Chamber Music: Dvořák String Quartet and More

Chamber Music: Dvořák String Quartet and More 

Fauré: Trio in D minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 120
John Harbison: Quartet No. 2 for Strings
Christopher Rouse: Ku-Ka-Ilimoku
Dvořák: Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major for Strings, Opus 51  

Fauré: Trio in D minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 120

Gabriel Fauré’s D minor Piano Trio was his last completed work but one, followed only by his E minor String Quartet. His final decades had been full of tribulations. In about 1905, Fauré (1845-1924) was beset by hearing problems that grew worse as the years passed. Later, his eyesight also began to fail, and he suffered from sclerosis and emphysema. A letter to his wife, dated August 21, 1921, strikes a typical tone: “I’m suffering from bronchial, stomach, liver, and kidney ailments. I’ve had to stay in bed and diet, living on drugs and milk.” After fifteen years as director of the Paris Conservatory, Fauré was invited to resign in 1920, to his distress. Still, these upsets did not impede his creativity, and during his final decade he produced a string of chamber masterpieces: the Second Violin Sonata (1916-17), the two Cello Sonatas (1917 and 1921), the Second Piano Quintet (1919-1921), the Piano Trio (1922-23), and the String Quartet (1923-24)—all of these being minor-key works.

The D minor Piano Trio is Fauré’s only work for the classic assemblage of violin, cello, and piano. Initially he felt that clarinet might serve as an alternate instrument to the violin, but he removed that option when he published this “little trio” (as he called it). It is indeed short compared to many piano trios, but it is dense with grace and elegance, with melodic and harmonic felicities, with an energizing momentum that belies the age and health of its creator. All of Fauré’s late works share a sense of abstraction and contrapuntal conception, reveal his meticulous concerns for timbral coloration, and demand the performer’s precise attention to voicing, balance, and (for the string players) vibrato and bow-work.

We sometimes fail to think of Fauré as a twentieth-century composer, which he assuredly was by virtue of not only chronology but also musical style. Certainly Fauré did not personally tread the revolutionary routes charted by such composers as Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartók; but neither did he stop extending his own path. The Piano Trio is an unmistakably tonal work, yet one needs look no further than the long-spun principal theme of the first movement—marked cantando (“singing”)—to marvel at how Fauré maintains a sense of tonal rootedness while allowing his melody to range through distant realms. There is also something old-fashioned about the composer's seductive, gossamer sound, redolent of a Belle Époque salon and conveying a sense of restrained passion that lurks just beneath the polite surface; surely this is on display in the poignant Andantino. The music of the Finale was initially sketched to be a scherzo, and although plans for that movement were scrapped, the attendant vivacity remains. And yet, this scherzo-finale never oversteps the bounds of good behavior; it was in Fauré’s nature to be ultra-civilized. The composer Albert Roussel summed it up the year of Fauré’s death: “Without noise or fuss or meaningless gestures, he pointed the way towards marvelous musical horizons overflowing with freshness and light.”

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John Harbison: Quartet No. 2 for Strings

The music of John Harbison (b. 1938) is often lyrical, with lines weaving in fascinating counterpoint, though it may include interludes of intense sonority and tension. A dark, nervous, brooding quality reigns over much his work, yet undifferentiated denseness is not part of his voice; indeed, his palette is colorful, ranging even to out-and-out musical humor.

He was thrust into the spotlight when the Metropolitan Opera premiered his opera The Great Gatsby during the 1999-2000 season. Other distinctions and honors have included the Pulitzer Prize for Music (1987), the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize (1980), a MacArthur Fellowship (1989), the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (1998), the Harvard Arts Medal (2000), the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction (2000), and the Distinguished Composer Award from the American Composers Orchestra (2002).

Following his formal education, at Harvard University (where he studied with Water Piston), the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (with Boris Blacher), and Princeton University (with Roger Sessions and Earl Kim), he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught since 1984. He has also taught at CalArts, Boston University, Duke University, and Ithaca College School of Music. More than a hundred of his compositions have been issued on recordings, an unusually fine showing for a contemporary composer. 

He has appeared as conductor with many notable orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Handel and Haydn Society. From 1990-92 he was creative chair with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He is a former music director of the Cantata Singers in Boston, and for many years has been Principal Guest Conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston, directing performances of Bach cantatas, seventeenth-century motets, and new works. With his wife, Rose Mary, he serves as Artistic Director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on his family’s farm near Madison, WI. In recent years he has reactivated his involvement in jazz, serving as keyboard player for the Token Creek Jazz Festival.

Harbison’s significant body of chamber music now includes six string quartets. The String Quartet No. 2 (1986-87) was commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association for performance by the Emerson String Quartet. It comprises five movements, which are connected into a single span. One finds here a reflection of Harbison’s early fascination with Baroque repertory, with each movement suggesting a form or approach popular among composers of that era. The first movement is a Fantasia that spins out an abundance of complex imitative counterpoint. The Concerto movement bristles with virtuosic figuration, while the Recitative and Aria strikes a more variegated pose, flitting among emotional stances and serving as a fulcrum for a quartet that echoes the five-movement arch forms of Bartók’s Fourth and Fifth Quartets. The work concludes with a Sonata and, at the end, a Chorale Fantasia that evokes the late-Baroque spirit of Bach. Nonetheless, this quartet does not aspire to imitate Baroque music in its particulars, but rather builds on fundamental Baroque musical ideas, transforming them into an entirely modern work of chamber music.

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Christopher Rouse: Ku-Ka-Ilimoku

Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) is acclaimed for works of compulsive rhythm, vivid color, and catholicity in bringing together the traditions of classical and popular music. He graduated from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in 1971; twenty-five years later his alma mater also awarded him an honorary doctorate. He studied privately with George Crumb for two years and then pursued composition studies with Karel Husa and Robert Palmer at Cornell University, which granted him the DMA degree in 1977. Also influential in his formation was the composer William Schuman, past president of the Juilliard School and a founder of Lincoln Center.

Rouse went on to teach at the University of Michigan, the Eastman School of Music, and the Juilliard School (where he has taught since 1997). In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for his Symphony No. 1, and in 1993 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto. In 1993, Rouse was honored with an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music, and in 2002 the Academy elected him to its membership. Also in 2002, Rouse’s Concert de Gaudí, a guitar concerto, was awarded a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. In 2009, he was named Composer of the Year by Musical America, and from 2012 to 2015 he served as composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic.

He has also served as composer-in-residence for the Indianapolis Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as at the Santa Cecilia and Schleswig-Holstein Festivals (both of these at the invitation of Leonard Bernstein), the Tanglewood Festival, the Pacific Music Festival, and the Aspen Music Festival. His music has been programmed by every major American orchestra in addition to many of the principal orchestras of Europe, Australia, and Asia. If he is most widely recognized as an orchestral composer, Rouse has nonetheless composed in many genres. He has produced numerous works for chamber ensembles, including three string quartets and pieces for less standard instrumental groupings.

Ku-Ka-Ilimoku was completed in 1978 on commission from the Syracuse Symphony Percussion Ensemble. Christopher Rouse has provided this comment about the piece, which is scored for four percussionists:

In Hawaiian mythology, Ku is perhaps the most fundamental and important of gods, occupying a place similar to that of Zeus in Greek mythology or Odin in Norse legend. Ku is manifested in several forms: as Ku-Ka-Ilimoku [or Kū-kāʻili-moku] he represents the god of war. Thus this work for percussion ensemble is best viewed as a propulsive war dance.

Hawaiian chants are often based on as few as two pitches, and Hawaiian percussion emphasizes short, repetitive patterns. Underlying this surface simplicity is a wealth of subtle rhythmic inflection and variation. [I have incorporated] this diversity to great effect, creating a tightly knit, exhilarating work. Although indigenous instruments are not employed, the timbre of their voices is evoked. The dynamic power of the Western instruments adds an intense level of ferocity to the proceedings.

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Dvořák: Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major for Strings, Opus 51

After graduating from the Prague Organ School, where he finished second in a class of twelve students, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) secured a spot as violist in a dance orchestra. The group prospered, and in 1862 its members formed the founding core of the Provisional Theatre orchestra. Dvořák played principal viola in the orchestra for nine years, sitting beneath the batons of such conductors as Bedřich Smetana and Richard Wagner.

During these early years, he also honed his skills as a composer, and by 1871 he left the orchestra to devote himself to composing full-time. Three times from 1874 to 1877 he was awarded the Austrian State Stipendium, a grant newly created by the Ministry of Education to assist young, poor, gifted musicians—which very much defined his status at the time. Fortunately, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick took a shine to some of his music and encouraged him to send some scores to Johannes Brahms. Brahms recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who immediately published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, commissioned a collection of Slavonic Dances, and contracted an option on all the composer’s new works.

Thus was launched the career of the man who would be embraced as the quintessential Bohemian composer, both in his native land and beyond Czech borders. His operas, songs, and symphonic works met with great success, but the steadiest stream of his top-drawer production came in the field of chamber music, which includes fourteen string quartets composed from 1862 until 1895.

The Quartet in E-flat major (1878-79) appeared midway through that span, not long after his contract with Simrock boosted his career. Dvořák’s String Sextet had just received a warm reception, and in its wake the Florentine String Quartet, led by violinist Jean Becker, asked the composer to write a quartet for them, requesting particularly that it be in “slavic style.” Shortly after beginning this piece, Dvořák heard the first public performance of any of his quartets—his Quartet No. 7—an experience that helped him mold the effect of his work-in-progress. 

Dvořák’s Opus 51 is indeed rich in the spirit of Czech nationalism; in fact, in German-speaking lands it often carries the nickname Slawisches-Quartett. It is one of the most heartwarming of the composer’s quartets, optimistic in its general mien, buoyant with good humor, and charmingly balanced to encompass popular dance rhythms as well as learned counterpoint. Rising melodic figures pervade the first movement, lending a sense of positivism; and the second subject is a jaunty polka. The second movement is cast in the form of Dvořák’s beloved dumka, a Slavic dance that alternates dreamy and jolly episodes (the dumka proper and the more vigorous furiant); the strummed accompaniment at the opening sounds very folkish indeed. The opening movements already proclaim Dvořák’s lyric capacities, but the Romanza is a still more concentrated expanse of songful outpouring, again demanding a Slavic sensibility to underscore its rhythms. There remains only the scurrying finale. Again Dvořák turns to dance, in this case a sparkling skočná.


—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(May 2018)

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