String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10
Debussy’s only String Quartet dates from an important formative period, during which the composer, thirsting for novel artistic means, became increasingly drawn to the Symbolists. These poets and artists sought a somewhat mystical mode of indirect expression, making use of techniques of suggestion, metaphor, and quasi-synaesthetic sensory manipulation to “paint,” as Stéphane Mallarmé put it, “not the thing, but the effect it produces”. During the early 1890s Debussy began attending the Tuesday meetings of Mallarmé’s collective, “les mardistes”. He composed song cycles to the poetry of Paul Verlaine (Fêtes Galantes and Mélodies), and even tried his hand writing and setting his own Symbolist verses (Proses lyriques). A breakthrough composition, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, an instrumental adaptation of Mallarmé’s poem, dates from this period, and it was in 1893 that Debussy discovered the theatre of Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck and undertook his opera with Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande serving as libretto.
In the midst of this experimentation, Debussy’s decision to write a “String Quartet” might appear comparatively prosaic, and Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, recalled his own surprise upon hearing of the composition. The resulting work, however, is anything but traditional. The entire quartet draws upon a single motif – the syncopated rhythm and ornamental flourish with which the work opens – which reappears in the subsequent movements, by turns playfully shrouded in pizzicati textures, and throbbingly plaintive with the use of the mutes.
The quartet was premiered by an ensemble led by the famed violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, whom Debussy had met in 1893. Despite a formidable performance by all accounts, the difficulty and complexity of the piece produced a tepid reception, as Durand recounted: “As soon as the work was printed, Ysaÿe came to give it a first performance in Paris. The success was immense, the interpretation was first rate. We, my father and I, set about recommending the Quartet to all the violinists capable of playing it; we graciously offered it to several ensembles. Our repeated efforts were in vain. People did not want to bother with this music which was reputed to be unplayable.” According to Durand, ensembles only warmed to the work over time, as tastes became increasingly attracted to musical “novelty”. “The most frustrating part,” he continues, “is that certain personalities, to whom we had previously offered the Quartet, came back later to ask us for it, claiming they’d never known about it before!”
Imprimatur: String Quartet No. 2
[Adapted from the program note written by Luke Howard.]
In her second quartet, Imprimatur, Kati Agócs explores an outgoing, festal transformation process in which a single musical idea “imprints itself upon the memory through rapturous re-imagination” in a seamless flow of movements. She continues, “My piece is a meditation on spiritual lightness, expressing rapturous joy and affirmation that is celebratory in tone, via a collective (i.e., shared) energy.”
The Latin word imprimatur is referenced in its Roman Catholic context, signifying religious approval or affirmation, but also a mark of distinction, or an imprint. Throughout the score, Agócs also draws on other terminologies outside of instrumental music to augment this para-religious narrative, which she plans to continue in her third and fourth string quartets. When completed, her four quartets will form a cycle, integrated in a larger discourse on spiritual themes.
The quartet opens with an instrumental “recitative” as introduction, a noble fanfare-like series of chords, answered by a rhapsodic melody. This elides into the first movement, a rhythmically driving collective of urgent ostinati that surround the asymmetrical melody, first heard in the viola. All instruments then take their turn at reimagining the melody as the driving accompaniment swirls around it. That drive broadens into the second movement, “Enraptured Troping.” In current usage, a “trope” can be simply a figure of speech, but here it also references the medieval and early renaissance practice of adding musical and literary commentary on the liturgy. In this context, the main musical idea is transformed through these zealously “troped” incarnations. Agócs appends the subtitle “Shards of Light” to the “Meditation” third movement, where the theme is fragmented prismatically, the descending canonic entries and points of imitation turning the horizontal melody into vertical gestures. These culminate in a rapturous hymn (“Crystal Chains”) that leads directly into a “Wild Dance,” with Bartók-like shifting meters and vigorous, propulsive rhythms. Again, all instruments take their turn with the melodic ideas in this fiery, percussive movement. Then, in the calm “Quodlibet” that follows, the tropes are reprised, culminating in an ecstatic “Prayer of Gratitude” as coda.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131
With a handful of exceptions, most of Beethoven’s cycle of sixteen quartets were composed upon the commission of noblemen – notably, Prince Lobkowitz (the six Op. 18 quartets); Count Razumovsky (the three Op. 59 quartets); and Prince Galitzin of St. Petersburg (three late quartets which became Opp. 127, 130, and 132). But upon completing the final quartet of this commission, Beethoven’s musical imagination overflowed into two further quartets, Opp. 131 and 135, his final major works, both completed in 1826. Beethoven’s secretary and close friend, the violinist Karl Holz, recounted, “While composing the three quartets requested by Prince Galitzin, such a wealth of new quartet ideas flowed from Beethoven’s inexhaustible imagination that he virtually had to write the Quartets in C-Sharp Minor and F Major involuntarily. ‘My dear fellow, I’ve just had another idea,’ he would say jocularly and with glistening eyes when we were out walking, and would write down a few notes in his sketchbook.”
The quartet presents a seemingly paradoxical opposition between fragmentation and integration. Despite its seven-movement architecture, the quartet is performed as an uninterrupted and kaleidoscopic continuity. Despite its elaborate branches into six different key areas, the quartet consistently recalls its roots in the key of C-sharp. And although Beethoven joked to his publisher that he had pieced together the quartet out of stolen musical fragments, the work demonstrates Beethoven’s meticulous attention to deriving links between key relationships, tempi, and even motifs: the haunting four notes of the opening fugue subject are inverted and become the commanding six-note gesture which opens the Finale.
Beethoven told Holz that Op. 131 was his favorite among his late compositions; and yet, he died before having a chance to hear it performed. However, Franz Schubert, who had helped carry Beethoven’s coffin at his funeral in 1827, asked to hear the quartet as he lay on his own deathbed a year later. His wish was granted by Holz, five days before his death. Holz described the scene in effusive terms: “Schubert was sent into such transports of delight and enthusiasm and was so overcome that they all feared for him. The C-sharp minor Quartet was the last music that he heard! The King of Harmony had sent the King of Song a friendly bidding to the crossing!”