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The String Quartet in Emergence


That the string quartet is a hallowed musical form does not mean that it descended from the heavens to earthly composers ex nihilo. Like every other artistic creation, from musical genres to architectural forms, the string quartet was developed over time. Haydn is largely looked upon as the father of the string quartet for the quality of his creations and his advancement of the form, but what did Haydn inherit?

The answer, or at least part of it, may lie in a concert given by the Emergence Quartet, under the auspices of the Society for Historically Informed Performance (SOHIP) at Emmanuel Church’s Lindsay Chapel last Thursday. Investigating works for two violins, viola and cello that predate Haydn and Mozart, the ladies of the Emergence Quartet assembled an engaging and varied program of works presented in a charming and at times surprising way. Performers Emily Dahl, Lisa Goddard, Zoe Kemmerling, and Emily Davidson, who took turns introducing each piece, explained the process.

Choosing the repertoire turned out to be key. Traveling too far back from the mid-to-late 18th-century quartets of Haydn and Mozart takes one into the early Baroque, where continuo instruments commonly joined the cello and ensembles as small as quartets did not largely exist. But from about the turn of the 18th century, a style emerged from an age of concerti, suites, and divertimenti; a form that would become a new genre—the string quartet.

The concert (ironically a quartet of quartets) was performed chronologically, which was the most logical choice to illustrate the string quartet’s development. The ensemble played with baroque bows on gut strings, so that the audience heard not a musical look back, but rather a pretty convincing image of what these works would have sounded like when they were new. Throughout all the repertoire, the ensemble worked generally well together, with a warm sound and pleasant intonation. The humidity of Lindsey Chapel required the group to tune frequently between movements but had no noticeable adverse effect as they played.

The group began with a Telemann Sonata (before the ensemble was termed “quartet”), which abounded with characteristic elements such as multiple strokes in metered tremolos and dynamic swells only properly attainable with baroque bows and technique, which the ensemble employed with skill and clarity. And interesting elements crept in to this formulaic structure: the transitional Adagio had about 4 or 5 more harmonic twists in it that one would expect, an element of a proto-Beethovenian extension of material. Also, the final Vivace, which opened in the major, found itself in a lyrical minor section toward the middle, before returning to the opening character. It would seem that, even in this short piece, a singular affekt did not govern the movement, in which Baroque rhetoric was yielding to a Classical concept.

The Telemann was followed by a sonata by Fasch, which actually did originally include continuo but functioned just fine with just the cello on the bassline. In this work, one hears the four instruments become independent voices, interweaving and commenting on one another. The work was more forward looking, perhaps not as far as a performer suggested, to Debussy, but definitely to J.S. Bach and Haydn.

Emergence Quartet (file photo)

The first piece actually labeled “Quartetto” on the program was from the least-known composer. Franz Richter’s second quartet was striking for many reasons, not the least of which was that it started with the second violin—a sign of the growing equality of the parts). In addition, repeated sections delineated large musical realms more like classical sonata sections than baroque stanzas. The size of these sections might have been why the group chose not to ornament much (if at all?) on the repeats, but that is a detail they might want to rethink in the future. The most striking element of the Richter quartet was the harmonic invention, the sharp dissonances and predominance of harmony. It was a quartet in the process of becoming vertical music, or rather that is becoming classical.

After a pause, the ensemble returned for the final piece on the program, Haydn’s G Major Quartet, Op. 1 #4. For many, prior to this evening, this might have been the only work they would have identified as a string quartet, but placed where it was in the program’s trajectory (and being such an early work of Haydn’s), it seemed less like a final destination and more like a logical next step. Instead of sounding like the main attraction for which the previous works were merely production credits, this early Haydn gem melded with its predecessors and progenitors, becoming just one more stage of development, a point proven by the fact that the string quartet as a form continues to evolve to this very day.

There are more concerts to come in SOHIP’s summer season. Concert information is available its website [here].

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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  1. Thank you for this quite interesting review. I agree with you, string quartet does not appear by some spontaneous generation but would emerge progressively…Anyway the opus 1 of Giuseppe Haydn, composed near 1757, has all characteristics of the “modern” string quartet (absence of continuo, four soloist players…). Except the opus 5 of Richter, published in 1767 but perhaps composed before, I do not know any equivalent work. Quartets from Gossec, Vachon, Saint-Georges were composed after 1772.
    Therefore Haydn to my knowledge has played a major role in the birth of this musical genre.
    Best regards

    Comment by Benveniste — July 15, 2014 at 6:19 am

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