The Lydian String Quartet, Up Close and Personal

The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)
The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)

 

Here are two clips which provide an intimate, virtual front row seat to the excellent, Boston-based Lydian String Quartet. You’ll get a sense of the subtle communication that takes place between members of a fine chamber music group. Hours of rehearsing together allow for spontaneous musical conversations to unfold as one voice reacts to the timing and phrasing of another.

Formed in 1980, the Lydian String Quartet won the 1984 Walter W. Naumburg Award for chamber music. The group’s varied repertoire includes numerous works by living composers. The members of the quartet are faculty members at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many years ago, as a student, I was lucky to spend a few weeks one summer studying with “the Lyds.”

Here is the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Completed in November, 1825, this music takes us into the strange world of Beethoven’s late string quartets. First violinist Daniel Stepner talks about the music here.

…and here is the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet. Second violinist Judith Eissenberg offers a few thoughts about the music here.

  • the Lydian String Quartet’s website
  • Find the Lydian String Quartet’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon

Schubert’s Mysterious Final String Quartet

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Slow down, maybe even close your eyes, and listen attentively to Franz Schubert’s hauntingly transcendent final string quartet, No. 15 in G major, D. 887. It’s one of a handful of pieces written in the final years of Schubert’s life that moves into strange, mysterious new territory. Schubert wrote this music in ten days in June of 1826, but it wasn’t until 1851 that it was published, posthumously.

During the same time, Beethoven was completing his own final work, the String Quartet, Op. 135. Both Beethoven’s final quartets and late Schubert offer a glimpse of profound revelation. But while Beethoven often takes us on a dramatic journey with an ultimate sense of resolution, Schubert’s music can be less goal-oriented and more open-ended. The pianist Paul Lewis offered this description in a 2012 New York Times interview:

Schubert asks the performer to speak softly, Mr. Lewis said, which renders the music more powerful. “If someone shouts at you it’s a shock,” he said. “But if someone gives you awful news in a softly spoken way it’s sinister.” With Beethoven, he said, “there is a sense of rising above or resolution, but with Schubert you end up with more questions, a sense of something hanging in the air.”

Similarly, Mark Steinberg, a violinist in the Brentano Quartet, writes,

[Schubert’s] experience of time can be more painterly than narrative; all is present simultaneously and we need to approach his works with a patience that allows us to grasp his yearning toward acceptance rather than resolution.

In some ways Quartet No. 15 anticipates the gradual, unfolding cosmic grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies (listen to Bruckner’s Seventh for a comparison), music which has been compared to walking around a cathedral and viewing the same structure from an ever-changing perspective. In the hushed intensity of the quartet’s otherworldly tremolos, we hear echoes of Bruckner symphonies to come. As with Bruckner, Schubert’s quartet is built on key relationships and a restless sense of modulation (listen to the first movement’s second theme at 2:16 and the final movement). From the unsettled opening of the first movement, and throughout the piece, we hear the music alternate between major and minor, as if it can’t make up its mind where to go next. It isn’t until the first movement’s coda (14:17) that we feel firmly grounded in G major. Unlike most of Schubert’s music, which is almost always rooted in song, this quartet is strangely motivic.

A few details in the music to listen for: In the first movement notice the way the canonic overlapping voices are paired against each other, beginning around 1:23. This conversational overlap powerfully returns as a musical exclamation point in the final bars of the movement. You may notice a sense of instability and conflict increasing throughout the development section. Keep listening, and you’ll hear this tension explode in one shockingly dissonant chord (8:55) which says, “Go no further.” With the recapitulation, we return to the music of the opening, but as Mark Steinberg points out, everything feels different:

The recapitulation, or return to the opening material, in the first movement is extraordinary in that the sense of return is strong and unmistakable and yet nothing is the same. The startling dynamic contrasts are gone, the jagged rhythms are smoothed out. Instead of shuddering tremolos we have rolling triplets that seem gently to console. And yet, with all of this contrast, the sense is not that there were conflicts that have been resolved but rather that what we are hearing was there all along had we chosen to understand it in that way; we should have no expectation that the more difficult opening idea has been banished but only that we see how to admit it into our experience without being completely overwhelmed.

In the second movement we hear strangely terrifying shrieks (beginning at 18:17) which remain insistent and unchanging as the music around them changes. It may be the darkest, most frightening moment in all of Schubert’s music, and it’s left hanging and unresolved. Throughout the movement, we continue to return to an almost expressionless, static, canonic conversation between the violin and cello (20:28).

The third movement’s trio section (29:29) takes us to a world far from the terror of the second movement. The music lingers there, as if it doesn’t want to leave, even to return to the sparkling magic of the scherzo.  

The final movement keeps us off balance with one surprise after another, from sudden key changes to rhythmic shifts. Notice the quirky contrapuntal activity beginning at 34:55. For some reason, this passage reminds me of the ironic comedy of Mahler’s music. In the music that follows we hear almost comic references to opera (35:22). The buoyant cello pizzicati in the final bars brings the whirlwind activity and humor of the movement to a fitting close.

Here is the Brandis Quartet’s 1997 recording:

  1. Allegro molto moderato –0:00
  2. Andante un poco moto –14:50
  3. Scherzo, allegro vivace –26:30
  4. Allegro assai –33:25

Postscript

Now that you’ve heard String Quartet No. 15, take a moment and review two other late Schubert pieces, the monumental Ninth Symphony and the String Quintet, completed two months before the composer’s death. If you feel inspired, please share your thoughts on the music in the discussion thread below.

Late Beethoven Revelations

Takacs Beethoven QuartetsThe greatest composers serve as visionaries and prophets, giving us a glimpse at a higher reality. Looking back through music history, many composers seem to have experienced a sharpening of this sense of vision in the final years of life. The Ninth and final symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner are filled with mystery, foreboding and spirituality. The first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth is marked “Feierlich (Solemn) and ” misterioso.” Schubert’s Ninth Symphony“The Great”, is a sublime Romantic statement which, in scale, eclipses all of his previous classical symphonies. In his book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes about late Mozart:

[quote]In creative work we play undisguisedly with the fleetingness of our life, with some awareness of our own death. Listen to Mozart’s later music-you hear all its lightness, energy, transparency, and good humor, yet you also hear the breath of ghosts blowing through it. Death and life came to be that close for him. It was the completeness and intensity with which both primal forces met and fused in him, and his freedom to play with those forces, that mad Mozart the supreme artist he was.[/quote]

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its use of chorus and solo voices, redefined the symphony and set a monumental and intimidating example for composers who followed.

Equally interesting is the music Beethoven wrote after the Ninth Symphony: the Late String Quartets (Op. 127-135) which remain some of the most mysterious and profound music ever conceived. This music is so far out that, at times, you might swear that you’re listening to something from the twentieth century. Let’s listen to the Takacs Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132:

1. Assai sostenuto- Allegro:

2. Allegro ma non tanto:

3. Molto Adagio– Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung:

4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (attacca) 

5. Allegro appassionato – Presto

For me, one of the most amazing aspects of this music is the way it seems fully to transcend style and historical period. There are echoes of the Ninth Symphony, especially in the operatic, “wordless” violin recitative which forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth movements (36:10). In the final movement of the Ninth, Beethoven quotes the themes of each preceding movement, musically rejecting each and moving forward with the transcendental “Ode to Joy.” In a similar way, with these quartets, Beethoven moves past all of his earlier works into strange, new musical territory.

Go back and listen to the third movement (17:24) one more time. Having recovered from a serious illness, Beethoven titled this movement “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The music abruptly alternates between slow, chorale like sections in modal F and faster sections (“with renewed strength”) in D. At times there is an almost child-like playfulness. It’s powerful music which goes beyond words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Great Fugue, Op. 133[/typography]

[quote]It is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.- Igor Stravinsky[/quote]

Here is the Takacs Quartet performing the mind-blowing Great Fugue, Op. 133. Beethoven originally intended it to be the final movement of Quartet No. 13. He ended up replacing it with another movement. After you listen, you’ll probably get a sense of why this intense music had to stand alone. Listen to the complex imitative counterpoint. What do you think Beethoven is saying with this music?

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