Strings Sing programme notes
Featuring light music for string quartet that sparkles with strong vocal connections, our final Extra of the
2016-2017 Season offers a beautiful collage of sound. Enjoy striking pieces inspired by the beauty of the human voice raised in song. With works by Borodin, Delibes, Schubert, Massenet, and Verdi it is sure to be an evening of exquisiteness as you are entertained by scintillating classical gems.
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Extra C – Strings Sing
Léo Delibes – Flower Duet from Lakmé
The Flower Duet is easily recognisable for its lush melody. Primarily an opera composer, Delibes’ works won significant praise from contemporaries such as Tchaikovsky and Bizet. Set in nineteenth century British India, Lakmé tells of how the titular Hindu princess falls in love with a British officer. The duet showcases Delibes’ skill for languorous, graceful melodies, here expressing the wonderment of Lakmé and her servant Mallika collecting flowers along the riverbank.
Giuseppe Verdi – Quartet in E Minor, Presstissimo
From its premiere at his home in 1873 to the end of his life, Verdi expressed misgivings about his quartet. His career focus had been opera, and he was sceptical of his abilities as an instrumental composer. He pointed out he had written it for mere amusement while rehearsals for his opera Aida were delayed, and had little desire to publish it. Nonetheless, this lone major instrumental work is a gem. Verdi harnesses his gift for melody into a quartet texture, but also shows polyphonic skill through the thematic interactions of the four instruments.
Alexander Borodin – Quartet No. 2 in D Major, Scherzo & Nocturne
A renaissance man, Borodin was recognised as a chemist and composer, and was also an amateur cellist. He held a professorship at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg, where he was recognised for his research into aldehydes. As a composer, his place in history was assured as a member of the “Russian Five”, who were committed to a uniquely Russian compositional style.
Borodin’s second quartet is autobiographical. Written in 1881 for his wife Ekaterina, he intended it to evoke the night they fell in love twenty years prior after meeting on a visit to the German town of Heidelberg. The melodies of the inner movements presented here are rather well known, as they were used in the Broadway musical Kismet. The scherzo begins with a cheerful melody in triple meter. This lively song eventually slows to a lilting tune in the violins, alternating between these two sections for the rest of the movement. The Nocturne movement is one of Borodin’s most frequently heard compositions. Its warm harmonies convey the couple’s feelings upon first seeing one another. The dialogue between cello and violin represents intimate conversation between two souls bound by mutual affection.
Franz Schubert – Quartet No. 14 in D Minor Death and the Maiden
In 1824 Schubert was a poor composer, unknown for anything besides lieder (German Art Songs). To make matters worse symptoms of syphilis had thoroughly weakened his vitality, and were a constant reminder that death would claim him sooner rather than later. Schubert was deeply depressed, going so far as to describe himself in a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser as “the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world”. His D Minor Quartet expands on the melancholy of the earlier “Rosamunde” to the point of despair.
Schubert waited two years after completing the quartet before its premiere by an amateur ensemble. He then presented the score to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist of the world’s first professional string quartet, for an official premiere. This event yielded mixed results; Schuppanzigh himself was unenthusiastic about the piece and advised Schubert to stick to composing lieder.
The depth Schuppanzigh overlooked in the quartet was finally noticed upon the piece’s publication three years after Schubert’s death, with praise from notable figures like Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler, who arranged it for string orchestra. Since then the piece has held a firm place in chamber repertoire, and is now considered one of the most pivotal of all quartets.
Forceful chords introduce the main theme, answered by a violin’s subdued repetition of that motif. A half cadence pauses the movement, readying the music to embark once more with renewed vigour. Later, the violins play a more relaxed second theme, but its tranquillity eventually gives in to despondency. Contrasts between peace and agitation continue in the development section, where Schubert juxtaposes the triplet motif with the second theme’s rhythm. A crescendo brings back the main theme, which changes to a brighter D Major tonality. Any peace found here is lost however, as the music returns to the anguished minor mode. A Coda closes the movement with hushed chords.
The second movement takes the form of a theme and variations, the theme borrowed from Schubert’s lied “Death and the Maiden”. The original is a dialogue between a dying girl and Death, with the latter’s calm, dark lyric used as the movement’s theme. Through the variations, Schubert discovers the emotional extremes found in his lied, signifying his nostalgia for happier days by using a theme he wrote years earlier, while also being a reminder of his own mortality through its morbid connotations.
The Scherzo third movement returns the piece to D Minor, adopting a forceful dance rhythm. A middle section trio calms the aggression with a melody in the low strings, and a leaves us in D Major. The piece then returns to the scherzo, closing with brisk articulation.
The last movement also dances, bounding along a 6/8-tarantella rhythm in a dance with death. This steady movement breaks into a song-like section, contrasting loud and soft, polyphonic and homophonic textures. A return to the tarantella theme is treated anew, introducing a buzzing chromatic accompanying figure. The main themes repeat before ending the piece on a cathartic D Minor cadence.
Jules Massenet – Meditation from Thaïs
Based on the novel of the same name by Anatole France, Massenet’s opera Thaïs tells the story of Athnaël, a Cenobite monk, and his desire to convert Alexandrian courtesan Thaïs to Christianity. To Athnaël’s surprise, Thaïs is a devoted convert, whose piety and pure heart catalyse lustful feelings within Athnaël that compromise his asceticism. The lyrical, wandering violin line of Massenet’s entr’acte Meditation is emblematic of Thaïs’ wandering search for virtue and salvation. Massenet gives the piece the tempo marking Andante religioso, indicative of a spiritual tone conveyed by the ensemble.