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Italian Serenade for string quartet      (1887)      Hugo Wolf

Katherine Winterstein, violin                      Phillip Stevens, viola
Erin Furbee, violin                                       Noah Seitz, cello

Wolf lived the quintessentially Romantic life. First, it was short; he died in 1903, just shy of his 43rd birthday. Second, he was moody, temperamental, controversial and given to bouts of depression; he spent his last years in an asylum. Third, he had a complicated love life. Fourth, he primarily wrote intensely dramatic songs.

But no hint of any of that lies in the Italian Serenade, a seven-minute, stand-alone movement for string quartet. The lively 6/8 dance theme, which changes its shape and color in nearly every iteration, suggest nothing but merry mischief. The ardent 4/4 love song that interrupts it, in notable solos for cello and later first violin, rises as if toward a desired woman’s balcony. Ultimately the dance impetus sweeps the would-be lover away into the 6/8 revelry. The Serenade is un-Romantic in that its most salient quality is not yearning, but fun.

Notes by Tom Strini

Viola Quintet in B flat, K. 174 (1773) W.A. Mozart

I. Allegro moderato
II. Adagio
III. Menuetto ma allegretto
IV. Allegro

Erin Furbee, violin               Phillip Stevens, viola
Shin-Young Kwon, violin    Kenji Bunch, viola        Victoria Wolff, cello

Mozart (1756-1791) composed the present quintet as a lad of 17. The music sounds so effortless and amiable that you must study the score to grasp its astonishing sophistication.

Sly harmonic mischief permeates all four movements. The second theme of the first movement, for example, slips and slides through flirtations with C and distant D major before a weird A diminished seventh chord, held five full beats, resolves to a G minor to point us back to the key of F and the closing theme. That theme goes off on its own chromatic adventures; furthermore, it’s in three parts, a little ternary form tucked away within sonata form.

2016 #2 Mozart

Figure 1 Mozart Quintet, first movement, transition from second theme to closing theme.

That A diminished seventh sixth bar is so cool!

Mozart studded standard sonata and minuet/trio forms with imaginative structural details. The Adagio, in E-flat, begins with arpeggios on the tonic triad — simple enough, even obvious. But he shades them with mutes and shapes them into a tender, pianissimo gesture. Throughout the movement, the gesture recurs in various guises as connective tissue, and it is very stuff of the coda.

I could go on with the music-analysis geekery, but by now you get the point. Sure, let Mozart charm you, but do listen hard. A lot is going on.

Notes by Tom Strini

Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131     Ludwig van Beethoven    1770-1827

I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Allegro moderato – Adagio
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
V. Presto
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante
VII. Allegro

Shin-Young Kwon, violin              Kenji Bunch, viola
Katherine Winterstein, violin        Noah Seitz, cello

Beethoven sent the manuscript of Opus 131 to his publisher with a note that it was “patched together from pieces filched from here and there.” Later, he reproached the publisher: “You said in your letter that it should be an original quartet. I felt rather hurt, so as a joke I wrote … that it was a bit of patchwork, but it is really brand new.”

And so it was. How many other quartets begin with a fugue? How many have seven movements, bound together by transitions that bridge the usual stopping places? Richard Wagner called the opening fugue “surely the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music;” Hector Berlioz called it “terrifying.” Serious and grave compared to the exuberant fury of the Grosse Fuge, which he had just finished, the Opus 131 opening was the last fugue Beethoven ever wrote, just as the theme and variations of the middle movement were to be his valedictory to this form.

Just three weeks before he died, Beethoven sent off an urgent letter to his publisher, requesting that he dedicate the quartet to Marshal Stutterheim- a commander who had agreed to take Beethoven’s disturbed nephew into his regiment after a tragic suicide attempt. “It must be dedicated to Stutterheim to whom I am deeply indebted. If you have already engraved the first dedication — change I will gladly pay the cost … I am ready to make any compensation for it.” The publisher obliged, and the original dedicatee was honored by Opus 135, while Stutterheim achieved immortality by his generous act of kindness to Beethoven’s nephew.

Notes by Craig B. Leman, for Friends of Chamber Music performance by Quatuor Via Nova, October 12, 1987