…what is clear to us is that this is a golden treasure trove of riveting musical rhetoric, elevated, intricately woven roundtable discussions which make for an engaging concert experience. It is music for which we have a deep love and which we feel we can bring to life effectively through the medium of the string quartet.

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With the Art of Fugue, a veritable Bible of fugal techniques and expression, Bach produced a monumental edifice. (The idea of fugue, for the uninitiated, is that of a musical form which deals with a number of voices all discoursing on shared thematic material, a “subject,” in much the same way debates focus on a subject.)

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For the young Béla Bartók, the period of 1906-1909 marked a time of enormous change, experimentation and turmoil.

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Bartok’s work as an ethnomusicologist became extremely important to him, and he spent much time traveling from village to village living among the native people and recording their singing on the then new and revolutionary Edison wax cylinder.

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Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet was written in 1926, when the composer was in his mid-forties.  At this point in his life, he was internationally recognized, not just as an important composer but also as one of the earliest serious ethnomusicologists: he collected and catalogued folk music from several Eastern European countries, and even ranged as far as North Africa in his research.  To Bartók’s thinking, folk music was of more than scientific interest; it was the life-giving seed without which there was no way forward in musical creation.

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[Bartok] composed his Fourth Quartet in 1928. Considered by many to be among his very greatest compositions, it represents in some sense an extreme case. Taut, economical, almost geometrical in its arguments, it is music that wastes not a single note, and thus conveys a kind of athletic exuberance.

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Béla Bartók produced what was to be his final string quartet, his sixth. It is a curious and powerful work, seemingly two distinct quartets amalgamated into one: a poignant lament which reveals its full dimensionality in stages as the piece progresses, and, sandwiched between occurences of the lament, a more conventional set of tripartite movements, ranging in character from playful to bitterly sarcastic.

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In the E-flat Major quartet, Op. 127, in particular we find a spiraling inwards, a refutation of earlier models of drama and struggle. There is an omnipresent sense of dissolving into acceptance and clarity, and for Beethoven it is an uncommonly tender and introverted work.

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As Wittgenstein investigates the link of language and thought, as Gödel asks what truths may escape any given formal system, so Beethoven uses music to refer to and ask questions of itself, writing in Op. 130 a precarious piece that investigates and attempts to define the limit of what can be expressed.

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Here Beethoven, rather than aiming for consolation, shows only the reflection of the heavens in the eyes of the man whose feet are firmly planted on the earth, strong and proud in his humanity, holding an equally vast universe within.

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Perhaps this is the greatest gift that Beethoven has given us. He grapples with the vicissitudes of our inner and outer lives, in full acknowledgement of our native suffering, and through the transformative power of art leads us to recognition of beauty and faith in humanity.

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The String Quartet in F, opus 135, was the last complete work Beethoven composed, only a few months before his death in March 1827. It is traditionally grouped together with his other late quartets, opp. 127, 130, 131, 132 and the Grosse Fuge; but it’s hard not to wonder what Beethoven would have thought of that grouping.

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Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets are his earliest compositions for the medium, written in the closing years of the 18th century, when he was in his late twenties.

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The second of these quartets, in G major, is a case in point. The music is genial, filled with sunlight. The first movement enters the room like an elegant stranger: courtly bows, witty conversation, suspenseful pauses.

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We are told that Beethoven’s Quartet in D major, opus 18 #3, was actually composed first, before any of its opus 18 companions.  That it did not retain pride of place when the group was published — ceding the first position to the more muscular and substantial F major quartet — may have to do […]

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The last of Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets, number 6 seems especially to affirm his debt to Haydn. Like its companions, this quartet on the whole favors wit and surprise over melodiousness. Despite hewing faithfully to Classical forms (at least in the first three movements), the piece recalls the fondness of Haydn for sudden stops, changes of mood, rhythmic elegance, and economy of material.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. Beethoven’s friend and student Carl Czerny reported that the second movement of the master’s e minor string quartet, Op. 59 No. 2, was inspired by contemplation of the starry firmament and the music of the spheres. Increasingly alienated from quotidian society, hermetically trapped by his increasing deafness, Beethoven […]

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For so many, Beethoven’s music seems to represent a protagonist to whom they would like to relate, who represents the best version of who they might be. As heroes of great epics rise above struggle and difficulty to triumph, so does Beethoven’s music so often seem to surmount uncertainty and threat to emerge victorious.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. The music from Beethoven’s middle period of creativity, sometimes known as the “heroic” period, is justly beloved. A keen observer and portrayer of our pains and foibles, our struggles and desires, Beethoven in this period displays our capacity for strength and dignity. He depicts our power to restore […]

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Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, is one of the great artistic testaments to the human capacity for meaning in the face of the threat of chaos. Abiding faith in the relevance of visionary struggle in our lives powerfully informs the structure and character of the music; this is surely one of the composer’s most inspiring achievements.

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The work stands as a powerful expression of the deepest passion and tragedy, a gripping evocation of the inner world of a great composer and a tortured man.

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Many have argued that the Clarinet Quintet is Brahms’ most profound chamber work, despite a number of awe-inspiring rival claimants (the Horn Trio, the G Major Sextet and the c minor Piano Quartet spring to mind, among others).

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Two hallmarks of Brahms’ style as a composer – extreme rigor in the treatment of his material, and a proclivity for full, rich textures – are on display in all three of his string quartets, and perhaps most especially in his first one, the C minor Quartet. Brahms was thinking symphonically, in no uncertain terms, when he wrote this work. C minor had strong symphonic connotations for him, being the key of Beethoven’s most illustrious symphony, as well as that of Brahms’ own First Symphony, which was starting to take form in his mind.

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Each of Brahms’ quartets might be interpreted as a sort of homage: the driven c minor confronting Beethoven, the more genial B-flat Major tipping its hat to Haydn, with shades of reference to Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet as well. The Op. 51 No. 2 in a minor must have somewhere in its ancestry the Schubert quartet in the same key. A minor was a particularly evocative key for Schubert, lonely, bereft and lyrical.

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Brahms’ Third Quartet truly sounds like the work of a man on his summer holiday.  Especially in its outer movements there is a feeling of the countryside, of sunshine.  The first movement has strong ties to the same movement of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet.  Aside from sharing its key and its meter — fairly superficial traits — the Brahms evokes the atmosphere of the hunt from the very opening, imitating hunting horns perhaps even more faithfully than Mozart’s music.

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Benjamin Britten’s Third String Quartet written in autumn 1975, is among the very last works he completed. Decades had passed since his first two quartets, written in the early 1940s, just before the opera Peter Grimes catapulted him to international fame.

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Ferruccio Busoni defies categorization as much as any figure in the music world of the late 19th century. On the one hand, he was pre-eminent among concert pianists of his time, having a profound influence on following generations; on the other, he was also influential as a composer and composition teacher, including among his many students Edgard Varèse, Percy Grainger and Kurt Weill.

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The inner life of the emotions burns with the same fire from age to age. We connect easily still with Shakespeare because essentially we are as people have always been. Reborn with each generation, the emotional intensity we feel inside begins as amorphous sensation and searches for a container, for a form in which to present itself to the world.

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Claude-Achille Debussy was no academic. Fed up with the rigors of conservatory training, he longed to compose in a style that was distinctly French, as opposed to the more Germanic intellectual and aesthetic ideals of his teachers. He was very much involved with the artistic currents of his time in his native country, especially Symbolism in poetry and in the visual arts.

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Dvorak’s E-flat Quartet, opus 51, is arguably the earliest of his quartets to be truly well-known and and to occupy a place in the standard repertoire, along with the C major, A-flat major, and “American” quartets. The E-flat Quartet is called the “Slavic Quartet” because of its genesis – Jean Becker of the Florentine Quartet commissioned the work, requesting a quartet “in the Slavic style”.

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Antonin Dvořák was a great admirer of Franz Schubert… he could not have become the composer he was without meditating and absorbing the music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner. He was especially enthusiastic in praise of Schubert, whose genius, he wrote, “was like a spring which nothing but exhaustion could stop from flowing.”

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Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, wrote some of the most startling, gripping, fiercely expressive music the world has ever known.

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Haydn composed this music around the same time as the two opus 77 quartets, which were meant to be part of a six-quartet set; presumably, then, this work would have been a third quartet in that set. In failing health, the composer subsequently allowed the fragment to be published by itself, as opus 103.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. Were you an actor in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater when his plays were first performed you would have been given “sides” before rehearsal, a copy of your lines, and only yours, perhaps with a few cues to help you figure out when to say them. You would show up […]

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Coming fast on the heels of two earlier sets (opus 9 and opus 17), the opus 20 quartets are arguably Haydn’s first quartet masterpieces. They make the fullest use of four completely independent voices (in his earlier quartets Haydn would often fuse the viola and cello parts together to be one line), employ a much expanded range of texture and dynamics, and show for the first time the composer’s flexibility in phrase length and structure, with all its attendant capacity for wit and surprise.

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Joseph Haydn’s opus 33 string quartets are widely held to be the first set wherein the composer displayed full maturity in his mastery of the form – this in spite of their brilliantly experimental opus 20 precursors. The opus 33 quartets are dubbed “Gli Scherzi”, a reference to Haydn’s replacement of the more usual Minuet movement with a lighter, quicker Scherzo in each work.

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In a quartet nicknamed “the Joke” one might expect as much. The nickname of the E-flat major quartet Op. 33 No. 2 refers to the ending of its last movement, but Haydn plays at being a delightful trickster in three of the four movements.

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Haydn wrote his opus 50 Quartets in 1787. Like Mozart with his final three quartets, he dedicated them to King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, who was a music lover and an enthusiastic amateur cellist. Perhaps for this reason the cello part, throughout the six quartets, has little moments in the sun, snatches of brilliance or brief alluring melodies — a more subtle featuring than in Mozart’s quartets, as if Haydn was attempting to judge very carefully how much of a burden of exposure to place on his royal (and hopefully generous) dedicatee.

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The F-sharp minor Quartet, opus 50 no. 4, is the only minor-key quartet of the six. F-sharp minor is altogether an unusual key, as it is difficult for string players and does not take much advantage of the natural resonance of the instruments; but Haydn used it for his “Farewell” Symphony and for one of his late piano trios as well, so he clearly responded to its severe, somewhat astringent tonal flavor.

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The six opus 64 quartets straddle this moment of change. Haydn wrote the last two of these quartets (including the celebrated “Lark” quartet) with the London public in view, while the first four are still the creation of Haydn the court composer. The Quartet in B-flat, opus 64 number 3, displays characteristics worthy of both milieus: its extroverted brilliance would play well to a large hall, but it retains the characteristics of the genius of the Esterhaza laboratory: curiosity, experiment, innovation.

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By 1790, when the Op. 64 set of six string quartets was published, Haydn was writing to satisfy a great demand for his music throughout Europe. These were to be among the final works he wrote as a servant.

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The present quartet, the so-called “Quinten” Quartet shares its d minor, significantly, with Mozart’s K421 quartet, dedicated to Haydn, and Bach’s Art of Fugue. Its first movement evinces a seriousness of style and a learned aspect fully resonant with these earlier masterpieces.

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In fact, the six opus 76 Quartets were not written for the public, but were commissioned by the Hungarian Count Erdödy, who enjoyed having them to himself for two years (in the meantime, Haydn cannily sold them to two separate publishers in London and Vienna). As a set, they are unquestionably the most popular and most often performed of his many quartets, and some would say his greatest quartet masterpieces as well.

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Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, one of the composer’s most profound works, has its genesis in an unusual commission.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. György Kurtág, one of Europe’s most important living composers, might be described as a poet among novelists. Unlike the composer who emphasizes the narrative, the evolution of musical drama over time, his preference is for brief movements of music, wherein each harmony is painstakingly chosen, each melodic gesture […]

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György Ligeti wrote the second of his two String Quartets in 1968, when he was in his mid-forties and already a noted composer at the forefront of the European avant-garde. In this piece, a unifying theme persists throughout all five movements. However, this theme is not a melody or a leitmotif as an earlier composer might have used to bind a work together.

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Felix Mendelssohn wrote his earliest chamber music as a teenager — three piano quartets, the string octet, the first viola quintet and his first two string quartets — and it is unquestionably the greatest teenaged chamber music ever written. 

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. The 28-year-old Felix Mendelssohn composed his three Opus 44 quartets over the course of about a year, from 1837 to 1838. This was a period of success and happiness for the young composer; he had been appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra two years earlier in 1835, […]

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. The year 1838 found Felix Mendelssohn at the height of his powers, a 28-year- old newlywed with a burgeoning international reputation as a composer, conductor and man of letters. He was a veritable cultural intersection, acquainted since his youth with Goethe and Hegel, the friend of such musical […]

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The three opus 44 quartets date from 1838, when the composer was newly married; in fact, he was already at work on them during his honeymoon the year before. The third of these quartets recalls, in some ways, his celebrated and youthful Octet, sharing not only its key of E-flat major, but its overarching mood of triumph and exuberance.

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Rarely is any solidity to be found in the finale of this quartet, with menacingly rumbling figures underscoring the darting melodic lines.

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The B-flat Viola Quintet of Felix Mendelssohn would have to count as one of the composer’s “mature” works, since he wrote it in 1845, only two years before his death; and yet he was only thirty-six at the time. It is the second of his two viola quintets, the first, in A major, having been one of his prodigious teenage masterpieces.

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This group of four madrigals is taken from the sixth book, a group of pieces that perhaps has autobiographical import as it follows the deaths of two women in Monteverdi’s life: his wife and his favorite pupil, who had lived with him. Death and separation flavor the entire set.

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Mozart’s wrote his String Quartet in G, K. 387, late in 1782, when he was 26 and a newcomer to Vienna’s musical scene. The Quartet is the first of a set of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. Classical style is operatic at its core. It is music of narrative flow, propelled by contrasts and tensions, by interaction between personalities, points of view and states of being. And although later generations codified certain standard forms into which we like to fit the drama of classical period […]

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this other music evoked the contemplation of lovely objects, the exploration of unknown passageways, and then, eventually, a realisation that the form itself, an airy mansion that contained these things, had risen up around us, called into being by its contents.

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Painter Agnes Martin has said of her work: “If you wake up in the morning and you feel happy about nothing, no cause, that’s what I paint about.” It could well be said of Mozart that he, too, finds inspiration in the underlying happiness that embraces all corners of our experience, arising radiantly from clear vision. His is an ebullient joy infinitely larger than cheerfulness, although it knows cheer well. He can frolic and poke fun with the best of them, and the next moment enter fully into shadow without being consumed by it. 

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The Quartet in A major, K. 464, is the fifth of these, written in the winter of 1785. It was later to command the admiration of the young Beethoven, and to influence directly his own A major Quartet, opus 18 no. 5. Mozart’s quartet is a paradigm of High Classical style, combining as it does a perfect command of form, a sophisticated sense of counterpoint, and an effortlessly galant demeanor.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. In 1789, the 33-year-old Mozart found himself in need of money and beset by creditors, as so often in his life. Accordingly, he undertook to write a set of six quartets for Friedrich Wilhelm II, the king of Prussia, whose court he had visited on a recent trip […]

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Mozart composed his B-flat Quartet, K. 589, in the spring of 1790, the year before he died. This quartet and its companion works, K. 575 and K. 590, are often referred to as the “Prussian” Quartets, based on Mozart’s intention to dedicate them to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II.

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This viola quintet, on the one hand, bears the stamp of a light, genial divertimento; on the other hand one senses a brilliant young composer just starting to test his wings, to investigate his own potential for surprise and innovation.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. My first encounter with Mozart’s c minor quintet, K406, was at a party. I was a student at a summer chamber music program in Taos, New Mexico, and was part of a group called upon to sight-read music as background entertainment at an outdoor gathering. We arrived armed […]

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Mozart’s C major Viola Quintet is among the very greatest of his chamber music masterpieces. The possibilities of adding one extra voice to a string quartet clearly interested the composer in his late years, perhaps because of the increase in contrapuntal opportunity, perhaps because Mozart himself played the viola; in any case, he wrote four major works for viola quintet during this period, and established the genre for posterity.

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. 1787, the year in which Mozart wrote the g-minor Quintet, K516, was marked for the composer by misfortune and frustration over his lack of success in Vienna, a relatively fallow period compositionally, and his father’s serious illness. Mozart wrote to his father: “I have now made a habit […]

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. Mozart’s D Major Quintet, K593, opens with what might be a dialogue between Virtues, a back and forth exchange between Truth and Beauty. The cello alone sets forth the position of Truth, firm and regal, yet austere, and in response the upper four instruments offer a more sensual, […]

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Mozart’s E-flat Viola Quintet, K. 614, dates from the final year of his life, and was his last serious chamber work. It was written at more or less the same time as his opera The Magic Flute, which is also an E-flat-major-based work; but it is striking how this key resonates so differently in the two pieces.

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Clearly the viol consort ignited Purcell’s heart and imagination, and these pieces are, as the title indicates, filled with fantasy. They both lament and dance, wail and playfully scurry. They seem to explore the boundary between private and public music, now on this side now on that, and do so with the utmost guileless naturalness.

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Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Op. 10, is widely considered to be a visionary work. But whereas it is oft remarked about this work that it sees into and points the way toward the future of musical rhetoric, it is interior seeing which lends it power and mesmerizing depth.

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Like so many of his mature works, this quartet was written using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. This system employs a “tone row”, which puts the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a certain order, and ensures that after a pitch is used, the other eleven pitches have to intervene before that pitch can be used again, the result being a kind of democracy among the twelve pitches. This was Schoenberg’s innovative answer to tonal systems, which center their harmonic activity around one pitch, as in “C major”.

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From the very first phrase of the C Major Quintet all is laid bare. The opening C Major harmony is the very embodiment of stability and purity, and yet it destabilizes immediately, gapes open and exposes a previously hidden harsh dissonance, then turns back to the opening harmony, now, in one fell swoop, stripped of its innocence.

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Schubert was a poet of unfulfillable longing, of human vulnerability, of the excruciating sweetness of the yearning to be at peace. He famously said of himself

I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better, think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offers nothing but acutest pain, whose enthusiasm (at least, the inspiring kind) for the Beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn’t a miserable, unfortunate fellow.

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Borges writes, in his poem Adam Is Your Ashes: “ All things are their own prophecy of dust. / Iron is rust. The voice, already echo.” The fluid duality which suffuses our experience of the world, joy that melts into sorrow and sorrow that is tinged with hope, is at the very core of Schubert’s music. His 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.

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Ushering in the set of three great string quartets Schubert wrote at the end of his life is a torso of a work, the Quartettsatz (quartet movement) in c minor, written in 1820. This powerful movement was originally intended to be the first movement of a full quartet, and there exists a sketch for the opening of a second movement as well. It is not known why Schubert never completed the work, but the movement he did write is a masterpiece fully worthy of being in the company of the later, last three quartets.

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Schumann wrote his three quartets virtually simultaneously, in a couple of summer months in 1842. It was not the easiest time of his life; married only a short time to Clara, who was one of the most celebrated pianists of her generation, he was reconciling himself to being the moon to her sun, and often living at home without her.

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Robert Schumann called the string quartet a “by turns beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation among four people.” To him, the genre was venerable and worthy of deep study; he knew and revered the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, and like his contemporary and close friend Mendelssohn, he was demonstrably influenced by Beethoven’s quartets when […]

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Reprintable only with permission from the author. The Beethoven Quartet was formed in 1923 by four young graduates of the Moscow Conservatory, and continued without a change of personnel for more than forty years.  The Quartet had the privilege of knowing and working with Dmitri Shostakovich for decades, and the four premiered almost all of […]

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Beginning in stark bleakness with the eleventh quartet, Shostakovich’s tetralogy of quartets, dedicated to each of the members of the Beethoven Quartet in turn, finds its peroration with the fourteenth, open to the fragile possibility of light. The Beethoven Quartet premiered each of Shostakovich’s quartets starting from the second and thus served as the mouthpiece for some of the composer’s most vulnerable and intimate utterances.

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The Fifteenth Quartet, Shostakovich’s final work in this form, comes from the end of his life and takes on the quality of a personal requiem. A glance at the movement titles (including, among others, an Elegy and a Funeral March) immediately suggests such an idea.

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With one foot firmly in the kingdom of late Romantic music and the other pointing towards Webern’s later, more abstract, style, the Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 represents the first step toward a distillation of the aesthetic of Wagner and Strauss.

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Anton von Webern has proved pivotal in the history of Western art music, inspiring composers after him to find new forms of expression and to reach new levels of abstraction. But his music itself is very much an outgrowth of the emotional world of late Romanticism, richly expressive, often passionate. Working in the nascent world of atonality, as inspired by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, Webern became a master of compression.

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Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 seems like a stylistic hybrid of the spare, evocative elegance of a haiku and the saturation of emotional detail typical of Proust.

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