Program Notes: Signum Quartet – February 10, 2017

This evening’s program features an imaginative array of repertoire assembled by the Signum. The artists develop the idea of the fugue in string quartets beginning with Mozart’s arrangement from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and ending with the stunning finale of Beethoven’s Op. 59/3. Between these bookends, we hear Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet and a contrasting modern “Hunt” quartet from German composer Jörg Widmann. We also have a Signum original, #quartweets from a recent project amplifying musical communication through social media. Ready to enjoy this line-up of eclectic and engaging string quartet repertoire?

Mozart Adagio and Fugue in E Major K. 405/3 after J.S. Bach BWV 878

1782 – Vienna – Age 26

Parallel Events

  • Music: Mozart married Costanze Weber.
  • Literature: Friedrich Schiller’s first play, The Robbers, caused a sensation at its first performance in Mannheim.
  • Art: Joseph Lange finished a portrait of his sister-in-law, Constanze Mozart
  • History: The American Revolution was nearing an end, and the bald eagle was adopted as the national bird.

Mozart became very interested in fugue analysis and writing in the early 1780s. Through his contacts with the Austrian diplomat Baron van Swieten, Mozart acquired copies of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (Book 2). Of the nine fugues in the second book, Mozart transcribed six for string quartet, five of which appear as part of K. 405. These are not mechanical transcriptions, and Mozart took liberties with counterpoint and chromatic voice leading to best suit the string quartet genre. Mozart’s arrangements of the fugues forshadow his writing in later string quartets.

Mozart String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 “The Hunt”

1784 – Vienna – Age 28

Parallel Events

  • Music: Joseph Haydn composes the opera Armida.
  • Literature: Scottish poet, William Tennant is born.
  • Art: Charles WIlson Peale completes the Annapolis Portrait – Washington, Lafayette and Tilghman at Yorktown
  • History: The Treaty of Paris is ratified by Congress, ending the American Revolutionary War

Sting Quartet No. 17 is the fourth of six quartets dedicated to Haydn. While Mozart never used the nickname “The Hunt,” his contemporaries felt the 6/8 time signature of the first movement and the triadic melodies based around tonic and dominant chords evoked hunting horn-like calls. The opening movement is followed by a minuet and an intense adagio that provides us with a flavor of what is to come in the Romantic era. The quartet ends with an appropriate lively, rollicking contrast to the adagio.  Who knew the quartet would have a pop-culture life in numerous films including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mystery Date, The Royal Tenenbaums and Star Trek: Insurrection.


2015 – Princeton, NJ

Parallel Events

  • Music: Pavel Haas Quartet wins the Grammaphone Music Award for Chamber Music: Smetana – String Quartets No. 1 & 2.
  • Literature: Harper Lee publishes Go Set a Watchman, widely accepted as being a first draft of the famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York CIty opens.
  • History: Top hashtags on Twitter included #jobs, #ISIS, #PrayForParis and #BlackLivesMatter.

The #quartweet project, founded by the Signum Quartet, launched at a residency hosted by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in October 2015. Student and scholar composers shared, via the #quartweets hashtag on Twitter, short arrangements for string quartet of no more than 140 notes (to parallel a tweet’s 140-character limit).

The Signum’s website explains the purpose of the project:

Music is all about communicating. Much of our everyday communication takes place on social media, and we would like to see musical communication here as well. We invite composers of all ages and abilities to tweet us a short quartet of 140 notes or less on Twitter—a  #quartweet!

The Signum will keep the performance of this evening’s #quartweets spontaneous and announce each from the stage.

Jörg Widmann String Quartet No. 3 “Jagdquartett (Hunt Quartet)” (2003)

2003 – Freiberg – Age 30

Parallel Events

  • Music: Takács Quartet receives the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance: Beethoven: String Quartets (“Razumovsky” Op. 59, 1-3; “Harp” Op. 74)
  • Literature: Mitch Albom publishes The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
  • Art: Gustav Klimt’s Landhaus am Attersee sells for $29,128,000.
  • History: Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Widmann is a German clarinetist and composer born in Munich and currently living in Freiberg. As a soloist, he has performed with major orchestras in Germany and abroad. He has had two clarinet concerti written especially for him. As a composer he studied with Kay Westermann. His composition style is reflective of his fascination with sound, creating landscapes both traditional and distinct.

Tom Service of The Guardian says this about Widmann’s music:

The reason I think Widmann’s music is so invigorating and important is that it not only charts a new musical and imaginative terrain – one that is joyously free to plunder the entirety of music history from Mozart to Lachenmann for its own ends – but also has so much to say about the way we hear the music of the past.

In addition to a Trilogy for orchestra examining the projection of vocal forms of instrumental ensembles (Lied, Chor, and Messe), Widmann’s cycle of string quartets is notable. The middle quartet of five, “Jagdquartett,”  has been described as an exploration of musical violence, going farther than the familiar “hunt” motives of the classical and romantic periods (including the earlier Mozart). You’ll hear this “going farther” throughout the one-movement quartet, but particularly in the rather sadistic conclusion. Listening to the interplay of musical tones and “noise,” you will find this a fascinatingly non-traditional depiction of “the hunt.”

Beethoven String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3

1806 – Vienna – Age 36

Parallel Events

  • Music: Carl Czerny publishes his first composition at the age of 15.
  • Literature: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe completes a preliminary version of his Faust.
  • Art: John Hoppner paints Sleeping Venus and Cupid
  • History: The Lewis and Clark Expedition reaches St. Louis, Missouri, ending a successful exploration of the Louisiana Territory and the Pacific Northwest.

Composed during his middle period, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 is one of three quartets commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky, the then Russian ambassador to Vienna. Of the three Razumovsky quartets, No. 3 is the one most well-received and most frequently performed.

After a brooding opening characterized by a series of diminished chords, the first movement takes us emphatically into the home key of C. Lacking a single definitive theme, the movement features only a prominent two-note motive supported by scales and arpeggiated chords. The contrasting second movement is delicate but ponderous. A menuetto marks the third movement, and, like the first movement, lacks a distinctive theme. The final movement, one of Beethoven’s greatest conceptions, evolves into a mighty fugue. Could this be one of the most exciting conclusions in all of chamber music?

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