Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) Igor Stravinsky
(b. Lomonosov, Russia, 1882; d. New York City, 1971)

In the years leading up to World War One, Igor Stravinsky was riding a wave. The Diaghilev ballets Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) had established his reputation as a forward-looking composer for the stage. The Rite of Spring (1913) broke virgin ground with its asymmetric rhythms and jarring dissonances hummed and blared by an enormous orchestra. He was a celebrity in Paris. In the wake of the notorious premiere of The Rite, Stravinsky was hospitalized, first from the effects of a bad oyster, then for typhoid fever.

One doesn’t often think of Stravinsky as a family man, but he married his first cousin Yekaterina (Katya) Nosenko in 1906, and three children followed in four years. The birth of a fourth child in early 1914 aggravated Katya’s tuberculosis. Seeking a healthy climate, the family moved from village to village in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, from Montreux and Clarens to Leysin and Salvan. In these picturesque locales, Stravinsky conceived his striking miniatures for string quartet.

The pieces may have had something to do with a project proposed by Jean Cocteau about the biblical David. The provocateur Cocteau wanted to blend ritual elements of the Old Testament story with a fairground setting, with David dancing around the head of Goliath, dancing before Saul, dancing around the Ark. The project never materialized—the War materialized—but the music for the Three Pieces may have originated in that context.

Oddly, Three Pieces was perhaps Stravinsky’s first chamber work. Although he had composed ballets and a Symphony in E-flat, he had written no independent chamber music, apart from some songs with instrumental accompaniment. The Three Pieces were composed between April and July 1914. They are dedicated to the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, a conscientious and cerebral musician who expressed interest at that time in performing Stravinsky’s symphony. “The quartet pieces are a textual dream for students of the compositional process,” writes Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh, “because they embody in a compact and not yet fully absorbed form many of Stravinsky’s compositional preoccupations just after The Rite of Spring.” 

In the first piece, first violin wheedles a four-note dance tune high on the G string to a viola drone and cello drum, while second violin barks a scale from another key. Ostinato is the preoccupation in what Walsh calls “a merry dance for clockwork musicians.” Like a timepiece, it doesn’t cadence, it just runs down. The second piece may be a portrait of the diminutive English clown Harry Relph, who went by the stage-name “Little Tich.” Relph was known for his Big-Boot Dance, which featured long, flat shoes with 28-inch soles. The final movement resembles a litany, a quasi-Orthodox chant with concluding alleluia or amen.

Stravinsky enjoyed these pieces, and orchestrated them in 1928–29 as the first three of Four Études for Orchestra. (The fourth étude is an orchestration of a piece for player piano.) Although in the string score he indicated only metronome markings, he gave the Études poetic titles—Danse, Excentrique, Cantique—which are printed in today’s program.

Quartet in D minor, Opus 76, No. 2, Quinten (1797) Joseph Haydn
(b. Austria, 1732; d. Vienna, 1809)

Haydn’s Six Quartets, Opus 76 are called the “Erdödy” Quartets because of their dedication to that Count. Haydn composed them in 1797, when he was at the height of his fame and working on The Creation, his response to the sublime music of Handel he had heard in England. The eminent Charles Burney wrote to the composer of Opus 76: “They are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects, and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but of one of highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before.”

There are subtitles given by a composer to a work, like “Eroica.” Then there are nicknames—handles, really, like “Moonlight”—that others have come up with to remember or characterize a work.” Nicknames come in different flavors. Some refer to imagined scenarios, like Chopin’s “Raindrop.” In this quartet by Haydn, the nickname “Quinten” refers to a musical idea: the two pairs of falling fifths played by violin at the very top. The theme is as plain as a pine box. And as original as the open strings of a violin, plucked. But exposition doesn’t merely mean sounding an idea; it means engraining it in the mind. Each instrument must play it. How does it sound in the bass? In a middle voice? What if it’s exchanged between violin and viola? How does it sound in major mode? All told, the quint-motive occurs in fully half of the first movement’s 154 measures. “Undoubtedly,” quips Hans Keller, “Haydn is musical history’s greatest thematic economist.” Since the theme is a plain 2+2, Haydn balances it with a strange rhythmic wheezing, in effect moving the bar line forward with syncopations. It makes the players sound impatient. And in the coda the lower instruments play out the syncopations against a violin flurry. It’s a fearsome ensemble moment.

Instead of a slow movement, Haydn gives us a thoughtful stroll, marked “Moving, but rather cheerfully.” The first three notes are earnestly considered, and violin sometimes falls to nodding: “I think so; I think so.”

Violins play in octaves in the so-called “Witches Minuet,” answered by viola and cello in octaves. Try listening first to the top part, then on the repeat to the lower. The repeated notes of the Trio are meant to confound us, so we don’t know what the meter is. But did we know?

The jaunty slide from A up to E at the end of the finale’s first phrase reminds us of the quint idea. Haydn enjoys making one player sound like two, two players sound like three, and three sound like a quartet. Major mode comes not as a surprise, but as a dawning reinforced by affirmations. And when the violin breaks into triplets, we know it will be a holiday.

Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, Opus 30 (1877) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(b. Kamsko-Votinsk, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, 1893)

Tchaikovsky’s three string quartets were all written in the 1870s, when the composer was in his thirties. It was the time of Swan Lake, the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Rococo Variations. The ever-anxious Tchaikovsky feared he had “written himself out,” telling friends he had sung his “swan song.” “I’m beginning to repeat myself, and cannot conceive anything new,” he wrote. The Third Quartet was written quickly, in little over a month in early 1876. It is dedicated to the memory of Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub (1832–75), a conservatory colleague and dear friend of Tchaikovsky who led performances of the composer’s first two quartets. 

A trudging lament for violin, played cantabile e molto espressivo, is the framing music of the opening movement. Tchaikovsky’s quartet writing often highlights a solo line, or a line with a countermelody, against accompaniment. It’s quite a different concept than Haydn’s ideal of four equal voices sharing material, but it allows for impassioned singing and dramatic developments. “The main body of the [first] movement is an immense valse triste of a pervading melancholy that touchingly hallows the memory of Tchaikovsky’s departed friend,” writes biographer David Brown. “The melodic world is that of ballet, never more unmistakably so than in the violin-cello duet that crowns this introduction.” 

The scherzo is comic relief, a sight gag that needs to be seen as well as heard. It’s classic comedy, in its way as distinctive as a number by Donald O’Connor or the Marx Brothers, and it will make you chuckle.

Three things intensify the funereal effect of the slow movement. Strings con sordino play forte. That would seem an oxymoron (muted and loud?), but it’s a most unusual color. Then there’s the dead-slow pulse, intensified by anapestic rhythm: DA-ta. Most piercing is the clash in the second chord, as the sustained fifth scale-step is held against changing harmony. Repeated notes are a time-honored way of symbolizing  death in music. (Think of Chopin’s Funeral March.) Here Tchaikovsky has stamped Laub’s coffin with his own musical colophon. There’s a reference to Russian chant, “the first unambiguous inspiration from a churchly source in Tchaikovsky’s music,” notes Roland John Wiley, and what follows is as tender and lyrical as anything in this composer’s catalogue. How fitting that this movement was played at Tchaikovsky’s own memorial concerts in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Kharkov in 1893. 

The finale strikes a folky note with its insistence on beat two. The second theme, with viola punching offbeats—viola is the agent provocateur in this high-spirited movement—reaches a climax with high violins keening away over drummed cello. There’s a brief recollection of loss, but life is affirmed in the final Vivace

Tchaikovsky would write no more quartets. David Brown suggests that his tendency “toward a more violent rhetoric and a more strained emotional forcefulness” precluded further quartet ideas. But there would be other opportunities to exercise that rhetoric: three symphonies, symphonic poems like Francesca da Rimini, a violin concerto, and an explosive overture about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas (