Haydn Op. 20, No. 5
Schumann Op. 41, No. 3
“Fiction” – jazz arrangements and improv by the Ebene Quartet.
Haydn Quartet in F minor, Op.20 No.5
Haydn is famously known as the Father of the String Quartet. He was a prolific quartet composer, writing sixty-eight specimens of the genre between 1762 and 1803. However, the idea of his paternity is based less on overall numbers (Boccherini, for example, wrote at least ninety-eight quartets over almost the exact same period) than on his composition of several particular quartet sets which are seen as historically crucial. The earliest of these, written in 1772 — and the set from which tonight’s work comes — was the set of six quartets published as Op.20.
Until Op. 20, Haydn’s quartets were composed in the style known as Galant which, coming into fashion following the heyday of composers such as Bach and Handel known for their weightier works, was characterized instead by lightness and simplicity. (The Galant aesthetic is seen most clearly in the paintings known as fêtes galantes by artists such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, depicting nobles, scantily clad or else costumed as harlequins and pierrots, and engaged in various leisurely aristocratic activities).
The Op.20 quartets, in contrast, belong to what is usually termed Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (or “Storm and Stress”) period. The Sturm und Drang movement takes its name from a 1776 play by Friedrich Klinger, set in America during the just-begun Revolution. The various characters spend their time dueling, falling in love, and storming and stressing over their many troubles. Thankfully forgotten, Klinger’s play was typical of its day in its exaltation of individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion. Another work in the same vein is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The sorrows of the title arise from the protagonist’s unrequited love for a married woman, which lead him to suicide, in order to end the pain from which he cannot otherwise escape.
It may be easier today to notice the overwrought quality in plays from the period than to appreciate the same quality in Haydn’s music. One reason Haydn is called the Father of the String Quartet is because he introduced into the genre musical analogs to overt emotionalism and individual subjectivity, and formal vehicles in which these could play out. But other composers following his example eventually developed even more emotive and extreme musical language, making Haydn’s language seem, perhaps, mild and civilized in comparison.
History may be of assistance here: observing the contrast with the stressless Galant style can help in savoring the Sturm und Drang in this evening’s piece. It opens with a melody of great and ever-increasing urgency, made up of a series of utterances, each one more intense than the one that came before. Several musical facts result from and embody this urgency and intensity. Each new measure brings a new harmony. Nearly every measure begins with a long note which is tied over at the measure’s middle, resulting in a simultaneous suppression and storing up of energy. Every measure ends in faster notes, first eighths in increasingly large intervals, and then quicker sixteenths, through which energy is at once released and increased. Each utterance in the first violin is punctuated by commentary from the lower three instruments, which may be heard as stubborn insistence, sympathetic lamentation, head-shaking disagreement. In all, this is music which is easy to imagine in personal, human terms: the first violin melody resembles an emotional outpouring, and one which, conditioned by some particular, troubling situation, arrives as a series of quiet outbursts. Meanwhile, the other three instruments play the role of Greek chorus, or else some less human, more atmospheric entity.
The anguished minuet and fugal finale belong to the same emotional world; coming between them, the third-movement sicilienne in F major is a haven of gallant calm amidst of the storm.
Schumann, Quartet in A major, Op.41, no.3
The weaving of individual subjectivity into the basic fabric of music was fully accomplished by the time Beethoven reached maturity; and a whole generation of composers born in the early nineteenth century made the expression of that subjectivity perhaps the principal purpose of their music. In some cases, the sense of individuality was so great that the artist’s persona became identified with a single instrument (usually the piano); and established, structured musical forms were found insufficient. Schumann was unusual in this regard. He wrote collections of such short, idiosyncratic pieces for the piano, but elsewhere worked to carry on traditions Haydn had begun. Schumann’s Op.41, no.3 is a gorgeous example of how he was able to bring the poetic spirit of Romantic individualism to a traditional form, and one written for an ensemble.
The quartet begins with two notes, between which lies the interval of a falling fifth. These two notes might be a sigh, or the two syllables of “Clara,” Schumann’s wife’s name, or something else. Colored by their accompaniment, the two notes seem to contain multiple possibilities of feeling: love, nostalgia, a little sadness. The pair of notes is followed by a ruminative turn, before the melody comes to an open-ended ending. The sequence is repeated, with the falling fifth contracting this time to a more troubled tritone interval. In a third statement, the happier interval returns, warmly in the cello. A fourth, eager iteration of the two notes jumps in, and then after a pause, another.
These five statements together constitute a Romantic moment par excellence, poetic, nearly grammarless, made up of pure feeling. And then, Schumann ends his introduction and launches into the movement proper, turning poetry to prose. The two notes are heard again, quicker. The ruminative turn is changed into an upward scale, jaunty, perhaps laughing. And an altogether different sense of time and continuity are established. The fragmentary, poetic utterance of the opening turns into the building block for a continuous narrative. The introduction’s multiple shades of feeling are worked out in an altogether more grammatical way.
And this is true not only of the first theme. A second theme, generous and loving, is shortly heard, in which the two notes play another role: they come not at the beginning of a phrase, but at its end, at the crest of an upward scale (which is a version of the first theme’s jaunty scale, itself a transformation of the ruminative turn in the introduction).
The movement as a whole is one of Schumann’s sunniest. And the same may be said for the quartet as a whole–except (nothing is ever simple with Schumann!) that there is also an undercurrent of nervousness throughout. The just-described second theme, sunny as it is in itself, is compromised by unstable accompanimental syncopations (confounding for the player more than for the listener.) The second movement, a theme and variations, begins not with an explicit theme, but with a disjunct, uneasy variation. (When we finally hear the theme, it is, like Haydn’s slow movement, a sicilienne.) The main theme of the finale manages to be simultaneously spastic and triumphant.
Schumann’s music is usually riven by dueling personalties. Every student of his life knows about the two imaginary characters he created, who in his writing and in his music represent two sides of himself: the passionate Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. Florestan, as it happens, is a kind of descendant of Sturm und Drang characters like young Werther. Jean Paul Richter, a novelist whom Schumann worshipped and was deeply influenced by, wrote novels filled with doppelgängers and characters with split personalities, who unite in themselves the spirits of, on one hand, Sturm und Drang, and on the other, German Idealism. In this A major quartet, the tranquil Eusebius is unusually prominent; but the stormy Florestan is never completely out of the picture.