in: Reviews

March 18, 2009

Chiara Quartet at Harvard

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The Chiara Quartet, as part of their Blodgett residency at Harvard, gave a program with the title “Banned in the U.S.S.R.” on March 13. The theme emphasizes the political risks entailed under the Stalinist régime in Russia 60 years ago, with two works by reviled “Western formalist” composers and a third work with a Christian message when religious observance was officially banned. I’m not sure why the political motif was needed for an audience in today’s Cambridge, but notwithstanding the reverse chronological order of composition, the program was highly successful. The players – Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, violins, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello – were first-rate in every expression and execution.

Alban Berg’s String Quartet, op. 3, composed in 1910, is one of the most remarkable achievements ever of a composer so young. Berg was not precocious like Mozart or Mendelssohn. In 1903, when he first went for lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, he was a boy of 18, a self-taught composer of songs who had had no formal musical training beyond some basic piano. When he finished studying formally with Schoenberg seven years later, he was already one of the best composers in Europe, and his Opus 3 remains one of the best works in the quartet genre in Berg’s own or any other time.

During those seven years Berg had dutifully studied not only classical composition but also followed the path of exploration that his teacher Schoenberg was discovering at the same time. Schoenberg’s String Quartet, op. 7 (1905), and Chamber Symphony, op. 9 (1906), were two important influences on Berg’s first major masterpiece, the Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1908), in which his extraordinary gift for formal invention first became fully apparent. The texture is intensely motivic, and the developmental process begins in the first four bars and continues without interruption for 15 minutes. The harmony of the Piano Sonata is tonal, with a nominal B minor key signature, but it is very varied and complex, with rich triadic chromaticism and harmony based on whole-tone scales and superposed fourths. One hears echoes not only of Schoenberg’s post-triadic chromaticism but even Debussy and Ravel and Skryabin, in a way that severely challenges precise analysis.

All of these tendencies are amplified in the Opus 3 Quartet, and the harmonic language has expanded to include a chromaticism so dense that for long stretches tonality disappears entirely. The work is constructed with a very tight thematic organization, with one important theme shared by both of its two movements. (Berg did manage, however, to include a few measures of music from an earlier piano sonata that he never finished, from before Opus 1.) From moment to moment the work projects simultaneously the most extreme range of both lyric and dramatic intensity, heightened as well by a variety of special string techniques: harmonics, glissandi, col legno (with the wooden part of the bow), bariolage (alternating between adjacent strings), ponticello (the glassy sound of playing close to the bridge).

The Chiaras played the quartet with great expression and fine technique. My only caution, for the next time they perform it, would be to back off a little from Berg’s tendency to overload his scores with expression marks, which often have the effect of making the dynamics <> throb like a sore finger. Berg, who was never a performer, picked up this habit from Mahler; but Mahler, an expert performer all his life, really knew when to use those markings to best effect, and Berg’s markings ought to be taken more generally than literally most of the time.

Such a richly expressive work evolved naturally as a love offering for Helene Nahowski, whom Berg married that year. His next exercise in the string quartet genre was the Lyric Suite, composed 16 years later as a love offering of a different kind, and like the earlier Opus 3, it is one of the great masterpieces of the quartet literature.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet, op. 10, was composed in 1908; the last two of the four movements include a soprano solo, with texts by the German expressionist poet Stefan George. Lucy Shelton sang the solo movements with fearless accuracy and total comprehension. The key designation, F-sharp minor, is important, because only the first movement carries the three-sharp signature, and in later movements a strong F-sharp tonality emerges again only in the final measures of the work. The fourth movement, prior to those concluding measures, is widely recognized as the point where Schoenberg took the decisive step of abandoning tonality in favor of a completely nontriadic chromaticism. We know that he composed the quartet during a period of emotional turmoil, when his wife Mathilde deserted him and their children in favor of the painter Richard Gerstl. The crisis was resolved when Mathilde was persuaded to return to her family, but Schoenberg later wrote that the affair had brought him close to suicide, and the aftereffects, by hindsight, are plainly audible in the highly charged emotional atmosphere of the quartet.

By contrast with the others, the first movement seems almost conventional, as a well-outlined and warmly expressive sonata form with harmony that seems inspired by Brahms and even Franck. The trouble begins in the second movement, a scherzo in highly chromatic D minor that proceeds at lightning speed with chopped-up and jagged melodies; the trio section, with new fragmentary themes, makes passing reference to the main key of F sharp, but soon veers back to D major in what became a notorious moment in this work: Schoenberg brings in the famous folksong “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” with a tonally distorted accompaniment. He later wrote that this sudden appearance of the very familiar provoked a howl of laughter from the audience, “rather than a knowing smile.” In the light of his domestic catastrophe, Schoenberg may well have included the folksong for its last line of text: “Alles ist hin” (it’s all over). This quartet is hardly a novelty a century later, but the audience in Paine Hall offered a few knowing snickers.

The third movement, with Stefan George’s text, begins in E-flat minor, a key remote from D minor. The soprano enters with the text “Tief ist die trauer die mich umdüstert” (Deep is the sadness that gloomily surrounds me). There is a sighing appoggiatura on F-flat to E-flat on the word “Trauer.” Schoenberg didn’t say so, but I believe that it grows psychologically out of a similar appoggiatura in the “Song of the Wood Dove” in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900-1901; orchestration completed 1911). The quartet’s nominal key, F-sharp minor, was left behind some time ago, but E-flat minor is closely related to F-sharp major, and much of the Wood Dove’s song is in that same E-flat minor – a definite aural image. Schoenberg’s personal crisis is reached and resolved in this agonized third movement: “Take away love from me – give me your happiness!” After this resolution, his bold leap into atonality in the fourth movement seems not only justified but necessary. George’s famous text provides the signal: “I feel the air of another planet… I dissolve myself in tones.” Yet there are moments where Schoenberg cannot let go of his tonal past, and in the midst of his dense and dissonant chromaticism a fully consonant triad will support a completely dissonant melody above it, as the focal F-sharp minor gradually returns, becoming major in the final sonority.

This quartet and Schoenberg’s next opus number, the Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, of 1909, can be regarded as borderline cases of his first strong commitment to atonality. Two other atonal works of 1909, the Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16, and the monodrama Erwartung, op. 17, are even more radical in their departure, and yet they contain well-concealed but still detectable echoes of D minor, a key that was emblematic for Schoenberg in earlier works like Pelleas und Melisande and the Opus 7 String Quartet. It is in the earliest atonal works, beginning with the Opus 10 Quartet, that Schoenberg’s imaginative reach perhaps extended the farthest, before his artistic life, and everyone else’s in Europe, was turned upside down by the Great War. Not until 1923 would great music again flow from his active mind and pen, when, after more than a decade of “searching for a system,” he developed the twelve-tone technique for regulating atonality.

The second half of the program comprised a single work, Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, op. 51 (1787). Haydn made this rarely-heard quartet version from what was originally a Good Friday oratorio. It consists of an introduction, seven slow movements with vocal intonations (John Kapusta, baritone, provided these brief epigraphs), and a final Presto e con tutta la forza representing the earthquake after Christ’s death. The work is long (I timed it at 51 minutes) and surprisingly uniform in texture from movement to movement, and it was absorbing to follow the tonal scheme spread over such a spacious temporal canvas. Only in the final Word (“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”) were the strings muted. One could compare the overall feeling with the different harmonizations of the principal chorale melody in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, which traverses the same emotional ground.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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