Sunday, January 8, 2017

Personal Music in the Eighteenth Century, Public Music in the Nineteenth

Late yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) presented the ninth installment in a series of concerts entitled Students of Haydn (previously also known as Haydn and His Students). These programs involve coupling one of the string quartets by Joseph Haydn with one by his best-known student, Ludwig van Beethoven. The program is then “fleshed out” by adding a lesser-known student to the mix.

Yesterday that third composer was William Shield, whom Haydn met during his first visit to London in 1791. By that time Shield was a successful working musician. He and Haydn became friends, and Shield would later claim that he learned more about harmony during a four-day trip the two of them took to the surrounding countryside than he had learned in any previous four years of his life. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that Haydn probably regarded Shield as a colleague, rather than a student; so including him under the “students of Haydn” rubric was a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, Shield was represented by a composition he wrote prior to meeting Haydn, a C major quartet composed in 1782. However, given that Haydn had discovered the virtues of publication, it is entirely possible that Shield was aware of both the Opus 20 and Opus 33 collections of Haydn quartets.

One warrant for that conjecture is that Shield displayed a capacity for wit in this quartet that he could well have picked up from reading and/or playing Haydn’s scores. Some of that wit was evident in the exuberant energy of the first movement and the occasional use of full-stop silence as a rhetorical gesture. However, the best case comes from the second of the quartet’s two movements, which thumbs its nose at conventional expectations. The movement is marked Tempo di Minuetto, and it is well known that Haydn enjoyed writing minuets that defied the possibilities of dance. In Shields’ case, however, the operative word is “tempo.” With what seems like a conventional three-beat metre, the movement is conducive enough to dance at the beginning; but it does not take long for the lister to realize that Shield has written a rondo, rather than a minuet; and he is very good at keeping one guessing as to when that opening theme will be given its final iteration.

To be fair, however, it is unclear whether or not Shield intended this music for public performance. As David Wyn Jones pointed out in his contribution to The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, the string quartet ensemble, as we know it, may well have emerged from the practice of four musicians getting together to perform an ensemble composition one-to-a-part. Shield himself was an ensemble musician, playing both violin and viola (the latter as principal) in the orchestra pit at Covent Garden. It is easy to imagine him getting together with three of his colleagues, perhaps even to get to know those Opus 20 and Opus 33 quartets of Haydn; and it is just as easy to imagine that he would want to add his own efforts to the mix. Shield would eventually become Covent Garden’s house composer; but the odds are that his involvement with chamber music was always a matter of personal music-making with friends. In such a setting the objective of wit was not necessarily to bring chuckles from the audience but rather to keep the players on their toes while exchanging occasional known glances and smiles.

In all likelihood the Haydn selection that followed by Shield quartet was similarly written for personal music-making. This was Hoboken III/60, the first of the three Opus 55 quartets, the second set of three to be dedicated to Johann Tost. Tost was the leader of the second violin section at Eszterháza; so he may well have been part of a similar encounter of personal music-making that subsequently earned him the dedication when Haydn turned to publication. On the other hand Tost was also the sales agent for those six quartets, so the dedication may simply have been Haydn incentivizing his agent to make sure that the revenue stream was a good one!

Once again wit is in generous supply, but this quartet offers a key virtue of another kind. The tempo for the second movement is Adagio cantabile; and this time the operative word is “cantabile.” The music rises above the other three movements of the quartet almost as if it were a show-stopping opera duet. Indeed, it is very much in the vein of the sorts of duets Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could write for a pair of female voices, making it worth noting that Haydn wrote this quartet about two years after The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492) was first performed. The result is a quartet in which the expected Haydnesque wit is complemented with a bit of Mozartian sublimity.

The second half of the program contrasted with the first, not only by offering one of Beethoven’s quartets but also because that quartet was given public performance. This was the second (in E minor) of the three Opus 59 quartets written on a commission by Count Andreas Razumovsky, Russian ambassador in Vienna. As a result this was the only piece on the program that initially had to contend with both audiences and music critics. The latter found all three of the quartets difficult to comprehend, suggesting that this was music for connoisseurs, rather than the general public. Indeed, the players at that first performance, the quartet formed by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, also on a commission by Razumovsky, was probably just as perplexed at the critics. Nevertheless, there were definitely ways in which Beethoven was trying to address the more general audience, such as the abrupt opening measures that recall the introduction to the Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major.

The overall result was a program that balanced personal and public approaches to music-making on either side of the intermission. The NEQ players (violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) were equally comfortable with both of these approaches. As always the two violinists shared the leadership position, Weiss taking first chair before the intermission and Kyme leading the Beethoven.

Nevertheless, there was a general sense of the personal, even in the Beethoven performance. Beethoven put so much into his Opus 59 quartets that listening to any one of them has the potential to be a new journey of discovery. Before playing the Beethoven, Martin announced that this was only the group’s second performance of the piece. Thus, the result was a product of the players’ own recent journey of discovery, and they presented the music in such a way that the audience could share the journey with them. Indeed, it is through that capacity for discovery that music, once dismissed as only for “connoisseurs,” has now become a popular chamber music favorite.

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