From the world’s grand stages to the intimate settings of chamber music, violinist James Ehnes is known for his virtuosity and versatility. Ehnes performs with his “dream-team” quartet comprised of internationally-renowned musicians and guest Chicago Symphony’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson.
Bela Bartók (1881 – 1945) – String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 17
Bela Bartók is remembered not only as a gifted composer, but also as one of history’s most influential ethnomusicologists. During the early years of the 20th Century, Bartók and his fellow composer Zoltán Koldáy devoted themselves to travelling throughout Hungary to record the indigenous songs and dances of their home country. Armed with pen, paper, and a primitive phonograph the pair recorded hundreds of folk tunes. Not surprisingly, these studies had a profound impact on the second half of Bartók’s compositional career. By the onset of World War I, the irregular rhythms and scale patterns of Hungarian folk music had pervaded his style, leading to the distinctive sound we still associate with the composer today.
The Second String Quartet, completed in 1917, shows the range and variety of Bartók’s new style. Rather than specific passages drawn from folk traditions, the overall mood of the work is defined by folk influences. In his own analysis of the second quartet Kodály described his friend’s work as representative of three “life episodes”: 1. A quiet life. 2. Joy. and 3. Sorrow.
The first movement opens with a quintessentially atonal figure presented by the first violin – a leaping motif based on the interval of a seventh. Yet this melody intertwines with tonal themes, drawing the other instruments into a discussion including a strikingly tender minor-key motif. The second movement puts Bartók’s “barbaric” style on display. Aggressively rhythmic, the melodic material draws influence both from the Hungarian folk tradition and the Arabic music the composer studied while travelling North Africa. The brooding, intense last movement strikes a harsh contrast to its predecessor. As immobile as the second movement is animated, the finale sounds particularly funereal. Long stretches are rhythmically static, and the parts that do move are often interrupted by silence.
Taken as a whole, the second string quartet represents Bartók’s unique blend of gifted musicianship and scholastic rigor. The music is truly original, composed without explicit reference to any particular folk melody or style. Yet the mood, tonality, and rhythmic drive of the quartet demonstrate the skills of an extraordinarily well-studied musician who perfectly assimilated the music he studied into his own unique style.
W.A. Mozart (1756 – 1791) – Quintet for Clarinet & Strings in A Major, K 581
The clarinet as an instrument owes a great debt of gratitude to Mozart. Before Mozart’s time, the instrument was often employed similarly to a trumpet – providing colorful (and often strident) interjections and accents. Mozart was the first composer to truly embrace the softer, expressive qualities of the clarinet that define it as a solo and ensemble instrument. Mozart’s profound appreciation of the instrument’s ability to produce both beautiful melodic lines and virtuosic flourishes is put on display throughout his quintet for clarinet and strings.
The first movement sets the mood for the entire piece. A noble melody in the strings opens the Quintet. The clarinet first comments briefly then joins the strings to elaborate and lead the music forward. Twice more string voices present new themes and the clarinet answers. This wealth of melodic material continues in solo arias and tightly linked ensemble passages. The second movement Larghetto is a long, soulful aria in the clarinet accompanied by muted strings. Mozart achieves an ethereal blend of the five instruments as the clarinet pours out what he called its “soft, sweet breath.”
The third movement consists of a minuet and, unusually, two trios – the first for strings alone and the second for all instruments. The first trio is for the strings alone, with a melancholy minor-key theme that stands in striking contrast to the good-natured minuet. The second trio is a clarinet solo over the strings which again stands in stark contrast to the minuet by presenting a rustic peasant dance that allows the clarinet to showcase its range of timbre.
The finale presents a theme and six variations. This movement more than any other demonstrates Mozart’s unique appreciation for the clarinet’s musical range. In some variations the theme is embellished to display the clarinet’s athletic abilities, while in others the theme is reworked to produce different moods and textures. During the third variation’s plaintive viola lament, the clarinet murmurs softly in low tones. After Mozart lingers in the somber fifth variation Adagio, he closes the Quintet with a sprightly, joyous final variation.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3, Rasumovsky
By 1802, Beethoven’s hearing loss had become so severe that he was left with little choice but to confront it directly. Seemingly through sheer force of will, the composer worked to overcome the challenge of his increasing deafness and continue composing. Historically, this marked the beginning of Beethoven’s middle period – the point at which a gifted young composer began revolutionizing every musical genre he touched and cemented his legacy as the heroic artist.
It was during this period, in 1805, that Count Razumovsky, Russia’s representative to Vienna, returned from a trip back home with his new title of Prince. Bearing a new, lavishly published collection of Russian folk songs, he commissioned Beethoven to compose a set of three string quartets that incorporated some of these Russian melodies. This set makes up the first three of Beethoven’s five “Middle Quartets,” and of them, the C Major quartet remains the most widely-performed today.
The quartet’s opening movement can be truly challenging for listeners. It begins in obscurity – a brooding series of diminished chords whose destination grows ever more obscure as the outer voices, treble and bass, progressively diverge in a wedge shape. Harmonically the movement continues to meander through a variety of tonalities before launching full-bore into the home key of C Major. The wavelike harmonic motion of this movement’s final section presents such beautiful music that it is easy to overlook that Beethoven has composed the entire opening movement without a single distinctive theme – presenting only a two-note motive and flowing scales and arpeggios throughout.
The second movement is the cool point of contrast in the quartet – a delicate, ponderous movement veiled with melancholy. In the third movement, Beethoven forgoes the wild scherzo one would expect and presents a Menuetto marked Grazioso. Moderate and suave, this movement, like the first, again eschews distinctive themes in favor of washes of essential motion and gentle scales in the minuet that sharpen into heroic arpeggios in the trio. The finale is one of Beethoven’s grandest conceptions. Much like the function of the dissonant beginning in the first movement, the minuet’s coda provides a dark tension out of which the bright energy of the last movement emerges like the sun.
By Tyler Roe