Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Saint-Saëns - String Quartet No. 1 In E Minor, Opus 112

Camille Saint-Saëns was no stranger to chamber music. He wrote 26 pieces for different chamber ensembles between 1851 and 1898 that included works for violin and piano, cello and piano,  2 piano trios, 2 piano quartets, a piano quintet; even a septet for trumpet, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. Conspicuous by its absence is any works for string quartet.  Student, friend, and fellow composer Gabriel Fauré said that, "Saint-Saëns had a fear of it and only risked himself there towards the end of his life."

What could have caused Saint-Saëns,an accomplished composer of orchestral works, operas, and all of his previous chamber works, to shy away from  writing a string quartet? Fauré had his own similar fear of the form, as he didn't write but one string quartet himself, at the age of 79 in 1924, and thought the Beethoven string quartets should strike fear into any composer. And even Beethoven himself composed chamber music for other ensembles besides string quartet until he thought he was worthy to carry on the tradition set down by Haydn and Mozart. Perhaps it was the same with Saint-Saëns, as tradition can be a daunting thing. But the form itself is challenging.

There is no room for fluff, no room to hide any inferior music thought in a string quartet. It is music laid bare. Not to say that the string quartet is not capable of amazing color, verve, excitement, solemness, and emotion. But where a clever bit of orchestration can add flavor and color to music, the string quartet is limited. 

Saint-Saëns composed his first string quartet in 1899 when he was 64 years old, and dedicated it to the young Belgian violinist Eugène  , who perhaps encouraged the writing of it, and played in the premiere of the work. Saint-Saëns wrote a letter to his publisher about the quartet:

If I hadn’t written this quartet, the aestheticians would have drawn all kinds of conclusions from this omission, and they would have found what it was in my nature that had stopped me from writing one and why I was incapable of writing one! Have no doubt about it, I know what they’re like. And all the while I had not accomplished this necessary task, I was afraid of passing away too soon, I could not rest easy. Now I don’t care about any of it.

I. Allegro -  The strings all have their mutes on as the quartet begins with an F-sharp in the 1st violin, and the successive notes in the other three instruments of E, C, and A. Theoretically, this could be a F-sharp minor 7th flattened 5th chord (that's a mouthful!) , which for the home key of E minor of the quartet does not make a lot of harmonic sense. But by using enharmonic change the F-sharp to a G-flat, and the result is an A minor 6th chord. As A minor is the dominant chord in the key of E minor, it makes perfect sense. It would have been bad form for Saint-Saëns to use a G-flat as the time signature already states that all F's are sharp. There is a strong tendency for the dominant chord to lead to the tonic key, and so it does. After a few bars of the A minor introduction, the home key states a somewhat wistful theme that winds its way until the mutes come off and a more powerful section begins, skirts a few other keys in the process, and leads to a more mellow theme that is first stated by the cello and makes its way to the other instruments.  Themes eventually return in various guises, especially the more powerful one that leads to the end of the movement. 

II. Molto allegro quasi presto - Leave it to Saint-Saëns to call for music to be played molto allegro - very fast - quasi presto - sort of even faster. Perhaps he was concerned about excessive speed, and once the music begins it makes more sense. The movement is in 2/4 time, and has a metronome setting of quarter note = 184 beats per minute, a quite brisk tempo indeed, but taken any faster there would be the danger of the quirkiness of the syncopation being blurred. The first violin plays a simple theme that begins an eighth note before the accompaniment, and is tied across the bar line to the next bar. The other instruments play pizzicato.  After the first round of the theme, it is repeated in triplets. All 4 instruments join in the syncopation in a section that leads to the main theme once more, until a middle section in E major is reached. The tempo remains quick as a 4-voiced fugue comprises the middle section. The syncopation returns and plays until there is a slight slowing of the tempo and the key changes for a short section in E major. After that, the syncopation returns, with all instruments playing pianissimo. The 1st violin joins the others pizzicato as the movement quietly ends.

III. Molto adagio - The next movement in A Major gives contrast by its calm sweetness, but this movement also has a section marked appassionato. The 1st violin has the most to say, and the movement ends in harmonics high in the range of all 4 instruments.

IV.  Allegro non troppo - The music returns to E minor and restlessness, somewhat in the vein of the 2nd movement, but not nearly so relentless. There is plenty of tension as different rhythms are explored, as once again the 1st violin takes the lead in virtuosity as in the third movement and other parts of the quartet. Saint-Saëns probably had Ysaÿe the dedicatee in mind, for he was one of the premiere virtuoso violinists of the time, and he not only wanted to give him something to show his abilities with, but his own capabilities of violin writing as well. The movement builds to the final section marked Molto allegro as the quartet comes to a passionate close.