Inner Landscapes: Notes
“Music discloses to man an unknown kingdom, a world having nothing in common with the external sensual world which surrounds him and in which he leaves behind him all definite feelings in order to abandon himself to an inexpressible longing.”
– E.T.A. Hoffman: “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” 1813
The early years of the 19th century found Europe in turmoil. The rise of Napoleon in the aftermath of the French Revolution cast a pall over the ideals of the Enlightenment. “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood” were thrown into question when Napoleon elevated himself to Emperor, and war was an ever-present shadow. The philosophical response to these dark forces was Romanticism.
Instrumental music was a cornerstone of the search for meaning, at the heart of the 19th century’s evolving Romantic aesthetic. The Romantics sought in art a marriage of the spiritual and the sensual, with an emphasis on emotional intensity. Emerging Romantic notions were projected onto the still-relatively-new string quartet form. The somewhat contradictory concepts of “Viereinigkeit” (four-becoming-one) and Goethe’s “four reasonable people conversing” are evident in all three of the quartets on this disc.
Among Beethoven’s sixteen quartets, Op. 95 in F minor holds a singular position. It is the only string quartet to which he gave a name, Quartetto Serioso, and he seemed himself to feel that it could only be appreciated in an intimate space: “The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” It has been described as prickly, thorny and “not pretty,” but also as a peak example of his compositional genius. According to Joseph Kerman, it is “the unmatched directness of the inward look that establishes the particular greatness of the Quartet in F minor.”
Beethoven cast a long shadow on the Romantic composers who followed him. Before publishing any of his own, Felix Mendelssohn made a deep study of Beethoven’s quartets. The fugal passage in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 bears a striking resemblance to the highly chromatic fugal writing in the second movement of Op. 95. For Mendelssohn’s 19th birthday, his good friend August W. J. Rietz made him a manuscript copy of Op. 95 as a gift – further evidence that this particular quartet of Beethoven’s had been on Mendelssohn’s mind as he composed Op. 13 during the previous year. The expressive quality of song locates this quartet firmly in the Romantic realm.
When the WSQ chose to commission a work from Robert Rival in 2011, we gave him a specific task: to compose a quartet that would complement Beethoven and Mendelssohn, while honouring his own musical voice. He succeeded splendidly. Traces of a Silent Landscape finds itself in good company with its Romantic counterparts: the inspiration of nature was a central theme of Romantic art. Married to its companions on this disc through its use of slow fugue, it is also a fine exemplar of the 19th century impulse (not unfamiliar to us in the 21st century!) to find in the natural world a doorway to the inner life. Through musical onomatopoeia Robert invites us to join him on his contemplative journey through the snow.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet in F minor, Op. 95
by Laura Jones
Op. 95 opens with an extraordinary pair of gestures that seem to grab you by the collar and shake. You feel yourself in the presence of an uncompromising personality, determined to make an impression. Almost immediately, though, the cello alone tries to mollify the situation, offering the opening statement newly inflected: shifted a semi-tone upwards, into a major key, and with a displaced accent that calls the opening gesture into question. The upper voices respond in a softly placating fashion, but sinister overtones colour their answer. Thus is set up the fierce dialectic of this famously concise opening movement. The action swings abruptly between repose and violence; turbulence is never far away, and Beethoven seems to feel he has no time to waste as he moves from key to key in unprecedented ways. The movement concludes with a tragic cry in the cello that fades away into discontented murmurings.
Beethoven composed Op. 95 shortly after completing the incidental music for Goethe’s play, Egmont. Given the relationships of key between the two works (both are in F minor, with significant movements in the distant key of D major), it’s worth exploring some dramatic parallels. Egmont is the story of a Flemish nobleman’s resistance to the invasion and occupation of Brussels by the Spanish Duke of Alba. Egmont is imprisoned and ultimately executed, a martyr to the cause of Flemish independence. In his cell, Egmont has a vision of Liberty, in the guise of his beloved, who warns him of his fate. Beethoven was at the time suffering in a Vienna occupied by Napoleon, so “Egmont” must have had a special resonance for him.
The cello opens the second movement, Allegretto ma non troppo, with a softly uttered D major scale that steps downwards into an almost meditative state. This is the key of Egmont’s vision of Liberty, who has come to tell him that his martyrdom will ultimately inspire the victory of his people. The bittersweet nature of Liberty’s message is echoed in the unsettling beauty of this movement, which keeps returning to the descending scale in ever-softer versions. The final fragments of this scale, interrupted by mournful B-flats in the cello, finally find a precarious balance on an unstable diminished chord. This moment, pregnant with possibility, bursts out into a jagged scherzo, whose designation, Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, tells us that the metrical games Beethoven plays are anything but funny. In this movement, too, Beethoven seems impatient to get on with things: although it follows the double Trio scheme that he’d employed in his Quartets Opp. 59 #2 and 74, he curtails each section on its return; the final statement of the opening material not only starts halfway through, but is played extra fast.
The final movement opens with a slow and aching introduction. The musicologist Nancy November hears in this passage the inspiration for the peaceful opening of the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Op. 13. Here, though, no consolation is offered: the opening sighs fragment into a fretful Allegretto agitato. The minor mood is unrelieved until finally, after a gloomy viola ostinato runs out of steam, the whole quartet comes to rest on an F major chord. Then, out of nowhere comes a coda worthy of Mendelssohn’s fairy music, which dances to the end of the piece. What bubbles up to the surface when all of Op. 95’s struggle and strife have been released into the world is what always remains at the bottom of Pandora’s Box: hope.
Robert Rival: Traces of a Silent Landscape (2011)
by Robert Rival
Dedicated to Rona Goldensher and the Windermere String Quartet
While snowshoeing in Algonquin Park during the dead of winter my wife and I experienced a remarkable tranquility and solitude, a hushed landscape only occasionally punctuated by the taps, squeaks and croaks of woodpeckers, chickadees and ravens. The silence we encountered not only invited contemplation but also a heightened search for any traces of life. Upon closer inspection, the velvety layers of snow draped over fallen branches and tree trunks turned out to be littered with the tracks of deer, deer mice and moose. On our last day in the woods we came upon fresh moose scat and tracks which we followed, and to our delight, came upon a family of these forest giants contentedly munching on bark. They paid little heed to our gawking. The forest teems with life but one rarely experiences it directly.
The trek inspired me to explore the tensions between outer silence and inner excitement, and outer activity and inner tranquility. An ensemble capable of the softest and most delicate of sounds – like a string quartet – seemed up to the task.
The first three movements proceed without break. A slow fugue introduces the work’s meditative mood. Conventional in its deployment of familiar fugal devices, culminating with a stretto climax, the final statement is delayed by a meandering series of suspension-laden Schubertian sighs. We get lost in the woods before finding our way.
The second movement explores stasis, a surreal calm only occasionally interrupted by activity: the gentle rustling of dead, golden leaves, the call of a chickadee, the distant knocking of a woodpecker.
The scherzo’s swirling effects, lively rhythms, heterophony, and an ostinato in 15/16 frequently at metrical odds with foreground melodies, represent the imagined life of the winter forest – imagined because one rarely actually sees or hears anything.
The quartet closes with a gentle lullaby whose mood echoes that of the first movement but without its contrapuntal complexity. Melodic fragments moving mostly by step derive from the clear song of the chickadee itself (a falling whole tone).
This piece was commissioned by Toronto’s Windermere String Quartet which performs on Classical period instruments whose distinct qualities I bore in mind while composing (without precluding performance on modern instruments): the subdued, airy quality of gut strings and the sparing use of vibrato, in particular. By incorporating a slow fugue I also paid tribute to the works with which my quartet would be performed at its premiere: Beethoven’s Quartetto Serioso Op. 95 and Mendelssohn’s Op. 13, both of which incorporate fugato sections in their slow movements.
Felix Mendelssohn: Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
by Anthony Rapoport
The lives and personalities of Beethoven and Mendelssohn could hardly have been more different. Although both were recognized in childhood for outstanding musical ability, Beethoven’s abusive father tried to exploit him, pushing him mercilessly and falsifying his birth date by two years to exaggerate his precocity. Late in life Beethoven embroiled himself in a bitter feud with his sister-in-law over the care and custody of his nephew Karl. Mendelssohn’s family, in contrast, was extraordinarily loving and supportive, and his affection for them, always strong and expressive, only deepened with his maturity and success. The onset of Beethoven’s deafness cut short his performing career and caused him great bitterness and social isolation, while Mendelssohn became Europe’s most celebrated conductor, and had an affectionate circle of lifelong friends.
Yet the young Mendelssohn, only eighteen when he composed his A minor Quartet in the summer of 1827, felt a great affinity for the older master, who had died just a few months earlier. Although Mendelssohn’s composition studies, with Carl Friederich Zelter, had focused on the models of J. S. Bach, Haydn and Mozart, he became fascinated with the radical late works of Beethoven. Scholars have traced influences in the A minor Quartet from Beethoven’s Quartets Opp. 95, 130, 131, 132 and even Op. 135, Beethoven’s last completed work, dating from October 1826. However, Mendelssohn was very selective in the aspects of Beethoven’s style he chose to adopt, and his choices suggest insights into his artistic intention, his times, and the predominant direction of musical development through much of the nineteenth century.
The most immediately striking aspect of Beethoven’s influence on early Mendelssohn is the expressive intensity of their styles. Both composers test the limits of their musical language, seeking depth of feeling. But Beethoven often favoured sudden, shocking shifts of character, while Mendelssohn was much more inclined to sustain a mood for an extended period. His transitions, while they sometimes traverse a wide expressive range, are rarely abrupt.
On a more subtle level, Mendelssohn was strongly taken with Beethoven’s webs of motivic relationship, which unite whole movements and even whole works with common musical gestures. But while Beethoven often uses motivic relationships to create coherent structures in spite of strong contrasts of affect, Mendelssohn’s often evoke a sense of expressive unity, even across changes of tempo, metre and key.
The first movement opens with an Adagio in A major, in a simple chordal style, but employing rich harmonies and detailed expressive dynamics. At the end of an extended arch-shaped phrase, the first violin casually decorates the cadence with a dotted rhythm (a short note tucked at the end of a beat). This figure, immediate repeated with the support of the second violin and cello, is a quote from Frage (Question), an early song for which Mendelssohn had written the text as well as the music:
Is it true? Is it true
that over there in the leafy walkway, you always
wait for me by the vine-draped wall?
And that with the moonlight and the little stars
you consult about me also?
Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, only she grasps –
she who feels with me
and stays ever faithful to me,
Only the first line of the second stanza is quoted here, with the viola voicing the single-note exclamation, “Speak!” Then, dropping an octave, the viola shifts the mood, tempo and key with a rhythmic trill, leading to the Allegro vivace. After several bars working the transition material up to a flourish, a new melodic idea is introduced, based strongly on the dotted rhythm. It is tossed around in competing iterations, then taken up by the first violin as the body of the movement begins. From here, Mendelssohn concentrates on full-length, balanced phrases, creating a sense of lyrical continuity. There are still frequent juxtapositions of voices and motives, and often a strongly agitated mood, but there is an overarching regularity of phrasing which creates a sense of order. The movement ends with a strong dramatic gesture, referencing an operatic recitative.
The Adagio non lento begins in a mood and metre similar to the first movement’s introduction, and again features the dotted rhythm in the melody. It further recalls the introduction with a second-beat accent, closely related to the viola’s “Speak!” gesture. Once the opening material is fully stated, though, the key switches to minor as the viola introduces the fugue. The fugue subject is like a compressed version of the opening theme, with the same arch shape, and a dotted rhythm (although twice as slow). The fugue gains intensity until it finally releases into a new tempo, poco più animato, where the first violin spins out a variation over an agitated accompaniment. Soon, however, the texture becomes complex again as the fugue subject is reintroduced in inversion (upside down). Further climaxes ensue before a first violin cadenza leads to a return of the opening. Not content to finish the movement from where it began, though, Mendelssohn further synthesizes his material, reaching a transcendent resolution.
The Intermezzo lives up to its name as an intermission from the complexity and intensity of the other movements. Its haunting folksong-like melody is closely related to the Adagio’s fugue subject, but it extends the short note of the dotted rhythm into two even shorter ones. The guitar-like accompaniment creates a transparent texture, with perhaps a suggestion of distant lands. A middle section, Allegro di molto, goes further, into pure escapist fun.
The last movement opens with another recitative for the first violin, with a close relationship to the fugue subject and improvisatory timing. Then the Presto tempo is established, but as in the first movement, it begins with a succession of fragmentary ideas, until the main thematic material finally appears, with the dotted figure more prominent than ever. As in the first and second movements, Mendelssohn develops multiple ways to combine his material, setting up an extended conversation or argument, with a feeling of constant turmoil, while maintaining a regular phrase structure. Then, midway through, a particularly strong climax leads, strikingly, to the return of the slow movement’s fugue. The metre is unaltered here, but longer note values give the impression of a much slower tempo, paving the way for the return of the Presto material, and further recombinations.
Finally, the unity of the Quartet is tied up with a bow, as the first violin, unaccompanied, recalls the fugue subject once more, this time in its original tempo. Then a final recitative leads back to the opening of the first movement. This time, though, the question is answered, as the final stanza of the song leads to a tender, peaceful end.
It may have been Mendelssohn’s happy childhood that led him to create a musical narrative where every conflict, every stress, every loose end is resolved to an unmistakably happy ending. Or it may have been the Romantic view of art as an alternate reality, where dreams could be fulfilled. But it seems that at that moment in his life, Mendelssohn experienced a state of grace. In a letter home, after a trip to England, Mendelssohn wrote,
“When I came home at night, I entered my room feeling singularly happy. I did not come from parties, as at the time of the turbulent season, but from smaller and more intimate circles of my English acquaintance, where one remarkable, interesting, glorious moment followed another. Sometimes one feels that some never-to-be-forgotten thing is just going to happen, and such a feeling I had often. Oh, how much shall I have to tell you! How shall I ever get done, with only one mouth?”
©Windermere String Quartet 2016. All rights reserved.