Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Grieg - String Quartet No. 1 In G Minor

Ever since the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart, many composers have taken the challenge of writing for two violins, viola and cello.  Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Dvořák  added to the tradition and development for this most personal of musical forms.

Edvard Grieg was more well known for his lyric pieces for piano and his Piano Concerto In A Minor, but he did make three attempts at writing a string quartet. He completed only one, the String Quartet No. 1 In G Minor.  It was written in 1878 and made an impression on Franz Liszt who said of it:
It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.
The composition of the quartet was an ordeal for Grieg as he strove to continue the tradition while expanding the possibilities of the form. He was successful and his quartet had a large influence on not only Debussy, whose only string quartet is in the same key of G minor, but on later composers such as Schoenberg and Bartók.

That Grieg indeed strove to write in a different way for the form of the string quartet is evident in his own words about the work:
I have recently written a string quartet, which I still haven’t heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and, above all, resonance for the instruments.
Grieg wrote the work in cyclical form, and used a portion of one of his own songs as the recurring theme, the song titled Spillamæd (Minstrels).  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Un poco andante - Allegro molto ed agitato - The work begins with all 4 instruments in unison, one of the devices Grieg uses to impart his own unique sound to the quartet. The original song that the main theme was taken from dealt with a water spirit that would give minstrels great gifts of musical abilities in exchange for their happiness. The main theme is full of rhythmic verve and appears in all 4 movements. The theme is full of  drama and plays itself out until it comes to a full close. After a slight pause the second theme begins, a lyric tune that has outbursts that remind the listener of the opening.  The opening theme returns and alternates with the second theme in a section that can be thought of as the development. The recapitulation brings the back the drama of the opening, along with the full close and slight pause before the second theme commences. There is an extended coda that continues to deal with the two themes and parts of them, including a short section where the cello plays solo while the other three instruments play tremolo and close to the bridge (sul ponticello) which gives the accompaniment a glassy, shimmering effect, until the instruments join in a loud, dramatic ending to the movement.

II. Romanze. Andantino - The movement begins with a happy, waltz-like theme, after which a more sinister and nervous middle section that is related to the main theme is played.  After a transition, the waltz returns with a few differences. The nervous theme interrupts the waltz a few times until the waltz music ends the movement in the high register of all 4 instruments.

III. Intermezzo. Allegro molto marcato - Più vivo e scherzando - The song theme that opens the work returns at the start of this movement.  The music remains rough around the edges as it rhythmically makes its way to the middle section where Grieg flexes his contrapuntal skill as the cello begins a theme by itself, and each instrument enters in turn while the others play pizzicato. This section is repeated and then developed. The first theme returns, a few references are made to the middle section, and the movement scurries to an end.

IV. Finale. Lento - Presto al saltarello -  The solemness of the opening of the quartet returns as an introduction before the music turns into a saltarello full of cross rhythms, syncopation and frenzy.  Near the end the music turns back to the main theme of the work and alternates between major and minor mode versions until at the very end the major mode wins out and the work ends in G major.

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