Performance Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 8 PM

Emerson String Quartet
Sir James Galway

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
This is a meeting of musical legends. Galway is both an exemplary artist and a master showman, “a model of how to handle both a flute and an audience” (The Washington Post). Time, echoing the sentiments of most chamber-music fans, has called the Emerson “America’s greatest quartet.” Each performs separately, in addition to joining forces in music by Mozart and Foote.
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Flute Quartet in D Major, K. 285

About the Composer

From 1773 to 1781, Mozart was unhappily employed in the service of Archbishop Colloredo and dissatisfied with musical life in Salzburg. In the summer of 1777, he was actively seeking a new position and traveled to Munich, Augsburg, and Mannheim; in Mannheim, he composed the D-Major Flute Quartet. He journeyed on to Paris at the insistence of his overbearing father, and finally returned to Salzburg in 1779, where his discontent only grew. In 1781, Mozart was unceremoniously dismissed from Colloredo’s service, leaving him free to pursue his career as a freelance musician in Vienna.

About the Work

Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major, K. 285, is one of three pieces composed during the winter of 1777 to 1778 for the wealthy Dutch physician and amateur flutist Ferdinand de Jean. Apparently, de Jean requested “three short, simple concertos and a couple of quartets for flute,” as Mozart himself reported. Though the composer seemed to treat the commission lightly, he struggled to complete the order, delivering only two concertos and two quartets. Even so, one of the concertos was a transcription of an earlier oboe concerto, and one of the quartets only had two movements.

A Closer Listen

The flute plays the main theme of the fluid, long-breathed first movement. The shift to the second theme and key area is not dramatic, but is instead glossed over so that the entire first section of the movement sounds seamless. The middle section turns to the minor mode. The third and final section repeats the opening, though without the move to another key and with more virtuosic writing for the flute.

The minor-mode Adagio features a pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment in the strings. The brief movement remains in the most gracious register for the flute, neither reaching especially high nor dipping very low.

The flute takes over the main theme of the Rondo finale first, later joined by the violin and cello. New material is introduced before the violin returns with a varied form of the main theme, to be quickly joined by the flute. Busy passagework leads into a more precise repetition of this theme. An entirely new, contrasting section features a large upward leap in the flute that is echoed in the viola. This leap becomes a recurring gesture throughout the section, which concludes with a brief hint toward the minor mode. The theme returns to close the movement and the quartet.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862–1918)


About the Composer

Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at age 10 to study piano and musical rudiments. Not interested in a career as a pianist, he began to compose songs, piano music, and a piano trio in 1879, while making his living as an accompanist in the meantime. In 1884, he won the coveted Prix de Rome, sending him to the Villa Medici in Rome for two years.

Debussy took in many influences after his years in Rome. Returning to Paris, he fell in with the literary crowd of Symbolists, attended the 1889 Universal Exposition (where he was impressed by the Javanese gamelan), and wrestled with the influence of Richard Wagner’s music. The following year, he penned his first orchestral masterwork, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Its sinuous opening flute solo captures the erotic air of the poem. Debussy’s Syrinx, on a related subject, harkens back to the Prelude, which was scandalously choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1912.

About The Work

Syrinx was composed as incidental music for the play Psyché. The scene is erotically narcotic: In the moonlight, white-clad nymphs emerge to dance, lounge beside the water, and gather flowers. According to the stage directions, the music catches their attention, and they listen “to the syrinx of the invisible Pan, moved by the song that escapes from the hollow reeds.”

A Closer Listen

Syrinx comprises a few precious musical ideas that are repeated and varied over the course of its 35 measures. The piece is grouped in three sections. The first idea—a gentle downward cascade—is repeated immediately, extended with triplets, concluding on the highest pitch of the flute (at the time) before falling back down. The second section opens at a quicker tempo in a lower register; hints of the sinuous opening descent return along with the triplets. Even with all the extreme dynamic swells, no dynamic marking in the score exceeds mezzo forte. A held note caps off this middle segment. The third and final section is a varied and extended version of the opening that reaches down into the rich lower register. The erotic energy of the music subsides as it slows down toward the end.

THOMAS ADÈS (b. 1971)

The Four Quarters

About the Composer

British composer Thomas Adès found early success as a pianist, winning second prize in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1989. A decade later, he established himself as a leading composer by winning the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. Music scholar Arnold Whittall has compared Adès’s music to Ives, Ligeti, and Janáček due to its many musical layers, romantic melodic richness, and intricate sound world.

About the Work

The Four Quarters for string quartet was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Emerson String Quartet. The quartet is in four movements: “Nightfalls,” “Morning Dew,” “Days,” and “The Twenty-Fifth Hour.” The commission was awarded in the context of the composer’s 2007–2008 appointment to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.

A Closer Listen

Like a miniature version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which compresses a year into a day, Adès’s quartet begins at dusk, and then tracks the sunrise through the sundown. The first movement, “Nightfalls,” recalls Bartók’s “night music” in its dramatic use of dynamics (loud outbursts that immediately soften) and elusive textures (the violins are instructed to play without vibrato in the opening). “Morning Dew” offers an example of musical onomatopoeia: The pizzicato strings depict the condensation of water droplets, while the widely spaced chords and upward sweeping, bowed passages in the second half of the movement evoke the spreading of the sun’s rays.

“Days” is built around an ostinato pattern in the second violin: a pattering rhythm with a stuttering syncopation. The first violin joins in briefly before beginning an upward crawling scale motive that the second violin also picks up. The scales lead to a loud, stunning climax, with all four instruments playing the rhythmic pattern in unison. Eventually, the unison falls apart and the instruments divide back into two distinct groups (first and second violins, viola and cello). The final movement, “The Twenty-Fifth Hour,” features a musical pun: The meter is 25/16, an extraordinary time signature that reflects the movement’s title; in performance, the meter is broken down into the more regular groupings of 4+4+3 and 4+4+3+3.

ARTHUR FOOTE (1853–1937)

 A Night Piece

About the Composer

Arthur Foote belonged to a generation of New England composers who came of age in the late 19th and early 20th century. His music at once reveals the conservative nature of American musical training at the time, as well as the growing awareness of transatlantic Modernism. Among the composers in and around Boston from 1875 to 1905 were Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Amy Beach. The elder statesman of the group was John Knowles Paine, with whom Foote had studied composition at Harvard University. At Harvard, he received the first master’s degree in music that was ever awarded.

About the Work

A Night Piece is the first movement of Foote’s Nocturne and Scherzo for flute and string quartet, composed for Chamber Music San Francisco. First performed in January 1919, it was hailed by critics for its freshness. A writer for the San Francisco Examiner described A Night Piece as “a surprise to those who believed that the composer had about written his talent out.” (Foote was 65 years old at the time.) In Nocturne and Scherzo, the writer heard “nothing of the melancholy musings of disillusioned maturity,” but rather “the quickening impulses of spring.”

A Closer Listen

The opening of A Night Piece presents two themes in succession: A languorous melody in the flute floats above an undulating string accompaniment; the second theme is brighter and lighter, with the strings that pulsate gently beneath. The sense of restlessness is generated by the quickly shifting harmonies and the forward surging motion. The end of this section finds the strings moving together in lock step, and a brief flute cadenza ushers in a return of the first theme, played by the violin. A reprise of the second theme—played in the violin’s high register over a delicate pulsating accompaniment—concludes the work.


String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

About the Work

Debussy’s first and only string quartet was composed around the same time as the stunningly inventive score Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It incorporates one of the most fashionable formal innovations at the time: cyclical form.

In cyclical form, a single theme recurs to unite separate movements. The technique was not entirely new, having been pioneered by Beethoven and Berlioz in the early 19th century. But it was most closely associated with the recent music of César Franck. As scholar Victor Lederer points out, cyclical form replaces the inherent drama of sonata form—typical of the Classical and Romantic string quartet—with a milder dynamic of contrast and return more suited to Debussy’s aesthetics.

A Closer Listen

The main theme of the quartet is heard at the outset. Its most striking characteristic is the heavy accent on the second beat; the rhythmic pattern is iambic, or a short-long rhythm (as in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be”). The theme is also distinguished by a quick triplet turn. Iterations of the stalwart phrase are separated by a chromatic wash of fleeting notes with a lyrical violin melody above. The music reaches a climax, and the theme recurs in the cello. New melodic material, related to the first theme by the shared use of triplets, is heard in the violin. The two ideas—the theme and this less aggressive, triplet-dominated idea—jostle for priority throughout the movement.

The second movement scherzo features a plucked pizzicato accompaniment beneath a viola theme that is again based on the original musical idea. Overall, the movement unfolds in alternating sections as scherzo-trio-scherzo-trio-scherzo, with the trio sections being generally more lyrical. The third movement, which falls in A-B-A form, is gentle and expressive. The second theme begins with a solo recitative in the viola, punctuated by hollow chords in the other strings that sound like an organ. Debussy marks the closing section “as quiet as possible.”

Debussy described writing the finale movement as “a hard slog.” An introduction extends the melancholy, lyrical mood of the third movement before recalling the scherzo of the second movement with a quicker pace. Two themes emerge, the second more lyrical than the first; they interchange with each other, hustling for lead position.
—Elizabeth Bergman © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation