New York Philomusica

For March 5 & 10, 2005

New York Philomusica Presents:
String Quartet as Exposition and Conclusion

Ju-Young Baek, violin; Jesse Mills, violin;
Junah Chung, viola; Gregory Hesselink, ’cello

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, Op. posth. 161, D. 887 (1826)

Michael Berkeley
Quartet Study (1988)

Benjamin Britten
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 (1975)

String quartet music enjoys universal recognition as a profound medium of instrumental expression. The instrumentation traces its origins to the gradual but successful delineation of the family of string instruments that emerged from the viols, which were mainstays of Renaissance music-making, numbering six different sizes and sounding very nearly like one another. From the late 17th century on, the evolution to violin, viola, ’cello, and bass was accomplished by the people who made them at the request of those who played them and those who wrote for them. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was pre-eminent in writing music that looked ahead and became the standard by which all others gauged their own work.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828):
String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, Op. posth. 161, D. 887 (1826)

By the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827 at the age of 56, acceptance of this medium was a fact of life, even if the majority of listeners could not fully appreciate it. Beethoven’s response was: “It will please them sometime.” Schubert understood, and though 27 years junior to the master and soon to follow him to the grave, he consciously reached as far forward as his skill and fertile imagination allowed in writing his last quartet, referred to as “The Great G Major.” His musical friends were numerous, but he knew the work would not be performed nor would it be published any time soon. (It received its premiere on December 8, 1850 by Joseph Helmesberger’s Quartet.) We hear how clearly it points to the last utterance before he died, the Quintet in C Major, Op. posth. 163, D. 956. The “D” numbers refer to the catalogue of Otto Eric Deutsch. You see that the number of compositions between writing the G Major Quartet and the last work for strings, the C Major Quintet, is high–69. Among them is the Symphony No. 9, the Trio in E-flat for piano, violin, and ’cello, three piano sonatas, a fantasy for piano—the list of great works is incredible. He produced them with scant hope of publication for any but the songs, all the while suffering from an ailment, undiagnosed then and to this day, that would bring about his death.

Michael Berkeley (b.1948):
Quartet Study (1988)

Even in the shadow of confirmed greatness Michael Berkeley has every reason to assert his claim for an audience. He began learning his craft at the knee of his renowned father, Sir Lennox Berkeley and godfather, Sir Benjamin Britten. New York Philomusica audiences were introduced to him via his Chamber Symphony (1980) in 2002. You heard him already this season in October in his Quartet No. 2 (1983). Of a total of five quartets, Mr. Berkeley’s most recent was composed in 1997. He has furthermore approached this art with the understandable deference such a background would presume, evidenced by the fact that although musical in his youth (a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, where he performed under the direction of Benjamin Britten), he didn’t seriously begin composing until he was 28 years old. In addition to his extensive catalogue of chamber, orchestral, and vocal works, including opera, he is well known as a broadcaster on radio and television. Until this year he was the Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music, a post he has held since 1995. In 2001 Mr. Berkeley became Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for a six-year period. He writes as follows about Quartet Study:

The Quartet Study was composed in 1987 in response to a commission from the City of Portsmouth for its 1988 International String Quartet Competition with funds provided by Southern Arts, the competition being won by the Vanburgh String Quartet.

Though it was obviously important for the music to test the abilities of the players both individually and as a quartet, I was determined to try and write, within an eight-minute span, a self-contained work that actually said something as opposed to a purely technical showpiece. So while the music is technically demanding, the main challenge is one of interpretation, and at Portsmouth it was quite fascinating to see just what the various quartets made of it.

The score is in one movement and contrasts a rhythmic and loud motif with softer and more sustained music. Both ideas are related since they are derived from the same row of notes.

© Michael Berkeley

Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press

Benjamin Britten (1917-1976):
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 (1975)

The composer dedicated this quartet to the musicologist, Hans Keller, who had reminded him after his heart surgery in 1973 of a promise made several years earlier to write such a work. The operation left Britten with a weak writing arm, suggesting to Keller that this was good reason to write a work needing only four staves, saving him from too much physical exertion during the composing process. Britten took the bait, bringing his first notes of the piece with him on vacation to Venice in the Autumn of 1975. He completed the work by November in the city where his last opera, Death in Venice, was set.

Britten’s talent was revealed in his first decade, just as in the case of Franz Schubert. He wasn’t nearly as prolific as Schubert, but he certainly enjoyed equal renown in his own lifetime for a body of works including nine major operas, several symphonies, a requiem and innumerable works for voices. He enjoyed a career as a pianist as well, teaming with Yehudi Menuhin in the immediate post-WWII years to tour the war-ravaged European Continent. He was an able conductor of his own works, a feat not at all common among composers.

His first efforts at writing for string quartet remain unpublished. The first published quartet was written in September 1941 and given its first performance by the Coolidge Quartet in Los Angeles. It had been commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for the Library of Congress. The first performance in England took place by the Griller Quartet in London’s Wigmore Hall in April 1943.

The movement designations convey the form of Quartet No. 3. Each is a survey of its type, brilliantly rendered in sharp, yet intimate relief from within and against each of the four voices’ shifting roles. The last movement, La Serenissima, is what its name implies, and an extraordinary evocation of terminal peace. It was not necessarily a case of premonition of the composer’s death, for the name is that by which The Republic of Venice was once known. One final programmatic note of consequence, I think, is the use of the passacaglia form for this movement, a favorite of Henry Purcell’s, a composer much revered by Benjamin Britten.

One cannot help but be struck by the enormity of the value for expressive purposes of the string quartet. Even after a life’s work of producing monumental works for monumental forces, great composers turned yet again to the four voices of the cogent, clearly delineated voices of the string family we know as The String Quartet. It will always have a place on the programs of New York Philomusica.

© A. Robert Johnson 2005

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