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Program notes by Graeme Skinner for concerts by the
HAYDN String Quartet in D minor, Op.76 No.2
DVOŘÁK String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 (“American”)
DVOŘÁK String Quartet in G major, Op.106
Artistic director Jonathan Mills conceived the 2010 Edinburgh Festival as a “bridge between east and west”. As an Australian, Mills also brought a particular awareness of the colonial experience to his programs. Colonisation, colonialism, and the impact of European settlement on Indigenous traditions were also thus themes of the festival. But colonisation - especially in the arts - extends beyond the geo-political level. And the coloniser was often also the colonised. Such was certainly the case in the 18th century and 19th centuries as the British music industry found itself colonised first by Italian and later by Austro-German imports …
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809 Austria)
String Quartet in D minor, Op.76 No.2
(Composed: 1796-97; published 1799)
2 Andante o più tosto allegretto
3 Menuetto (Allegro ma non troppo) – Trio – Menuetto
4 Vivace assai
Britain faced a musical colonisation of a sort in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Joseph Haydn led Austro-Hungary’s expeditionary force into the new territory, first via cheap prints of his music, garnering important local support along the way from England’s pro-Europe musical spin-doctor, the historian Charles Burney. Nevertheless, introducing Haydn’s “Trauer” Symphony to a Salisbury audience in 1782, the diarist-violinist John Marsh noted that:
The audience did not as yet seem sufficiently used to Haydn’s music to relish the eccentricity of style so much as I did.
The plethora of nicknames that very quickly attached themselves to Haydn’s works undoubtedly assisted in his eventual domestication, seldom more so than in this quartet, which, quite early on in its history, attracted a healthy profusion.
The first movement earned it the most prosaic one, “Fifths” (or “Quints”), these interval being so universally prevalent throughout. Well into the nineteenth century, the pervasive melodic pattern of falling fifths apparently also reminded someone (probably an American) of chimes, leading to the work’s second nickname, “The Bells”. And as developed in the first movement, they do almost bring Poe’s The Bells to mind:
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells
Of the bells, bells, bells …
The second movement would be one of Haydn’s most delightful short, late, instrumental slow movements, except he directed that it not be slow at all, but sped up “o più tosto allegretto”. That is a standard Haydn qualification for an Andante that must go faster than - left to its own devices - it apparently wants to, and this one is like a soulful barcarole forced to morph into a slightly livelier canzonetta. According to Burney, who heard them in 1771, the songs of the Venetian gondolieri, typically fitted out with verses from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, were “so celebrated, that every musical collector of taste in Europe is well furnished with them”. There was no need, anyway, for Haydn to have visited Venice, before marking the opening of his first strain with the gondolieri’s characteristically lilting 6/8 row-stroke, up-stroke rhythm, complete with pizzicato “ker-plop”. Not that this illusion lasts long, once the courtly Austro-Hungarian first-fiddler in Haydn pulls his colleagues into bowed conformity in the second strain, and unwinds a skein of Viennese diminutions to bring it to an end. No prizes for guessing that this is going to be a ternary design, though the contrasting middle episode is so brief and - despite its sforzandos - so evanescent, that the ingenuity of its construction barely registers (another play on interlinking fifths, though now filled in with thirds), before the theme returns, this time totally decked out in skittering Konzertmeister diminutions. A musical presage of an imminent geo-political takeover? As Byron would later aver, once Vienna imposed its colonial rule there in 1798:
In Venice, Tasso’s echoes are no more
And silent rows the songless Gondolier.
In “the Scottish play”, Shakespeare first witch cajoles her weird sisters into dance with the lines:
I’ll charm the air to give a sound
While you perform your antique round.
From there, to nicknaming the little two-part canon in Haydn’s D-minor third movement the “Witches’ Minuet”, was evidently but a logical short step for one early nineteenth-century listener. The fact that it was a canon at all (led by the two violins in octaves, answered a bar later by the viola and cello, also in octaves) was probably then considered antique - and “antic” - enough to entrench the nickname, though more recent commentators also point to a certain lack of subtlety in the colouring - the “relentless forte dynamic and seemingly crude character sustained throughout”, Edinburgh art-historian and expert on Haydn’s imagery, Tom Tolley put it - as contributing to the terpsichorean grotesquery.
For what it’s worth, Dr. Tolley also discovered that Haydn owned an engraved copy of Henry Fuseli’s famous painting, The Weird Sisters. We also know that in 1773 Haydn composed a puppet-opera called The Witches’ Sabbath, sadly lost. Which, though it brings us no closer to his original intentions in the quartet’s minuet, or for that matter in the infectious clockwork of the D-major Trio, at least shows that the nick-namer was only foisting upon Haydn a notion that he was perfectly capable of conceiving himself.
And so to the last movement, and eventually to the last of the nicknames. Though no less ingeniously crafted than the first movement, the finale seems to reach its unlikely apotheosis in a rumpty-tum fiddle-and-drone rural idyll. At the time of its composition in 1796, Haydn was at the beck and call of baron Gottfried van Swieten, working on the Creation. According to Stendahl:
The baron was of the opinion that music, which succeeds so well in expressing the passions, might also describe the objects of nature, by awakening in the mind of the auditor the emotions which these objects occasion … a mode of reasoning that may appear rather superficial, but M. Von Swieten firmly believed it.
In Creation Swieten set Hadyn to work providing music for the archangel Raphael’s descriptive recitative:
Cheerfully roaring, stands the tawny lion … the fleecy, meek and bleating flocks.
Whereas, tradition has it that, here in this quartet finale, Haydn set out to imitate the sound of a “donkey” (hence, the final nickname, “The Donkey” Quartet). Or an “ass”, as William Gardiner has it in his 1849 book, The Music of Nature (“or, An attempt to prove that what is passionate and pleasing in the art of singing, speaking and performing upon musical instruments is derived from the sounds of the animated world”):
Among the vocalists, the submissive ass ranks but as a rough and rude performer … Jack begins his bray with a modest whistle’ rising gradually to the top of his powers, like the progressive eloquence of a well adjusted oration, declining to an emphatic close … Haydn has copied one of his ejaculations in his Seventy sixth Quartett with great success:
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904 Bohemia)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 (“American”)
(Composed: Spillville, Iowa, 8-23 June 1893)
3 Molto vivace
4 Finale (Vivace ma non troppo)
In 1894, Harper’s Magazine styled Dvořák as:
The Bohemian Genius who has been sojourning in the United States, whose compositions for the first time make use of a distinctively American material for the highest purposes of art …
Almost immediately, a debate began as to what material precisely Dvořák had used in his American compositions and why, and whether he had indeed done so in “the highest purposes of art”. This debate often ran more along political, patriotic, and - perhaps predictably, racial - lines, than merely musical ones. In 1918, for instance, the progressive Southern Workman observed that, until Dvořák:
American white people have but rarely considered the serious utility of Negro music, owing to the almost slavish devotion of the American composer and musician to European ideals and standards …
A review of one of the early American performance of this quartet, noted:
The performance recognized a decided capacity for dramatic representation that did not seem imitation, but had a primeval quality. Whether the Negro himself will ever use this capacity in the higher realm of art remains to be seen.
While in 1896, The Academy magazine judged waspishly:
DVOŘÁK is a master of the art of development, and he can make much even of nigger melodies.
Dvořák’s attempt at American nationalism was also greeted variously in the British Isles. In a Musical Times review of a Jubilee Year concert at the Royal College of Music in London in 1897, musical racism masqueraded as British nationalism. While praising John Ireland and his two colleagues’ “brilliancy” in playing Brahms’s Op.87 Piano Trio, the writer continued:
No College chamber concert would scarcely be complete without some piece by this composer, whose music never appears greater than if placed in juxtaposition with such a weak effusion as Dvořák’s F major String Quartet (Op. 96), with its cheap nigger-tunes. Why is the chamber music of our own Parry, Stanford, Ashton, H.W. Davies, &c., ignored at the College in favour of such poor stuff as the Bohemian master’s worst quartet?
When Henri Verburgghen, concertmaster of the Scottish Orchestra, played it with his Quartet in Glasgow in November 1905, it was, regrettably, billed as “The Nigger Quartet”. Verbrugghen also played it with his quartet in Melbourne, Australia, in May 1916, where the response was not much different.
Dvořák’s quartet in F was not the finest part of the concert … the composer calls on his interpreters to imitate queer banjo effects and other things not usually demanded from quartet players. In general the composition proved interesting. The “nigger” elements are not too much dwelt on, nor are they unpleasing, treated in the idealised way Dvořák has used. The plantation mood of the first movement is charming, notably in the opening, where the viola, and later on the first violin, announce the chief theme to an exquisite slurred tremolo accompaniment. The other movements scarcely rise as high, and if, in the main, the work is not knit together with very conspicuous success, it is exceedingly effective.
Dvořák sketched his “worst“ quartet in barely three days, and the entire work was complete in sixteen, during a summer holiday he spent in the Czech community at Spillville, Iowa (1200 miles by train to the west of New York). It was premiered in Boston on 1 January 1894 by the Kneisel Quartet, who took it into their repertoire, and had given it over 50 US performances by the time Dvořák eventually returned to Prague in April 1895. Dvořák was reported as saying that the quartet “breathed the same Indian spirit” as his New World Symphony, though there was clearly some confusion in his European mind between the respective influences of African-American and Native-American music, both of which he claimed to have “carefully studied”. For Henry Krehbiel, reviewing it for the New York Daily Tribune (1 January 1894), it was a
… positively refreshing … cheery, sunshiny, outdoorsy piece of music, which will not cause any brain-racking to the listener.
As Dvořák pointed out to his first American audiences, the Quartet’s particular melodic character is due to the reduced scale, F‑A‑C‑D‑F , upon which the principal melodies of all its four movements is based. The resulting impression of alternating F major and D minor chords (without the intervention of strong dominant harmonies), suggests an attempt at musical primitivism which may just as easily refer to Czech folkloric elements as to American ones (from Black- or Native-American musics).
The principal theme of the first movement is typical. The second movement is entrenched on the D minor side of the F major-D minor duality. Its mood is elegiac, with a long-breathed, effortlessly spun-out melody. This leads to a middle section of great intensity, in which passionate soaring passages for the cello in its top register form a duet with the first violin.
The third movement is a scherzo-like piece, built on a single theme. In the central minor-key episode, some American commentators have recognised the call of the red Tanager bird, an inhabitant of the Iowa plains, in the high passages for the first violin.
Dance is the inspiration of the fourth movement, based on another boisterously enigmatic theme that, again, could have its origins in either eastern Europe or eastern USA. The movement also has moments of idyllic calm, including a hushed, hymn-like episode in which John Clapham, in his 1979 biography, imaginatively heard (and why not?) Dvořák improvising on the organ of Spillville’s little Catholic church of St Wenceslaus.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904 Bohemia)
String Quartet in G major, Op.106
(Completed: Prague, 11 November-9 December 1895)
1 Allegro moderato
2 Adagio ma non troppo
3 Molto vivace
4 Finale (Andante sostenuto - Allegro con fuoco)
If Op.96 is Dvořák’s American Quartet, this work—its immediate successor—could well be thought of as his “UN-AMERICAN” Quartet!
The plaque outside the New York house where Dvořák lived until mid-1895, records that—despite longing (with the commendable patriotism Americans so admired) for his native Bohemia—Dvořák spent his three years there “happily inspired by the freedom of American life”.
At the time, his fellow Americans had indeed identified with the “rugged, out-of-doors, back-woodsman” quality, both to the man and the music, the very same qualities that a couple of decades earlier had struck several sophisticated Viennese critics as quaint and boorish. American Dvořák specialist, Michael Berkerman, has even characterised America as speeding Dvořák’s transformation into a sort of proto-Postmodernist. In Berkerman’s own words, America gave Dvořák
… the freedom to articulate his strategy for reproduction and distortion through the integration of so-called native elements that seemed so incompatible with the normative aesthetics of high art music.
Never mind the jargon, it’s a pithy enough summary of what makes the New World and the American Quartet tick. But there were also aspects of American freedom and social aspirations that Dvořák found alien and unsettling. Here was a man, don’t forget, who was a devout, and conservative Catholic, who back in Europe, moreover, accepted a life-peerage from the Austrian Emperor. According to his younger European emigrant colleague, Franz Kneisel, leader of the quartet that premiered the American, ultimately: “He could not understand this ‘American freedom’; he was very angry.”
Recently, the author of Angels in America, Tony Kushner, recalled an anecdote his symphony-conductor father, William Kushner, once told him.
When his daughter fell in love with a Native American from the Spillville reservation, Dvořák freaked and took the whole family back to Bohemia.
A letter Dvořák himself wrote on 23 December 1895, portrays the return slightly less sensationally:
We are all, thanks be to God, well and rejoice to be able, after three years, to spend a happy and joyous Christmas in Bohemia! How different it was for us last year in America, in foreign parts and separated from family and friends. We all feel inexpressibly glad … I work so easily and everything goes ahead so well that I could not wish it better. I have just finished a new G major Quartet …
In early 1897, the American press was still anticipating Dvořák’s imminent return. Yet, as the journal The Critic also noted around the same time, the first of Dvořák’s “back-to-Bohemia” works caused disappointment in some quarters:
Some of his opponents hailed with sarcasm his return to his old Bohemian thought in the work written since he returned to Europe. Strange, indeed, that he could not write American music in Europe!
So, who would pass a rare opportunity like this, to judge one or other of these, his two finest quartets, to be Dvořák’s best (or “worst“)?
Belfast Dvořák specialist, Professor Jan Smaczny, sees this quartet as a return to abstraction - Brahmsian, presumably - and likewise “a return to the structural subtlety” of Dvořák’s pre-American works. Even “despite the almost throwaway (!) character of its pentatonically inflected first theme, the first movement is very closely argued.”
Dvořák, in other words, was coming back to the fold, back to the Germanic mainstream - albeit a mainstream close to the verge (come 1914) of drying up for good. But others may choose to believe that Dvořák had not completely caved in to Viennese rationalism, and to hear in the ever-shifting pairings of instruments during the first movement the intricate quilt-like pattern making of, say, a traditional Bohemian courting dance; yet one in which the participants never quite seem to make their intentions plain; to perceive an overall structure of the movement that works somewhat like that, too; instead of stating its main theme plainly at first, only revealing it gradually, its contours becoming more familiar through development, but only finally being stated unequivocally in the movement’s very last bars.
The second movement is the sort of fervent slow piece that even his American critics could admire, testament to the depths of the composer’s feeling for his own country, which had remained glowingly alive in him throughout his years in the United States, and had finally drawn him back. The key is E flat, with the music oscillating between major and minor modes, with questing excursions into remote keys.
The third movement is an extensive, scherzo-like piece. If the main section is “A”, and the contrasting episodes “B” and “C”, its layout can be described, roughly, as: ABA-C-ABA, yet complicated, since “A” is also present, in a more legato version, in the “B” sections. Of the movement’s many original features, the rhythmic cross-hatchings created by the viola and cello in their role as accompanists to the violins is especially captivating.
The fourth movement begins with half-a-dozen slow introductory bars, before launching into its main Allegro theme. These two types of material continue to alternate with various other episodes in rondo-like succession, in which quotations of the themes from the first movement, only slightly altered, also play a role.
Program notes by © Graeme Skinner 2010/2015
© Graeme Skinner 2015