The Kodály String Quartet begins their concert with Five German Dances, composed by Franz Schubert exactly 200 years ago, when he was just sixteen.

They were meant for the small ensemble that was developing around the Schubert family quartet.

1. Menuet in C major; Trio 1 (A minor) & Trio 2 (C major; it has a solo for viola, Schubert’s instrument in the family ensemble).

2. Ländler (country dance in triple meter with the accent on the second beat) in G major; Trio 3 (G major) & Trio 4 (E minor).

3. Deutscher (a round dance in which the dancers link arms) in D major; & Trio 6 (also in the same key)

4. Walzer in F major

5. Écossaise (Scottish-style dance with a strong dactyl accent on the upbeat followed by a slight hesitation on striking the one) in C major; Trios 6 & 7 in the same key

6. Coda

This is perhaps the sort of music that would have graced the first ‘Schubertiades’ (informal gatherings held in private homes to celebrate the music of the composer, often with him present and joining in).

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, K. 478 is widely regarded as the first major work written for piano quartet in the chamber repertoire. He had received a commission from his publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister to write three quartets for piano and strings. This in itself was unusual, as the piano trio was the preferred chamber music idiom in Vienna at the time. But Hoffmeister found this one too difficult and that it would not be bought by the public, so he released Mozart from the need to write the rest of the set of three. Unperturbed, and luckily for us, Mozart wrote another piano quartet (in E-flat major, K. 493) nine months later. Hoffmeister’s surmise had been right however: the G minor quartet didn’t sell well upon publication.

G minor has been the key through which Mozart best expressed pain and tragedy (e.g. his String Quintet no. 4, K. 516; symphonies 25 and 40).

This quartet has three movements:

Allegro (in G minor)

Andante (in B flat major)

Rondo-Allegro (in G major)

The piano is an equal partner in the music, another unusual feature for its time. Most works with similar instrumentation had the keyboard in an accompanying role. At the time it was written, the harpsichord was still commonly used. Indeed the title of work reads “Quatuor pour le Clavecin ou Forte Piano, Violon, Tallie [a misprint for Taille=Viola] et Basse” Nevertheless, as Basil Smallman says in his book “The Piano Quartet and Quintet: Style, Structure and Scoring”: “The whole style of the music clearly precludes the harpsichord as a realistic option. The instrument Mozart had in mind was the ‘Viennese’ fortepiano of the period… Yet, the fullness evident i much of Mozart’s keyboard writing is such to make the modern piano…a perfectly acceptable alternative.

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major (1808) Op. 59, No. 1 is the first of three ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, so named as they were commissioned by prince Andrey Razumovsky, who was Russian ambassador to Vienna at the time.

The Count was a violinist, and had his own quartet, led at one time by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, friend and teacher of Beethoven.

It is the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets and is a departure in style from his earlier opus 18 works, and into new territory. The most apparent difference is that this quartet is over forty minutes long, whereas most of Beethoven’s earlier quartets lasted 25-30 minutes.

The work is in four movements:

Allegro, in F major

Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando, in B flat major

Adagio molto e mesto, in F minor – attacca

Thème Russe: Allegro, in F major

It opens with a long development of a cello theme (something Mozart had done too) but this leads not to any ensemble tonal certainty but a wavering, harmonically uncertain passage and a movement in which the music moves in ever-weakening wave-like surges.

Although through all three Razumovsky quartets, the traditional Classical style is to be found somewhere, it’s as though Beethoven were champing at the bit, as it were, impatient to go where music had never strayed before.

It is rather rare in Beethoven for the scherzo to precede the slow movement, but it happens in this quartet (and also in the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies and in the ‘Archduke’ Trio). It would seem that Beethoven was reverting to an order that had been unfashionable for twenty years. Even more remarkably, this Scherzo is in sonata form; from now on he would no more write conventionally constructed scherzi in his string quartets. This is also the first scherzo that is not in the key of the work (or in its major or minor equivalent).

Beethoven wrote on the last page of the sketches for the Adagio: Einen Trauerwiden oder Akazien-Baum aufs Grab meines Bruders (A weeping willow or acacia tree on my brother’s grave). Both Beethoven’s brothers were alive at the time, so these words are interpreted by some as having Masonic significance, as the acacia is widely considered the symbol of Freemasonry.

The Count requested that each of the commissioned quartets should contain a Russian folk-tune, but Beethoven only complied in the first two.

It is believed that a bemused Muzio Clementi (fellow composer and friend of Beethoven), upon being asked by Beethoven to write the fingerings for the Razumovsky quartets, asked “Surely you do not consider these works to be music?” To which Beethoven replied “Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age.”

Programme notes © Dr. Luis Dias 

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