March 1, 2013

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN String Quartet No.16, op. 135

JEAN SIBELIUS String Quartet op. 56, “Voces Intimae” (“Intimate Voices”)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH Two Pieces for String Quartet

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Shostakovich, Two Pieces for String Quartet: Elegy and Polka

Dmitri Shostakovich, celebrated in the chamber music world for his fifteen magnificent string quartets, came to the form relatively late. He wrote his first four-movement quartet in 1938, at the age of thirty-two, by which time he had already composed, in addition to five symphonies, a staggering number of theatrical works, including ten film scores, incidental music for eight plays, two operas, and three ballets. Perhaps not surprisingly, Two Pieces — his first foray into quartet writing, composed in 1931– consisted of transcriptions from two of these theatrical works.

The almost impossibly beautiful Elegy comes from Shostakovich’s then-not-yet-completed opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. (Later, the composer would quote another aria from the same opera in his String Quartet No.8.) The opera, based on an 1865 novel by Nikolai Leskov, tells a grisly tale. The “heroine,” Katerina Ismailova, is deeply unhappy in her marriage to Zinovy, bored, and browbeaten by her father-in-law Boris. When a womanizing farmhand, Sergei, arrives at the estate, he wastes no time in seducing the unhappy woman, who quickly falls in love with him. The two lovers go on a murder spree, killing, in short order, the suspicious Boris, then Zinovy, and then a relative who arrives to claim the estate. Eventually the law catches up with them, and as they are transported to Siberia, Sergei leaves Katerina for another woman. While the prisoners are being ferried across a river, Katerina drags her rival into the water, and both women drown.

Shostakovich is kinder to Katerina Ismailova than was Leskov, attributing the murders more to Sergei than to her, and describing his opera as the “tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.” Above all, he makes her sympathetic by giving her extraordinarily moving music to sing. The present Elegy transcribes her aria just prior to Sergei’s seduction:

The foal runs after the filly, the tom-cat seeks the queen,
the dove hastens to his mate, but no one hurries to me.
The wind caresses the birch tree, the sun warms it with his heat,
for everyone there’s a smile, but no one comes to me,
no one will put his hand round my waist, no one will press his lips to mine,
no one will stroke my white breast, no one will tire me with passionate embraces

The second of the Two Pieces comes from 1930’s The Golden Age, a ballet dramatizing the visit of a sympathetic Soviet soccer team to a decadent Western European city. The Soviets are subjected to all manner of indignities, even ending up in prison, but are finally liberated when the proletariat revolt against their bourgeois masters. The ballet ends with a dance of solidarity between soccer players and workers. Shostakovich wrote in his program note: “Throwing into contrast the two cultures was my main aim in the ballet … the West European dances breathe the spirit of depraved eroticism which is characteristic of contemporary bourgeois culture, but I tried to imbue the Soviet dances with the wholesome elements of sport and physical culture.” (The Polka, in this scheme, would exemplify “depraved eroticism.”) As to this, music critic Ian MacDonald says, “It is clear from the mischievous sexual asides in his contemporary letters to Tanya Glivenko that ‘depraved eroticism’ was no ideological bugbear to the 24-year-old Shostakovich, while his penchant for dance-band music was so far from being a secret that his barefaced cheek in purporting to pretend otherwise is, in itself, almost balletic in its extravagance.”

Beethoven, String Quartet No.16 in F Major, Op.135

If Shostakovich’s music may be said to illuminate the conflict between the personal and the sociological (the composer’s myth, at least, has encouraged us to hear in his music the struggle between the individual and the forces of history), Beethoven’s music seems more likely to incorporate the dialogue between the personal and the social: we often hear in it the struggle of the individual (against fate, against loneliness, etc.) but also humor, conversation, and the banality of everyday life. Nowhere is Beethoven’s characteristic juxtaposition of the socially trivial with the individually profound more evident than in the final movement of his last quartet.

The manuscript of this final movement bears Beethoven’s notations “Muss es sein?” and “Es muss sein!” (“Must it be?” and “It must be!”).  The origin of these cryptic sentences lies in a humorous episode occurring several months before the quartet was composed. When Beethoven’s Quartet Op.130 was premiered by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, a certain Dembscher, a music patron, decided not to pay the subscription fee to see it. He was then heard boasting that he could get the music any time he wanted from Beethoven (who had given him copies of his pieces in the past), and sponsor his own performance of the piece, with better musicians. Hearing of this, an annoyed Beethoven let it be known that Dembscher would have to pay the subscription fee to Schuppanzigh if he wanted to get his hands on the music. The patron protested, “Muss es sein?” In response, Beethoven wrote a hilarious canon for male voices, on the words, “Es muss sein! Ja. Heraus mit dem beutel!” (“It must be! Yes! Out with the money!) – and dedicated it to Dembscher.   The canon’s treatment of “Es muss sein” clearly forms the basis for Op.135’s finale. (Beethoven sadly leaves out from the quartet the canon’s doo-wop-like “Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja.”)

The words take on quite a different meaning, however, in the context of the quartet finale. “Muss es sein?” is written above the brooding introduction, and “Es muss sein” over the Allegro. When the composer, in failing health, sent the quartet manuscript to his publisher, he attached this note: “Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: ‘The difficult decision-Must it be?-It must be, it must be!’”

The rest of the quartet differs from Beethoven’s other late works in its simplicity and conciseness, representing, according to some, the simple distillation of a lifetime of composing. (It should be noted, though, that Beethoven did write to his publisher that “I was thinking of something else much bigger.”) The opening is pure conversation, informal and with a touch of mischief. The mischief continues with deceptive cadences at the end of the Allegretto’s exposition and recapitulation, and two false recapitulations in the middle of the development. The scherzo is breathless and syncopated, with a wild trio. The slow movement, Beethoven’s last set of variations, begins as a hymn. The composer originally called the movement “Süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedengesang” (“Sweet Rest-song or Peace-song.”)

Sibelius Quartet “Voces Intimae”

Like Beethoven in Op.135, Jan Sibelius wrote suggestive words in the score of his string quartet–in this case, in a pocket score belonging to a friend. In the central movement, above three minor chords which occur about two minutes in, he wrote “voces intimae”–that is, “intimate voices” (or, according to some, “interior voices.”) The three chords are quietly disturbing, and, when considered along with the appended words, tempt the listener to seek a profound significance. The composer’s biography encourages this seeking: at about the time he began the quartet, the forty-four year old Sibelius was suffering from throat cancer and alcoholism, while by the time he completed it, he’d had an operation on his throat and given up drinking. In between, he had some harrowing moments. He was certainly very emotional while writing the quartet, and, in the privacy of his diary, given to dramatic outbursts. At one point in mid-composition, he wrote: “Why do I flee from my quartet?” And upon completion: “Quartet ready! I–my heart is bleeding–Why this tragedy of life. Woe! Woe! Woe! That one exists! My God–!” Seppo Kimanen, cellist of the Sibelius Quartet, has said of this work that “Every phrase comes from an individual soul with almost too much to express.”

Despite these signs of deep meaning and emotion, it can be difficult for a listener to easily connect with the “Voces Intimae.” Kimanen has remarked: “With the right feeling it can bring audiences to their knees, but if the musicians are not 100% there, it can leave everyone asking awkward and unanswerable questions.” The explanation for this may lie in the basic nature of Sibelius’ music. Known early in his career for composing nationalistic pieces based in Finnish legend, Sibelius began, from about the period when this work was written, to write music that has been labeled “modern-classical.” This more abstract style is one which often seems to render irrelevant such paradigms as “the social”, “the sociological”, and even “the personal.” In Sibelius’ works, according to musicologist Leon Botstein, “music is allied with nature.” “A magical slowness and simplicity,” along with an interest in large forms and spaces, replace the more human concerns of most other composers, for whom music often parallels language, with its own grammar, syntax, and sense of drama and dialogue. Similarly, Kimanen has said that ‘His gift of catching a smell, wind, form of a flower and putting it into music is quite extraordinary.”

Human traces and accessible moments are certainly not absent from the “Voces Intimae.” The second movement sounds something like a string orchestra piece of the sort written by Grieg. The fourth calls to mind, at times, a Tchaikovsky waltz. And the last of the five movements evokes a Scandinavian “spelman’s dance”–music played by fiddlers and other folk instrumentalists. On the whole, however, events, even emotional events, unfold with a patience more characteristic of nature than humanity. The textures are un-quartet-like, symphonic, with frequent unisons and a lack of dialogic polyphony, creating the sense of space that Botstein describes. Sibelius himself was aware of this, and pleased with it. After finishing the quartet, he wrote to himself: “Keep to the plastic symphonic in your art … Do not let yourself be led astray from this!” In the context of such glacial grandeur, Sibelius’ three chords, whatever they represent, are the more intimate, and disturbing.