Program Notes: Concert III

Ravel: String Quartet in F major

About the composer // One of the greatest French composers, Maurice Ravel, lived from 1875-1937. Ravel often brought existing musical idioms and influences (such as neoclassicism, baroque, folk music, and jazz),  together into surprising ways.

About the music // Ravel’s only string quartet, this piece was written in 1903 at the age of 28. Ravel was still a student of Fauré at the time. Ravel found much inspiration for his string quartet in Debussy’s only string quartet. Similarities include modal scales, modern harmonies (for the time), a pizzicato-dominated second movement scherzo, a slow impressionistic third movement, and even a cyclical series of themes that are found in all four movements.

A fairly traditional sonata form, the first movement begins serene but soon shifts to a nervous energy that climbs to quite unresolved heights. Serene music returns at the recapitulation. The second movement is justly famous. The “A” section of the scherzo is characterized by an intensely energetic pizzicato that propels the melody forward. The “B” section, or trio, is more languid but pizzicato themes from the “A” section keep the energy moving. The music is complex on a hyper-rhythmic level as the meter shifts between 6/8 and 3/4 and sometimes played simultaneously by multiple instruments. A nocturne, the stoic third movement is an abrupt change of feeling from the scherzo. A sensual melody slowly rises from its depths. The fourth movement is a vigorous rondo that brings themes from the previous movements together into a new glorious whole.

Webern: Langsamer Satz für Streichquartett

About the composer // From the second Viennese school, Webern (1883-1945) was an acolyte of Schoenberg. Webern’s version of twelve-tone serialism was austere and minimalist, but emotionally intense.

About the music // Written in 1905 and thus before the invention of serialism, this early work from Webern is a lush example of late romanticism. Birthed from beautiful nature and romantic love, Webern had just returned from a five-day hiking trip in the mountains with his cousin and future bride Wilhelmine Mörtl. Webern wrote in his diary that“our love rose to infinite heights and filled the universe.” That rapture carried into his Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement). In form, it is a simple A-B-A. Even though this piece is only around 10 minutes long, it represents Webern’s longest work.

Szymanowski: String Quartet No.2, Op. 56

About the composer // 1882 – 1937. Very few Polish composers are heard frequently in concert halls outside their native county. Chopin is an exception of course, as is Karol Szymanowski. Born to wealthy parents, Szymanowski first learned music from his father and then later at Neuhaus Elisavetgrad School of Music in 1892 and in 1901 at the State Conservatory in Warsaw (he would later be its director). Because of his family, he was able to travel the world and benefit from its influences. His travel also assisted in making his music known internationally.

About the music // Szymanowski was invited to write the piece for a competition sponsored by the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia. He said of it prior to submission, “I have no idea if it’s worth anything! (But I do think it will sound very well).” Bartók and Casella won instead. However it does “sound very well.” The piece has an opulence to it, with each of the four musicians given a distinct voice. The sonata form of the first movement begins hushed and fervent. It’s moderate tempo is somewhat unusual for an opening. It has an otherworldly vibe through its use of articulations such as sul tasto (bow close to the fingerboard) and sul ponticello (bow near the bridge). Instead of the typical middle slow movement, the second movement is a vigorous rondo but more violently vehement than dance-like. The work ends quietly with subtle influences of folk music throughout.

Program notes written by Crystal Young-Otterstrom. Copyright 2017