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Program Notes

strings
Thurs, April 15, 2021 at 7:30 pm
CASTALIAN QUARTET

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)
   Allegro
   Poco adagio cantabile
   Menuet. Allegro & Trio
   Finale. Presto
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)
   Allegro non troppo
   Andante moderato
   Quasi minuetto, moderato
   Finale - Allegro non assai

 

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)

In 1796, the city of Vienna was under threat of invasion from Napoleon. French troops led by Napoleon were advancing from the Po valley into Styria. Other troops were advancing from the East and both were closing in on Vienna in a pincer-like move. Vienna was in a state of emergency and a civilian militia had been mobilized to protect the city. Following a state commission, Haydn, a strong nationalist, was commissioned to write national song for the cause. His beautiful, heartfelt Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God Preserve Franz the Emperor) was a bold challenge to the Marseillaise and was instantly adopted as the Austrian national anthem. In fact, so universal was the appeal of Haydn's melody that it was later to be used as the ‘Brotherhood’ anthem of Freemasonry, as the German national anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, and even as the Protestant hymns Praise the Lord! Ye heavens, adore him and Glorious things of Thee are spoken.

The slow movement of the Op. 76 No. 3 String Quartet is a set of variations on this celebrated, dignified tune. Hence the quartet's nickname Emperor, or Kaiser. Each instrument in turn introduces the solemn melody, while the other three instruments weave an increasingly intricate web around it. But Haydn goes further. He structures the entire work around the slow movement, making it the focal point of the quartet. The melody finds its way into the first movement whose five-note theme derives from Haydn’s patriotic song: G (Gott) – E (erhalte) – F (Franz) – D (den) – C (Kaiser). This cryptic message would have been recognized in Haydn's day as one of the many ‘learned’ effects he used in his late quartets, complementing such popular elements as the lively country dance he fashions out of the same notes over a viola and cello drone in the central development section. The intensity and dignity of the four slow movement variations is set into relief by a forthright minuet. The finale, an intense, powerful movement, then completes the strong architectural structure that Haydn has built.

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)

"It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets," Brahms wrote of the collection Mozart dedicated to Haydn, "so I will try my hardest to turn out two passable ones." But it wasn’t until he was 40 years old, with a secure reputation as both composer and pianist, that his first two quartets saw light of day. Brahms was a fierce critic of his own music. As a 20-year-old composer he had at one point intended to publish a B minor quartet as his Op. 1. But it was only 20 years – and 20 string quartets later – that the two quartets we now know as his Op. 51 were to mark his official début as a composer in the medium. Four years later he felt confident enough to introduce his First Symphony to the public. What held him back from publishing both quartets and symphonies was a fear of being compared with the established masters of the Viennese classical tradition. Towering above them all in Brahms’s mind was the presence of Ludwig van Beethoven, a musician whose bust dominated his study in Karlgasse in Vienna.

So what happened to the 20 early quartets? "The boxes with the old papers remained in Hamburg for a long time,” Brahms told a friend many years later. "When I was there two or three years ago, I was overwhelmed. The whole room was most beautifully papered with my notes, even the ceiling. I had only to lie on my back to marvel at my sonatas and quartets. It looked very good. Then I tore everything down – better that I should do it than someone else! The stuff has all been burned." Brahms knew that sketches and fragments had a story to tell, since he owned sketchbooks by Beethoven, so he made a thorough job of the burning; no fragment or sketch has ever been tracked down.

Brahms frequently worked on pairs of works simultaneously. He wrote the two piano quartets, the two clarinet sonatas, the first two symphonies, the serenades and the sextets together. But these 'twinned' works were never born as identical twins. The C minor quartet, Op. 51 No. 1, for instance, continues the powerful tradition of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets. Today’s A minor quartet, Op. 51 No. 2, comes closer to the dreamy, melancholy world of Schumann's music. Its tender, lyrical nostalgia and longing provide a positive feeling to the music. The opening soaring violin melody contains a tribute to the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms weaves Joachim's personal motif, the notes F-A-E, standing for Frei, aber einsam (‘Free, but alone’) into the beginning of the phrase. Brahms also incorporates the phrase he took as his own motif, the notes F-A-F (Frei, aber froh – ‘Free, but happy’) into the score. It's a small indication of the wealth of contrapuntal invention that he uses throughout this quartet.

— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca