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Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress

As I wrote in a post on August 31 (Free Concerts in Washington), the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C., has begun the 2003-2004 season of its annual series of free concerts. I was in the Coolidge Auditorium this evening for the first of their concerts I have been able to attend, the first performance this season by the Juilliard String Quartet. The members of this group, in its 41st year of residence at the Library of Congress, are Joel Smirnoff (violin), Ronald Copes (violin), Samuel Rhodes (viola), and Joel Krosnick (cello).

The program began with an unusual performance of the first four contrapunctus movements of J. S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080), an interesting choice intended to highlight the influence of this work on Beethoven's late quartets, one of which concluded the program. In a short program note on the piece, violist Samuel Rhodes writes:

Why isn't the Art of Fugue a standard fixture of the string quartet repertoire? Written in open score for four abstract voices—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—the Art of Fugue, transcribed for every possible combination ranging from keyboard instrument to full orchestra and concert band, seems perfectly suited to the combination of two violins, viola, and cello. I believe the principal reason is a purely practical one, the fact that the alto and tenor lines go below the range of the violin and viola a significant number of times throughout the work.
What makes this performance tonight unusual is that the Juilliard Quartet did not alter a single note of Bach's score, which is the usual solution to the problem. The second violinist played viola "in places that are too low," and Mr. Rhodes played the tenor part on a slightly larger version of the viola, built for him by Marten Cornelissen "so that it can extend the normal viola range down by a fourth." Cornelissen is known as a most talented instrument builder, and this large viola, according to Mr. Rhodes, "not only functions wonderfully in this altered way but, when normally strung, is also one of the finest violas my colleagues and I have ever heard!"

The first four movements are fairly straightforward fugues, in which the subject is presented clearly, without the more complex transformations Bach uses later in the piece. What he seems to be showing first is how to write clear fugal expositions and episodes, how to transform your subject with rhythmic variation, and how to write a subject that inverts well. Contrapunctus I, which exposes the subject in its original form (do-sol-me-do-ti-do-re-me-fa-me-re-do), was played in a slow tempo, with an almost dry separation of the initial four half notes each time the subject or answer appeared. Contrapunctus II uses the noninverted form of the subject as well, with slight rhythmic changes, including a syncopated version of the answer, and the quartet played this movement at a much faster tempo, giving it almost the feel of a variation on Contrapunctus I. Contrapuncti III and IV were paired in a similar way, because both these movements present the inverted form of the subject. The piece's next movement, a canon at the octave, frames the first four movements together, but the quartet chose not to play it tonight. This performance belied the characterization often unjustly applied to Die Kunst der Fuge, that of a cerebral piece, written more for study than performance. As recent research has shown, many of Bach's pieces and especially his monumental collections had a didactic or encyclopedic purpose, but that does not make this piece academic or unmoving any more than the Brandenburg Concerti. Sadly, one spectator forgot to turn off his cell phone and received a call with a ridiculous ring precisely at a dramatic pause near the end of Contrapunctus I. (To learn more about Die Kunst der Fuge, see this Introduction to the Art of Fugue by Timothy A. Smith at the University of Northern Arizona; On Johann Sebastian Bach's Art of the Fugue by John Stone; and J.S. Bach's The Art of the Fugue: An Enigma Resolved by David Peat.)

The first half of the program concluded with a piece called The Joy of More Sextets by Milton Babbitt, performed by Joel Smirnoff and guest pianist Christopher Oldfather. This piece was commissioned by the Library of Congress and first performed in Coolidge Auditorium in 1987, to celebrate Babbitt's 70th birthday. The title is in reference to Babbitt's earlier piece Sextets (1966), but neither it nor this piece is a sextet; both are for violin and piano. I have done some reading about this piece after the concert, because the program notes did not include information about it, leading to an unusual way of experiencing it for me. I usually think of twelve-tone music as primarily intellectual because I tend to listen to it armed with an understanding informed by theorists and historians who study it. From a purely auditory experience, I cannot say that I was able to perceive anything about its form or structure, but I don't know if that is good or bad. What I can say is that the generally sparse texture of poking and scratching on both instruments, with very little of what can really be called melody, has much in common with the music of Webern. What struck me for the first time was the relationship of this style with the style of jazz known as bebop, spurts of dissonant, jagged sound. Although many in the audience seemed to appreciate the piece, there were also the expected murmurs of discontent. Some people slept, and many refused to applaud.

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827What most people probably came to hear was the concert's second half, Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat, op. 130. The Juilliard Quartet performed this piece with, as its final movement, the Grosse Fuge, op. 133, as it was originally conceived by Beethoven, who later substituted a lighter final movement in response to criticism. (See this analysis of the Grosse Fuge for more information.) To celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Library of Congress, almost a year ago now, the Juilliard String Quartet began one of its performances of the entire cycle of the Beethoven string quartets. (It was the first quartet in the United States to do this, at a series of concerts in New York in 1948 to 1949, the first to perform it on television, and the first to make a complete digital recording. They have since performed the cycle again in New York, Boston, Pasadena, at my alma mater Michigan State University in East Lansing, and now in Washington.) The cycle will be completed at the quartet's four remaining concerts at the Library of Congress between now and December.

This was a truly beautiful performance that was thrilling to hear. The second movement (Presto) was played sotto voce and blindingly fast. It's quite short and, when it was over, an audible murmur of surprised contentment was heard from the audience. Also of particular beauty was the fifth movement (Cavatina), a lyric aria of aching, Romantic beauty which was played superbly. The theme of the whole concert seems to be the idea and practice of counterpoint, which is integral to all three pieces on the program. As Norman Middleton, Jr., pointed out in his program note, Beethoven copied sections of Contrapunctus IV from Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge into his sketches of both the Piano Sonata, op. 106 (Hammerklavier), and the Ninth Symphony, and the main subject of the Grosse Fuge is "a retrograde version of the name 'Bach' (B-flat, A, C, B-natural)." It is a program that has intellectual interest and was most pleasing to the ear.

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