ABOUT THE STRING QUARTET
The string quartet can be considered the most important and representative genre of chamber music. What differentiates chamber music from symphonic or orchestral music is the reduced number of musicians in the former, all playing roles of primary importance. As the term itself suggests, and as the tradition confirms, chamber music used to be played in an intimate and secluded place, in the courts – being very different from the performances in churches, in big halls, or open air.
The origins of the quartet in Italy can be found already during the Renaissance and the early Baroque era in the works of composers such as Gregorio Allegri or Andrea Gabrieli.
The typical baroque trio sonata (from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century) was one of the most common chamber ensembles, consisting in two melody instruments and a basso continuo (harpsichord and a bass string instrument, commonly a bass viol or violone). The harpsichord was later replaced with a viola, and the baroque trio sonata evolved into the classical string quartet.
Alessandro Scarlatti composed works entitled “Sonata a Quattro per due violini, violetta e violoncello senza cembalo” (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola and cello without harpsichord). This title made an already common practice, the ensemble with viola instead of harpsichord, explicit.
Later on, Luigi Boccherini (born in Lucca in 1743) showed more artistic maturity and awareness in his approach to the genre. He wrote over ninety quartets during his life, spread all over Europe, and he, together with Joseph Haydn, is today considered the proper father of the string quartet.
Austria had his tradition in the origin of this musical form: the symphonies composed by Monn and Wagenseil are representative of the Austrian school of string music, in parallel with what the works by Corelli and Vivaldi mean for Italy.
Haydn’s quartet as genre originates therefore from this music and from the tradition of the Divertimento, a series of various instrumental works played without a strict order, having a lighthearted intention, that noblemen commissioned composers to create mainly for entertainment purposes.
Haydn’s early quartets mirror a lot the Divertimento, while the quartets composed between 1769 and 1772 (as for example op. 9, op. 17 and op. 20) show a model taking place and becoming stable: the “classical string quartet” later used also by Mozart and Beethoven.
The traditional form of the classical string quartet is the following:
- First movement: sonata form (Allegro);
- Second movement: Adagio, that can have the musical structure of a lied, a slow movement, a theme and variation or a simple A-B-A structure;
- Third movement: Minuet and Trio, or Scherzo;
- Fourth movement: Rondo in its different forms.
Since the times of Haydn, the string quartet was a prestigious genre, considered a real testing ground for a composer’s ability and art: this can be due to the fact the four parts of the string quartet are a sort of complex reduction of the whole ensemble of an orchestra.
The composition of quartets flourished in the Classical era with Mozart and Beethoven. The latter reshaped the classical form of the string quartet especially in his last quartets, real forerunners of an artistic and musical revolution, which foreshadow modernity – a powerful example can be the Grosse Fuge op. 133. By the time Beethoven died, Austrian and German composers had really an enormous inheritance to look back at: undertaking the composing of a string quartet after the results Beethoven had achieved was an actual challenge.
Schubert is remembered in musical history for his Lieder more than for his other chamber music compositions, but he actually wrote relevant works for the history of the string quartet. We can divide these compositions into two groups: the first group comprehends the quartets composed between 1810 and 1816, rarely performed nowadays; the second group consists of the quartets written between 1824 and 1826, including Rosamunde, The Death and the Maiden, the String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887 and also the Quartettsatz (1820), which seems to be an unfinished composition in one movement.
Schubert composed his last string quartet, the No. 15 D. 887, in 1826, the year before Beethoven died: it took him about ten days to finish it. It is sure that Schubert had had a chance to listen to Beethoven’s last string quartets, which had been performed privately both in 1825 and in 1826. Unless the D. 887’s unique originality and emotional strength, it was published only posthumous in 1851 and, even in recent times, it has always been less performed in comparison to other string quartets by the same author, such as The Death and the Maiden. With its uncommon length and its objective complexity, the String Quartet No. 15 appears to be like a compositional research on structure and form: almost following on from the reshaping of the genre undertaken by Beethoven in his late works.
During the Romantic era, the advocates of pure music (such as Eduard Hanslick or Johannes Brahms) found in the string quartet the perfect genre to pursue a contemplation of pure sound, in sharp contrast with the forms of music that used a poetic and philosophic programme to guide the listener through the composition (for example, Liszt’s Programme music). Masterpieces of the nineteenth century are, among others, the string quartets by Borodin or Tchaikovsky.
The twentieth century makes the string quartet become a ground to carry out musical experiments: authors like Claude Debussy, Leoš Janáček, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Dmitrij Šostakovič and Alban Berg used it as a means to express the renovation they pursue and carry through in musical theory. One of the most historically important is OIivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, composed while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in German captivity in a camp in Silesia.
From the 1960s onwards and for the whole century the quartet as genre kept being a fundamental evidence and means of expression of the language of modernity (also in Italy, with composers like Giacinto Scelsi and Luca Lombardi). Its success is still actual now, in the twenty-first century: contemporary composers keep employing it as breeding ground for their musical ideas.
[English translation of the Podcast]
ABOUT THE CONCERT'S PROGRAMME
The Quartetto Prometeo is one of the most successful and best known quartets in Italy and internationally. It has been awarded a great number of prestigious prizes, including the recent Leone d’argento at the Biennale Musica in Venice in 2012. Before that, Quartetto Prometeo won the 50th “Prague Spring International Music Competition” in 2008, it was awarded the “Thomas Infeld” prize at the Interationale Sommer Akademie Prag-Wien-Budapest in 1999 for its “outstanding interpretation” and, in 2000, the Special Barenreiter Prize at the ARD Munich Competition. The quartet has performed in distinguished music venues such as the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Wiener Musikverein, the London Wigmore Hall, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, at the Aldeburgh Festival, at the Prague Spring Festival, collaborating with the major Italian and European musical institutions. It has worked with the record companies Ecm, Sony, Brilliant and Amadeus.
As Tim Svejda wrote: “This is a first-rate, finely-blended ensemble who think and play with a single, highly refined voice.” The quartet’s concerts amaze for their both intellectual and interpretative fineness and hold, and for the musicians’ ability to establish a strong and profound communication with their audience not only in the traditional repertoire but also in contemporary music, as you will hear in the upcoming concert, which ranges from the eighteenth century to present.
Franz Schubert composed his last quartet, the String Quartet No. 15 in G major op. 161 D. 887 in 1826, as he was thirty, having only one more year to live. It is therefore a masterpiece of its youth and one of his extreme works at the same time, bringing together feverish and dramatic outburst, complex development and wide structures. It is undoubtedly one of the absolute masterpieces of romanticism in music.
Going almost a hundred years further, Alban Berg’s String Quartet op. 3 was reviewed in detail by the composer himself in a letter to his wife Helene, dated August 3 1923, after the performance of his quartet by the Havemann Quartet that had taken place on the eve of the International Society for New Music’s festival in Salzburg. In it we read: “[In spite of] my great agitation […] I wallowed in the euphony and the solemn sweetness and fantasy of this music. You cannot, based on that you have already heard of it, imagine it. The so-called wildest and boldest passages were, in the classical sense, absolute melodiousness. […] It was said everywhere that this evening I scored a great success”.
Berg had already written the Quartet in 1910, at the end of his compositional studies with Arnold Schönberg.
Going another hundred years further, we get to present: the first performance ever of Matteo D’Amico’s Scènes d’Hérodiade. D’Amico is one of the most renowned, refined and sensitive composers of the contemporary music scene. As he wrote, with this work he wants to “give musical voice to one of the most complex and enigmatic works by Mallarmé, that Hérodiade that has never been accomplished by the poet, who has chased the final form of the text throughout his life, without managing to ever each it. Even in this unfinished appearance, Mallarmé’s work reveals itself in all its strength and artistic fulfillment”.
The Quartetto Prometeo is formed by Giulio Rovighi, first violin, Aldo Campagnari, second violin, Danusha Waskiewicz, violist, and Francesco Dillon, cellist.
[Translated from the IUC official site: https://www.concertiiuc.it/events/quartetto-prometeo/ ]
English section by Marianna Gallerano