Mar 6, 2015
“Adagio and Fugue” in c-minor, KV 546 W. A. Mozart (1756-1791)
String Quartet No.8 in c-minor, op. 110 Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Allegro molto, attacca
String Quartet No.1 in e-minor, “From My Life” Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)
Allegro vivo appassionato
Allegro moderato alla polca
Tickets are now on sale at the Honolulu Museum of Art front desk, and online here.
Mozart, Adagio and Fugue in c-minor, KV 546
In the century following the death of J.S. Bach, his musical works, now so well known, existed more substantially on paper, in the collections of a few cognoscenti, than in the world of sound. Musical fashion changed quickly in the mid-eighteenth century, away from the density and seriousness that characterize so much of Bach’s music. During those hundred years, several notable composers–among them Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn–each had his own moment of personal discovery and subsequent grappling with and digestion of Bach’s music, which in each case resulted in a move back toward density and seriousness.
In Mozart’s case, the key experience came shortly after he had arrived for good in Vienna at the age of twenty-five. He became acquainted with a certain Baron von Swieten, librarian at the imperial court, and Van Swieten shared his collection of Bach’s works with the young composer. As Mozart wrote to his sister: “Baron van Suiten, whom I visit every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me after I had played them through to him. When Constanze heard the fugues she fell quite in love with them. She will listen to nothing but fugues now…. Having often heard me play fugues off the top of my head, she asked if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me very thoroughly for not having written anything in this most artistic and beautiful of musical forms….”
The impact of the experience, which would later be felt in contrapuntal masterpieces such as the Jupiter Symphony and the Requiem, found quicker expression in the composition of a fugue in C minor for two keyboards. It was this fugue that, five years later, Mozart transcribed for strings, adding an adagio introduction, in the manner of a Bach-like French overture, with that genre’s typical dotted rhythmic figures.
It has been speculated that Mozart revived this older piece in order to train himself for the writing of more truly symphonic fugues, such as the double fugue at the end of the Jupiter Symphony. It has also been noted that Mozart, whose ease at composition is justly famous, labored over his Bach-inspired contrapuntal works, crossing out and rewriting in a most un-Mozartean manner. The lack of ease in this process may have had an influence on the nature of the music thereby created.
Shostakovich, String Quartet No.8 in c-minor, op. 110
A later composer who felt and wholeheartedly embraced Bach’s influence was Dmitri Shostakovich. Bach’s effect on Shostakovich extended from genre selection–the Russian wrote twenty-four preludes for keyboard, one in each key, in the manner of the Well-Tempered Clavier–to the use of the composer’s own name as a musical motto: Bach had incorporated the notes B-A-C-H into some of his works (these are the German note names for B-flat, A,C, and B-natural), and Shostakovich did the same with D-S-C-H (for D. Schostakowitsch; these are the German note names for D, E-flat, C, B.) The D-S-C-H motto appears in each movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, and serves as the basis for a fugue in the last.
This Bachian practice is only one of the many fascinating and significant features of Shostakovich’s most famous quartet, which is all the more extraordinary for having been composed over the course of only three days. The year was 1960, and the composer was in Dresden, East Germany, a city still devastated at the time by WWII bombing. Shostakovich was there to write music for a film being jointly produced by Soviet and East German filmmakers, set in that desolate environment. He wrote: “Everything there was very well set up for me to work …Conditions for composing were ideal . . . However, try as I might I was unable to compose the film music, even in rough. And instead I wrote a quartet that’s of no use to anybody and full of ideological flaws.”
A main character in the film Shostakovich was supposed to score was a German painter who, according to the film’s director, “feels that art should depict suffering, and therefore a measure of life.” There is no question that the Eighth Quartet, at least, depicts suffering. The first and last movements are in the same turbulent key of C minor that Mozart chose for his Adagio and Fugue, and Shostakovich incorporated a wealth of references to other tragic works. “My initials,” he wrote, “are the quartet’s main theme. I also use other themes from my works in the quartet, as well as the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage.’ My own themes come from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the Piano Trio, the Cello Concerto, and Lady Macbeth. I also hint at Wagner’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. I forgot – there is also a theme from my Tenth Symphony. Not too bad, this little potpourri. The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is such that while composing it my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers.”
According to one friend, Shostakovich bought a bottle of sleeping pills upon his return from Dresden, and planned for the quartet to be his final composition. (Among other difficulties, he had recently begun experiencing symptoms of a form of polio which impaired his ability to play the piano; had just betrayed his own principles and entered into a long bout of self-loathing by joining the Communist Party in order to secure a prestigious official appointment; and had recently been divorced from his second wife after a short, unhappy marriage which itself followed the death of his beloved first wife.) In a letter discussing the piece, Shostakovich wrote: “I’ve been thinking that when I die, it’s hardly likely that anybody will ever write a work dedicated to my memory. So I have decided to write one myself. The dedication could be printed on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet.’” Luckily, such a dedication proved unnecessary: the same friend who tells us about the bottle of pills was able to spirit them away. Shostakovich’s mood subsequently lifted, he was able to write his film music, and he lived on for another fifteen years. Meanwhile, the score ended up with a different dedication, one which according to Shostakovich’s son was forced on him by the Soviet authorities: “to the victims of fascism and war.”
The rapidity of its composition, and the sheer number of musical references Shostakovich makes, contribute to the quartet’s unity and depth of meaning, and at the same time, seem all but impossible in juxtaposition with one another: How did Shostakovich synthesize so much material so quickly and so organically?
As for the quoted material: the D-S-C-H theme is heard widely throughout Shostakovich’s oeuvre, especially in the Cello Concerto. Shostakovich quotes his own First and Fifth Symphonies in the quartet’s first movement, and in the second, employs the so-called Jewish theme from his Piano Trio. In the third movement, he incorporates music from the recently composed Cello Concerto, while in the fourth he quotes not only an aria from a prison scene in his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but also the revolutionary song, “Tormented by Grievous Bondage,” the Dies Irae, and Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. The result of all this is a rich, tragic, multi-layered and autobiographical kind of confession.
Smetana, String Quartet No.1 in e-minor, “From My Life”
More blatantly autobiographical still is Smetana’s Quartet “Z mého života,” or “From My Life.” Smetana, an important figure in Czech musical life who had been instrumental in developing a national musical style based on folk music elements, suffered a crisis at the age of fifty: the onset, over the course of just a few weeks, of deafness. A year later he wrote this quartet, which in the composer’s words was “almost a private composition, and therefore purposely written for four instruments which, as it were, are to talk to each other in a narrow circle of friends of what has so momentously affected me.”
The private nature of the piece extended to its premiere. Smetana initially submitted it to the Prague Chamber Music Association, but it was deemed impossibly difficult to play, and instead received its first hearing at the home of a close friend. (The violist on this occasion happened to be Antonín Dvořák.) Smetana mentions the difficulty of the work from a performance standpoint in a letter which details the inspiration for each movement:
“I did not intend to write a quartet according to recipe and according to custom in the usual forms … I had wanted to give a tone picture of my life. First movement: My leaning towards art in my youth, the romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also the presage, as it were, of my future misfortune … Second movement: Quasi a polka, takes me back to the happy times of my youth where, as a composer of dance tunes, I lavished these upon the young world and was myself known everywhere as a passionate dancer. The middle movement is the one, which in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, cannot possibly be performed … it recalls to me the happiness of my first love for the girl who later became my first wife. Fourth movement: Understanding of the potentialities of the folk music element, joy at the success of this course up to the time it was checked by the catastrophe of the beginning of deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but, at the thought of the beginnings of my career, nevertheless sadness.”
In the middle of the last movement, the first violin plays a strident E. Of this , Smetana wrote: “The long, insistent note in the finale … is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness