Each very different, as might be expected of works written by different composers in different eras. At the same time they share concentrated spontaneous energy. In the hands of a string quartet, which is so physical in nature, the energy becomes yet more infectious and even visible.
In 1810 Beethoven, not yet forty years old, completes the quartet he named ‘Serioso’ after the tempo of its characteristic third movement. The work had not been commissioned, and it was not intended for any particular occasion. We are in what musicologists refer to as the composer’s Middle period, also known as heroic, from the expression in many of the works from this time which brought him fame. This compact composition is the shortest of Beethoven’s quartets, and differs distinctly from his former style. We get more than a suspicion of how a ‘new’ Beethoven is emerging. This is perhaps part of the reason why Beethoven resisted public performances of this innovative work, restricting it to audiences of musical connoisseurs. The fact that the composition is so compressed intensifies its musical temperament, and makes it almost violent in its sudden contrasts between musical gestures and pregnant pauses. At the same time it jumps from key to key, pumping up energy in a way we associate with the radical late string quartets he wrote fifteen years later, and which we otherwise find in the potent harmonies of late romantic music many decades later. Even the contemplative second movement has something disturbing about it in its restless soaring modulations.
Olav Anton Thommessen is one of Norway’s leading living composers. As a professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music for many years he has not only contributed to professionalising composers, but his incredible curiosity towards music of all times and places has made him a unique source of learning and a popular cultural disseminator well beyond his own area of expertise. ‘Exploration’ and ‘mediation’ are also important concepts in his own compositions. To help listeners to find their way into his musical landscape he often uses gesturally active musical figures that may be followed as guides. He frequently uses music by familiar composers as the basis for his own re-workings and further development. These works are provided with subtle, playful titles, as in this case: Felix Remix. The opening of the energetic scherzo movement from Mendelssohn’s quartet op. 44:2, its flickering starting note suddenly careering off in fast, fleeting dance passages, makes sense to Thommessen’s ears. He had already tried out the idea in a work for l’Orchestre de Flûtes Français, and here he reels it in to quartet format. The music wanders from the concrete – Mendelssohn – expanding and opening more and more in the direction of Thommessen’s own musical style. The work was written specially for the Engegård Quartet.
Report from the life of an artist
When Grieg composed this quartet at the age of 35 in 1878, he had long been striving to find a basic idea, but everything fell into place when he reviewed the song ‘Spillemænd’ (Fiddlers, op. 25:1), which he had written to a text by Ibsen. The primaeval energy and frantic rhythms in the quartet bring fiddle playing to mind. In the song version we hear of a young man who wants to learn the hypnotic skills of the Water Sprite. When he finally masters the fiddle, he finds that his betrothed has left him for another. Artistic success and artistic solitude belong together, while love is lost. Grieg described the quartet as autobiographical. He had already experienced fame and adversity in his career. His private life was also fraught with difficulty: the recent loss of his parents troubled him, and his marriage with Nina was in a difficult phase. The couple decided to leave their problems behind in Christiania (as Oslo was called at the time) and move to rural Hardanger for a while. This heralded a new spring for Grieg. The entire quartet is based upon the principal motif from the song, stretched and drawn, repeated and varied. Grieg achieves an almost Beethovenesque urgency and intensity in the dramatic outer movements, while the second movement is lyrical and melodious and the third merry and playful. However, amidst this apparent idyll lurks unrest and fiery temperament, occasionally rising unexpectedly to the surface,
Text: Morten Eide Pedersen
English version: Roger Martin