MANHATTAN STRING QUARTET
FOR THE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF LOUISVILLE
- Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 4 in D Major
- Eric Ostling, String Quartet No. 1
- Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132
Today’s program will be an awesome musical experience if the listener can match the profundity of the music with the intensity of his own concentrated attention. Apart from the qualities of each quartet, the whole presents a strong argument that the peculiar form of musical thought embodied in the string quartet will certainly endure for many years to come and well into the next century.
The quartets of Beethoven are the foundation of this manner of thinking in music. They serve all succeeding generations of composers as the model, the encyclopedias and the law-giving constitution of the form. While no composer of string quartets can escape the power of Beethoven, two in the twentieth century have been especially devoted to these quartets: Bartok and Shostakovich. Shostakovich, of course, will speak for himself on the program. But Bartok will be heard through the music of Eric Ostling, who in this quartet is as devoted to Bartok as Bartok was to Beethoven, and who marvelously shows us that neither the musical thought nor the specific form of the string quartet is moribund in this final decade of the century.
When the idea was presented to the Manhattan String Quartet, they graciously agreed to play Ostling’s quartet on today’s program between works by Shostakovich and Beethoven. In my opinion it stands the confrontation without apologies.
Ostling has written a profound, moving veneration of Bartok and through him of Mahler and Beethoven. The nature of his tribute to the earlier composers and to the traditions they created is revealed in the procedures, the motives, the harmonic palette, and forms. To say so is not to disparage the originality of the music—quite the contrary. It is the creativity with which he uses these elements that gives rise to the opening optimism with which these program notes began. There is life yet in the traditions and manner of musical thinking of the past. The loving reference with which he has absorbed and penetrated the music of these great masters gives his quartet a vast perspective.
The opening solo for violoncello appears to be an adaptation of the procedure used by Bartok in his sixth string quartet, which in turn, is an homage to Mahler’s tenth symphony, but without the valedictory nature of these two precedents. (Bartok was on the point of fleeing Hungary before the rise of the Nazis. Mahler, in exile in New York, was mortally ill.) Ostling’s solo is produced below. It deserves careful study, and if the listener understands the remarkable skill of these seven sculptured measures, the content of the entire quartet will be more readily comprehended and enjoyed.
[music image to be added: first seven measures]
The solo contains no quotation of other compositions in the style that has been popular in the last few decades, wherein one is supposed to “name that tune.” But the motives are drawn from a common vocabulary having a long history. The first four notes are a cambiata (step up—leap up—step down) that would have been at home in 16th-century counterpoint. Embedded in the approach to the cadence (and probably unintended since it is arrived at quite naturally) is a transposition of the famous BACH motive (C# - C – Eb – D). The motives are, in the tradition of the sonata idea, a resource for imagining many of the ideas in the whole quartet.
At this moment more important than the motivic process is the way in which the melody creates tension and release by its rise and fall, its agogic accents, and the use of neighboring tones (especially half steps) to establish the tones upon which the harmonic and melodic structure is to be built. How it is done could be explained—partially—in a smallish dissertation, but few would like to read it. Ex cathedra I will declare that the result of the solo is the identification of G as the note in which repose must be found and B as its opposite out of which tension and excitement are to be won. The brackets which I have added to the quotation may or may not be helpful. But note that the solo does not reach the reposeful G but only Bb, the “leading tone” of B. The effort to rectify that situation occupies the whole movement.
A general pause which allows us to contemplate this situation, is swept aside by a limpid sequential subject played by the first violin, again an idea from the common vocabulary: G – D, E – B, C – G, etc. It does the job admirably. It supplies a strong contrast while presenting the two tones in a new relationship. The G is initial or transitory and the B is still dominant, not only in the tune but in the accompaniment. The evolution of the new theme carries us to the approach to the cadence, but not without presenting a foretaste of the main subject of the second movement quoted below.
As the cadence approaches, the pace slows and the violoncello takes up the motive of the very first measure and alters the second measure so as to emphasize B, repeating it for good measure. Finally the cadence falls literally through these three octaves. The much-desired G is played pianissimo and pizzicato on the last half of the last beat by the violoncello—a “throwaway” tone, as if the search had exhausted the power of this “tonic” note.
In the second movement, after a slow (quarter note equals 60) four-measure introduction, a lively melody heard previously provides fuel for the first section.
[music image to be added]
A second section is initiated by a solo played by the viola which shortly turns out to be the accompanimental counterpoint to an expressive subject in the violins.
[music image to be added]
The section achieves its climax by allowing the tightly constricted dotted-rhythm motive of the accompaniment to expand into arpeggios and finally a roaring scale. The first section returns, hesitates, then gives way to a quotation of the first motive of the first movement, uttered pianissimo and in tremolos. The recapitulation, much varied, then continues. A coda returns to the final phrases of the middle section and a restatement of the transparently-tonal opening.
The third movement is a rapid scherzo played détaché throughout. It begins with a two-part fugue led by the viola and answered by the second violin. The others join only at the end of the first section, which, as a good scherzo should, is repeated.
[music image to be added]
After a “cooling off” period, the viola reinitiates that fugue subject altering its continuation as the violoncello introduces a new subject creating a double fugue in three parts, the first violin entering at the end of the exposition. A marvelously-wrought crescendo ensues employing rapid alterations of bowing and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow).
A new episode begins featuring a breathless subject supported by glissando harmonics in the violin and cello. The movement ends with a tour de force vigorously combining all subjects and ending with a triple forte cadence. In this coda, Ostling shows himself to be a master of the controlled, gradually evolving crescendo in which every step, every detail on the road to the climax must be justified over an astonishingly extended musical space.
The final movement, in a moderate tempo (quarter note equals 60) and marked rubato throughout, calls to mind the last movement of Bartok’s sixth quartet in its brevity, mood, quiet closing, and in its summation of the whole quartet. Mixed with new subjects are heard the principal ideas from the other movements as the dynamic level drops to a quadruple pianissimo.
Eric Ostling has composed an exceptionally fine quartet. We can be sure we will hear more from him.
Dr. Robert L. Weaver
Emeritus Professor of Music
Music History Department
School of Music
University of Louisville