Pēteris Vasks from Latvia represents the entire history of the Baltic nations since World War II. Latvia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union from the year of his birth, 1946, and well into his adult life. He trained in the violin at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, as a double-bass player at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and after several years as a performing musician in a variety of orchestras he studied composition at the Vilnius Conservatoire in Lithuania. Since 1973 he has been his own master as a prolific composer.
His early music is marked by the unstable history of his home country and by the influence of the aleatory works of Lutosławski, Penderecki and George Crumb. His later works include elements from Latvian folk music and the Baltic choral tradition. While the peoples of Eastern Germany gathered in Leipzig for Mass on Tuesdays to overthrow their repressive regime, the peoples of the Baltic countries gathered for choir festivals, with a distinctly similar outcome.
Vasks often composes programme music. He seeks to make a point in his music – whether natural processes as in Distant Lights (Tala gasima) and Mother Sun (Mate saule), or his commitment to the environment. His style varies, taking impulses from such diverse worlds as the simple and restrained minor moods of folk music or at the other end of the scale, violent, jagged and disharmonious spasms without rhyme or reason – encounters between the human and the inhuman.
Quartet no. 3, written in 1995, does not encompass these contrasts to a great extent, as its programme is ‘Peace on earth’. In the first section Vasks uses themes from a Christmas carol. The second section is inspired by Latvian folk songs, and in the third, which examines the possibility of peace in any society, the chromaticism is reminiscent of Shostakovich. The quartet ends with a wish for ‘Peace on earth’ symbolised by melancholic, sustained choirs.
The other two composers this evening lived over two hundred years before Vasks.
At the age of 40, Haydn was already considered one of the foremost composers in Europe. He was Kapellmeister at the court of Count Esterházy, where he lived – far from Vienna – for most of the year. To relieve his loneliness, boredom, depression and illness Haydn worked day and night. He was required to compose music for frequent performances at the court, but he wrote far more than was demanded of him. In 1772 he composed his opus 20, six string quartets. This marked the start of his great achievement: to invent a completely new genre of composition. The string quartet – two violins, a viola and a cello – was an ideal ensemble for timbre, variation and individuality, with all of the parts equally important.
Of his quartets, all of which are typically Haydnesque but otherwise extremely varied, Haydn himself said, ‘My lonely life in Eszterháza Palace forced me to be original.’
In the C major Quartet opus 20, Haydn creates a conversation between the parts. The cello opens the work, and all the other instruments respond with a solo – even the viola. The finale is a fugue – a great declaration of the nature of the string quartet.
As this was occurring, a youngster born in Salzburg in 1756 was on the fast track into the loftiest musical circles. By 1772 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was on his third tour to Italy. He later moved to Vienna, where he made Joseph Haydn’s acquaintance.
In 1782, having just completed a new album of string quartets (opus 33), Haydn held a musical soirée at his home. It was attended by Carl von Dittersdorf, a violin virtuoso and composer; Johan Baptist Van Hall, a cellist and composer; and the young Mozart, who loved to play the viola. Haydn played second violin. A rare ‘Moment Musical’ from real life!
Another of Mozart’s friends inspired the last work on this evening’s programme – his (one and only) Clarinet Quintet. Anton Stadler played the clarinet and basset clarinet. Not only did he develop the instruments, Mozart appreciated him as a genius, and included the clarinet in compositions, which no composer had done before.
The Clarinet Quintet in A major (originally for the basset clarinet) K 581 was composed in 1789. The slow second movement is one of the most beautiful musical ‘Still lifes’ in existence.
Text: Erling Dahl Jr.
English version: Roger Martin