Find out more about the composers and works performed during SweetWater Surreal Live below.
All string players revere the ‘Unaccompanied Bach’ works written for their respective instruments. For the violin it is the set of three Sonatas and three Partitas (BWV 1001-1006), and for the viola, cello and bass it is the six ‘Cello Suites’ (BWV 1007-1012). Both sets of works date for the same time period (around 1720) when Bach lived in Köthen. These solo works are staples of the repertoire today, but it wasn’t always so. The solo violin set had never been published until 1802 and remained largely unknown for many years until being championed by Joseph Joachim. Pablo Casals invested similar effort for the cello suites in the early 20th century.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is remembered today as a composer of a very interesting, piquant, early 20th century style, whose works largely featured the viola. Herself an internationally renowned soloist on the instrument, she was somewhat of a superstar in her day and, amongst other things, led the way to women playing in previously all-male orchestras and ensembles. Her Grotesque for viola and cello is an early chamber work dating from around 1916, the year she first left her native England for the United States. A kind of ‘miniature’, it is the second of two pieces Lullaby and Grotesque that immediately pre-date her more expansive Morpheus and her 1919 Viola Sonata, both now part of the standard repertoire.
Joseph Haydn, the father of the string quartet, wrote his monumental final set of six string quartets in 1796/97. These opus 76 quartets demonstrate Haydn's brilliantly sophisticated mature style. The influence of the younger Mozart, by that time dead for five years, had brought a higher degree of elegance and clarity to the older composer's work, as well as unprecedented contrapuntal skill and inventiveness. It is well known that Haydn premiered many of his quartets himself, playing the violin. One illustrious ensemble featured composers Baron Carl von Dittersdorf, inventor of the symphony, on violin, W.A. Mozart, no less, on viola, and Johann Wanhal on cello. This first of the set, the 60th out of a staggering 68 quartets, is listed as G major, however it frequently meanders into G minor.
The Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56, by Sergei Prokofiev hails from the time period immediately prior to his famous return to his homeland, by then transformed into the Soviet Union. It was written in 1932 as a commission to headline the inaugural concert of a new ‘contemporary music’ chamber ensemble based in Paris called Le Triton. That illustrious performance featured violinists, Robert Soetens, who was to commission Prokofiev’s second violin concerto a few years later, and Samuel Dushkin, well known for his productive association with Igor Stravinsky. This four-movement sonata da chiesa is indicative of Prokofiev’s transition into a simpler, more accessible style, rejecting the audacities of his youth and embracing the widespread post-war tendency towards ‘neo-classicism.’
Danish String Quartet
The award winning Danish String Quartet, since its founding in 2002, have become an international sensation. Self-described as ‘three Danes and one Norwegian cellist,’ the three Danes literally grew up together forming the core of a truly unique ensemble. They have achieved widespread acclaim for their outstanding recordings and performances; however, they are becoming increasingly known for their ‘folk arrangements’ – in their own words: “In 2013 we borrowed and arranged a bunch of Nordic folk tunes on a recording that we called Wood Works. This album created quite some stir and has been featured on concert stages all over the world. Now we have…recorded and released Last Leaf – another album of traditional music from the Nordic countries, the Faroe and Shetland Islands.”
Baroque violinist and composer Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764) is often credited with having founded the French violin school. Born in Lyon, he studied dance and the violin in Italy, and settled in Paris to begin his professional career. He primarily wrote for the violin, creating many sonatas and trio sonatas, but he is perhaps best known for his two sets of six sonatas for two violins. Towards the end of his life he composed an opera, which survives to this day, and various stage works that, alas, have been lost. Notoriously, Leclair came to a grim end being stabbed to death at age 67, possibly by a nephew, it is suspected, who sought some financial gain.
Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) is considered to be one of the greatest Polish composers of the 20th century. Similar to Hungarian Béla Bartók, he spent much of his early career arranging his national folk music, which was to greatly influence his first major masterworks. After the passing of Stalin in 1953 a different cultural climate emerged in Soviet Poland and Lutosławski transitioned into the high modernist style for which he became internationally renowned. However, his 1952 duo for viola and cello, Bukoliki is an example of his earlier folk music style. It is comprised of five short movements, based on a collection of folk melodies by Father Wladyslaw Skierkowski.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed no less than 23 string quartets, in addition to the legion of other works, such as 41 symphonies, 20 operas, 21 piano concertos and so on. The six quartets published in 1785 as his ‘opus 10’ have become known as the ‘Haydn Quartets’ as they were all reverently dedicated to the senior composer. Written during the final decade of his life while at the height of his powers, these works have become a cornerstone of the string quartet repertoire. The String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421 of 1783 was reputedly written while his wife, Contanze was giving birth to their first child in the next room.
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue and is internationally known as the creator of the Kodály Method in the field of music education. He will be forever associated with his compatriot Béla Bartók for their work together cataloguing and making primitive recordings of thousands of eastern European folk melodies. A very prolific composer in his own right, Kodály composed a great deal of chamber, choral, and orchestral music, as well as for the theatre. His early Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7, dating from 1914 exudes a Hungarian folk flavour and remains amongst his most actively performed works today.
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) despite winning two Pulitzer Prizes for his music is probably better remembered today for his famous textbook on orchestration. A graduate of Harvard University, he went on to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where he became highly influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky. He later returned to Harvard as a faculty member and famously taught many notable students including Leonard Bernstein and Elliot Carter. Piston considered the 1949 Duo for Viola and Cello to be one of his finest works. There are three movements: a march-like sonatina, a lilting slow movement, and a finale he described as "dazzlingly virtuosic."
Ludwig van Beethoven
Similar to Haydn and Mozart before him, Beethoven is renowned for his contribution to the string quartet repertoire. In the same manner that Brahms, years later, would delay writing symphonies in reverence to those of Beethoven, he did not attempt the medium of the string quartet until his 30th year, owing to his admiration for the recent works of his forebears. Anticipating the dawn of a new century, his opus 18 set of six quartets represent his monumental entry into this field. Each of the six quartets possesses their own distinct personality and widely different temperament. The String Quartet op.18 #4 in C minor, has been described as ‘the brat of the pack…an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.’
When Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote his beloved String Quartet in G minor in 1893 he was a young, relatively unknown composer. The following year he would complete his first great orchestral masterpiece, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and international attention was soon to follow. This early work, which was inspired by the friendship with the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who was only four years his senior, received mixed reactions at its premiere by Ysaÿe’s quartet. However, it has gone on to become a staple of the repertoire, and served as the principal model for the equally celebrated 1904 String Quartet of Maurice Ravel with which it is often paired today on recordings.
Concert Programme Notes by Richard Mascall