St. Lawrence String Quartet - Notes

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809) Quartet in C, Op. 20 No. 2 (Hob. III:32) (1772)

When Haydn’s Op. 20 quartet collection was issued in an unsanctioned printing in Amsterdam and Berlin in 1779, its publisher (Hummel) put an emblem of a full sun or sun god atop two neo-classical pillars on the front cover – and this is why the six quartets are occasionally referred to by the nickname Sun quartets to the present day. Thanks to wide distribution through official and unofficial channels, the collection did much to popularize the medium of the string quartet during Haydn’s lifetime. When a new edition of the quartets was advertised in Vienna in 1801, its publisher (Artaria) described them as works with which ‘Haydn so decisively founded his fame.’ Mozart admired the collection. Beethoven copied them out to better understand their craft. And, at the end of the 19th century, Brahms owned the original autograph manuscripts, which he donated to the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, where they remain to this day.

In these manuscripts, Haydn was still using the established catch-all title Divertimento a quattro rather than ‘string quartet.’ But the C major quartet is no easy-going divertimento and the piece is in many ways the least conventional quartet of the set. The sonorous cello solos at the opening of its first two movements not only a democratization in Haydn’s part-writing but also a striving for new harmonic effect. The first of these melodies, moreover, introduces a passage of what amounts to triple invertible counterpoint, a kind of musical version of Sudoku, that is to permeate the entire quartet. The slow movement, too, strives for dramatic impact, with recitative-like passages that resolve into a melting arioso melody. This movement is straight out of the opera house and full of the gestures of the recitative and aria. It leads to a wonderful minuet, rich in allusions to folk dances. The finale bustles with fragments of themes busily passing from one voice to another. ‘Fuga a 4tro soggetti,’ Haydn proudly titles his fugue with four themes, which is softly played (sotto voce) until its concluding burst of exuberance.

John Adams Second Quartet (2014)

This work was commissioned by Stanford Live, Carnegie Hall, the Julliard School, the Library of Congress’s Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music, and Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.

The World Premiere was given by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University on January 18, 2015.

Both of John Adams’ string quartets were composed with the St. Lawrence String Quartet in mind. But this latest work is actually the third he has composed for them. The original String Quartet (now likely to be known as the First Quartet) was written in 2008 and premiered January of 2009 at the Juilliard School, the work’s principal commissioner. The St. Lawrence Quartet went on to perform that work many times throughout the world and made the first recording of it for Nonesuch Records.

Adams followed several years later with a grander idea: Absolute Jest, a 25-minute work for solo quartet and orchestra based on fragments from Beethoven, primarily from the Opus 131 and 135 string quartets. Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate its centennial season, Absolute Jest was given its first performance in March of that year under that orchestra’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas with the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing the solo parts. The orchestra has twice toured with Absolute Jest and has also recorded it for a forthcoming CD release. Adams and the SLSQ have performed the work together in London, Toronto and with the New World Symphony in Florida.

The Second Quartet is thus the third piece to result from this exceptionally fruitful relationship between a composer and his favorite chamber group. Speaking of their working relationship, Adams says, “String quartet writing is one of the most difficult challenges a composer can take on. Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time—and I don’t know many these days who do—the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating. What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally ‘improvise’ on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want. They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own. It is no surprise then for me to reveal that both the First Quartet and Absolute Jest went through radical revision stages both before and after each piece’s premiere. Quartet writing for me seems to be a matter of very long-term ‘work in progress.’”

Although not a string player himself, Adams admits to a lifelong absorption in the literature, having discovered the Beethoven, Mozart and Bartók quartets as a teenager. While still a teenager he often played clarinet in the great quintets by Mozart and Brahms, and during that formative time he attended what he called “life-changing” performances by both the Juilliard and the Budapest Quartets.

The new quartet uses the same tropes as Absolute Jest in that it too is based on tiny fragments—“fractals,” in the composer’s words—from Beethoven. But the economy here is much stricter. The first movement, for example, is entirely based on two short phrases from the scherzo to the late Opus 110 piano sonata in Ab major. The transformations of harmony, cadential patterns and rhythmic profile that occur in this movement go way beyond the types of manipulations favored in Absolute Jest.

Like the First Quartet this new work is organized in two parts. The first movement has scherzo impetus, and moves at the fastest pace possible for the performers to play it. The familiar Beethoven cadences and half cadences reappear throughout the movement like a homing mechanism and each apparition is followed by a departure to an increasingly remote key and textural region.

The second part begins “Andantino” with a gentle melody that is drawn from the opening movement of the same Opus 111 piano sonata. Here the original Beethoven harmonic and melodic ideas go off in unexpected directions, almost as they were suggestions for a kind of compositional “free association.”

The Andantino grows in range and complexity until it finally leads into the “Energico” final part of the piece, a treatment of one of the shortest of the Diabelli Variations. This particular variation of Beethoven’s features a sequence of neighbor-key appoggiaturas, each a half step away from each main chord. Adams amplifies this chromatic relationship without intentionally distorting it. Like its original Beethoven model, the movement is characterized by emphatic gestures, frequent uses of “sforzando” and a busy but convivial mood of hyperactivity among the four instruments.

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Quartet No. 1, in E minor, Op. 112 (1899)

A prolific composer, Camille Saint-Saëns said that he produced music as naturally as an apple tree produces apples. The apple tree first blossomed and bore fruit when he was three. A few years later it had grown branches. At his Paris début, the 10 year-old French prodigy offered to perform any Beethoven piano sonata his audience cared to name as an encore. By the end of a long career, the full crop totaled approximately 600 works (now listed for the first time in a catalog published a decade ago), not to mention his writings on music, a book of philosophy, essays on botany and zoology, several plays and much poetry. A monograph on the archeology of the classical theatre is said to be a creditable work of scholarship.

Saint-Saëns worked in most of the major musical forms of his day. He can even stake a claim to being the first major composer to have written for film (L’assassinat du Duc de Guise, in 1908). His music is unmistakably French in character: finely crafted and proportioned, polished, balanced and ordered, with a keen sense of tradition. He wrote two string quartets in the latter part of his life and today’s concert is a welcome opportunity to hear the first of them. Both are essentially neo-classical in spirit, gracefully written for the string instruments and Saint-Saëns’s only chamber works without keyboard. The E minor quartet dates from 1899 when he was already 64 years old. It is dedicated to the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. An introduction with a somewhat melancholy air leads to a vigorous Allegro. Its form is clear and precise. There follows a series of variations based on a popular song from Brittany. An intense slow movement, with broad, sweeping gestures, is next. Its textures echo the late quartets of Beethoven from time to time, though without Beethoven's intensity and conviction. The finale is a closely argued and serious movement, which cools down somewhat before a brisk coda propels the work to an end.

— Program notes © 2016 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: