A fantastic look at why the Op. 131 quartet is so great, by UCLA professor Robert Winter – click here to listen.
This week and next, we’re taking on Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. This seven movement quartet – played without pause from beginning to end – is thought to be Beethoven’s own favorite quartet, and it was performed for Schubert (at his request) on his deathbed. It’s a work that demands so much of an ensemble, and starting the slow, melancholy fugue that begins the work is much like being strapped into an inexorable amusement park ride – once you start, you can’t stop. Not until you reach the double bar at the end.
Many performers think that the op. 131 quartet is Beethoven’s greatest composition for string quartet (as did Richard Wagner). I’m not going to dispute that assertion. It is clearly his most experimental and fantastic quartet (he wrote that it had “less lack of imagination than before”). Understatement of the year, by Herr Beethoven! There are many reasons for this admiration and respect, and I’ll share some of mine here.
Emotional range. This quartet starts with a slow fugue that has as its subject a musical motive that might be best described as despairing. It bravely tries to rise by three notes, then heavily sags down in defeat. It has all the intellectual rigor you’d expect of a fugue, but none of that matters. The air of sadness pervades the movement. It’s immediately followed by the first of two scherzos in the quartet, and it couldn’t be any more different, cleverly set up by a unison C-sharp that evaporates into the a most effervescent D major. The massive set of variations that makes up the third movement encompass an entire world of emotion in its pages. Perhaps most stunningly, the final movement takes us from C-sharp minor to C-sharp major, with a breathtaking coda that somehow manages to convey triumph, resignation, and fierce defiance all at once – while still bringing back the basic materials of the fugue that opened the quartet over 30 minutes earlier. Amazing!
Difficulty. This is one of the supreme tests of a string quartet. Intonation is tested by the keys which allow very little use of open strings, and so provide little resonance to the harmonies. Part writing is intricate and constantly shifting – no one plays an entire melody in the piece, melodies start in one instrument and end in another, often passing through several instruments in succession before their conclusion. There are, as in many of Beethoven’s compositions for strings, many passages which just don’t work well for the instruments. Beethoven says: Too bad!
Risk and reward. It pays to try to take things to their utmost with this quartet. The quality of sound shouldn’t be sacrificed, but passages like the beginning of the last movement should just rage like a wild animal. It’s that pitting of elegance against brutality that really gets to the heart of what Beethoven is playing with in his last compositions. It went on to profoundly influence Shostakovich (who wrote 15 quartets of his own) and Bartók, to name just a few.
Please join us at the University of Portland Mago Hunt Recital Hall on Wednesday, November 2 at 12:30 pm for our free concert of Webern and Beethoven. [map]
We’ve just added our concerts for the upcoming season, and as our individual schedules get ever more packed, we’re working on consolidating our repertoire so that we don’t have quite as much music to learn and rehearse. We’d love to do more, but we must also pay the bills, too!
We’re doing two major works this year, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and Dvorak’s great final quartet in A-flat major, Op. 105. Our two smaller scale works will be Anton Webern’s Langsamer satz, and David Ludwig’s Pale Blue Dot.
We’re excited to play on the Oregon Symphony musicians’ series Classical Up Close for the first time this year, and we’re bringing David Ludwig’s Pale Blue Dot with us!
Here we are in our refresher rehearsal for the piece earlier this week (click photos to enlarge).
We hope to see you there!
May 3, 2016 at 7:30 p.m., Lake Grove Presbyterian Church 4040 Sunset Dr, Lake Oswego.
Free admission and open to the public! #upclosepdx
We’re excited to present a fantastic new piece by David Ludwig to our Salem audience next month (click here for details).
The genesis of his String Quartet No. 1 “Pale Blue Dot” arose from David’s musing on the Voyager I mission, which produced one of the iconic images of mankind, which became known popularly as the Pale Blue Dot photo.
One of the other aspects of the Voyager I mission was to send a collection of images, sounds, music, and information about the human race. Among these was a recording of the Cavatina movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, played by the Budapest String Quartet. There is a brief, spectral quotation of the beginning of the Cavatina in this new quartet.
Of local interest to chamber music fans, Pale Blue Dot was written for the brilliant Dover String Quartet, which has been in residence at Chamber Music Northwest the past few seasons. Below is a recent performance of Pale Blue Dot by the Dover Quartet at the Curtis Institute of Music, where they are the quartet-in-residence.
You can read much more about Ludwig’s inspiration and composition of this new quartet on his blog.
We’re excited to get our 2015-2016 season to its belated start! We’re doing two performances in February and March, with a possible third if a suitable performance space is found.
On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, we’ll play on the University of Portland’s Music at Midweek series at the Mago Hunt Recital Hall. The concert is free to the public, and begins at 12:30 p.m., and lasts just under an hour. See our Upcoming Concerts page for more information. We’ll be performing Beethoven’s very first completed quartet, the Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3. Then we’ll conclude the concert with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 2 in A major, Op. 68.
On Sunday, March 13, 2016, we’ll be in Salem, Oregon for the Camerata Musica series at the Salem Public Library. This concert is also free to the public, and begins at 2:30 p.m. We’ll play the Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets mentioned above, and conclude the concert with David Ludwig’s Pale Blue Dot, a wonderful piece which begins in a very surprising way! You might even say it’s out of this world…
We’ll be joining a stellar cast of Portland musicians who will be supporting acclaimed soprano Janice Johnson and pianist Kira Whiting in their vocal recital entitled “Night Songs“, on Wednesday, November 4 at 7pm, at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church (1535 NE 17th Ave, Portland, Oregon 97232). We’ll be performing Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle. Cellist David Eby also performs. The program also features works of Brahms, Hahn, Marx, and Debussy.
Last night we played Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuga, Op. 133 as part of the Going Boldly in Lake Oswego concert presented by Cascadia Composers. It was a fantastic concert organized by Linda Woody, who also had a world premiere (Elegy for a Dead Soldier) on the program. It was a fantastic audience, and we were in good company with many excellent local performers on the bill before us.
Believe it or not, this is the end of our ninth season together. Next year is our 10th anniversary season, and while plans are still being made, I can promise a fair amount of Beethoven will feature, and a variety of other composers as well. We’ll see you in the fall!
UPDATE: You can find a video of our Grosse Fugue performance on our Sights & Sounds page.
We just returned from Tacoma, Washington, where we played our American String Quartets concert to great audience acclaim (yes, you can program 21st century music and people will like it!) on the fantastic Second City Chamber Series; and Portland, you will get your chance to hear it on Sunday, February 15th at 2:00 pm at the University of Portland’s (5000 N. Willamette Blvd) Buckley Center Auditorium.
We’ll be performing Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, with its gorgeous adagio (it’s original setting), written all the way back in 1936. Oregon native and newly returned from Brooklyn composer Kenji Bunch will be on hand to introduce his String Quartet No. 2 “Concussion Theory”, based upon the Dust Bowl period (during which the Barber was written, by the way) in the American midwest. Finally, we present one of the major new quartets of the new century, Daniel Ott’s String Quartet No. 2. It just so happens that Dan is a alumnus (Class of 1997) of the Curtis Institute of Music, where Barber was once a student (Class of 1934). It will be a fantastic concert, and we hope that we will sell out the concert!
Admission is by a suggested donation of $10, with all the proceeds benefitting AllClassical.org, Portland’s 24-hour classical music station and amazing community resource, building cultural community in Portland and beyond.
We’re happy to announce that on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at 2pm, the Arnica Quartet will be performing an all-American concert of string quartets at the Mago Hunt Recital Hall on the University of Portland campus (5000 N. Willamette Blvd). Two of these composers are alive and well – and both trace their roots back to the Pacific Northwest. Kenji Bunch, violist and artistic director of Fear No Music, grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, and after making his name as both performer and composer in New York City, has returned to make his home in Portland, Oregon. Daniel Ott grew up in Puyallup, Washington, and currently makes his home in New York City, where he has a thriving composition and teaching career.
Samuel Barber – String Quartet in b minor, Op. 11 (1936)
Kenji Bunch – String Quartet No. 2 “Concussion Theory” (2012)
Daniel Ott String – Quartet No. 2 (2011)