String Quartet No. 3 in E♭ minor Op. 30 (1876)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
I Andante sostenuto – Allegro moderato
II Allegretto vivo e scherzando
III Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto
IV Finale. Allegro non troppo e risoluto
In 1876 at the age of thirty-five Tchaikovsky enjoyed a brief but inspiring trip from his native city of Moscow to visit Modest, his brother, in Paris. On the 20th January the composer saw one of the final performances of the first production of Bizet’s Carmen. It had a profound effect on him and he was to later describe it as “perhaps the most outstanding operatic work of our age.” During his time in Paris, Tchaikovsky was beginning work on his third and final string quartet.
Perhaps due to his rapture at seeing Carmen, the quartet appears to have sprung from one of Tchaikovsky’s less depressive periods. However the impetus for writing the work was the death of his friend the Czech violinist and composer Ferdinand Laub who was also a colleague at the Moscow Conservatory. Laub had been the first violinist in the premiere performances of the composer’s first (1871) and second (1874) string quartets, so it seems only fitting that Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to his memory. Tchaikovsky completed the work in less than two months whereupon it received a number of performances, the first being a private performance on 14th March 1876 at one of Nikolai Rubinstein’s soirées. The next day, during a bout of self-doubt, Tchaikovsky wrote to Modest “I think I’m all written out” and accused himself of rewriting the same ideas.
The work is both brooding and elegiac and hailed by academics as an equal, if not a superior, of the two earlier quartets. Tchaikovsky had already demonstrated his assured mastery of the medium in the previous two works and in the third quartet only need expand on the expressive and communicative qualities that were already hallmarks of his compositional style. His abundance of creative ideas are tightly packed into the traditional four-movement structure and occasionally push the form to breaking point. Written in the key of E-flat minor, which has six out of the seven notes of the scale flattened, this has a particular effect on the resonance of the instruments. With no opportunities to play with open-strings there are fewer overtones giving the piece a more muffled and subdued sound world.
It is the first movement that stretches the boundaries furthest with a complex structure and demanding, emotional outpouring. From the outset the intense and anguished introduction alternates duplets and triplets anticipating the main musical material of the movement. Whilst the first violin takes a clear lead the viola and ‘cello also play prominent roles in providing contrary musical ideas. Unusually, the Allegro begins with a three-beat pulse (3/4) but rarely succumbs to any feeling of waltz as Tchaikovsky compounds rhythmic ideas. Favouring a hemiola effect, at the height of the developmental section this is pitted against syncopation, triplets and dotted rhythms in complete contrast to the moments of rhythmical unity. The movement concludes by returning to the uneasy rocking harmony of the opening 6/8.
A note in the fair manuscript copy indicates that Tchaikovsky had intended the scherzando movement should follow the funebre, but by the time of publication these had been reversed. The light and airy scherzo provides welcome relief between the two darker movements. Its concise use of material is typical of Tchaikovsky with a contrasting middle section that, whilst retaining the opening pulse, sounds slower because longer note values are used.
The dedication to Laub is realised in the third movement with an almost celebratory sounding fanfare. It is played with a strange timbre though as Tchaikovsky requests the instruments to play both forte and con sordino undermining the apparent intention. The commanding chords give way to the second violin evoking Russian Orthodox chant where the movement becomes restless, betraying the emotional intensity of Tchaikovsky’s score for Swan Lake. The frequently levelled accusation that Tchaikovsky’s melancholic writing disintegrates into self-pity is not supported here. The clarity of the writing only serves to show the composer’s emotion and intention to communicate.
After the sophisticated influence of Germanic Romanticism, the final movement is threaded with the spirited rhythms and melodies of Russia, alternating folk-like drones with the filigree writing of the scherzo. The ghost of the opening introduction appears just before a final vivace drives the piece to a close.
Sonata for Two Violins in C Op.56 (1932) Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
I Andante cantabile II Allegro
III Commodo (quasi Allegretto)
IV Allegro con brio
Just prior to a trip back to his native Russia in 1932, Prokofiev and his family holidayed at Sainte-Maxime in the bay of Saint-Tropez. He was hard at work composing and practicing his Fifth Piano Concerto but also found time to write this Sonata for Two Violins for performance by the Paris based chamber music society Le Triton, the rival group to Les Six. As it happened, the piece received its first performance in Moscow in November of that year played by members of the Beethoven Quartet, and some three weeks later it was premiered in Paris. The work was given its London premiere in 1933.
Perhaps taking his cue from Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and ‘Cello written a decade earlier Prokofiev produces a sonata that is resourceful in its handling of the two instruments. The structure of the movements recalls that of the sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow-fast) and rejects the use of most violinistic ‘effects’ favouring a greater emphasis on the lyrical qualities of the two violins. Some quadruple stopping is heard in the second and fourth movements underpinning the dance-like tunes and the third movement is played con sordino (muted) throughout, but otherwise Prokofiev focuses on creating a less modernistic and warmer sound.
One of Prokofiev’s sons, Sviatoslav, has described the movements of the sonata as being “lyrical, playful, fantastic and violent in turn,” whilst the biographer Daniel Jaffé has noted that the finale of the sonata “brings to mind the equally fragile emotion of the finale from Schubert’s great C major Quintet.”
String Quartet No. 3 (2010) Gabriel Prokofiev (1975 - )
I allegro un po’ubriaco
II Moderato (come i robot elegant)
III duetto adagio
IV andantino spesso fragile
V vivace ricerca ma maestoso
In preparing programme notes it’s a rare privilege to be able to ask the composer directly about his work. How much do you allow yourself to be aware of the ‘tradition’ of the string quartet and what in the canon do you look to for inspiration and as a model?
I am certainly aware of the tradition in as much as I enjoy listening to much of the string quartet repertoire, but during the composition process I do not study and closely examine other string quartets and aim to compose in an instinctive and personal way. I'm happy to make connections with the 'tradition' but also keen to try and find new approaches (and certainly not interested in being held back by tradition either).
Various influences from composers such as Bartok, S Prokofiev, Beethoven, Janacek, Tchaikovsky, Schnittke, and Shostakovich have certainly entered my musical imagination through listening to them, but I haven't consciously followed or studied any particular composer's quartet writing in the process of composing this quartet.
Before I started composing this quartet, The Ruysdael’s told me that it was going to be performed in a program alongside the Sonata for two Violins by my grandfather Sergei Prokofiev, and Gijs Kramers (Viola) was quite keen (even insistent) that I include some duo writing in this quartet, in particular viola & ‘cello duos to counterbalance the Sergei Prokofiev violin duo. This insistence led to two of the movements being based on viola/‘cello duos (with a little extra accompaniment from the violins). However, I actually made a conscious decision not to listen to my grandfather's Violin Sonata as I didn't want to be over-influenced, distracted (or intimidated) by his work. How strange then, that having just spoken to Joris van Rijn (Violin 1) on the phone after one of their rehearsals, he told me that he had noticed a few connections to the Violin Sonata in my Third Quartet! (I don't think I've heard it for at least 15 years).
You have such a wide creative base, but do you find writing for traditional instrumentation such as the string quartet is restrictive, or does it feel like a safe haven?
Firstly, I find that the string quartet is impressively unrestrictive as a medium; it is an extremely versatile ensemble and so expressive. And with the increased range of sounds that string players are prepared to make these days and with all the extended techniques that have been explored over the last century a quartet can really give a representation of most of the ideas a composer might have. Of course there are some limitations, but that adds to the challenge of writing for string quartet, and to the excitement of imagining what the players will do with the score.
You’ve recently said that “If music comes out of the same world that people live in they will relate to it.” This piece was premiered in the Wigmore Hall in London in May 2010. Have you created a work specifically for this venue, or are you bringing some of the East End (where your work can regularly be heard in non-classical environments) up West?
I think there is a bit of both! I have stayed true to my interest in more 'underground' and 'urban' dance-styles, and so there are still some very rhythmic and syncopated moments in my Third Quartet but I’ve also been inspired by the thought of a premiere at the Wigmore Hall, which has a fantastic acoustic and very appreciative audiences. So there are some more 'traditional' moments and therefore a little bit of East/West juxtaposition! After all, just beyond the safe doors of the Wigmore Hall is the mayhem of Oxford Street and then the alleys of Soho, so some contemporary urban 'folk' is bound to slip in here occasionally!
You say that in your first two quartets you’ve drawn on ideas from electronic dance music. Have you attempted to take this further in the third quartet?
There are certainly still influences from 'electronic dance music'. I see that as one of the 'folk musics' of our time. Composers of the past used dance-forms of their days and that's all I'm doing now. I don't know many people who dance to minuets anymore, but a 4-to-the-floor dance beat, for example, is danced to everywhere in the modern world so why not take elements of that for inspiration and use its energy in a positive and creative way? I guess that certain urban-dance styles are really an aspect of my composing style, and with this quartet maybe those elements have become more integrated.