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The New Esterházy Quartet presents a ‘Haydn premiere’

The opening measures of Franz Schubert's D. 887 string quartet
The opening measures of Franz Schubert's D. 887 string quartet
from IMSLP

Yesterday afternoon the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) returned to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to give the fifth concert in their seventh season. The title of the program was Vienna in the 19th Century; and the scope was truly beginning-to-end, covering music from 1803 to 1897. These dates framed Joseph Haydn’s final string quartet (Hoboken III/83 in D minor) and the first of Arnold Schoenberg’s attempts to compose a string quartet that he did not destroy (but never published). The remaining work was another “last quartet” that filled the second half of the program: Franz Schubert’s D. 887 in G minor.

Ironically, it was the earliest of these pieces that brought the greatest novelty to the recital. Late in his life, Haydn received a commission for three string quartets from Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz. (This was the time when Ludwig van Beethoven was working on his first six string quartets, which would be published as Opus 18 and dedicated to Lobkowicz.) Haydn completed two of these quartets and published them in 1799 as his Opus 77 (Hoboken III/81–82). However, Haydn was finally giving in to the fatigue of old age. He had completed the “easy” movements of the third quartet, an Andante grazioso and a Menuet, along with a few brief sketches. The two completed movements were published in 1803.

For the past several years William Drabkin, a Professor of Music at Southampton University in England, has been working on a four-movement performing edition of this final quartet. His first effort was to flesh out the fragments into a full sonata-form opening Allegro movement. This was followed by composing a fugue for the final movement. In his own words, he “had to determine the content and design of this movement without the composer’s help.”

The result was an impressive piece of scholarship, but it also turned out to be a highly satisfying listening experience. Haydn wrote several fugues to serve as the final movement of a string quartet, so Drabkin’s decision was not without precedent. Further, even “without the composer’s help,” he seems to have latched on to much of the wit that characterized Haydn’s spirit, including a somewhat ornate cadenza that interrupts the fugue and then bridges into a coda played at a madcap pace, suggesting a composer who knew that he had said enough but could not quite bring things to a close.

Thanks to Martin, I was able to read the introductory remarks Drabkin provided for his score. I was impressed with how he inferred the logic of the entire first movement from the two fragments he had at his disposal. His assertions can never be more than hypotheses. However, “from the listener’s point of view,” the movement never sounded “out of place” in preceding the two movements that had already been published. As a result New Esterházy could perform this music with the same coherence they have brought to all of their other interpretations of Haydn quartets, making for a listening experience that was as stimulating as it was satisfying.

The Schoenberg quartet had its own elements of novelty. While this quartet has been recorded, in all likelihood New Esterházy gave it its first performance on the gut strings for which it was written. Schoenberg wrote this quartet at the age of 23 as a self-taught composer. However, if he lacked formal training, he certainly knew about the literature of that time. As Martin observed in his introductory remarks, it was not difficult to recognize the influence of Antonín Dvořák in the outer two movements and Johannes Brahms in the inner two. This suggests that Schoenberg had figured out how to use existing compositions as models, a skill he later codified in his own pedagogical writing when he published Models for Beginners in Composition.

Martin also made a few comments about the “difficult” aspects of Schoenberg’s music. His printed notes for the program even included “a money-back guarantee” that those elements would not surface in this quartet. True to his word, the music was affably accessible. I remember, many years ago, hearing a string quartet leader (left unnamed) claim that there was no reason to play music so imitative. I prefer to think that, through his use of models, Schoenberg has left for posterity some evidence of how he himself listened to the music of Dvořák and Brahms. Through that understanding of Schoenberg’s own listening practices, we may have a path that can lead to our own listening practices for his published works.

Listening to Schubert’s quartet on gut strings also proved to be an enlightening experience. There is a tendency for modern instruments to over-dramatize the opening measures (shown above). Granted, the introduction of a simple minor-mode cadence as the opening theme is about as revolutionary as the fragment that opens Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 symphony in C minor (the fifth); but that is no reason to inflate the rhetoric out of proportion in either of these pieces. Revealed through more understated dynamics, one can better appreciate the unfolding of Schubert’s thematic material and the techniques both composer and performers engage to make sure that the return of a theme is never mere repetition. This may not have been a reading of Schubert to shake the rafters, but it was one in which the attentive listener could discern and enjoy the many subtleties of logic in his composition that were then suitably colored by rhetoric.

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