Movements from ‘The Art of Fugue’ Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

Counterpoint (the combination of musical strands each with its own integrity into a coherent overall texture) has been a basic of composition across the ages. In inept hands it can produce work that has no more than intellectual interest – but in the work of the best contrapuntists heart is as fully satisfied as head in music that is as expressive as any. And contrapuntists didn’t come any better than J S Bach; the technique permeates his work in all genres and at all stages of his career. Towards the end of his life his interest in the theory of music seemed to intensify; three years before his death he joined a corresponding Society of Musical Sciences and turned his hand to work in which structural considerations were explored in even greater depth than heretofore. This redoubling of interest bore fruit in a number of works including the Canonic Variations for organ, the ‘Musical Offering’ with its brilliant set of elaborate fugues and canons based on the theme supposedly supplied to him by Frederick the Great and, most remarkable of all, ‘The Art of Fugue’. 

This is a set of movements based on a single four-bar theme showing, even by Bach’s standards, phenomenal contrapuntal ingenuity.  The theme is examined from every possible angle, teased into different rhythms, dissected and then reconstructed in combination with itself and with other themes which are closely related. Most remarkably of all at the end there appears a fugue on three subjects, these being two different versions of the basic theme and then Bach’s musical signature of the notes B – A – C – H (H is B natural in German notation). Sadly not long after this theme has been introduced and Bach starts to weave a phenomenal contrapuntal web, the manuscript breaks off. A note added in his son’s hand suggests that this is the moment when JS died, but actually it will have been when general ill health and failing eyesight rendered further work impossible. The way in which the music is laid out leaves doubt as to exactly how Bach envisaged its performance; it can be played on a keyboard but also works well given by an instrumental ensemble.

Quartet in E flat Opus 20 No.1 Josef Haydn (1732 – 1809)

  1. Allegro moderato II. Minuetto allegro
  2. Affettuoso e sostenuto IV. Finale – presto.   

In the league table of industrious composers, Haydn must surely be near the top of the first division:  Grove’s Dictionary fills forty pages of very small type in listing his works. Much of this music was written to fulfil his duties on the musical staff of the Esterhazy family: symphonies for the resident orchestra, church music for the magnificent chapel, operas to be performed for the entertainment of the family and their distinguished guests, instrumental music to be played during and after meals, even nice easy chamber music for Prince Nikolaus to display his modest skill on the peculiar instrument he favoured, the baryton. And Haydn not only had to compose all this music but also to prepare and organise its performance. That he had time or energy to compose ‘extra’ music seems incredible.

But this is how his string quartets must be viewed. For much of his career, the medium was not recognised as anything special – it was just another instrumental grouping that might be encountered. There was no resident string quartet as such at Esterhazy – it would seem that until near the end of his time in service there, he wrote the quartets for himself and other friends on the musical staff to play for pleasure. It was largely through his development of the form that the potential for sophisticated musical discourse offered by the string quartet came to be recognised. 

In the great procession of 68 quartets that he produced, the six that make up opus 20 (his third group, composed in 1772) are generally reckoned to be the first really mature examples. Mozart deeply admired them, Beethoven copied them out to study their craftsmanship and Brahms was for a time the proud owner of the autograph manuscripts. Two characteristics mark them out from their predecessors: the range of emotion they explore and the equal importance of the role of each player within the ensemble – the first violin now leads the discourse rather than dominating it. 

A Different Fantasy (after Matthew Locke) Oliver Leith (b. 1990)

British composer Oliver Leith studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and has already won a number of prestigious awards including a Royal Philharmonic Society Composers Prize and a British Composers Award. His work has been played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ives Ensemble amongst other performing groups. ‘A Different Fantasy’ takes as its starting point the Fantasy from the 17th century composer Matthew Locke’s Suite in G minor producing what Leith describes as a “slippy arrangement”…

String Quartet in A minor Opus 132 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

I: Assai sostenuto – allegro II: Allegro ma non tanto                                                                           III: Sacred Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a Convalescent, in the Lydian mode                                         IV: Alla Marcia, assai vivace V: Allegro appassionato

It was in November 1822 that Prince Nikolas Galitzin, a Russian amateur cellist and musical enthusiast, wrote to Beethoven to commission “one or two string quartets”, inviting the composer to name his own fee. (Galitzin was a true friend to Beethoven; two years later he organised the first complete performance of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg a month before a truncated version was given in Vienna.) When the commission arrived Beethoven was still at work on the ninth symphony and the mass and it wasn’t until 1824 that the first of the quartets (Opus 127) was delivered. The A minor quartet was written and first performed in the following year. It happened that an English musician George Smart was in Vienna at the time, seeking Beethoven’s advice about details of the ninth symphony which he was about to conduct in London. In his diary Smart gives a vivid vignette of rehearsals of the new quartet: “… A slow movement subtitled ‘praise for the recovery of an invalid’ Beethoven intended to allude to himself I suppose. He presided, took off his coat and to express the staccato passages took the second violinist’s instrument and played the passage rather out of tune… About fourteen people were present and all paid him the greatest attention…” 

By this stage in his career the virtually tone deaf composer had reluctantly realised that he could neither take any part in nor derive any pleasure from the live performance of music. But the urge to compose was as strong as ever and he retreated into his inner musical world, free to explore wherever his creative imagination led him. There are some outward vestiges of ‘traditional’ practice in the work; the second movement retains many of the characteristics of a minuet and trio and the last movement has parallels with the accustomed rondo form. But within these outlines Beethoven follows his own path as regards themes and their manipulation; and elsewhere in the work there are elements quite new to the genre – the tiny march that is the fourth movement and especially the huge central slow movement in which the composer is looking backwards to much earlier practice in the use of the Lydian mode at the same time as exploring emotional territory quite new in quartet writing. It is good to know that, in the words of the composer’s nephew, at its first performance it “went very well and there was much applause”. A century later it was still able to exert influence on the creative imagination; T S Eliot listened repeatedly to gramophone records of the work as he was writing his own ‘Four Quartets’.

© 2022 Richard Hall

Formed in 2013 by British/Sicilian brothers Alessandro and Max Ruisi, the Ruisi Quartet quickly emerged as one of the leading young British ensembles, noted for their equal commitment to established repertoire as well as progressive new works, often combining both areas in what ‘The Strad’ magazine dubs “ingenious programming”. Winners of a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Young British String Players, they now perform regularly at leading venues both in the UK and in Europe and have broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. 

The Society’s next concert is on Wednesday 22nd June and will be given by Connaught Brass, a “thrilling young ensemble”, playing a programme ranging from Gabrieli to Gershwin.