Chamber Finale programme notes

We welcome a long-delayed spring – yes, we’ve seen some green shoots here and there – with chamber music featuring a little more gravitas. Warm those frozen heartstrings with violin, viola, and cello, and a bass to keep things interesting!

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Extra C – Chamber Finale

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 125 No. 1
The string quartet was one genre that appealed to Schubert throughout his life. As a young boy, he received solid training on the violin, which, when he was accepted as a choral scholar at the Royal and Imperial City Seminary in Vienna in 1808, opened the doors to a wide range of musical activities beyond the school’s regular curriculum. Here he played in various chamber ensembles and quickly rose to the rank of concertmaster in the student orchestra.

During school holidays he would also play string quartets with his two brothers, Ignaz and Ferdinand, and his father. According to Ferdinand, Franz would not let any mistakes pass without either a frown or a grin for less serious infractions. The family quartet evenings continued after Schubert left the Seminary in the fall of 1813, but the quartet soon grew into a full orchestra of friends and acquaintances who continued to meet weekly until 1820.

His apprenticeship as both a composer and performer of chamber music is most obvious in the approximately fifteen string quartets he composed between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. (Of these works, a number have unfortunately been lost while a few have only survived as fragments.) The Quartet in E-flat Major stands at the midpoint of this series. It was written in November of 1813, a month after Schubert finished his studies at the Imperial Seminary.

This work is more conventional than some of its very unusual predecessors, in which the young composer grappled with the problems of adapting the Classical forms he inherited to his own emerging personality. As a whole, it has a sunny disposition, untroubled by any darker undercurrents. A relaxed Allegro in a clear-cut sonata form sets the work’s general tone. There follows a delightful Scherzo filled with youthful high spirits, a tender Adagio and a concluding Allegro (one of the finest of the early quartet movements), brimming with life.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Adagio-Allegretto for String Quartet
Shostakovich was a leading composer of chamber music of the twentieth century. His fifteen string quartets alone constitute one of the great musical achievements of any period in history. Ironically the music included in this concert is an arrangement of two pieces drawn from works in other genres. The Adagio originated as the famous aria for Katerina Ismailova from Act I, scene three of Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, an extremely disturbing opera about adultery and murder that caused a serious crisis in the composer’s life when it was viciously attacked in the press by Joseph Stalin in 1934.

The aria expresses the utter bleakness of Katerina’s loveless life in a deeply affecting slow waltz. In contrast, the Allegretto, a Polka drawn from Shostakovich’s ballet, The Golden Age, is filled with wit and sarcasm. The ballet follows the adventures of a soviet soccer team on tour in a capitalist Western city, whose political culture it targets with caustic satire.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): String Quintet in G Major, Op. 77 for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass
Dvořák created one of the most substantial bodies of chamber music in the latter half of the nineteenth century, including fourteen string quartets, four piano trios, two piano quartets and miscellaneous pieces for various ensembles. He is famous not only for the amount of chamber music he produced, but also for its consistently high quality. Many of these works are distinguished by his great lyrical gift, his beautiful and inventive writing, and the depth of the emotions expressed.

His String Quintet in G Minor for two violins, viola, cello, and double bass comes from the period of his first maturity, when he emerged as a composer of great promise in his native Bohemia. The year before, he had entered a number of his works, including two symphonies, in the competition for the Austrian State Stipendium, an award for young struggling artists and composers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The judges included none other than Johannes Brahms, who was deeply impressed with the Czech’s work.

Encouraged by his success in the competition, Dvořák launched into a series of new compositions, including the G Minor String Quintet, written from January to early March of 1875 and premiered in Prague a year later. Dvořák had been composing chamber music since 1861, and his experience is amply revealed in this beautiful work for the slightly unusual ensemble of a string quartet with added double bass. (Most previous string quintets added either a viola or cello to the string quartet core – in fact his first Quintet involves a second viola.)

Dvořák’s inclusion of the double bass colours many passages with a new richer and deeper sonority and allows for wonderful contrasts in light and dark. Just such a contrast launches the first movement, as the music rises up from the deep octaves of the bass and cello into an explosion of energy in the upper register of the first violin. This movement is followed by an aggressive Scherzo with a lilting internal trio, which is in turn answered by an intimate and lyrical slow movement. An exciting, folk-like finale rounds off the whole Quintet.

Dr Brian Black