Quatuor Diotima – meaning Diotima’s Quartet – is the name taken by the French string quartet from Fragmente – Stille an Diotima, a work composed in 1980 by Luigi Nono (1924–90). He took the name in turn from Plato’s famous dialogue Symposion, published in 385–380 BC, in which Socrates states that everything he knows about love – which is actually quite a lot – was learned from the priestess and philosopher Diotima from Mantinea. Thus the name is a tribute to the timeless and eternal music that always fills us with love.
The quartet, established in 1999, has a repertoire of music old and new. This evening’s performance ranges from Franz Schubert (1797–1828) via Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) to Bela Bartók (1881–1945), though not in that order. They open with string quartets by Schubert and Bartók, and close with Brahms’s well-known string quintet. For the quintet they have acquired the assistance of Jörg Widmann, equally well-known today as a creative composer as an excellent clarinettist.
Schubert’s String Quartet no. 9
First off in the concert is Schubert’s String Quartet no. 9 in G minor, D173, which he wrote at the age of 18 in 1815. He achieved this feat in barely eight days in a year in which he completed two symphonies, two piano sonatas, numerous lieder and a substantial amount of music for the stage. It must be said that this string quartet – and indeed many of his early works – were not expected to be performed in public, but rather within the Konvikt where Schubert received his education and in private family circles. String Quartet no. 9 was first performed in public in 1863 and published in 1871. It is nevertheless a mature work, featuring the unconventional key changes which Schubert found so interesting and the sonata form pioneered by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809).
Such developments probably pass unnoticed today, but in 1815 audiences were doubtless more highly aware of how a string quartet was constructed, and they were probably more attentive, particularly in the intimate circles in which the works were performed. They must have delighted in young Schubert’s courage, and appreciated his deferential reference to the Minuet movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony.
Bartók’s String Quartet no. 3
The second work on the programme, Bela Bartók’s String Quartet no. 3 from 1926, ventures considerably further in its experimentation with the genre. Its four parts are performed continuously without breaks.
The first movement (Bartók uses the Italian word parte – part) is cautious and somewhat bleak, contrasting all the more with the second part, which is livelier and incorporates elements of Hungarian folk music. They are used innovatively, not to fit in with a romantic whole but in order to extend the canvas with indigenous tonalities and rhythms. The third part is a varied and simplified recapitulation of the first, while the fourth is a telescoped recapitulation of the second part.
In this way the work acquires a symmetry adapted to the constrictions of 1920s neo-classicism. In comparison with his earlier works the quartet is more tightly constructed while harmonically more innovative and contrapuntally more complex. Bartók also employs extended instrumental techniques, such as sul ponticello (bowing as close as possible to the bridge) and col legno (bowing with the wood instead of the hair) and extensive use of glissandi and the eponymous Bartók pizzicato (plucking the string so that it rebounds against the instrument's fingerboard).
Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet
The final piece is Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, opus 115, from 1891, a late work in a relatively melancholic mood, as if the composer is reflecting over the fact that his life is approaching its end. The first two movements both reflect this mood, while the third introduces lighter tones, suggesting that there is still hope. In the final movement however the melancholy returns. Nevertheless, when a mood coloured by sorrow and grief is dressed in such beauty as in Brahms’s music, it becomes easier to reconcile oneself with it.
Here music – indeed all art – has its strength. It is through just this distance which beauty can bring to the darker aspects of reality – illness and death – that we find it possible to reflect on those aspects. We are less able to do so when they brutally impinge on our everyday life.
English version: Roger Martin