Arcadia 2016 Event 3 - Programme Notes

‘At Home and Abroad’ 3

Friday 30th September 7:30, St. Mary Magdalene, Leintwardine, SY7 0LJ

Franz Joseph Haydn (1731-1908)  String Quartet in C, op.76 no.3 ‘Emperor’
1. Allegro;  2. Poco adagio, cantabile;  3. Menuetto – Allegro;  Finale – Presto.

If ever a composer could truly be at ease ‘at home or abroad’, it was Haydn.  A man employed for much of his life in remote Hungarian estates belonging to the aristocratic and cultured Esterházy family, he blossomed as a composer as he stated he was “forced to become original” yet, from 1779, his reputation spread throughout Europe, he was lauded in the Austrian capital of Vienna and, from 1790, in London where his reputation had been huge since about 1782, leading to the invitations to visit, compose and be lionised there.  1779 was a significant year because his new employment contract allowed him to write music for, and sell music to, agencies outside the Esterházy family, leading to commissions from abroad and, despite poor travel communications, a massive European reputation.  His symphonies and string quartets especially were in high demand and it is within this context that we should view his six op.76 string quartets, the last complete set of string quartets that he composed.  They hail from 1796 or 1797 and were dedicated to the Hungarian Count Joseph Georg von Erdődy (1754–1824).  At the time of the commission, Haydn was employed at the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy and contemporaneous works include his oratorio The Creation as well as Princess Maria Hermenegild Esterházy's annual mass.

The quartets’ publication in London and Vienna was almost simultaneous and their ambition and deviation from their predecessors were quickly apparent:  the English music historian Charles Burney, described them as “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”.

The third of the set is the most famous, nicknamed the “Emperor” quartet because its second movement is a set of variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” ("God Save Emperor Francis").  Having been impressed by the English national anthem on a visit to England, Haydn decided Austria needed a comparable anthem for Emperor Francis II, and it received its first performance in February 1797, the quartet being composed later that year.  It was adopted as a national anthem for Austria from 1797 until 1918 and for Germany from 1922.

The 25-minute quartet’s formal structure is conventional – the first and last movements are in sonata form, the second a theme and variations and the third a conventional minuet.  Yet there are points to note:  the opening theme of the first movement comprises G-E-F-D-C[K], representing the first letters of the hymn’s title, a musical symbol which, the scholar Somfai asserts, audiences of the time would have immediately grasped;  unusually, the Emperor’s melody in the second is heard unvaried by each instrument in turn (second violin, cello, viola, first violin) to the others' varied accompaniment (compare this to Haydn’s variations in Sunday’s concert);  the third is piquant for the way the Trio’s melody alternates between A minor and A major;  and the last movement’s declamatory cadences grab our attention just like the last movement of op.76 no.5 we shall hear on Sunday. 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) String Quartet in B major op.11
1. Molto allegro e appassionato;  2. Molto adagio – Molto allegro (come prima)

Whilst Samuel Barber is regarded as one of the great American composers of the 20th century, his most famous work saw the light of day far abroad in Europe, composed in the summer of 1936 at St. Wolfgang, Austria, a small mountain town near Salzburg, where he and Gian Carlo Menotti had rented a cottage. and premièred at the American Academy in Rome by the Pro Arte Quartet in December of the same year. 

It was his second essay in the medium:  the first was an early serenade transcribed for orchestra and this second which, like the Haydn we have just heard, has quickly become famous for its slow movement, which most of us know in Barber’s transcription for string orchestra as the ‘Adagio for Strings’.  In the latter form, its achingly long melody and almost cosmic slowness of unfolding produces a haunting, yearning and beautiful effect that seizes the emotions and serves just like Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ as a vehicle for commemorating private and national mourning.  In the words of one writer “It is catharsis and redemption delivered in naught but wordless music, simply the sounds of sublime beauty”.

In its string quartet guise, however, its place was originally less prominent.  In time for the première, but not without initial difficulty, Barber quickly composed the original third movement, a Rondo in a moderate tempo.  But he remained dissatisfied and ultimately scrapped it.  Casting round for a satisfactory form, Barber experimented for a number of years until he extracted just a three-minute portion of the first movement’s conclusion for the new finale and modified the first movement accordingly.  The Quartet thus became a two-movement work with the Adagio forming the centre of an asymmetrical ternary form.  Even in this guise, the usual critical plaint that it unbalances the whole work’s structure is wrong:  its length of about nine minutes is counterweighed by at least an equivalent length of the combined Allegro movements.  The fact is, the unbalancing feature is its transcendent musical effect, but we should not dismiss the remainder of the quartet, any more than we should dismiss the remaining ‘Enigma’ Variations:  the original framework provides a more than satisfactory context.

The first movement is, however, surprisingly conservative for a 26 years old composer writing in the country that produced the second Viennese school decades before.  Barber’s innate propensity for melody and song (vocal music constituted over two thirds of his output) led here to a tonal and accessible language that would not be out of place in the early Beethoven quartets, cast in a loose sonata form and containing muscular energy contrasting with slower interludes that presage the famous middle movement (including at least one faint but actual musical ‘pre-quote’). 


Eleanor Alberga: The Glimpse for Baritone and String Quartet (2016) Text by George Herbert (1593-1633)

*World Premiere*

The Glimpse

Having read other 17th century poets and having been inspired by Milton’s great epic ‘Paradise Lost’ I went on to read some of George Herbert’s poetry and was immediately taken by two poems - The Glance and The Glimpse. Both deal with exile from a fleeting but beloved presence. This mental state describes so closely part of the human condition that I felt powerfully drawn, first, to set the words of The Glimpse. This world of mystic wonderment and the promise of heightened joy are utterly beguiling - if only humanity could dwell more often in these realms.  Through the music I have tried to communicate this deep spiritual longing and ethereal beauty.  I hope the tonality and simplicity of the notes might convey the trembling ecstasy of these wonderful words.In the music there is a ‘glimpse’ of a Rondo using what is heard at the opening, and variations of this developed material, although each verse is different for singer and players, the music echoing the sense and shape of the verses. E.A.

Whither away, Delight?
Thou cam'st but now ; wilt thou so soon depart,
And give me up to night?
For many weeks of lingring pain and smart,
But one half houre of comfort for my heart!

Methinks Delight should have
More skill in musick, and keep better time.
Wert thou a winde or wave,
They quickly go and come with lesser crime;
Flowrs look about, and die not in their prime.

Thy short abode and stay
Feeds not, but addes to the desire of meat.
Lime begg'd of old, they say,
A neighbour spring to cool his inward heat,
Which by the spring's accesse grew much more great.

In hope of thee, my heart
Pickt here and there a crumme, and would not die;
But constant to his part,
When-as my fears foretold this, did replie,
A slender thread a gentle guest will tie.

Yet if the heart that wept
Must let thee go, return when it doth knock.
Although thy heap be kept
For future times, the droppings of the stock
May oft break forth, and never break the lock.

If I have more to spinne,
The wheel shall go, so that thy stay be short.
Thou knowst how grief and sinne
Disturb the work. 0, make me not their sport,
Who by Thy coming may be made a Court!

William Walton (1902-1983)  String Quartet No.2 in A minor
1. Allegro;  2. Presto;  3. Lento;  4. Allegro molto

Walton was a composer for whom the Festival’s At Home and Abroad theme is apposite.  From English provincial beginnings in Oldham, his father’s directorship of the local church choir made music the pathway to a glittering international reputation and social set.  At the age of ten, Walton was accepted as a chorister of Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford, where he was exposed to contemporary music by Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, Strauss, Holst, Schoenberg, and Satie.  He studied new music scores at the University music library, arranged concerts with his Oxford friend, the poet Sacheverell Sitwell, but left the university in 1920, having failed to get a degree.  Fortuitously, Sachaverell and his siblings, Osbert and Edith, invited him to lodge with them as an "adopted, or elected, brother" and, as a result he met and befriended some of the most important musicians and literary figures of the time.  His transition from ‘home’ to ‘abroad’ was completed in 1946, when he and his Argentinian wife, Susana, moved to the Italian island of Ischia, where she created the garden ‘La Mortella’ (place of myrtles) and he continued his struggle to compose his second string quartet.

His first quartet was completed in 1923, roughly contemporaneous with the Piano Quartet we shall hear on Saturday, but Walton withdrew it after performances in Salzburg and London.  About his second, Jeremy Grimshaw describes how Walton wrote to a friend in 1945, ‘“I’m in a suicidal struggle with four strings and am making no headway whatever.  Brick walls, slit trenches ... I'm afraid I've done film music for too long”.  Despite his initial difficulty, however the work gradually took shape - he wrote to the same friend a short time later that he had “captured a trench” and “overcome some barbed wire entanglements” - and he finished it in time for its première in 1947 by the Blech Quartet.’ 

The work lasts 28 minutes and fully two thirds are occupied by the first and third movements, the main musical material of which former is a sinuous melody introduced by the viola and adopted with subtle variations by the violins, and a second, sforzando figure that bears more than a passing resemblance to the main theme of the last movement of Elgar’s string quartet.  After a conventional sonata form exposition, this latter material is the basis of a fugal section in the development, followed by a transition into an abbreviated recapitulation. 

The remaining movements are all very accessible, rhythmically exciting, melodic and technically masterful.  Critics of the time noted that the work was unadventurous, technically conservative and not innovative, and I made what might be construed as the same criticism about Barber’s quartet above.  But I am reminded of the 1919 comment by the London critic, H.C. Colles, in The Times, four days after the premières of Elgar’s String Quartet and Piano Quintet, both featuring in Arcadia this year, and his Violin Sonata:  “An immediate effect of listening to Sir Edward Elgar’s opp. 82, 83, and 84 in succession is to give one a new sympathy with the modern revolt against beauty of line and colour.  A stab of crude ugliness would be a relief from that overwhelming sense of beauty.”  With the benefit of a few decades separating us from these works by Barber, Walton and Elgar, we can appreciate their “overwhelming sense of beauty” with delight, rather than criticism.