WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791)
Flute Quartet in D Major, K. 285
About the Composer
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
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
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.
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.
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
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
About the Composer
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
A Closer Listen
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.
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
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