Program Notes for New York Philharmonic String Quartet by Philip Carlsen

Notes on the Program

Notes written and voiced by Philip Carlsen

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String Quartet in C major, K. 465 (“Dissonance”)

Mozart’s C major quartet, K. 465, is one of six quartets that he dedicated to his friend and occasional chamber music partner Franz Joseph Haydn. But Haydn had his misgivings about the opening of the “Dissonance” quartet. It begins with a soft pulsing C in the cello, suggesting the key of C, but our expectations are confounded as the other instruments add their unexpected notes—A-flat, E-flat, then the frisson of the first violin’s high A, clashing deliciously against the prevailing harmony. While the violin sustains its odd note and the other instruments slip up or down to neighboring tones, things gradually come into focus and we realize, in retrospect, that the A made perfect harmonic sense all along, anticipating and encouraging a return to the unadulterated world of C major, free of any flats. The dissonance here is quiet, ruminative, inviting us in for meditation. Even from our contemporary perspective, the overall effect is spine-tingling.

With that startling opening still lingering in our ears, the rest of the quartet actually sounds fairly conventional, at least on the surface. And yet, Mozart keeps toying with our expectations in subtle ways. Take the third movement, for example. It begins somewhat ambiguously, with a twisty chromatic gesture in the solo violin. When the other instruments join in, we hear a progression of chords that makes perfect sense in the key of C major, but Mozart only offers brief glances at an actual C chord. He stays coy through the second part of the minuet, keeping his occasional C chords tucked away in quiet corners, saving his full-voiced one only for the final beat. In the trio section that follows, Mozart makes another striking move by shifting to the key of C minor. Composers at the time were increasingly exploring the expressive potential of such major-minor juxtapositions, a trend that flowers in the music of Beethoven and Schubert and other nineteenth-century composers who followed.

Joel Thompson (b. 1988)
In Response to the Madness

Still in his early thirties, the African-American composer Joel Thompson has become a bright new presence on major concert stages, including performances by the Atlanta Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, the JACK Quartet, and many others. He established his reputation with an elegiac oratorio for men’s chorus and instruments called The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. It is a powerful and moving setting of the final utterances of seven Black men who lost their lives at the hands of police or citizen vigilantes, concluding with a transcendent, harmonically-rich setting of Eric Garner’s “I Can’t Breathe,” heartbreaking in its quiet intensity.

With his 2019 In Response to the Madness, commissioned by Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, Thompson again addresses troubling contemporary issues, this time with a white-hot anger. His introductory note in the score describes the piece as an “experiment in compositional process … a stream-of-consciousness response to the political mayhem, the massacres, the climate, and our seemingly futile attempts at trying to make things better. It is essentially a scream into the void.” The opening musical scream is a two-note rhythmic motif, the note F in octaves, loud, DAH-DAH, as if the quartet is shouting “Stop it!” We immediately hear it again. Even as new material is introduced—lyrical melodies, evaporating hints of lush show tunes, contrapuntal interplay—the motif remains ever-present, whether coming to the fore or generating an energetic undercurrent. About halfway through the piece, the momentum gives way to a passage marked to be played “Full of despair, extremely slowly.” The original material then returns, transformed into even more intense rage as the music drives relentlessly to the end.

Anton Webern (1883 – 1945)
Langsamer Satz

Anton Webern was the haiku master of twentieth-century music, crafting crystalline compositions of brief durations but vast implications, music that had a profound impact on many composers, including Stravinsky in his later years. As an example of the extreme brevity of Webern’s work, each of his Six Bagatelles for string quartet lasts less than a minute. His music is also highly dissonant, freely atonal in his early career, then, beginning around 1924, meticulously constructed using the “method of composing with twelve tones” that had been pioneered by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg.

But as a young man in 1905, infatuated with his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl, the woman who would later become his wife and the mother of their four children, Webern wrote what is essentially a love song for string quartet, the Langsamer Satz, or “Slow Movement,” a piece steeped in the musical language of Wagner and Mahler, and likely influenced, as well, by one of the pinnacles of late Romanticism, Schoenberg’s 1899 string sextet Verklärte Nacht.


Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”)

Coming twenty-five years after Mozart’s “Dissonance,” this is Beethoven’s eleventh quartet, a turbulent push further into the new musical worlds that Mozart hinted at. The quartet opens with a powerful outburst from all four players in octaves, introducing a visceral rhythmic motif and firmly establishing the key of F minor (the same key and strategy of In Response to the Madness—perhaps Joel Thompson was influenced by this Beethoven quartet?). But only six measures in, the cello takes the same motif and wrenches things up a half step to G-flat major. The music suddenly quiets down and shifts to lyricism as the harmony regains its footing. Even during this brief respite, with a beautiful singing line in the violin, echoes of the opening keep roiling underneath. Already, we know we’re in for an exhilarating ride. Each moment holds the possibility of an abrupt change in dynamics or mood, an arresting gesture, an unexpected jump to a distant key.

After the turmoil and excitement of the first movement, the second begins innocuously, with a simple D-major scale figure in the solo cello. The other players reinforce the key when they join in, but an element of D minor is immediately added, mixing melancholy into the sense of refuge. The quartet spins out a lovely, bittersweet aria, foreshadowing the world-weary music that Gustav Mahler would be writing nearly a hundred years later. When this concludes (delayed momentarily by soft, dissonant chords), Beethoven introduces the core of the movement, a minor-key fugue whose counterpoint is imbued with the same singing quality as the opening section.

The third movement scherzo arrives without a break. As he did in the Fifth symphony, Beethoven presents us with a powerful four-note motif whose rhythmic identity permeates the music that follows. The motif here has a built-in syncopation, with its emphasis on the second beat of the measure. In the middle of the movement is a contrasting lyrical section, analogous to the trio of a traditional classical minuet. Recalling Beethoven’s dramatic move from F to G-flat in the first movement, it’s surely no coincidence that he chooses to start this section in G-flat major.

The final movement begins with a brief larghetto passage that flows into an agitated, urgent rondo theme, catchy and memorable, almost folk-like in its implied invitation to sing along. It alternates with aggressive, dissonant interludes based on a favorite nineteenth-century harmonic device, the diminished seventh chord. After the rondo theme is heard one last time and the energy dissipates, Beethoven opts for joy, switching to F major to end this journey with a high-speed romp for home.


New York Philharmonic String Quartet performs Sunday, May 1, 2022 at 3PM at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
Click here for information and tickets.