Cypresses for String Quartet, Nos. 1, 2, 11 Dvorák
The twelve Cypresses for string quartet, B. 152, originate from eighteen love songs for voice and piano dashed off by Dvorak in a period of 17 days. The text was taken from poems by the Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger- Moravsky. The songs were written when Dvorak was 24 and smitten with unrequited love for a 16 year old pupil (he ended up marrying her younger sister). Dvorak never chose to publish the songs in their original form, but material from several of the songs cropped up in his first two symphonies and in his operas and other vocal works.
In 1887, he took twelve of the songs and revised them for string quartet in a grouping entitled Echo of Songs. They were not published until after his death, and the title Cypresses was conferred upon them at the time of their publication in 1921. In most of the movements the first violin takes the part originally written for voice, and there is a masterly transcription of the piano accompaniments. The melodic themes of the songs remain intact, as do the harmonic and rhythmic aspects. The movements are songforms based on single thematic ideas resulting in a constant flow of melody -- lyrical, undemanding, and beautiful.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 41 Schumann
Clara Schumann’s heart sank when her husband announced, in mid-1842, that he was working on a set of three string quartets. The quartet genre had never appealed to her, nor were such esoteric works likely to enhance her beloved Robert’s stature in the eyes of the world. Nonetheless, she put on a brave face when he presented her with the scores as an anniversary present (along with a “sneak preview” performance) that September. “I cannot say anything about the quartets except that they delight me in even the finest detail,” Clara wrote in her diary. “Everything there is new, along with being clear, well worked out, and always appropriate for a quartet, but what is my judgment worth?”
Each of the four movements (fast, faster, slow, and fastest) has a distinctive character. The first Andante espressivo - Allegro molto moderato, built around the “sighing” motif of a falling fifth, is transparent in texture, by turns relaxed and driven, the thematic material tossed playfully from one instrument to another. In the second movement, Assai agitato, the mood abruptly turns agitated. Breathless triplets give way to a brisk fugue in 2/4 meter and finally to a jaunty dance marked by wide leaps and snappy syncopations. Rich, searching harmonies and gently pulsing rhythms impart an extra measure of depth and warmth to the D-major Adagio molto. And the zesty rondo Finale. Allegro molto vivace - Quasi Trio, with its recurrent dotted-note melody, brings the work to a rollicking conclusion.
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 Brahms
The Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34, thought to be the crowning glory of Brahms' chamber music output, began as a string quintet (string quartet plus two cellos) for which Brahms friend and advisor, violinist Joseph Joachim, arranged rehearsals and performances. It convinced all that a string-only sound could not clearly convey the rich complexity of the composer’s musical ideas. Brahms next cast the work as a sonata for two pianos, published as Op. 34b. It was performed with the brilliant pianist Carl Tausig, and that version is still performed today. Upon perusal of the two-piano adaptation, Clara Schumann, the composer’s other great friend and advisor, insisted that the work needed the string sonorities to effectively carry its extraordinary musical ideas. Upon further thought, Brahms found the perfect solution: the piano quintet provided the requisite balance of richness and clarity through the contrast of the strings and the incisiveness of the piano.
The four-movement piece is bursting with the harmonic and melodic opulence and rhythmic variety that we expect of a mature Brahms. The first movement with its dramatic, tragic undertones begins with a simple unison melody of piano, violin and cello, gradually rising throughout. The second is the least complex movement, with its swaying melody in thirds and sixths—a lyrical song without words. The Scherzo unleashes relentless, intensely rugged rhythms with crashing chords in C minor. The Trio, now moving to C major, is only a little less insistent. Following a repeat of the scherzo’s thunder the piece moves to a lyrical, mysterious introduction to the Finale. It begins with the piano and cello launching into a capricious folk-like march. The movement proceeds through a potpourri of dramatic and lyrical passages to its triumphant conclusion.