1. Alban Berg, Lyric Suite for String Quartet (1926)
Alban Berg (1885-1935) was born and lived in Vienna. He was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, and like Anton Webern, a proponent of the Second Viennese School. Berg combined Mahlerian Romanticism with a personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. During the heady fin de siècle period, he was part of Vienna's cultural elite and his circle included the musicians Alexander von Zemlinsky (see No 14 below) and Franz Schreker, the painter Gustav Klimt and the writer and satirist Karl Kraus. Although he wrote relatively little, all his works are masterpieces and Berg is remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th c., especially for his two operas Wozzeck and Lulu. Berg also wrote a masterful violin concerto. He composed two works for string quartet: the two movement String Quartet Op. 3 from 1910, and the present work, the Lyric Suite from 1925-26. Like Janacek's Second Quartet, "Intimate Letters," the Lyric Suite is about a secret love affair (but even better hidden in the music). The work is fully atonal, according to Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, but Berg was the only composer who managed to write passionate music in this idiom - as is also demonstrated by Lulu. And again, like Smetana's autobiographical First Quartet, the music can perfectly stand on its own and doesn't need the help of an outside story - but it is interesting all the same. The story which only came out in 1977, when a score came to light with Berg's own annotations and explanations of the background written for the object of his love, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. The serial structure, for example, was revealed as based on Berg's own initials (A.B.) and those of his mistress (H (=B Flat). F.). The six movements of the suite tell the story of their love. The happy first movement represents their serene life before infatuation. The sensuous second movement, Amoroso, depicts their first meeting in a park, where Fuchs-Robettin was walking with her children (both she and Berg were already married to other partners). The Misterioso third movement is full of sighs and whispers framing a central passionate episode where they declare their love for each other. The Appassionato fourth movement, the work's heart, develops that first kiss into more serious lovemaking, set to a phrase from the third movement of Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony where the song text contains the words "Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, Du, die in meinen unsterblichen Träumen wohnt." As a maelstrom of emotion, the love scene is even replete with evocations of heavy breathing! But unqualified bliss is not to be expected from a secret liaison, so in the fifth movement, Delirando, things take a bad turn. Slashing, tormented passages may point at vicious rumors. The sixth and last movement, Desolato, disintegrates into despair on notes which fit as a wordless setting to the lament "De Profundis Clamavi" from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. While the odd-numbered movements of this suite become increasingly faster and more violent, the even-numbered ones become more slow and more intense. The above story can be useful in helping listeners find a way through this atonal quartet, as a sort of latent opera, but should at the same time not detract from the fact that this is basically an abstract masterpiece.
Recording listened to: Alban Berg Quartett on Teldec (with String Quartet Op 3).
2. Frank Bridge, String Quartet No 3 (1926)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was born in Brighton and studied at the Royal College of Music under Stanford and others. He played the viola in the English String Quartet, and conducted, sometimes as deputy of Henry Wood, before devoting himself to composition, receiving the patronage of that great American maecenas, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (who also commissioned this quartet). Bridge is known as the tutor of Benjamin Britten (see No 22 below), who later championed his teacher's music and paid homage to him in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), based on a theme from the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906). Bridge started composing Edwardian miniatures, then underwent the influence of Debussy and Stravinsky, and finally in the 1920s turned to a post-tonal language, after the shock of the slaughter of WWI. This is clear in the Third String Quartet of 1926, one of Bridge's many substantial chamber music works, a quartet which shows kinship with Berg and Bartók. It is an expressionist English quartet, a strong but severe work with hard edges, that has been called close in tone to Berg's violin concerto of 1935. It was to Berg that Bridge owned the enlarged euphoniousness of his atonal counterpoint. The quartet has the shape of an arch whereby two allegro's flank a haunting and even nightmarish Andante con moto, similar to Bartók's "night music." The coda, in which the strands are brought together with references to all three movements, ends in a solemn valediction. This quartet is one of the highest achievements of Frank Bridge.
Recording listened to: The Bridge String Quartet on Meridian (with Second Quartet).
3. Karol Szymanowski, String Quartet No 2 Op 56 (1927)
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was the most celebrated Polish composer of the early 20th century. He developed an impressionistic and partially atonal style, but was also influenced by the folk music from the Tatra highlands in southern Poland. Szymanowski studied at the State Conservatory in Warsaw (where much later, in 1926, he would become director). As a cosmopolitan dandy with international tastes, he traveled widely in Europe, but also in North Africa, the Middle East and the United States. Szymanowski wrote four symphonies, two ballets, two operas, and numerous piano pieces. Besides music for violin and piano, his chamber music mainly consists of two string quartets, written in 1917 and 1927. In fact, Szymanowski preferred orchestral sounds to the smaller palette of chamber music. All the same, the Second Quartet is regarded as one of the composer's most inspired works. The quartet is in three movements. The first movement (Moderato, dolce e tranquillo) is in sonata-form, the second movement (Vivace, scherzando) combines rondo with variations. In the third movement (Lento), Szymanowski puts into practice an idea he had many years earlier when he wrote his first quartet: to crown the quartet with a double fugue. It is colorful music, thanks to the great diversity of articulation, such as sul tasto (with the bow close to the fingerboard), sul ponticello (near the bridge), a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow), etc. This results in a quartet with quasi-orchestral colors and textures and one of the most modern of Szymanowski's compositions. While the first movement has a subtle, Debussy-like texture, the scherzo shocks with its initial loudness, achieved by double-stop chords on all the instruments. Here one also finds the influence of the Tatra mountains, like in the ballet Harnasie of the previous year, not as direct quotations, but rather as abstract raw material, as a folk-based musical language. The finale returns to the calm mood of the first movement, mainly consisting of a slow and elegant fugue, before gaining speed and reaching an irresistible conclusion.
Recording listened to: Carmina Quartet on Denon (with First Quartet, etc.).
4. Arnold Schoenberg, String Quartet No 3 Op 30 (1927)
Besides an early, unpublished work, Arnold Schoenberg wrote four string quartets, distributed over his lifetime: the String Quartet No. 1 in D minor (1905), the String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor (1908), the String Quartet No. 3 (1927) and the String Quartet No. 4 (1936). The Third String Quartet was written in 1927, after Schoenberg had worked out the basic principles of his twelve-tone technique. Like the Third Quartet by Frank Bridge above, Schoenberg's Third Quartet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the American patron of the arts who had created a foundation in her name at the Library of Congress. By the time he composed the Third Quartet, Schoenberg's approach to twelve-note composition had changed: he began to use tone rows as motifs, not exposing them plainly to the ear anymore. These motifs are subject to variation, but the contrapuntal texture is not as thick as previously. Rhythmic patterns, however, play an important role. As the string quartet occupied the highest aesthetic rank in music, this first serial quartet formed an important test of the twelve-tone technique. The first movement, Moderato, is in sonata-form. The second movement, Theme and Variations (Adagio), combines the song form with elements of the variation series; the third movement, Intermezzo (Allegro moderato), resembles a minuet with a trio, and the last movement (Molto moderato) is a rondo. Instead of reading about the serial mechanics that go on in these movements, it is better to have in mind the association (not a program!) Schoenberg himself had of this quartet: the fairy-tale image of "Das Gespensterschiff," a ship "whose captain had been nailed through the head to the topmast by his rebellious crew." There indeed exists a nocturnal unease in this quartet that is shared with Schoenberg's earlier nightscapes such as Pierrot Lunaire, a creepiness which is also brought about by the ghostly dance rhythms that flit through all movements except the slow one. In this and in the Fourth Quartet, rhythm almost leaps off the music's surface, providing listeners with something to hold on to in the serial sea.
Recording listened to: Leipziger Streichquartett on MDG (with Verklärte Nacht).
5. Béla Bartók, String Quartet No 4 Sz 91 (1928)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where he met Zoltán Kodály, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. They both engaged in the collecting and recording of middle-European folk music. Although initially influenced by Brahms, Richard Strauss and Debussy, Bartók found his own style by incorporating elements of old Magyar peasant music into his compositions. These folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions. Bartók's style was a synthesis of folk music, neoclassicism and modernism, and he was fond of asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies. Bartók composed six string quartets, which are regarded as one of the most important quartet series written in the 20th century. The Fourth Quartet is taut and economical, an exuberant example of "vintage Bartók." The quartet is in five movements: two pairs of movement types, two fast (both lively, energetic and bold, the last movement in addition a stomping peasant dance) and two lighter scherzos (the first one played entirely with mutes, the second one entirely pizzicato), enclose a central, nocturne-like slow movement, solitary and mournful night music. The quartet is almost geometrical in form, opposite movements around the central slow movement mirror each other. Its explosive Expressionistic language is one of the most radical ever employed by the composer. There is also a skillful polyphonic structure as Bartók uses more counterpoint than before.
Recording listened to: Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammaphon (complete quartets).
6. Serge Prokofiev, String Quartet No 1 in B Minor Op 50 (1930)
Chamber music was something of an alien activity for the Russian composer Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953), who was more at home in large symphonies, ballets and operas. He wrote only a handful of chamber works, such as the Hebrew Overture for clarinet, string quartet and piano, or the Quintet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass, but these were dictated by practical circumstances rather than his own preferences. The same, in a different way, could be said about his two string quartets. The First Quartet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whom we already met as an important American patron of the arts above in No 2 about Bridge and No 4 about Schoenberg, and who had set up a foundation in her name at the Library of Congress to promote chamber music. Prokofiev received this commission while on an extended and successful tour in the United States in 1930 and he promptly wrote the quartet which was performed in the spring of 1931 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. That was, by the way, the last Prokofiev premiere in the U.S. as the composer was already preparing his return to Russia which would take place in 1936. Prokofiev had been visiting the Soviet Union since 1927, and there also met his old friend Myaskovsky (see Best String Quartets, Part 5) and he must have known that Myaskovsky was working on a set of three string quartets which was completed in 1930. The First Quartet is in three movements, and is written in the motoric and muscular style typical for Prokofiev's work of this period. The powerful and strident Allegro is in sonata form and starts with a long exposition in three distinct sections - this movement is so to speak almost "archetypically Prokofievian" in its fast and furious style. The second movement is a Vivace (with a short slow introduction), in fact a vigorous scherzo with two trios that hurls past in high gear. In contrast, the finale is a lyrical and introspective Andante, intense in emotion, although there is also a section of sinister dissonance. Prokofiev later made transcriptions of this finale both for string orchestra and for piano. Prokofiev would wrote a second string quartet during the war years after his return to the Soviet Union, when he and other artists had been evacuated to the Caucasus and were asked by the government to write something with local folklore in it.
Recording listened to: Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (with Second String Quartet, etc.).
7. Ruth Crawford Seeger, String Quartet (1931)
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), born Ruth Porter Crawford, was an American modernist composer active primarily from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. Her ultramodern music influenced later composers as Elliott Carter (see Best String Quartets, Part Five). Crawford Seeger studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago (where she also met the poet Carl Sandburg, whose poems she later set to music). In this period, she was mainly influenced by the music (and ideas) of Alexander Scriabin. In 1929 she moved to New York, where she started studying composition with Charles Seeger - whom she would marry in 1932. In 1930, she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship which enabled her to visit Berlin and Paris. After her marriage, she followed her husband to Washington, D.C., where he had been appointed to the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. Unfortunately, this meant that Ruth Crawford Seeger would give up her modernist composing and in the next decades only make arrangements of American traditional folk songs (she only returned briefly to serious composition in 1952, when shortly before her early death, she wrote a Suite for Wind Quintet). So her modernist work, mainly consisting of piano music, chamber music and art songs, was unfortunately confined to the years 1924-32, in which period she wrote about 20 works. Of these, the String Quartet is by far the most important - a masterpiece that is one of the finest avant garde works in the genre, written by Crawford in Berlin during her Guggenheim Fellowship-year. It consists of four untitled movements, lasting in total only 12 minutes - but it is just as concentrated and advanced as the music for string quartet by Anton Webern (see Best String Quartets, Part 3). The first movement is a twelve-tone study full of wide, arching intervals and haunting melodies. The second movement is canonic, the lines of music linked from one instrument to another form a chain. The third movement is a study in "dissonant dynamics" (also called "sound mass composition") in which each instrument has its own rise and fall in loudness on different held notes. The finale features a free first violin, which is contrasted with unison or doubled answers from the other strings. Crawford Seeger wrote music in which many things happen simultaneously, on every level, but she exercised strict control over all aspects of the music. This brief string quartet sounds like nothing that came before it. Unfortunately, it represented both the high point of Crawford's career as an avant-garde composer and a premature end to it - for from now on the work in American folk song she undertook with her husband would take all her career time.
Recording listened to: The Playground Ensemble on Youtube (official channel; parts I & II; parts III & IV).
8. Silvestre Revueltas, String Quartet No 4 "Música de feria" (1934)
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) was like Carlos Chávez - whose assistant conductor he became - one of the most important Mexican classical composers. Himself a violinist, he studied at the National Conservatory in Mexico City and the Chicago College of Music. Revueltas wrote orchestral music, chamber music, and film music. His best-known works are orchestral pieces like Sensemaya and The Night of the Mayas. Revueltas wrote four string quartets. The fourth quartet, written in 1932, has been nicknamed "Music of the Fair." It consists of one continuous movement, rowdy but also gorgeous music, with a constantly changing pulse as if passing around the various activities at a fair ground. Ideas are contrasted rather than developed and Revueltas tries out various string techniques, while double stops add to the already dense texture. At the heart of the work is a slow serenade. This ten-minute quartet is like a colorful musical postcard from Mexico.
Recording listened to: Quarteto Latinoamericano on New Albion Records (complete string quartets by Revueltas).
9. Albert Roussel, String Quartet Op 45 (1932)
The French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) worked as midshipman before turning to music, and studying at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where one of his teachers was Vincent d'Indy. Despite his late start, Roussel became one of the most prominent French composers of the interbellum, known for his neoclassicist style. His students include Erik Satie, Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů (see No 15 below). A classicist by nature, Roussel's music also has a strong rhythmic drive. His works include four symphonies, numerous ballets, orchestral suites, a piano concerto, and much chamber music, solo piano music, and songs. He wrote only one string quartet, but this was written in 1932 when he was at the height of his powers. His Third Symphony and ballet Bacchus et Ariane had just been performed to great acclaim. The four movement quartet starts with a lively Allegro in sonata form, after which follows a dreamlike and serene Adagio. The scherzo (Allegro vivo) is full of mocking humor and the quartet closes with a more austere finale (Allegro moderato) in which Roussel shows off his contrapuntal skills. A magnificent quartet that is wholly characteristic of Roussel's music.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii on Adda (with quartets by Tailleferre and Ibert).
10. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, String Quartet No.1 "Carillon" (1933)
The German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) was born in Munich and studied at the Munich Academy. When the Nazis came to power, he withdrew from musical life in Germany, and refused to allow his works to be played there. Instead, he went to Vienna where he followed a private course with Anton Webern. After the fall of Hitler, Hartmann was one of only few in the musical arena who were completely untainted by collaboration with the Nazi regime, and he therefore became an important figure in the rebuilding of West-German musical life. In the late forties and fifties he also gave support to young avant garde composers as Henze, Nono, Dallapiccola, Xenakis, Berio and Zimmermann. Hartmann was a self-critical composer who often revised his work. He attempted a synthesis of many different idioms, from Expressionism to Schoenbergian twelve-tone technique. His major works are eight symphonies, several concertos, large vocal works, and a smaller number of chamber music works. He wrote two string quartets. The First Quartet has been nicknamed "Carillon" as it won Geneva's carillon competition in 1936 (happily, it doesn't contain any carillon sounds!), but it was withdrawn by Hartmann because of his anti-Nazi stance and refusal to release his music in Germany (it was the first work he wrote after the Nazis came to full power). It is a concise, dark quartet that has been compared to Bartok's Fourth Quartet (see No 5 above). The first movement (Langsam - Sehr lebhaft) is a deeply mournful dirge, followed by a section of great rhythmic energy. Next comes a dramatic but beautiful middle movement played con sordino. The finale bursts out in anger, hammering away full of passion. It seems Hartmann also knit some forbidden music into the quartet, such as Hebraic melodies and worker's songs, as a sign of defiance. It is music of strongly felt and passionate expression.
Recording listened to: Pellegrini Quartett on CPO (with Second Quartet).
11. Joseph-Guy Ropartz, String Quartet No 4 in E Major (1933-34)
The French composer Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864-1955) studied at the Conservatoire de Paris under Théodore Dubois and later under Jules Massenet. He also studied the organ under César Franck. From 1894 to 1919 he served as director of the Nancy Conservatory and after that he was for ten years director of the Strasbourg Conservatory. Ropartz wrote sensitive music which was mainly influenced by Debussy and Franck, but which today is unfortunately mostly forgotten. His compositions include five symphonies, stage works, choral works, and a large number of chamber music works, including six string quartets. The Fourth Quartet was completed in 1934. The first movement Allegro of this essentially optimistic work is of a contrapuntal nature. The second movement is a playful scherzo with a chromatic trio. The Quasi lento is a solemn meditative lied which unexpectedly opens up to great depth. The dance-like and wildly tumbling finale starts with an exultant fanfare.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Stanislas on Timpani (with Piano Trio & Prélude, Marine et Chansons).
12. John Blackwood McEwen, String Quartet No 16 "Quartette provencale" (1936)
The Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) was educated at the Royal College of Music in London and after graduation served as choirmaster and teacher in Greenock and Glasgow. In 1898, however, he became Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal College of Music, and later in life also its Principal. A grossly neglected composer, his best known work is A Solway Symphony (1909), one of his five symphonies. Above all, McEwen was a diligent quartet writer: he left nineteen string quartets, of which seventeen were numbered, written over a fifty-year period (1893-1947). The Sixteenth Quartet is not about Scotland (as so much of McEwen's music), but evokes the moods and colors of the Provence. The three movements are titled "Summer morning" (constructed from bird call motifs), "Summer Evening" (very subdued and remote music) and "Le Mistral" (a wild dance-like finale with interesting meter changes). This is not Modernist or atonal music (McEwen's Fourth Quartet was his most advanced essay), but it is music with a personality of its own, and that is enough.
Recording listened to: Chillingirian Quartet on Chandos (with quartets No 4, 7 & 17).
13. Samuel Barber, String Quartet Op 11 (1936)
The American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. He was a traditional Romantic in an age of Modernism, but his music is always masterfully crafted, lyric and complex. When Barber wrote his only string quartet in 1936, he had already established a reputation as one of America's most promising young composers. At the time of writing Barber was in Europe on a combined American Prix de Rome and Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. The quartet was premiered in Rome by the Pro Arte String Quartet. The quartet consists of three movements, but as the third movement is very short (like a coda) and reprises material from the first movement, it is often said to be in two movements. On top of that, the whole quartet has been overshadowed by the slow second movement, which in its orchestral version as Adagio for Strings (1938) has become Barber’s most popular work. The transcription was commissioned by Arturo Toscanini. The first movement, Molto allegro e appassionato, is structured as a loose sonata-form and built around rhythmic motifs. The transcendent Molto adagio presents one of the most famous melodies in musical history, a slow cantilena, built from step-wise intervals and that slowly seems to uncoil - music of sublime beauty. The quartet is capped by a short Molto allegro in which some first movement material is recapitulated. This movement is played attaca (without break) after the Adagio.
Recording listened to: Tokyo String Quartet on RCA Victor (with quartets by Takemitsu and Britten).
14. Alexander von Zemlinsky, String Quartet No 4 Op. 25 (1936)
Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born into a highly cultured Viennese family. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory and as a fledgling composer received help from both Brahms and Mahler. Zemlinsky had several prestigious conducting positions, but in 1938 he fled for the Nazis to the New York where he died in obscurity. Zemlinsky is best known for large scale works as the Lyric Symphony, the symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau, and the operas Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg. Zemlinsky's music adopts extended harmonies, but he never wrote atonal music like his friend Schoenberg. He was the teacher of, among others, Korngold and Weigl. Zemlinsky wrote four string quartets of which the fourth has been called a true masterpiece. It was written in 1936 as a memorial to Alban Berg (see No 1 above) whose unexpected death at age 50 in 1935 had been a blow to Zemlinsky. The music is haunted by an atmosphere of hopeless despair. There are six concise movements consciously modeled on the schematic plan of Berg's Lyric Suite. The odd-numbered movements are slow and reflective while the even ones are more driven in style. The first movement (Preludium: Poco Adagio) opens with a solemn chorale. The Burleske (Vivace) offers some virtuosic passage work and aggressively plucked strings. The Adagietto has long melodic lines and gradually grows in tension. The Intermezzo provides some relief with its Viennese nostalgia. The Barcarolle (Poco Adagio) is made up out of a set of variations on an elegiac theme which is first imposingly presented in the cello. The finale is a double fugue which strikes a vehement pose and leads to a forceful conlusion. The quartet remained unpublished during Zemlinsky's lifetime, although he had the opportunity to hear a private performance by the Kolisch Quartet. The first public performance came only in 1967, by the LaSalle Quartet, who were instrumental in the "Zemlinsky revival."
Recording listened to: LaSalle Quartet on Brilliant Classics (complete quartets).
15. Bohuslav Martinů, String Quartet No 5 (1938)
The Czech Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) enjoyed an international career in France and the United States (where he fled from the Nazis). He wrote in a modernist and neoclassical style. Martinů was a prolific composer, who wrote almost 400 works, such as his choral work The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955); six symphonies; concertos for cello, viola, violin, and five for the piano; and chamber music, including seven numbered string quartets. That whole cycle is worthwhile. The Fifth Quartet is a big, dramatic work, full of emotional turbulence, written during Martinů's life in Paris. His language is more angular than in the earlier quartets. Unfortunately, the quartet could not be performed due to the political chaos of the time and it was first heard in Prague in 1958. The dark-hued first movement starts with some harshly dissonant and percussive chords, before settling into a Czech-inflected folk-like idiom. The Adagio has a long, melancholy song in the first violin accompanied by almost-Bartókian pizzicati. After the vivid and astringent scherzo follows the final Allegro that - after an introduction - sets off with a strong unisono statement.
Recording listened to: Martinů Quartet on Naxos (with quartets 4 & 7).
16. Elizabeth Maconchy, String Quartet No 3 (1938)
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) grew up in the English and Irish countryside and studied at the Royal College of Music in London where one of her teachers was Ralph Vaughan Williams. She was interested in the music of Bartók and her first powerful orchestral work The Land was performed at the 1930 Proms when she was only 23. Her music went on being performed all over Europe. She continued developing her musical voice despite the added chores of a marriage and two children. Her vigorous compositions remained rooted in tonality and are characterized by strong lyricism and at the same time logical structure. Her main influence was central European modernism, there is no trace here of the English "pastoral school." She wrote in all genres, including opera, but it is especially her fine series of thirteen string quartets, which span the years 1932 to 1984, that is often regarded as the peak of her musical achievements - they have been called as fine as those by Bartók and Shostakovich. Unfortunately, today Maconchy's music is severely and shamefully under-represented on CD and other forms of recordings (there exists a recording of the quartets, but I haven't been able to obtain it so far) - I have selected her Third Quartet because that happens to be available in the official channel of the Signum String Quartet on Youtube (unfortunately, without any further information as to tempi etc.). It is in one movement. There is a sturdy string sound, with especially powerful lower strings (Maconchy herself was a viola player). The music is slow and questioning, followed by an aggressive, rhythmic faster section, before again returning to the opening. Maconchy's compelling and original music has been said to be one of "impassioned argument" and that is also very true of this Third Quartet.
Recording listened to: Signum Quartett on Youtube (official channel).
17. Reynaldo Hahn, String Quartet No 1 in A Minor (1939)
The Venezuela-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), who was a friend of Proust, has already been introduced in my post about his Piano Quintet. The precocious Hahn felt at home in Paris with its cultural resources, such as the Opéra, the Opéra Ballet, the Opéra-Comique, and its nexus of artists and writers. But besides being a music critic for Le Figaro, he also served in important posts, such as conducting Mozart at the Salzburg Festival, working as general manager of the Cannes Casino opera house and after WWII, director of the Paris Opéra. The best part of Hahn's output, which is unfortunately almost forgotten, consists of chamber music and art songs. But Hahn waited long before trying his hand at the prestigious genre of the string quartet. He wrote his First Quartet, the present one, in 1939 when he was in his mid-sixties and immediately started on a second one, which he finished in 1943 (at his death, sketches for a third quartet were found). The first movement, Andante molto moderato, starts with a nostalgic introduction, before a dashing and carefree theme takes over. The second movement (Lent) is subtitled "Recit et chanson de Provence" and is in fact a low key medieval carol (almost a Christmas carol!). In contrast, the Andantino has a more reserved and severe character, but is also imbued with a sweet sadness. The Allegro assai finale caps the quartet with an almost Mozartian lightness of spirit. A wonderful discovery.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii on Naive (with Piano Quintet and Second String Quartet).
18. Michael Tippett, Quartet No 2 in F Sharp (1941-42)
Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was a leading English composer who rose to prominence during and immediately after WWII. He studied at the Royal College of Music and after graduation, continued exploring counterpoint. Until the mid-1950s his music was broadly lyrical in character, before changing to a more astringent and experimental style. Among his best-known works are the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1941-42) and the orchestral Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953). Tippett wrote five string quartets, spanning his entire compositional life - the first one dating from 1935 has been called the work in which he found his own voice; the fifth is from 1991, when the composer was already well into his eighties. They show him as an extremely skillful and innovative composer. The String Quartet No 2 is notable for its abundant lyricism and supple dancing rhythms, while Tippett also places emphasis on fugal writing. Officially, the quartet is in F Sharp, but instead of using that key as part of its tonal structure, the music only "hovers around" the noted key. The first movement, Allegro grazioso, is characterized by soaring lyricism and rhythmic vigor, while also the influence of the English madrigalists has been noted. The second movement, Andante, is a fugue with a dark, chromatic character and an atmosphere of resignation. After an exhilarating scherzo (Presto) with some rhythmic antics, follows the serious-minded Allegro appasionato finale, modeled on the last movement of Beethoven's Op 131 Quartet, and using themes from the previous movements. It all ends in a serene coda. A true masterpiece.
Recording listened to: Kreutzer Quartet on Chandos (with quartets 1 and 4).
19. Vissarion Shebalin, String Quartet no 5 in F Minor Op 33 "Slavonic" (1942)
With nine quartets, Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963) is the third great string quartet composer of Soviet music, after Shostakovich (15) and Myaskovsky (13; for both see: Best Quartets, Part Five). He was born in Omsk in Siberia and studied at the Conservatory in Moscow under Myaskovsky and later became himself teacher (and again later also director, until he was ousted in 1948 by fanatic Stalinists) at his alma mater. Shostakovich called him "the best composition teacher in the country." Although Shebalin wrote five symphonies, several operas and other large scale works, chamber music also forms a significant part of his output. The Fifth Quartet was written in 1942 and for reasons of foreign policy received the Stalin Prize - it was seen as "nationalistic" music (like Shostakovich' Seventh Symphony) that could be useful in the struggle against the invading Germans. In fact, Shebalin always had a close relationship with folk music elements, and it was quite natural for him to use them in this quartet. The quartet is in five movements. A very Russian-sounding Moderato introduces a sonata-form Allegro in an optimistic mood. The second movement, Andante, leads to a large climax. The third movement, Allegretto is a sort of scherzo, and this is followed by another Andante that again recalls Russian songs. The finale (Allegro energico) includes a slower section and a coda which harks back to material from earlier in the work. Shebalin was a cultured and erudite man; his intellectual style and a certain academic approach to composition make him close to his teacher Myaskovsky. He was also a close friend of Shostakovich, who dedicated his Second String Quartet to Shebalin.
Recording listened to: Krasni Quartet on Olympia (with quartets 4 & 9).
20. Boris Blacher, String Quartet No 3 (1944)
Boris Blacher (1903-1975) was born in China from German-Baltic parents. In 1922, he traveled to Berlin where he enrolled in musical studies at Berlin University. Later, Blacher taught composition at the Dresden Conservatory, but was ousted from his post by the Nazis, who accused him of writing degenerate and "un-German" music (in fact, Blacher was one-fourth Jewish, but that was only discovered near the end of the War and had no consequences anymore). His career resumed after 1945, and Blacher became president of the Academy of Arts in (West-)Berlin. He was one of the central figures in German music after WWII. Boris Blacher initially composed in a tonal and approachable style (but fully of its time in its bold use of rhythm and melodic asymmetry), in his later work he also adopted serial techniques, without however joining the Serialists. He composed in all genres, from operas, ballets and symphonies to film and electronic music. Boris Blacher wrote five complete string quartets, the first one in 1930 and the last one in 1967 (plus a fragment from 1975 and several other works in which the string quartet is used). The Third String Quartet was written in 1944, while bombs rained on Berlin. Considering that situation, this is strangely optimistic music - but after all Blacher was anti-Nazi and only waiting for Hitler's demise. Moreover, he had found personal happiness with the pianist Gerty Herzog who after the war would become his wife; and he was busy making musical plans for the time when the war would be over - Blacher believed that instead of big operas and concertos, that would become the era of chamber operas and chamber music. The four-movement quartet opens with a Presto characterized by aggressive rhythmic ostinatos. The ensuing Andantino has a beautiful cantabile line in the violin. In the next Allegro molto Blacher demonstrates his love for jazz (as he had done also in the 1930s), with an interesting boogie-woogie-style walking bass. The concise quartet is brought to an end by a brief Larghetto which ends very quietly. By the way, this was Blacher's last "traditional" quartet: the Fourth Quartet would be a five-minute Epitaph in Memory of Franz Kafka, and the Fifth Quartet a one-movement series of variations titled "Variations on a Divergent Triad in C Minor."
Recording listened to: Petersen Quartett on EDA (complete string quartets).
21. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, String Quartet No 3 (1945)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind (he was the son of the renowned music critic Julius Korngold). Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine, after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The child prodigy later developed into a major Viennese opera composer (his opera Die Tote Stadt is a neglected masterwork). In 1934 he moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - and he stayed there, as the Nazi annexation of Austria made it impossible for him to return to his homeland. In contrast to for example Ernst Toch (see Best String Quartets, Part Three), Korngold was very successful in composing film scores, earning several Oscars - and therefore neglecting to compose more serious works (which was anyhow difficult as Korngold like other emigres had left both his public and his reputation behind in Europe). In 1944, for the first time since working in Hollywood, Korngold returned to serious composition, in the form of his Third (and last) String Quartet. More excellent works would follow, such as his Violin Concerto and his Symphony. Interestingly, in this quartet Korngold uses some material from his film scores (allowed to do so by his unique contract). The opening movement is a classical sonata form, with a descending chromatic theme (as a lament for the ravages of WWII) and a contrasting theme of nostalgic regret. The demonic scherzo stands in second place; its Trio features a warm melody Korngold borrowed from his score to Between Two Worlds (his personal favorite among all his film music). In the third movement ("Sostenuto - like a folk tune") Korngold uses another film theme, of his music for The Sea Wolf. The boisterous, almost Stravinskian Finale (Allegro con fuoco) borrows likewise from the score to Devotion. A fine quartet, in which the borrowings of film melodies do not lead to film music or any other cheapening effect.
Recording listened to: The Flesh Quartet on ASV Digital (with String Sextet).
22. Benjamin Britten, String Quartet no 2 in C Major Op 36 (1945)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a central figure in 20th c. English classical music. Born in Suffolk, he studied at the Royal College of Music in London and privately with the composer Frank Bridge (see No 2 above). Britten's music ranges from orchestral to choral, solo vocal, chamber and instrumental as well as film music, but he made his greatest mark in opera with works as Peter Grimes (1945). Among his chamber music, we find a cello sonata and three suites for solo cello (inspired by his friendship with Rostropovich) and also three string quartets, written in 1941, 1945 and 1973 (but there are also two student works and several smaller pieces for string quartet). The Second Quartet was composed in late 1945 for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the death of the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell in 1695. At that time, Britten was 32 and his opera Peter Grimes had already established him as England's leading younger composer. Britten shows his mastery in scoring for strings in this quartet. There are three movements. The first movement (Allegro calma senza rigore) is characterized by an intervallic leap, which occurs three times and each time is continued differently. The development plays with the motives from these three continuations, which are then sounded together in the recapitulation. The central Scherzo (Vivace) explores contrasts of duple and triple meter in a sort of tarantella for muted strings. The final movement (Sostenuto) is the crown on the quartet, an almost 20 minute long Chacony as a direct tribute to Purcell. The Chacony (Chaconne) was a slow Baroque dance in triple meter, based on a repeating pattern in the bass. Britten spins out 21 variations organized into 4 sets and demarcated by solo cadenzas from cello, viola and first violin respectively. The first set of variations focuses on harmony, the second on rhythmic variation and the third on melodic aspects. As a sort of epic conclusion, the last variation contains 21 C Major chords as a kind of drone against which the original theme's motion is vividly set off. A masterful quartet that is both modern and accessible.
Recording listened to: Tokyo String Quartet on RCA Victor (with quartets by Barber and Takemitsu)
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen