Borromeo String Quartet – November 18, 2018
Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552, “St. Anne’s” - Johann Sebastian Bach
Arr. For String Quartet by Nicholas Kitchen
In his role as Kantor for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach composed cantatas to be sung by the choir as well as organ preludes, toccatas and fugues based on chorale or hymn melodies, to be performed as an integral part of the service. He published these keyboard works in several editions under the title Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). The so-called “St. Anne’s” Prelude and Fugue takes its nickname from its similarity of the melody to a British hymn tune by William Croft (1678-1727). Like folk melodies, hymn tunes often spring from unknown sources and often bear striking similarities to each other. Bach did not refer to St. Anne in his own title, and it is not known whether he was even familiar with the British melody. He included the “St. Anne’s” Prelude and Fugue in the third volume of the Clavier-Übung in 1739, but it is not clear exactly when in his career he actually composed the piece.
During the Baroque, individual keys were thought to have properties that could evoke specific emotions in the listener. This idea was just an aesthetic construct in an era when there was no standard reference pitch (such as A=440) and every local organ may have been tuned to a slightly different standard, but for Bach, key designation was important. The key of E-flat, with its three flats, symbolized the Trinity, as did the tripartite thematic structure of both Prelude and Fugue. Bach compiled the Clavier-Übung III into a symbolic liturgical superstructure mirroring Luther's version of the Mass, including chorale settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Communion. The volume opens with the Prelude in E-Flat Major, continues with the aforementioned liturgical settings, and concludes with the Fugue. The two “bookends” are often performed as a typical prelude/fugue combination and have been transcribed for several instrumental combinations.
The Prelude is based on three themes, a majestic dotted-rhythm figure in the style of the French overture, another sedate melody, and a little internal fugue. The French overture theme recurs as a refrain. The Fugue is also in three distinct parts: a formal exposition introducing the fugue subject, which resembles the St. Anne hymn; the second in 9/8 (3x3) meter into which the tune is artfully woven; and a second fugal section.
String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117 - Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975
Living in a highly regimented society and in constant fear for his life, Dmitry Shostakovich frequently used his chamber music to express his most intimate and personal feelings. He was the only Russian composer of note to express his revulsion at the brutal regime in his music and survive to tell the tale. Censorship and official criticism forced him to evolve a hidden complex symbolic language in order to get these works approved.
Shostakovich was a true son of the Russian revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But he got caught up in the Stalinist nightmare, surviving the purges of the 1930s only because Stalin liked his propaganda film scores, which he cranked out by the truckload. World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, the horrors of the 30s being temporarily forgotten. But hopes for a more liberal society were dashed in 1946 with a
resurgence of purges, suppression and disappearances, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov. Hopes rose again in 1953 with the death of Stalin, which brought about some relaxation and liberalization. But the roller-coaster of official approval and disapproval continued, although the fear of exile and threat to life diminished greatly. Shostakovich came relatively late to string quartets, writing his first in 1938, after his
Symphony No. 5. It was not until the late 1940s that he began to produce a steady stream, finishing 15 in all by the time he died, nine shy of the 24 he had hoped to complete. In 1960, his popular Quartet No. 8 was a musical retrospective on his music and his tribulations. Immediately upon completing it, he sat down to write another one, No. 9, which was to be a "children's work (about toys and excursions)." But the sketches did not please the composer and he burned them, stating that it was the second time in his life that he had done “such a trick,” the previous time in 1926. It took until the summer of 1964 before he sat down and in quick succession wrote his Ninth and Tenth Quartets.
During these years, Shostakovich married his third wife, Irina, a young literary editor in a music publishing firm. Like his previous marriages, it was an impulsive act, but unlike the two earlier ones it was a happy union. The composer expressed his thanks by dedicating the 9th Quartet to his young wife. The Quartet No. 9 is in five movements played without pause. It is dramatic and mostly upbeat in mood, except for the fourth movement Adagio, which recalls in its harshness the grimness of his Quartet No. 8. It is dangerous to interpret music according to the biography of the composer, but Shostakovich poured so much of himself into those works created without political constraints that the temptation is irresistible. The Ninth Quartet seems, indeed, to reflect the influence of its dedicatee. The gentle murmuring and light-textured dancing quality of the first movement can surely be understood as a love token. Likewise, the jaunty Allegretto is genuinely funny, a playful polka that horses around with different string textures and combinations.
The contrast in mood, however, in the fourth movement, quickly throws cold water on the fun. The effect is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Quartet, Op. 131, in which the composer created the same effect between the Scherzo and sixth movement. In the passionate and complex final movement, it is difficult to decide towards what or whom the passion is directed. On the one hand, there is a general agitation so typical of Shostakovich finales, but there is also a wonderful dance tune that interrupts the storm. And halfway through the movement, it stops dead in its tracks as if to reconsider where it’s going, only to decide to get back on the dance floor. Still agitated, but not hysterical.
String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127 - Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
In November 1822, Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, a Russian amateur cellist who had once lived in Vienna and admired Beethoven’s music, asked the composer for three string quartets, telling him to name his price. But – typically for Beethoven – it was not until June 1825 that the first of these quartets, Op. 127, was finished. At the time, Beethoven’s personal life was in chaos. Now completely deaf, he was embroiled in both physical as well as psychological turmoil. Unable to handle his own affairs, the composer was living in conditions best comparable to a modern teenager’s bedroom. In addition to poor physical health, which was in part the cause for the extended delay in fulfilling the commission, he also suffered from paranoia, which took itself out in his stormy relationship with his nephew Karl, ultimately resulting in the latter’s attempted suicide (thought to have been caused by Beethoven’s possessive hectoring).
Yet despite everything, Beethoven was at the apex of his creative powers. After a 15-year hiatus, he went back to the string quartet medium with enthusiasm, creating the five works that are considered together as the “late Quartets.” In Opus 127, he already was demonstrating an entirely new conception of the genre. He increased the complexity and even-handedness of texture, and introduced new structures and harmonic language.
The Quartet opens with a thematic structure often referred to as “statement and response.” The statement is marked Maestoso, and quickly morphs into a more lyrical Allegro response. It is restated twice later in the movement, each time more forcefully, in a different key, and with new, expanded renderings of the response. There is a remnant of a “second-theme” idea from conventional sonata-allegro form, which Beethoven introduces in the minor mode, an unusual move for a piece in a major key. Beethoven and Schubert took the old theme-and-variations form to an entirely new level. No longer merely a series of increasingly decorated versions of tunes with a formal repeat structure, the variations emerge organically from each other. The theme and six variations that comprise the second movement of the quartet include no exact repeats and vary greatly in length. Their relationship to the theme sometimes seems tenuous, and it is no coincidence that the Quartet follows the Ninth Symphony by two opus numbers, when we compare the slow movements of the two works.
The Scherzando third movement opens with four pizzicato chords that lead to the theme in the cello, immediately inverted by the viola. Increasingly prone to abrupt changes in mood, Beethoven suddenly shifts gear in mid-stream. The whirlwind Trio, whose opening two legato notes balance the pizzicato opening of the Scherzo, also suddenly morphs into another universe. Curiously, Beethoven gave no tempo markings to the fourth movement, but the music calls for a fast pace. The first theme contrasts with a quick-march second one that dominates the movement; both themes have a folk-like quality, which became increasingly popular in finales over the course of the century. As in the earlier movements, however, Beethoven throws in some surprises: some funky dissonances and a foot-stomping passage in case audience members have fallen asleep. The extended coda introduces a totally new mood in a new time signature (6/8) by stretching the themes and expanding them to create a lyrical interlude before the end.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn