SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets / STRAVINSKY: Concertino
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Music for StringQuartet
Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 to an aristocratic Polish family inthe Ukraine. Owing to a leg injury at the age of four his early education wasat home, where he began to study the piano under his father's direction. Laterhe was sent to his uncle Gustav Neuhaus's music school to study both piano andtheory, and under Neuhaus's tutelage was introduced to the works of Bach,Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and, naturally, Chopin. His first published work wasa set of nine Chopinesque Preludes, written between 1896 and 1900,although not published until 1906. In 1901 he moved to Warsaw for furtherstudy, taking lessons from both Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint andcomposition) and Marek Zawirski (harmony). Together with Fitelberg and with twoother students of Noskowski (Ludomir Rozycki and Apolinary Szeluto),Szymanowski established the group known as 'Young Poland in Music', in order topublish and promote new Polish music.
Early influences included the music of his compatriot, Chopin, and othercomposers such as Wagner, Strauss, Reger and Scriabin. Szymanowski reached hiscreative maturity in a series of works written in 1915 that included Metopesfor piano, Myths for violin and piano, and Songs of the FairyPrincess for coloratura soprano and piano, works which reflect his newinterest in Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Hearing the latter's Les Noces duringa trip to Paris in 1921 inspired him to write a series of works drawing on thefolk-music of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland, thus instigating a thirdcreative phase. Szymanowski died at a Lausanne sanatorium in 1937 at the age of54, having succumbed to a tubercular infection.
The two string quartets make up the sum total of Szymanowski'scontribution to the chamber music repertoire. The String Quartet No. 1
(1917) received its first performance in Warsaw in March 1924. Atransitional work, it moves away from impressionistic effects and seems toanticipate the forthcoming discovery of folksong. The opening Lento assai iscast in sonata form, whilst the bipartite slow movement, as its subtitle inmoda d'una canzona suggests, possesses a rare melodic beauty. The lastmovement is a scherzo (a projected fourth movement was never written), afugal sonata allegro in which each instrumental part is written in a differentkey, rising in minor thirds: C-E flat - F sharp-A.
Strong Tatra folk music elements are to be found in the StringQuartet No. 2 (1927), although the first movement seems to seek arapprochement with the harmonic world of his impressionist period. The ostinatoaccompaniments and rhythmic energy of the second movement clearly show anacquaintance with the music of Bartok, whilst the slow fugal finale employs a folk-melodyas its main subject and incorporates other Tatra melodies heard also in theone-act ballet, Harnasie (1923-31).
The Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was the son of theprincipal bass at the Imperial Opera, St Petersburg, and studied underRimsky-Korsakov. Hugely influential in the development of twentieth centurymusic (particularly in its innovative approach to both form and rhythm)Stravinsky's most celebrated work The Rite of Spring features highlycomplex syncopations and rapid changes of metre, whilst the concept ofdevelopment is abandoned in favour of juxtaposing contrasting blocks ofmaterial. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was able to borrow from differentmusical styles (including medieval, Baroque, Classical, as well as folk-music)and completely transform them into his own highly distinctive musical language.
He first made his name with The Firebird (1909-10), written forDyagilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. A huge success, it was followed by Petrushka(1910-11) and the aforementioned The Rite of Spring (1913). In thewake of the Russian Revolution, during which his property was confiscated,Stravinsky wrote The Soldier's Tale (1918) for a small touring theatrecompany, combining his dual interest in Russian folk-music and jazz. Anotherballet score written for Dyagilev, Pulcinella (1919-20), saw thebeginning of his neo-classical period in which major works such as the ViolinConcerto (1931), the Symphony in C (1938-40) and the opera TheRake's Progress (1948-51) were composed. Having settled in the USA in 1939,he became interested in serialism (especially the music of Webern) through theadvocacy of the American conductor Robert Craft, an interest that was reflectedin later works such as Canticum Sacrum (1955), Threni (1957-8)and the ballet Agon (1953-7). Stravinsky died in New York in 1971 andwas buried in Venice, near to his erstwhile colleague, Dyagilev.
Both the Concertino (1920) and the Three Pieces (1914)were written for the use of the Flonzaley Quartet, a group of Vaudoismusicians, with both pieces forming the basis of a ballet entitled TheAntagonists produced by the American Dance Festival at New London,Connecticut, in 1955. The Concertino, first performed by the Quartet inNew York on 3rd November 1920, is cast in a single movement. The form is a freesonata allegro with a concertante part for the first violin. The firstperformance of the Three Pieces, in which Stravinsky continued toexplore the discoveries he had made in The Rite of Spring (1913), wasgiven by the Quartet in Chicago on 8th November 1915. They represent threecontrasting moods and, when they were included in his Four Studies forOrchestra, were given the titles 'Dance', 'Eccentric' and 'Canticle'. Themelodic line of 'Dance' is confined to a mere four notes within the compass ofa fourth, whilst the jerky movements of 'Eccentric' were inspired by the clownLittle Tich, whom Stravinsky saw in London in the summer of 1914. Of theconcluding 'Canticle', which is entirely homophonic, the composer wrote in Expositionsand Developments that 'the last twenty bars...are some of my best music ofthat time.' Stravinsky had adopted serialism by the time of the tiny DoubleCanon 'Raoul Dufy in Memoriam' (1959), the first canon of which is betweenfirst and second violin, the second between viola and cello. Like the Concertino,it also received its premi?¿re in New York, on 20th December 1959.