Sunday, 12 January 2014
ELDER MUSIC: The World's Greatest Quartet
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
I present today what was certainly the greatest quartet in musical history. No, I'm not talking about John, Paul, George and Ringo, nor am I thinking of the earlier Million Dollar Quartet.
The ones I have in mind are Jo, Wolfie, Carl and Jan or in other words, Haydn, Mozart, Dittersdorf and Vanhal. These four often jammed together playing string quartets.
I don't know whose quartets they played, probably Haydn's as he was the master of the genre and he wrote so many, but Mozart produced quite a few of them as well, inspired by those of Haydn's. Dittersdorf managed half a dozen and Vanhal didn't write any (although he wrote quartets for other instruments).
Haydn and Dittersdorf played the violins, Mozart, the viola and Vanhal, the cello. Alas, there were no tapes running at the time for us to hear what they sounded like so we'll just have to make do.
Michael Kelly, who was a composer and a tenor, was there and he reported that they played well but the performances were not outstanding. He probably wouldn't have liked the Beatles much either.
This is really just another excuse for me to play some of my favorite composers.
The picture is supposedly Haydn conducting a quartet but probably not the others. I wonder if that's Kelly standing behind them with the sniffy look on his face.
The obvious place to start is with one of HAYDN's string quartets as that was the most likely one for them to have played.
Of course, they may have improvised like jazz musos today as both Haydn and Mozart were masters at doing this, and composers of the day often left spaces in their compositions for performers to do exactly that. That sort of thing is rather frowned upon these days in the classical field.
Here is one they might have played (given the number of them. It's probably statistically unlikely) - the first movement of the String Quartet in D Major, OP 33 No 6.
DITTERSDORF was born simply August Carl Ditters. Philipp von Schaffgotsch, the Prince-Bishop of Breslau - both a prince and a bishop, how greedy - gave him a title, so he was forever after called Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. That's a bit of a mouthful so I'll do as I always do.
Besides composing and playing the violin, Ditters was also a silvologist. "Well, get away," was my response to that. Then I employed Dr Google and found that was the science of forestry, understanding and studying the ecosystems of forests and woods. It takes in tree autecology as well.
A bit more googling. It seems that that deals with the dynamics of species population. There was more to old Ditters than just the musical strings on his bow.
To continue the string quartet theme, here is part of one from him. It's the third movement of his String Quartet No.1 in D Major.
MOZART needs no introduction from me.
They probably didn't play the string quintet I'm including unless they happened to ask that bloke standing behind them, "Hey, can you play the viola?" Mr Kelly didn't report that so it probably didn't happen.
Anyway, in keeping with the theme of chamber music, here is the third movement of the String Quintet No 1 in B flat major K174.
JOHANN VANHAL preferred Jan Waňhal as the spelling of his name as did at least one of his publishers. However, history has given us the former spelling and that's the way people know him these days.
Jo (or Jan) was born in Bohemia to a poor but honest family and received early training from a local musician. One of the local bigwigs, Countess Schaffgotsch, was impressed with his violin playing and she arranged lessons with Ditters.
Jo became a prolific composer and he turned out more than 100 quartets (but not string quartets.
Well, it would have been a bit difficult following in the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart), 70 or more symphonies, about 100 sacred words and scads of other instrumental and vocal works. He just had the bad luck to have been born at a time when those towering figures of music were around.
The composition I've chosen isn't any part of a string quartet or any chamber music piece. It's the second movement of his Symphony in G minor although to me it sounds more like a violin concerto. It doesn't matter, it sounds good whatever it is.
Okay, let's go through them all again with something different. As before we'll start with Haydn.
This is a concertino for piano, two violins and cello. A concertino is sort of like a concerto (although in this case without the orchestra) and is freer in form. This one is the first movement of the Concertino in C Hob XIV-11.
Dittersdorf is one of the few composers who treated the double bass as a solo instrument and he did it really well in several concertos for the instrument. This one is the second movement of the Concerto for Double Bass in E Major.
Mozart created quite a few sonatas for violin and piano. The versions I have of these have Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim playing those instruments. You can't get better than that.
Here they are with the second movement of the Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, K 301.
A variation on Mozart's theme is Vanhal's Sonata for Viola and Piano. I prefer the viola to the violin but the instrument doesn't have a good reputation amongst classical players. Many jokes are made about it. Never mind. This is the second movement.
There's still a little time and space left over, so we'll have a couple more and the two composers I've chosen won't come as a surprise to you.
Haydn first, with the second movement of the Symphony No 38, called the Echo. It's called that because "of the use of mimicry motif in the cadential phrasing of the second movement". Okay.
I got that from Professor Google so don't blame me if you're as much in the dark as I am. Oh, Papa Jo didn't call it the Echo; someone later attached that name to it.
I haven't done much in these columns where the bassoon was prominent. So, here's something by Mozart. The second movement of the Bassoon Concerto in B flat major K 191.