Founded in 1989, the Quatuor Alcan of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean Symphony Orchestra has earned the enviable reputation of being the best Canadian ensemble of its kind since the advent of the Orford [...]
They spoke about it
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor
In 1881, as Borodine was composing his second string quartet, a young French student, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), was spending the first of two summers in Moscow at the residence of Mrs. von Meck, the patron of Tchai-kovsky. It is not known if he heard any of Borodine’s music during these stays. If so, it would have been very little, for Tchaikovsky was reverred in the von Meck residence, and the Five were not in good terms with the composer of Swan Lake. Always refusing Tchaikovsky as an inspiration, Debussy would, however, later admit his admiration for Borodine and Mussorgsky, pointing to the natural quality of their music and the beauty of their harmonies.
During the World Exhibit of 1889 in Paris, Debussy, always rebelling against the academism which dominated the official French music institution, attended Russian music concerts conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov and was enthralled with the richness of the music from the Far-East. This inspired him to write the Suite Bergamasque (which includes the famous “Clair de lune”), Fêtes galantes, and other melodies. In 1892, he completed the first draft of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, completed two years later, sketched the Nocturnes, and began work on his String Quartet. This was the begining of an era of masterpieces and the expression of a new and very personal style. In November 1893, Debussy traveled to Belgium where he asked the famous violinist Eugène Ysaye and his quartet to perform the work which was dedicated to them. The premiere, on December 29 at the Société Nationale in Paris was greeted with great enthusiasm from the musicians but serious reservations from the critics.
The String Quartet in G minor, op. 10 introduced a new style of writing within a more traditional framework. The use of cyclic treatment favored by César Franck, sonata form and development techniques, all contributed to maintain an æsthetics rooted in the past. The language, however, was free and the resulting sound was new: modal harmonies and melodies, dissonant chord progressions chosen solely for their beauty, parallel fifths, imitation of Javanese gamelan, harp or mandoline style. But things were not without hardships for the composer, who wrote to Ernest Chausson: “I cannot get the desired result, yet I have started over three times already.” In Animé et très décidé the main theme is performed in the phrygian mode on G. After an intense and expressive exchange between the violin and the cello, the theme returns followed by the second, also in phrygian mode, but on B flat. The tempo increases gradually. The development alternates between the principal melody and a new idea. Although a few exchanges between instruments are heard, Debussy prefers to exploit the principal part, colored by the harmonies of others, or a genuine homophony between voices. The recapitulation is far from academic. The second movement is a scherzo, Assez vif et Bien Rythmé, in which the pizzicato dominates. The viola plays the first movement’s theme, rhythmically modified; the trio is heard twice, also making full use of the cyclic melody, but in long values and with an expressive legato. A display of colours is witnessed: mandolin effects, parallel harmonies, tremolos and trills. The movement ends in a soft nuance. The lyricism of the Andantino, doucement expressif has been compared to that of the slow movement in Borodine’s first symphony, and the chromatic harmonies of the beginning with those of Franck. Nonetheless, the parallel chords and the whole-tone scale further on are definitely Debussyan! All voices are muted. A first melody from the violin is soon followed by a recitativ by the alto, interspersed with pianissimo chords. The viola then exposes, without mute, a very lyrical theme linked to the cyclic motive. It’s the heart of the movement, a peak in dynamics and fullness of sound. The last movement opens Très modéré with an introduction that picks up a bit with a chromatic march. Motivs recall the second movement. We enter the core of the piece with Très mouvementé et avec passion. Themes, almost all related to the cyclic idea, are fragmented, treated in progression, doubled at the octave and superimposed. A melody gives way to a deployment of sounds and reaches a fortissimo, played in octaves by the first violin. The coda is sparkling, and the Quatuor ends with a brilliant crescendo.
Borodine: String Quartet no. 2
A citizen of St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Porfirievitch Borodine (1833-1887) divided his time between his professional obligations and his musical activities. A medical doctor by training, he also taught chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy and at the Institute of Forestry, besides being a researcher and a translator. He was a founding member of the women’s medical school of St. Petersburg where he taught. As a young man he took basic lessons in flute and piano and studied the cello by himself for the purpose of exploring chamber music repertoire with his friends. After meeting Balakirev in 1862, his reputation became linked to that of the Five. Although essentially remembered for his symphonic sketch In Central Asia (1880), dedicated to Liszt, and his opera Prince Igor (1869-1887), Borodine was nonetheless a master of non-programmatic chamber music and symphony, which was rather unusual among the Five.
Borodine’s Second String Quartet in D, unlike most of his works, was quickly written. It was completed in the summer of 1881, and performed in St. Petersburg in March 1882. He dedicated the work to his wife Ekatarina, whom he had met during the course of his long studies in Heidelberg. Ekatarina was an excellent pianist and admirer of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, and she brought a modern influence to her husband’s ears as they played and listened to music together in Mannheim, Pisa and St. Petersburg. Their marriage appears to have been a happy one.
The quartet is thus perceived as a kind of twentieth anniversary present. As a whole, it is a lyrical piece, dominated by spontaneity, formal clarity and colourful harmonic and instrumental effects. The Allegro moderato, which is in sonata form, opens with a theme performed by the cello. The first violin answers and a dialogue ensues. A second idea is integrated, more Russian this time, with its descending perfect fourths. Then, a folk-inspired melody appears, with the type of falling motion occasionally heard in Debussy’s work.
The accompaniment is in pizzicato. Following a slightly martial theme, the exposition comes to an end, animato, with the viola’s chromatic motive. At the end of the movement, the animato gradually quiets down to a tranquillo. The Scherzo does not have the usual trio. It consists of two themes, the second of which has a very waltz-like quality. The motives and themes interchange and overlap in a variety of musical hues and culminate in an animated conclusion. It is a lovely scherzo that could have been inspired by Mendelssohn or Berlioz.
The slow movement, Notturno (Andante), is one of Borodine’s most famous and has been performed worldwide in a variety of arrangements. Once again, the cello performs the principal melody, cantabile ed espressivo, in an ambiance reminiscent of Central Asia. The violin answers and goes on to perform a new theme which is both passionate and resolved. Echoes, ascending scales and the “oriental” theme follow one another and ultimately fade away, perdendosi. Borodine appears to leave the Andante with regret, presenting the motives of the Finale in this same tempo, alternating from high pichted sounds to lower ones. He then begins an animated dance, which is occasionally interrupted by the inverted motives of the slow introduction, passing from one instrument to the next. The work ends brilliantly.
Wolf: Serenade in G
In three days, from May 2 to 4 1887, Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) wrote a Serenade in G major for string quartet. It had been preceded by a String Quartet in D minor and an Intermezzo in B-flat major. The approximately three hundred lieder composed by Wolf contributed so much to establish Wolf’s fame that we sometimes tend to forget this instrumental repertoire and the symphonic pœm Penthesilee. Born in South-East Austria, Viennese by adoption, Wolf was a music critic at the Wiener Salonblatt from 1884 to 1887, where he expressed his fervent admiration of Wagner’s music and denigrated Brahms. During that time he was less active as a composer. But in the spring of 1887, inspiration could not resist Eichendorff’s poetry, and the score of lieder composed as a result testify that Wolf had reached new heights in his art. Between the last two, Waldmächen and Nachtzauber, he paused long enough to compose the Serenade (which was to become “Italian” only in 1892 when the composer made a transcription for small orchestra). Eichendorff’s poetry, therefore, was not foreign to this work: we notice a close thematic resemblance between the Serenade and the lied Der Soldat I, which deals with love and castles.
The Serenade in G, Molto vivo, reflects the few joyful, relaxed and happy moments of Hugo Wolf’s rather tragic life. It is a carefree rondo despite its chromatic harmonies and a few non-related key modulations. Although it plays an important role, the voice of the first violin does not take itself too seriously with its flights and trills.
The accompanying pizzicati symbolize the mandoline or the lute of ancient Venetian noblemen serenading at night on the Grand Canal. The low voices pick up the melody and prepare a passionate passage, con fuoco. The elegant melody returns, but the cello interrupts with its declarations, appasionato. The conversation becomes animated between the instruments who answer one another in canon, or rather in echoes.
In the following years, Wolf met with fame and glory, but was also plagued with severe physical and mental illness as a result of syphilis; he was institutionalized and died at the age of 43.
© Marie Laplante