Notes on the Program
Notes written and voiced by Philip Carlsen
FELIX MENDELSSOHN String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 12 (1829)
The astonishing octet of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), written when he was only sixteen, was played on a Portland Ovations concert last season. Now, with this performance of his first quartet, written just four years after the Octet, we are able to take another foray into the mind and heart of this brilliant young composer. In 1829, still unmarried, he had developed a crush on a close family friend named Betty Pistor and dedicated this quartet to her, inscribing “To B.P.” at the head of the score. Knowing the piece was written in the grips of a romantic infatuation, the listener may wonder if that somehow found its way into the music. Did Mendelssohn musically encode a specific story in the quartet? Did he perhaps intend that one instrument would represent Betty and another himself? Even without trying to come up with specific answers, you may find it useful to keep your attention on the first violin and the ways in which that important part interacts with the rest of the ensemble. In the third movement, for example, first violin dominates completely, to the extent of breaking out into several solo cadenzas, operatic and marked with the direction con fuoco, “with fire.” Notice how personally expressive the part is, with great variety of rhythm, ranging freely from high to low, even dipping below the other instruments at one point early in the movement.
In striking contrast, the first movement contains two passages where first violin drops out completely. Each time, the second violin takes the lead, introducing a lovely, melancholy tune in the unexpected key of F minor. Is the first violin’s unusual absence meant to represent a kind of self-exile? An estrangement from the bonds of community? Mendelssohn, clearly fond of this F minor tune and whatever hidden meaning it might have, makes a bold move and brings it back in the midst of the last movement, again assigning it to the second violin. But even more boldly, he later allows the first violin, during a solo passage, to play the opening few notes of the F minor tune. Before completing it, however, the first violin hands the tune back to the second violin, as if to say, “Here, forgive me for borrowing it for a moment, this belongs to you.” The quartet ends with a reprise of the first movement’s E-flat major main theme.
As for his romantic hopes, Mendelssohn was forced to amend his dedication, as we learn in a letter he wrote to a violinist friend who had the manuscript in hand, “Hear now and take alarm: Betty Pistor is engaged [to] Dr. and Professor of Jurisprudence Rudorff. I authorize you to transform the B.P. on the score of my quartet in Eb to a B.R. … It will take just a skillful little stroke of the pen.”
PAUL BEN-HAIM String Quartet (1937)
Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich. He became accomplished on violin and piano at an early age, and later took up conducting, serving for a time as assistant to the legendary Bruno Walter. With the rise of the Nazis, he emigrated to Palestine in 1933, settling in Tel Aviv and becoming an Israeli citizen after the birth of the nation in 1948. Soon after arriving in the Middle East, he changed his name to Ben-Haim, which means “son of life.”
Ben-Haim was prolific in many genres of music, with a style that often merges his classical European roots with folk music of the Middle East. This quartet is a prime example. The opening theme, played by solo viola, has the serene lilt of a lullaby. The violins add a simple rocking accompaniment in fifths. The cello enters with the same theme, now transposed lower, briefly moving away from the main key of G. Rising and falling scales interweave among the instruments. Then the first violin takes over the theme and the texture opens out, supported by strummed chords in the cello and scales in the other two instruments. The music continues to evolve organically, eventually becoming dissonant and aggressive. But the original theme always returns, bringing back its sense of calm.
The second movement is as fast as a French galop, fleet-footed like the skittery fairy dances in the scherzos of Mendelssohn. Ben-Haim’s sprites enter forcefully, now near, now distant, shifting quickly from loud to soft. Then they disperse in a wisp of fog, revealing the core of the movement, a lonely lament which seems to draw on something deep in the heart of a village folk singer. When the wee creatures return, it is with weird transformations of string sound through sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge) and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow instead of the hair).
The third movement is pure song, slow, espressivo, with a long-breathed melody presented four times, each time with different accompaniments and emotional weight. At the beginning, the mood is muted, the instruments whispering to one another. Bit by bit the music intensifies, becomes louder, the lines reaching ever upwards until the first violin is playing its highest notes, culminating in a dramatic cadenza. The movement ends quietly, cello playing the melody in its bottom octave, the other instruments slowly turning high above, like wheeling birds gliding to earth. The final movement turns to dance, as if at a Jewish wedding, folks joining in the hora and the more athletic dancers taking the center of the floor to show off their flashy moves. Then things slow down and we hear a return of the lovely tune from the first movement. Later still, the solo viola sings an extended passage in free rhythm, like a cantor, just before the quartet comes to its vigorous close.
CLAUDE DEBUSSY String Quartet in G minor (1893)
Having been admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was already a highly accomplished 18-year-old musician when his teacher recommended him to the wealthy aristocrat Nadezhda von Meck as musical companion, performer, and teacher for her children, a position he held for three summers. Madame von Meck was also, most famously, the patroness of Tchaikovsky. One of Debussy’s duties was to play four-hand music with her at the piano, including Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a piece he had dedicated to her. Debussy’s biographer Edward Lockspeiser suggests that “Something more than an echo of [Tchaikovky’s] famous Scherzo is surely to be discerned in the Scherzo of Debussy’s Quartet, similarly remarkable for its pizzicato writing.”
The quartet begins with an arresting theme, characterized by a strong, syncopated accent on the second note, then a quick triplet turn at the end of the bar. It immediately repeats, slightly varied. Then again in the next bar, starting on a different note. And the next after that, ever the same, ever different. After a brief interlude, washed with waves of shimmering scales, the opening theme returns, again with many repetitions. We come to realize that immediate repetition is Debussy’s preferred way of developing his musical narrative. The miracle of his writing is how he keeps his music fresh and compelling at every moment: a surprising harmony, a rhythmic shift, a sudden change of texture or mood, the sheer beauty of his melodic lines, and the reassurance of a main theme that’s never far away.
The second movement, as mentioned above, is primarily pizzicato. The violist is the only one using a bow at first, playing a marching figure that essentially duplicates the first movement theme, but dressed in new rhythmic clothes. The repetitions of the figure are unvarying and obsessive, almost annoying, a kind of “ground” as in those pieces by Henry Purcell that keep repeating a short pattern over and over while other things go on around it. In several brief passages where everyone takes up their bows, Debussy achieves another kind of miracle by stretching out the exact same notes of the marching figure into a dreamy tune crooned softly by the first violin.
The third movement brings us close to the Debussy of such nocturnes as “Clair de lune,” tuneful, expressive, and gentle, with several plaintive solo passages. When the last movement arrives, we hear right away a variant of the second movement marching figure. The music becomes more agitated, with a fast new theme introduced, low and unsettled, in a minor key. Later, this same theme transforms into major, expressing joy and even triumph. Along the way, Debussy inserts frequent recollections of the first and second movements.
The Jerusalem Quartet performs a sold out performance on Saturday, October 7 at the Maine Jewish Museum.