The Perpetually Classical String Quartet
On left, Takács Quartet, and on right, Danish String Quartet. Photos by Ellen Appel and Caroline Bittencourt.
Later this fall, UMS will present performances by two renowned string quartets. In November, the upstart Danish Quartet will make their UMS debut, and the next month will see the return of the much-beloved Takács Quartet, who last performed to Ann Arbor audiences in April, 2013.
Both groups are presenting remarkably similar programs. Each will open with a Haydn quartet (both in C major, no less!), then perform quartet written in the last twenty years, and close with a Romantic quartet: Beethoven for Danish Quartet, and Dvořák for Takács. I have written previously about the way programs like these, which juxtapose older and newer string quartet compositions, demonstrate the history of the genre, namely the changes string quartet music has undergone from the Classical era to today and the recent past. At the risk of contradicting myself, I think the Danish and Takács Quartet’s programs more aptly demonstrate the way string quartet music has not changed over time. Truthfully, this kind of continuity is always present in string quartet music because the ensemble has not changed at all since Haydn wrote his first quartet in the 1760s.
Two violins, a viola, and a cello
By contrast, composers, from Beethoven to the students in the University of Michigan’s music composition department, constantly tinker with the orchestra to create different, seemingly new, sounds. Even the piano continued to evolve, mechanically speaking, throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. But, the string quartet has consisted of two violins, a viola, and a cello for over 250 years – it may be a perpetually Classical ensemble. Obviously, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century composers have stretched the sonic envelope of string quartet music to incredible lengths.
Black Angels by George Crumb
Devoted patrons of UMS’s Chamber Arts Series may remember the Kronos Quartet’s two performances from January 2014, when they performed, among other works, George Crumb’s Black Angels. Here, Crumb amplifies the quartet and asks its performers to yell and play various percussion instruments. This may seem like an irrevocable departure from the traditional corpus of string quartet music, but that is not the case. One of Black Angels’ more subdued movements features a heartbreaking quotation from Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden” – despite the experimental daring of Crumb’s sound world, Black Angels still contains a vibrant connection to the string quartet’s Classical heritage.
Arcadiana by Thomas Adés
Thomas Adés and Timo Andres, the living composers who will be performed by the Danish and Takács String Quartets, also maintain an awareness of the past in their music. Adés’ quartet Arcadiana, which appears on the Danish String Quartet’s program, features a potent allusion to one of Franz Schubert’s celebrated art songs, Auf dem wasser zu singen. Here, Adés interpolates quotations from Schubert’s song with his own musical material in a manner that contemplates what Adés observes as the most important theme of the original song’s texts: vanishing time. Accordingly, this movement of Arcadiana is strikingly characterizes by the sense of temporal unevenness; the quartet’s members do not wholly come together until the beginning of the subsequent movement. Although it has seven labeled movements, Arcadiana is composed very fluidly, and typically performed so that each section into the next without interruption. Similarly, though “Auf dem wasser zu singen” is the only part of Arcadiana to make an explicit reference to nineteenth century music, the rest of the work clearly expresses a kind of refracted anachronism that draws heavily on traditional compositional precedents. Much of the work is typified by active gestures and fleeting melodic and harmonic ideas, except for the penultimate movement, “O Albion”, which is a stunningly simple and beautiful statement in counterpoint.
An interview with Timo Andres
Timo Andres’ Strong Language, which will be played in between Haydn and Beethoven on the Takács Quartet’s December program, is more of a mystery because it has not yet received its premiere performance. However, Andres discusses the work at length on his website, describing it as an exercise in musical economy: “Strong Language has three movements and exactly three musical ideas.” Andres is also a renowned pianist, who frequently performs standard repertoire alongside his own compositions and those of other living composers. Thus, it seems likely this new work for string quartet will possess some kind of grounding in Classical music’s tradition. Certainly, this is the case in Andres’ last quartet, Early to Rise (2013), which, like Arcadiana, makes allusions to nineteenth century German art song (though, Andres’ work references Schumann, not Schubert). Per Andres’ description, Strong Language indeed seems to embrace numerous traditional compositional techniques, though its final movement features atypical instrumental sounds, such as scrapes and knocking.
Nevertheless, it is likely Strong Language, just like Arcadiana, will provide further evidence that the string quartet, as a genre and ensemble, is perpetually Classical. Even the purported noise elements in Strong Language’s closing movement are nothing new – George Crumb’s aforementioned Black Angels features similar effects and is forty-five years old.
Of course, the consistency in the string quartet and its repertoire I point out here does not represent a weakness for the ensemble, but, rather, an incredible strength. To support the expression of so many different composers over 250 years of Western musical history with the same instrumentation tells us a great deal about the enormous value of the string quartet as a medium. Be sure to consider the enduring strength of this musical tradition when it is on full display in the surely masterful performances the Danish String Quartet and Takács Quartet will share with UMS audiences in November and December.
Interested in more? Garrett Schumann is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby.