Takács Quartet (2019)

Takács Quartet (2019)

Jan 13-14, 2019

Takács Quartet (2019)

The Grammy-winning string quartet "are matchless [in] their supreme artistry." ~The Guardian

The Grammy Award-winning string quartet has been moving audiences and selling out concerts at CU Boulder for more than three decades. Their irresistible blend of virtuosic technique and engaging personality has led The Guardian (London) to proclaim, "The Takács Quartet are matchless, their supreme artistry manifest at every level." This year, the quartet welcomes a new member—CU Boulder Assistant Professor of Violin Harumi Rhodes—acclaimed by The New York Times as a “deeply expressive violinist.”

Performance dates and times: 

Sunday, Jan. 13, 4 p.m.
Monday, Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m.


Haydn: String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 76
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135
Beach: Piano Quintet, Op. 67 (with Jennifer Hayghe, piano)

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Program Notes

By Marc Shulgold

String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

The music world changed dramatically during Haydn's long, productive life. As the 18th century unfolded, performances that had been in the possession of aristocrats and royals soon opened up to the public-at-large, as opera houses and concert and recital halls began to spring up all over the continent. With the growth of the orchestra and the popularity of opera and ballet, an awareness of music as an exciting, hall-filling entertainment increased. And where did that leave the intimate world of chamber music? How could a string quartet fill larger spaces and have any impact?

This was a problem that Haydn tackled, beginning with his two lengthy visits to London in the early 1790s. In between introducing a dozen symphonies, he wrote quartets that were unveiled in mid-size venues with great success. Not only were larger spaces a factor to be overcome, so too was the less-than-attentive behavior of audiences new to the concert world. Often, they were uninterested in curtailing their conversion and snacking as the music was performed. Back in 1642, Monteverdi had encountered the same problem. So, he instructed his brass players to sound an opening fanfare three times, to finally get his audience to sit down and be quiet for the start of his opera about Nero and Poppea. Mozart described to his father the unruly Parisian crowd that booed and cheered during the premiere of his “Paris” Symphony. (Audience behavior would remain a major issue: In 1882, Wagner instructed that no applause follow the ending of Parsifal's second act.)

Which brings us to the first of Haydn's last completed string quartet cycle, Op. 76, written in 1796-97, commissioned by Joseph Erdödy. This G major work begins with a powerful three-chord call to attention—or possibly the composer's plea to stop the chatting. It's reminiscent of the explosive start to Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony and Beethoven's “Eroica.” Throughout this quartet, Haydn keeps listeners engaged with some exciting, full-bore unison passages, notably in the final Allegro. Not that this work is merely about volume: The achingly slow Adagio offers a hymn-like melody that demands close-up listening. In keeping with the changing tastes of musical Vienna, Haydn all but abandons the increasingly old-fashioned minuet by offering a scherzo-like third movement marked Menuetto, but with a tempo indication of Presto. Try minueting to that!

Today, audiences willingly create a moment of pure silence before the music starts, but those three opening chords of Op. 76 remind us of a time when concert audiences seemed more interested in themselves than the music.

String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Completed only months before his death on March 26, 1827, this light and cheerful work contradicts the horrid state of Beethoven's life at the time. As his health was starting to fail, Op. 135 and an alternate ending to the Op. 130 quartet from the previous year would prove to be his final compositions.

Besides the recurring ailments he was battling (not to mention his now-complete deafness), Beethoven was also dealing with the attempted suicide of his troubled nephew Karl, whose cause the composer had championed with unstoppable zeal. In a contentious court battle, he'd won custody but was constantly dealing with the youth's deep unhappiness—leading to his clumsy attempt at suicide in July of 1826 at age 20. It was at his brother's house in October of that year that Beethoven cared for Karl while completing Op. 135. In that stressful climate, and placed alongside the monumental “late” quartets that preceded, this relatively brief work might be viewed as an effort to find some respite, to return to earlier, more pleasant days of Haydn and Mozart (and early Beethoven), when a string quartet of modest lengths and accessible tunes followed the tradition of four movements.

The F major quartet begins with a warm welcome in a graceful Allegretto built around a sweet, four-note idea that distributes question-and-answer episodes with equanimity. Despite its friendly demeanor, Op. 135 offers huge challenges to the players, particularly in the off-the-beat twists and turns of the wildly unpredictable second movement. But then, a prayer-like third movement offers a reminder of the composer's singular ability to lift his music to a higher spiritual plane, with a melody sung in the ensemble's lower ranges. The enigmatic Beethoven emerges in the final movement, which he titled Der schwer gefasste Entschluss (The Difficult Resolution). Had he known the resulting head-scratching by succeeding generations of scholars, he might have chuckled.

But there's more here. Right below that title is a single line of music divided in two segments. The first is marked Grave, the second Allegro—the first consisting of three notes over the words “Muss ess sein?” (Must it be?), the second responding with the repeated exclamation, “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). These motifs form the basis of the movement's two main ideas: the anguished introductory section (Grave) and the main Allegro theme. What does all this mean? Two possible explanations, as it turns out. Beethoven had been squabbling with a concert organizer named Ignaz Dembscher involving payment for a manuscript of Op. 130. When he learned of the fee, Dembscher reportedly replied, “Must it be?” Told of this, the composer burst into laughter and soon wrote a four-voice canon with the words, “It must be! Yes, take out your wallet”—its theme connected to the exclamation in Op. 135.

A more likely explanation comes from the note Beethoven sent his publisher: “Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: 'The difficult resolution–Must it be?–It must be, it must be!'”

Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 67

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Thanks to a recent flurry of recordings and concert performances, the works of Amy Beach have now taken a justly deserved place among those of respected American composers. er archly romantic music can uncover the story of a remarkable life and offer glimpses into the stifling aura of Victorian America.

Born in Henniker, New Hampshire, and raised in Boston, Amy Cheney quickly displayed musical talents that astonished her mother Clara, who was a gifted musician. Able to harmonize with Clara's singing at age 2, the little girl took to the piano at 4, though lessons were not allowed until two years later. Despite her teachers' pleadings, Amy’s parents decided that advanced study in Europe was out of the question. Still, her keyboard technique developed at break-neck speed, such that, at 16, she debuted with the Boston Symphony, playing Beethoven's third concerto, featuring her own cadenzas.

The parental control exerted over the girl's talents likely prepared her for a similarly limited adult career. At age 18, she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston surgeon 24 years her senior. Now known professionally as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach (as was customary), Amy lived and worked under her husband's rule of one benefit concert performance a year. It's easy to picture Dr. Beach as domineering and cruel—but consider that he was a member of Boston high society and worried that some might interpret Amy's performing as a sign that the couple was struggling financially. However, Dr. Beach did encourage his wife to write music, which she did with growing confidence, learning her craft by voraciously reading theory books and examining scores. Having studied theory for one semester at age 14, she was forbidden to take lessons in composition, since, at that time, it was thought that artistic women should be guided by emotion rather than acquired technique.

Amy composed with unstoppable energy, eventually publishing 300 works in various genres, and always as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. She became the first American woman to compose a symphony, soon joining the ranks of the Second New England School: Arthur Foote, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell and others. When Dr. Beach died in 1910, the concert world opened to his widow, who successfully toured America and Europe as Amy Beach. Among her works are several that have entered the standard repertory: the “Gaelic” Symphony, Mass in E-flat, Piano Concerto and this F-sharp minor piano quintet, which Beach and the Hoffman Quartet premiered in February 1908.

Conceived as a showcase for the composer's keyboard talents, the quintet was well received by critics (“Truly substantial, free, variously imagined and restlessly expressive,” one wrote). It's easy to hear the influence of Old World composers such as Brahms, whose own piano quintet she had played and admired. Elements common in Beach's style can be found here: an episodic handling of themes with numerous key and meter changes, chromatic scales (perhaps influenced by Liszt) and a grand romantic sweep.

She clearly absorbed techniques from all those theory books, as revealed in a brief fugue in the concluding Allegro agitato. (Note, too, the recurrence of the opening movement's somber introduction near the end.) Having written some 150 songs, the composer knew how to craft a melody, here lovingly represented in the start of the Adagio. Though the piano is the obvious star, there are solo moments for each of the string players, notably in the viola's extended tune midway through the final movement. Overcoming the whims of parental pressure and Boston's male-dominated society, Beach remained undeterred. When her husband forbade concert appearances, she enthused about her other passion: “My compositions gave me a larger field,” she later said. “From Boston, I could reach out to the world.”

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