Notes for a string quartet concert of works by
Glazunov, Haydn and Mendelssohn
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) composed a large amount of chamber music which is slowly being revived today by enterprising ensembles. Among these works are an impressive cycle of seven string quartets, composed between 1882 and 1930. There are other works as well. In 1886, as a 21-year-old with much composing experience already under his belt, Glazunov wrote his Five Novelettes for string quartet for the St. Petersburg salon of the wealthy publisher Mitrofan Belyayev.
The Novelettes were written to portray a variety of musical styles, including Spanish and Viennese music. The Novelette No. 3, subtitled Modo Antico, is a direct imitation of the Russian Orthodox Church's unaccompanied choral music with its slowly moving, modal chord progressions and chant-like melodies. Orthodox church music left an indelible imprint on Russian instrumental and vocal music in general, and an awareness of this aspect is vital to a proper understanding of other works by Glazunov as well as the basic styles of many other Russian composers.
The words “Modo antico” refer to an “ancient” choral style that is, in reality, both ancient and contemporary. The Russian Orthodox choral tradition represents a general style that has evolved very slowing over the centuries, giving it an essentially ageless feel. It's greatest twentieth-century representatives were Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Gretchaninov (1864-1956), two modern-era composers whose basic styles, appropriately enough, also evolved very slowly.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is often called the “father” of the string quartet, and contributed an astonishing 68 works to this genre. Together with the string quartets of Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn's quartets have long formed the foundation of the quartet literature. His three String Quartets, Op 71 are later works, and were among the compositions that he took along on his second trip to London in the 1790s. They were intended for a broad audience and are conceived in Haydn's most “public” style.
Haydn's String Quartet in B flat major, the first of the Op 71 set, is in the standard four movements. The first movement, Allegro, begins with a bold announcement of four sharply-played chords, followed by a pause. The main theme immediately follows, and rest of the movement, one of Haydn's familiar mono-thematic structures, is based mainly on this theme. The mood is bright and good-natured, as is so often the case with this composer. A deeply-felt Adagio F major follows. It is in three sections and begins with a theme containing gently dotted rhythms. The middle section briefly slips into the minor mode, after which the opening melody returns, now embellished by many grace notes. The third movement is a typical Menuetto and Trio. The Menuetto is graceful and courtly. The central Trio is a little more rustic in character, with its sharper staccatos providing a delightful contrast to the smooth suavity of the outer sections. The final Vivace goes by quickly, and all four instruments participate more or less equally in dashing off one virtuoso figuration after another, passing them off to each other and bandying them about. The biggest surprise is at the end, where, after the music has been building in volume, the four players suddenly pull back and conclude the work quietly. It is a lovely effect that Haydn occasionally uses in other works as well.
Like the quartets of Haydn (not to mention Mozart and Beethoven), Mendelssohn's seven string quartets are also standard works, although, in comparison to the quartet cycles by the three great Viennese masters, they have not been performed or recorded with anywhere near the same frequency. However, this has been changing somewhat in recent years. Many of the younger quartet ensembles are now taking up these works and giving them some of the exposure that they so richly deserve.
Mendelssohn's String Quartet in D major, Op 44, is an exceptionally brilliant work, with the first violin part almost approaching the concerto-like dimensions that one sees in some of Spohr's thirty-six string quartets, which were also composed in the same era. Like the Haydn work on this program, Mendelssohn's Quartet is in four movements. The first alternates rapidly-moving melodies, often accompanied by restless tremolos, with more expansive sections. The Menuetto, rather unusually placed second, is in an old-fashioned rococco style but is more flowing and sustained than one is accustomed to hearing in earlier minuets. The slow movement that follows is deeply expressive but instructs the performers to play “con moto”, that is, not too slowly. A steady patter of detached notes accompanies the broadly sustained melody, almost giving the effect of a Mendelssohn scherzo played in slow motion. The finale, marked presto con brio, returns us to the rocketing brilliance of the opening movement, but with the rapid figurations now cast as triplets. The mood is triumphant rather than urgent, providing resolution to a very satisfying work.