audience and performer. Phrases like “very long and very difficult,” “not generally comprehensible,” “a waste of money,” “not music,” and “crazy music” were used to describe them, but also “deep in thought, well-worked out,” by one prescient reviewer.

    The opening movement of Opus 59, No. 2 begins with two stormy chords immediately followed by silence. Three short related subjects of sharply contrasting mood follow, from which the fragmented melodic themes and vigorous rhythmic elements heard in the rest of the movement are derived. The energy and tension of this movement stem from the alternation of a gentle 6/8 rhythm against slashing chords, silences, changes of rhythmic accent, sudden dynamic changes, and false harmonic cadences. The supremely concise development section concentrates on rhythmic elements and harmonic modulations. In the coda, too, rhythm and harmony preside over melody, so that the arrival of the Molto adagio comes as an enormous contrast in mood. This grandly melodious second movement marked “to be played with great feeling” was inspired, according to Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” It opens with an elegiac chorale decorated with long, sustained, archaically harmonized chords. The chorale then appears in a variety of musical settings – an aria, a march and a musette, before ending in a long coda.

    The Scherzo movement starts out as a three-legged waltz, stumbling and off-balance. It leads abruptly to the famous Russian folk tune, “Slava Bogu ne nebe, Slava!” (“Glory to God in Heaven, Glory!”) later used by Mussorgsky in the Coronation Scene of Boris Godunov. Beethoven gives this cheerful theme first to the viola, then, in three variations, to each of the other instruments. Thereafter he allows it to turn into a “round” (like Frère Jacques) contorting itself into a scholarly maze of dissonance which Beethoven, with sublime indifference, spins out before relieving the listener with a merciful return to traditional harmony. We can only hope that with this display of contrapuntal mastery, Razumovsky, at least, felt he had gotten his money’s worth!

    The finale, a Presto in sonata-rondo form, starts in the “wrong” key, settling firmly into the home key only after a series of dramatic harmonic shifts. It provides an immensely energetic and provocative finale – a furious gallop on horseback – to this varied and highly original quartet.

    Program note © by Nora Avins Klein, Houston, 2013

    Beamish, String Quartet No. 3, Reed Stanzas

    Donald Grant, the second violinist in the Elias, is well known as a traditional Scottish fiddle player. I have incorporated this skill into a quartet work, drawing on Donald's Gaelic roots. The "second violin range" of a quartet is similar to that used by traditional fiddle, inhabiting the throaty, rich soundworld of the lower strings, and the distinctive clarity of the upper strings in their lower positions. This leaves the first violin to explore the heights of the E string, so that the two violins are almost like different instruments.

    I wrote part of the quartet in a cottage overlooking the machair of the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, listening to Britten’s quartets in between working. These works always remind me of my former life as a viola player, and the wind blowing through the reed beds at Snape; a very different, but equally windswept, salt-scented wilderness.

    The reed has many different associations. "The Reed of God": a Christian metaphor for Mary: the channel through which the spirit is breathed. The "accursed" reed of Celtic belief: the reed through which Jesus was given vinegar to drink, on the cross. And the reeds used in the making of wind instruments, including the bagpipe and accordion. The Sufi poet Rumi describes the reed flute as a symbol of longing and separation: the reed, separated from its home, utters a heart-breaking lament.

    Reed Stanzas takes the form of variations on a Celtic-inspired theme announced by the second violin, which opens and closes the work in the manner of Pibroch (the classical music of the Highland bagpipe). I have explored the intricate ornamentation used in Pibroch, highlighting its similarities to birdsong, and to Arabic reed flute (ney) playing. The piece also refers to the multiple reeds of the accordion (these days made of metal) – an instrument used in traditional music of many cultures. The idea of the loneliness and vastness of landscape underpins the quartet, while each variation, or "stanza," has its own metre and mood.

    Reed Stanzas, for the Elias String Quartet, was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and was first performed by the quartet on July 25th, 2011 in Cadogan Hall, London as part of the BBC Proms Chamber Music Series.

    Program Note © Sally Beamish, 2011

    Debussy, Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

    Animé et très décidé
    Assez vif et bien rythmé
    Andantino, doucement espressif
    Très modéré – Très mouvementé et avec passion

    Claude Debussy composed only one string quartet during his lifetime. (Another quartet was begun but never finished.) The String Quartet in G Minor was completed in 1893, early in his career and shortly after L’Apres-midi d’un faune. The style of this composition could be likened to the work of the Impressionist painters of the time – Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro. However Debussy himself preferred to be associated with the Symbolist poets – Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Maeterlinck, whose play Pelléas et Mélisande he later used for an opera. The artists and authors of his time were trying to create works that would appeal more to the senses than to the intellect. Debussy fought against the conventional in music throughout his student days and developed a style of composition which used musical forms as aural light and color – new textures of sound, exotic scales, chords which did not resolve. In Debussy words, "I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters – who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth." Debussy’s music helped to prepare the way for the music of the twentieth century, in all of its new and varied forms.

    The String Quartet in G Minor is based almost entirely on one motif which is stated in the first few bars of the first movement. The motif is cast in a minor key with a flattened second step, termed the Phrygian mode, a scale often heard in Russian folk music. An easily recognizable feature of this motif is the quick ornamental triplet in the middle of the motif. The rhythm and overall shape of the motif, and of the other melodies heard throughout the work, seem to be of more importance than the harmonic structure. In addition, rather than a classic exposition and development section in each movement, one hears a continuous variation or cyclic form – a mosaic of the germinal motif and altered versions of the same. This is particularly true of the first movement.

    The second movement is scherzo-like but uses novel rhythmic and coloristic devices. Once again the movement is derived from the first motif of the quartet, heard initially in the viola, then in the first violin. Around the motif the other instruments weave crossrhythms and pizzicato flourishes. In the third movement, all of the instrumentalists are instructed to place mutes on their bridges in order to produce gentler tone color. The movement begins in 6/8 meter, in a dreamy rocking mood much akin to a nocturne. False starts in the second violin and viola lead to a full statement of the theme by the first violin. Following a pause, a new variant is introduced by the viola and is later repeated in the second violin and cello playing an octave apart. The initial theme returns at the close. The fourth movement exhibits a rhapsodic use of the initial motif throughout, including a fugue-like passage, and concludes with a frantic race to the final chord.

    Program note © Margaret Bragg, July 2013

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