Performance Wednesday, March 21, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Brentano String Quartet

Fragments: Connecting Past and Present Part II

Weill Recital Hall
For part two of Fragments, the Brentano Quartet has invited three of today’s most imaginative composers to engage with unfinished pieces by Haydn, Shostakovich, and Mozart to weave compelling new musical works. The new compositions will be played alongside the original ones to create an exciting evening of dialogue between music of the past and music of our present.
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The Program

Fragments: Connecting Past and Present

A shard of Grecian pottery. An ancient scroll, only a few words visible. The nascent emergence of a figure from a block of marble. Abandoned brushstrokes on a canvas.

Unfinished artworks carry within them the energy of creation. They engage our curiosity, prompt us to imagine ourselves as the artist, poised in mid-thought. They seduce us into imagining what might have been. Perhaps, in the right circumstance, we might imagine we can seduce the fragmentary artwork, start a relationship with it, envisage a completion. Billy Collins imagined just such a thing:

     January in Paris

      A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
                                                                                              —Paul Valéry

      That winter I had nothing to do
      but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
      on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

      but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
      unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets

      often turning from a wide boulevard
      down a narrow side street
      bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

      I followed a few private rules,
      never crossing a bridge without stopping
      mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
      and observe the flow of the river
      as I tried to better understand the French.

      In my pale coat and my Basque cap
      I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
      or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
      and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

      I would see beggars and street cleaners
      in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
      I would see the poems of Valéry,
      the ones he never finished but abandoned,
      wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.

      Most of them needed only a final line
      or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
      but whenever I approached,
      they would retreat from their makeshift fires
      into the shadows—thin specters of incompletion,

      forsaken for so many long decades
      how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

      I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
      sitting with a glass of rosé at a café table—
      beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
      cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache

      by Monsieur Paul Valéry himself,
      big fish in the school of Symbolism
      and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters
      of the League of Nations if you please.

      Never mind how I got her out of the café,
      past the concierge and up the flights of stairs—
      remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

      And never mind the holding and the pressing.
      It is enough to know that I moved my pen
      in such a way as to bring her to completion,

      a simple, final stanza, which ended,
      as this poem will, with the image
      of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
      her large eyes closed,
      a painting of cows in a valley over her head,

      and off to the side, me in a window seat
      blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.

It’s not often we have the chance to see or hear incomplete thoughts of great composers. Completed works come down to us having been considered, reconsidered, polished, and readied for presentation. But how fascinating it can be to get a glimpse into the workshop, into the process, into promising beginnings that never grew into their full selves. And how intriguing it would be to have composers of our day reach back and hold hands with some of the great composers of the past, entering, after their own fashion, thoughts started and left dangling, suggestive and mysterious.

For this Fragments project, we are exploring the idea of this linkage, reentering abandoned imagined spaces to discover what they might suggest when examined from a fresh perspective. Incomplete works are paired with new compositions by some of our most thoughtful and imaginative composers to form hybrid creatures. Traditionally mythical beasts of this persuasion, living in two worlds at once, have been believed to have magical powers. We are hoping for some magic here as we find out how today’s composers collaborate with their predecessors. As a celebration of the quartet’s 20th anniversary season, we have asked composers whose music speaks to us—some of whom we know well, some of whom we are working with for the first time—to write pieces to be played alongside incomplete works from the past. All have responded with vivid works which we are excited to present, new and old music speaking to each other as if the chasm of time were to vanish. For the duration of the program, at least, all the works coexist in the present moment.

—Mark Steinberg

String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 103

The D-Minor String Quartet is a fragment, the final chapter in Joseph Haydn’s monumental string quartet oeuvre. It consists of two movements; it is unclear, however, whether they were intended as the first two movements or the inner movements of a four-movement work. Haydn composed this music around the same time as the two Op. 77 quartets, which were meant to be part of a six-quartet set; presumably then, this work would have been the third quartet in that set. In failing health, the composer subsequently allowed the fragment to be published by itself as Op. 103. He added the following words to the score—a quote from his own song “Der Greis”: “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I.” How many geniuses would feel moved to apologize for an unfinished work, after bestowing such a splendid and prolific output on the world?

Haydn the Man may have become enfeebled, but in this quartet, Haydn the Composer is fully in control. The Andante grazioso first movement is gentle, pensive, and simple rhythmically and formally. The face it presents to the world is guileless, seemingly devoid of artifice—the work of a man with nothing left to prove. And yet it bears a patina from 67 earlier quartets with all their innovations and profundity. The music moves lightly, but there is a pervasive feeling of gravity. Musical lines often head downward (heard especially with descending scales), and the chromatic darkening of harmony constantly suggests a minor-key presence lurking behind the melancholic major key. In fact, the entire movement describes a larger, circular descent: At the end of the first section, the music swings down a major third to the startling key of G-flat major, where the middle section begins; then the middle section itself ends in D major—another third lower—and then the circle is completed when the main section resumes down a final third, back in the home key of B-flat. It is a simple, but beautiful—and in Haydn’s time, rather unusual—harmonic device, enfolded in such a simple-sounding movement.

The second movement, a minuet, is in D minor—once again a major third away from the work’s main key. Defiant and robust, it seems to pay lip service to the minuet of Mozart’s D-Minor Quartet, one last chapter in the history of mutual inspiration between these two composers. The main section of this minuet alternates forthright, dotted-rhythm gestures with quieter, more uncertain interpolations; the most striking example of this is an anxious four-note chromatic ascent that is passed between the first violin and cello, uncertainty beneath the surface bravado. A friendlier trio intervenes in D major; this is vintage Haydn, complete with teasing hesitations, irregular phrase lengths, and jocular embellishments. Then the gruff main section returns, ending with the first violin’s flamboyant upward scale. Despite its fragmentary nature, this quartet feels like an authoritative exit line for the man who elevated the quartet genre to greatness for the first time.

—Misha Amory

Finale, Presto

The Brentano Quartet’s invitation to make a “comment” on Haydn’s incomplete, incomparable, two-movement final quartet was a chance to pursue two sets of questions:

1. Is it possible to make a finale that recreates in contemporary terms Haydn’s constant dialogue between symmetry and asymmetry? Could such a movement even partially suggest, in five minutes, a lifelong devotion to that consummate master?

2. Could research help answer a question about Haydn’s last years? This is important to composers navigating their seventh decade—why did he really stop working?

Haydn composed his swan song Op. 103 by 1803, and published the two movements in 1806 with an inscription from his song “Der Greis”: “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I.” Studying this music, its windows wide open to the future, I thought, “Nonsense; he’s covering up for something.” His friend Georg Griesinger reports a conversation about this piece: “Haydn said his field is boundless. That which could take place in music far greater than that which has already occurred. Ideas float before him by means of which Art could be brought much further.” Later Haydn said, “It’s my last child, but it still looks like me.”

In 1799, Prince Lichnowsky organized performances of two quartet sets that he had commissioned—Beethoven Op. 18 and Haydn Op. 77. Prior to this event, Beethoven had been showing around the scores of his Op. 18 and saying he learned how to write quartets from Föster. (This was an obvious allusion to Mozart’s dedication of a set of six quartets to Haydn.) When commentators on the dovetailed premieres (well documented in Robbins Landon’s Haydn biography) described the Op. 18 quartets as the finest ever written, this must have hit Haydn hard. Beethoven, after quitting his studies with Haydn, immediately styled himself as more a competitor than a colleague. Haydn must have known his Op. 77 quartets were at a level unreachable by Beethoven at that time. Still, how does he react? When he got a full grasp of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Haydn graciously and non-histrionically withdrew from the operatic field.

When news of his chamber music eclipse came from his commissioner and the youthful court public, Haydn was of the worst relations with a powerful, young rival—38 years his junior. (Only on his deathbed did Beethoven truly recant the slighting of his great predecessor.)

Haydn took one more shot at quartet writing with Op. 103. Then, with the full strength that we perceive from every note, he folded his tent and spent his final six years as part of his own posterity.

—John Harbison

From the Fifth Book

For the quartet’s Fragments project, I selected what appears to be a completed first movement of an unfinished quartet by Shostakovich conceived between his eighth and ninth quartets. One of the aspects of Shostakovich’s quartets I most admire is that despite their abstract character, with nearly all their movements bearing nothing more than very plain tempo markings, the music almost always communicates a sense of disquiet and emotional preoccupation that far transcends the relative straightforwardness of the thematic content. Further, Shostakovich’s structures, while equally plainspoken and rooted in the traditions of the string quartet, have a stream-of-consciousness character that I have chosen to follow in my piece.

It is a curious challenge to be asked to write a fragment in response to a fragment. My title, From the Fifth Book, is intended as a suggestion that this piece may at some point become the first movement of a complete string quartet entitled The Fifth Book (by which I mean my fifth book of madrigals). Or it may remain, as Shostakovich’s piece, a promise of something that never came to be.

—Stephen Hartke

String Quartet Fragment in E Minor, K. 417d
Mozart Effects

In 1993, a short research article was published in the Nature science journal, claiming that listening to Mozart could induce a short-term IQ boost in the area of “spatial task performance.” The control conditions in the experiment were “relaxation” and “silence,” not “Brahms” or “Ellington,” so there was nothing in the study to show that this effect was unique to Mozart. (On the other hand, for all they knew, the effect could have been wholly specific to the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448—the only piece used in the study.)

Nonetheless, sensationalized news about “the Mozart effect” touched off a nationwide Mozart frenzy. Something about that brazenly Eurocentric claim that “Mozart makes you smarter” seemed to offer a quick fix for everything wrong in America. Adding to the furor, the governor of Georgia at the time decreed that every baby born in the state would receive a Mozart CD upon leaving the hospital. The self-help industry had a field day: You too can touch the untouchable genius of a great master! Unlock your true potential while you sleep! It was good old-fashioned snake oil—let’s call it Wolfgang’s revenge.

Finally, in 2009, a requiem for the Mozart effect arrived in the form of a thorough scientific review commissioned by the German research ministry. The conclusion: If we experience any cognitive boost at all from passive listening, it is very brief, very small, and equal for all types of music. But null results are never newsworthy, so word didn’t quite get around; the story was buried in a pauper’s grave. Few have been disabused of the idea of the Mozart effect today, and those who have, still wish it to be true anyway.

For a composer, to be tasked with “finishing” an unfinished piece by Mozart is to serve as the punch line to a joke. There was no one I told about this commission who didn’t burst out laughing. Perhaps we are all Salieri, still haunted by those infernal cackles—Wolfgang’s revenge, yet again.

I thank the Brentano String Quartet for this opportunity, inherent comedy and all.

—Vijay Iyer

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7

For the young Béla Bartók, the period of 1906 to 1909 marked a time of enormous change, experimentation, and turmoil.

At the beginning of this period, he might fairly be described as a disciple and admirer of German composer Richard Strauss. By its end, he was conversant with the works of Debussy, thanks to his friend Zoltán Kodály, and had embarked on his career as one of the earliest ethnomusicologists, collecting and recording folk music in his notebooks and on Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder. Folk music was also becoming a central force in Bartók’s own compositions, whether in the form of direct quotations or in more oblique ways. In later years, his own ideal as a composer would be to absorb the spirit of folk music so internally that his writing would simply carry its essence rather than allude to it artificially. Over the years, he was to range all over Eastern Europe and as far as Algeria in his quest to collect and catalogue folk tunes.

In his personal life, too, Bartók was experiencing upheaval. He rejected the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing and proclaimed himself an atheist for several years. At the same time, he was passionately in love with the talented young violinist Stefi Geyer. He wrote her long letters in which he railed against Roman Catholicism and the middle class; Catholic and middle-class herself, she may not have responded well to his point of view. In the end, his love was unrequited, and the violin concerto that he wrote for her was locked away in a drawer and not published until after the composer’s death. Within a year of their parting in 1908, Bartók married another girl.

In the meantime, he had composed his first string quartet. It is arguably his first masterpiece, as well, and depicts vividly the warring impulses and influences from this time in the composer’s life. In a letter to Geyer, he described the first movement as a “funeral dirge”: The opening motif, shared between the violins, is a melody from the concerto he wrote for her, and so this movement may symbolize the death of that passion. It is certainly written from a full heart and grieving soul; the music is suffused throughout with a sense of yearning and loss. The rhythmic cadence and the harmonic feeling still carry a flavor of Germanic Romanticism, as do the two monumental climaxes.

As the last sad notes of the first movement are fading in the violins, there is evidence of new life in the viola and the cello. Moving seamlessly into the second movement, we are lifted by a gentle accelerando to a new state of grace—a lilting, dancing world that is miles away from the heavy burden of the previous one. Twisting and twirling from lighter textures to darker ones, turning easily from major and minor harmonies to completely atonal ones: The composer is finding a voice, integrating seemingly disparate influences into a taut and compelling narrative.

The second movement reaches an ethereal and quiet ending, only to be interrupted by silliness: a noisy tableau that evokes three mischievous children (the upper strings) taunting a grumpy old man (the cello). Once this brief encounter has played itself out, we are ushered into the third movement. This energetic music with rustic flavor evokes the feeling of a peasant dance. Although there is plenty of tension and urgency in the air, the prevailing mood is one of hijinks and good humor. We hear, too, the influence of the folk music that Bartók had begun to catalogue: The two climactic passages of the movement, set in a broader tempo, feature a melody that highly resembles the pentatonic Magyar folk songs he had collected that year. Under the quaintness, humor, and charm that sometimes verge on being precious, there is an authentic response: The composer of these rhythms, textures, and intervals has just begun to dent the surface, and will be digging ever deeper in future works.

—Misha Amory

© 2011

This concert and the Brentano String Quartet series are made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for young artists established by Mr. and Mrs. Anthony B. Evnin and the A.E. Charitable Foundation.
This performance is part of Brentano String Quartet, and A Golden Age of Music.

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