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Juilliard String Quartet
The legendary Juilliard String Quartet will return to Westport this Spring! The famed quartet's program will be a salute to the immortal music of Vienna—modern masterpieces by Webern and Berg and, to close, Beethoven's triumphant final quartet in F Major, Op. 135.
During the course of its history, the Juilliard String Quartet has performed over 500 works, including the premieres of more than 60 pieces by American composers, with works by the country’s finest jazz musicians among them. It was the first ensemble to play all six Bartók quartets in the United States, and its performances of Schoenberg’s quartets helped establish the works as cornerstones of the modern string quartet catalog.
Sponsored by, Joyce and David Thompson, Lance Lundberg, Delamar Southport / Artisan
Notes on the Program
By Russell Platt, Westport Arts Center Chamber Curator
Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5
The first two works on today’s program are by two young firebrands composing at a hinge point in Western musical history, as Romanticism gave way to Modernism. Among the Viennese expressionists of the “fin-de-siècle” period, Anton Webern was the great miniaturist, concentrating whole paragraphs of music into tiny, aphoristic swirls; Schoenberg, his mentor and admirer, famously wrote that his pupil could “express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath.” Although his crystalline pieces could demand an amount of work that another composer would use to write a grand symphony, Webern could work rapidly when necessary. Such a period was 1909-10, when he was able to compose four important works, the first being these Five Movements for String Quartet; among his best-known pieces, Webern arranged the set for string orchestra two decades later. (Herbert von Karajan made an Olympian recording of them with the Berlin Philharmonic.) In the Five Movements, Webern is not yet at the point of extreme concision that we would soon reach in his next major quartet work, the Bagatelles, Op. 9. His individual moments represent fervently felt paragraphs, not entire novels, and there are elements of classical style (as Humphrey Searle notes, the first movement is a microscopic sonata form). But the “arch” form of the full set—fast, slow, fast, slow, with a finale that looks back on what has come before—foreshadows Bartók, and the third movement has a cinematic quickness of pacing, a rapid series of “shots,” that would have been utterly contemporary in nature. —Russell Platt
Berg: String Quartet, Op. 3
Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) was the last work the composer produced under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg. First performed in 1911 and published nine years later, the two-movement String Quartet was not well received at its premiere and received no further performances for more than a decade. Schoenberg, however, admired the piece, and the work may rightly be regarded as an appropriate valedictory for Berg's transition from apprenticeship to musical maturity. In this work, Berg takes a great step beyond the compositional idiom of his Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907 - 08) and the Four Songs, Op. 2 (1909 - 10). The Quartet's thematic craftsmanship bears a relationship to that of the earlier Piano Sonata, but the Quartet is far more complex. Whereas tonality had restricted Berg's language in the earlier work, the free atonal idiom of the Quartet allowed the composer to develop his material with unprecedented freedom and variety.
In the first movement Berg establishes a web of motivic relationships within a sonata-form outline. (The opening theme bears a striking resemblance to a theme from Schoenberg's “Verklärte Nacht,” from 1899.) A transformation of this theme becomes a fundamental figure in the second movement, which again contains material similar to that in the work of another composer: the love duet from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857-59). (According to Berg's wife Helene, the inspiration for the Quartet was born of the frustration both she and Berg experienced when Helene's father forbade the two lovers from seeing one another.)
Scholars disagree on the formal design of this movement but tend to describe it as a type of rondo or sonata-rondo. But Berg's use of motives and passages derived from cycles of intervals, his attention to detail and every detail's relationship to the whole, and his expert, idiomatic writing for the string quartet all point to the work of a composer assured in technique and possessed of a distinctive musical personality. —John Palmer
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135
This quartet was the last complete work Beethoven composed, only a few months before his death in March 1827. It is traditionally grouped together with his other late quartets, Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132 and the “Grosse Fuge,” but Opus 135 is the black sheep of this bunch. Where the other quartets are monumental in scale, sprawling in their expressive reach and scope, and often searching for a new formal basis for the quartet genre altogether, this one stands apart: tightly reasoned, having an airy and transparent texture, playful and teasing in so many places, it is the work of a composer who seems to have suddenly attained some new, simple truth after miles of struggle.
The first movement begins with a four-note question in the viola, colored with a mock-serious minor note in the cello; the first violin answers with a giggling echo. What ensues is a genial, often Haydn-esque Allegretto in 2/4 time, which ambles along, four friends sharing a melody or two between them, breaking it into fragments so that everybody gets a piece. The movement is a typical sonata form, with all the responsible sections of exposition, development and recapitulation; but it feels more like an airy distillation of that form, with its sparseness, its fragmentation, and its economy of means. The second movement is a quicksilver scherzo. The parts at the beginning stage a rhythmic comic act, ill-fitting and awkward, everyone seeming to arrive on the wrong beat; this section is abruptly succeeded by a more brilliant one featuring a set of rapid upward scales in the first violin, playful and yet tense and expectant. Then an extraordinary eruption occurs, a fortissimo section where the lower instruments are stuck in an infinite whirling loop while the first violin, berserk, goes off on an impossible tangent. This eventually spirals down to a quiet unison, where, for a brief instant one hears the four simple pitches that the movement is based on. Finally the opening section returns in all its bumptiousness.
The third movement is a dark hymn, a whispered prayer. In early sketches, Beethoven designated it “Süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedengesang”, a sweet song of calm or peace; it serves as the expressive center of gravity for this quartet. In fact it is a theme with four variations, but they unfold in such a continuous fashion that this is not immediately obvious. Set in D-flat major, it feels a universe away from the sunny F major key of the rest of the quartet. The last variation is the most extraordinary part of the movement: the first violin, winged, hints at the theme in gentle, gasping rhythms, while the other instruments describe simple upward arpeggios. It is a movement that overflows with forgiveness and love, but is also full of great sadness. The final movement bears a strange inscription: “The Difficult Resolution.” The slow introduction, which features a rising minor-key question in the lower instruments, is marked “Muss es sein”—must it be? Here we have the Beethoven who poses difficult questions. Then follows the main Allegro section, joyful and affirmative, marked “Es muss sein!”—it must be! The balance of the movement then unrolls with barely a cloud on the horizon: all is happiness, high jinks, carefree melody. It is all the more shocking when the minor-key introductory question—“muss es sein”—fatefully returns. It is one final struggle, but this time, it appears, the beast is tamed. The music dances away through the coda, teasing, pianissimo, and is crowned by one final boisterous affirmation. There has been endless debate about just what this “difficult resolution” was, and many theories have been advanced. Beethoven’s note to his publisher hints that it might simply be the necessity of finishing the composition, and bidding farewell to a favorite genre: “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 resolution—Must it be?—It must be, it must be!” —Adapted from notes by Misha Amory
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