Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.5 in Eb

In “a romantic who felt at ease within the mould of classicism”, the great cellist Pablo Casals neatly summed up Mendelssohn’s position in European musical development though at risk of pedantry I might tip the balance the other way and propose that he was a classical musician unafraid to contemplate romanticism. His powerful reaction to landscape and his skill in musical characterization and storytelling all point to the romantic view and yet he was happy to work within the accepted forms using a largely conventional musical language and felt no constraint in doing so. It is blend of the two trends which informs much of the best of his music; ‘The Hebrides’ is a wonderfully vivid musical seascape but is also a very neat example of a sonata form movement. Something of the current divergence in musical practice is symbolised in the famous occasion when, having both conducted their works in Leipzig, he and Berlioz (arch romantic who was actually six years Mendelssohn’s senior) decided to exchange batons. As Fanny Mendelssohn described it “…in return for Felix’s pretty light stick of whalebone covered with white leather [Berlioz] sent an enormous cudgel of lime-tree with the bark still on it”. (In his description of the occasion, Berlioz spoke not of batons but of tomahawks! History does not relate Mendelssohn’s view of this exchange.)

There is chamber music dating from all periods of Mendelssohn’s tragically short life, ranging from the miraculously original and accomplished Octet (the work of a sixteen year old!) to the darkly troubled F minor string quartet written only weeks before his death. Central to this output is the group of three string quartets composed in the late 1830s and published as Opus 44. If less striking than the octet or the last quartet, these are fine works, the fruits of a settled period in his before increasing  fame and administrative duties had brought about overwork and nervous strain. It is the ‘classical’ element rather than the ‘romantic’ which is most in evidence, though the music is far from bloodless and never descends into the mere well-mannered respectability which is, sadly, the best that can be said for much of his piano and vocal music. 

Clara Schumann: Three Romances       

Piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck apparently decided that his first child should be a musical prodigy even before ’it’ was born. Fortunately Clara turned out to have remarkable musical gifts and, under her father’s iron teaching regime, by her early teens was in command of “complete technical mastery and depth of feeling” in the opinion of no less a keyboard giant than Franz Liszt. Well known and much documented is the story of her long and difficult courtship with Robert Schumann and the brief period of happy, stable marriage so soon clouded by her husband’s increasing mental instability and early death in an asylum. Clara subsequently successfully resumed her playing career and also became increasingly sought after as a teacher. At her death she was famous throughout Europe in both branches of her activity.

And there was a third area of music in which she was active. Her earliest compositions were little more than bravura showpieces, ideal material for her early recitals. But as her playing matured, so did her creative work and she produced a fair quantity of songs and piano pieces alongside a few works on a larger scale including two piano concertos. But there was little room for the music of women composers in 19th century Germany (as she herself sadly put it “a woman must not desire to compose; not one has been able to do it and why should I expect to?”) and, as a widow with eight children to support, there was little time or energy to devote to unrenumerative creative work. There are no compositions dating from her widowhood. But what we have from her earlier years is enough to demonstrate that she had a small but individual voice as a composer; her technique is controlled and her imagination fertile. We hear tonight a work which Clara wrote for violin and piano which has been expertly arranged for string quartet by tonight’s leader Amy Tress.

Bartok: Second String Quartet

Bartok’s six string quartets in many ways outline the broad trajectory of his composing career from disciple of Richard Strauss with a very superficial awareness of the Hungarian national idiom through his becoming a devoted nationalist whose style was absorbing more and more of the traits of true Hungarian nationalism derived from his exhaustive collection and study of peasant music to his emergence as a major figure on the international scene whose music, though never losing its Hungarian roots, also responded in a very individual way to the work of such contemporaries as Stravinsky and Berg. He loved the folk music which had been so potent an element in his emerging musical maturity for itself but, living where he did through the troubled first half of the 20th century, it was inevitable that the precarious political situation in Hungary should lend a further emotional depth to his work. As early as 1903 he stated that “…all my life, in every sphere, always and in every way, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation” and this remained the bedrock of his artistic outlook. 

The second string quartet was composed between 1915 and 1917, as Bartok emerged from a period which saw the production of very little original music on any scale. From 1912 it was folksong which absorbed most of his time and energy – its collection, its study and its preparation for publication. (Interestingly as well as exploring the musical riches of the Balkan nations, his studies took him as far afield as North Africa). When he resumed serious composition with this quartet and the ballet ‘The Wooden Prince’, he is already well on the way to absorbing the folk music which, imbibed at the fountain head, he found so intoxicating with its craggy, characterful melodies with their distinctly undiatonic harmonic implications and penchant for metres far removed from the regular duples and triples beloved of traditional Western practice. But the result is far from being a mere ‘stitching together’ (this translates the Greek words from which the term ‘rhapsody’ evolved); these three movements display true organic growth within a controlled formal structure.  

Copyright: Richard Hall January 2023