23 years old and infatuated with one of his piano students, the fledgling composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) wrote 18 sensuous love songs in as many days. He returned to that song cycle 22 years later, by which point he was internationally renowned and happily married (not to that girl, but to her sister). He arranged twelve of the selections for string quartet under the title Echo of Songs, although today the collection tends to be known by the name of the original cycle, Cypresses. Even separated from the Czech verses by Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky, Dvorak’s melodies make their sentiments self-evident. “Just imagine a young man in love,” the composer wrote. “That’s what they’re all about!”
Kevin Puts (b. 1972) is one of the most lyrical and impactful composers of his generation, a status confirmed when he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera, Silent Night. He composed his string quartet Credo—Latin for “I Believe”—for the Miró Quartet in 2007, a time clouded by the ongoing war in Iraq and the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. “One day on my weekly commute from New York to teach at the Peabody Conservatory,” Puts explained in a program note, “I noticed, as the train pulled into Baltimore, the word ‘believe’ emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the city of Baltimore to do something about the fact that ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. As one who relies little if at all on blind faith, I found this to be a rather alarming approach. On the other hand, sometimes it seems all you can do is believe.” The movements of Credo reference Puts’ experiences of finding “solace in the strangest places,” including “the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist in Katonah, New York,” “on the jogging path along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh,” and the view from his apartment as he “watched, in a window across 106th Street, a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.”
Between 1824 and 1826—a time of failing health, personal crises and total deafness—Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) completed five string quartets, plus the massive “Grand Fugue.” Beethoven’s final quartet, and in fact his last complete opus in any genre, was the String Quartet in F Major (Op. 135), composed between July and October of 1826. This lightest and shortest of the late quartets honors the “classical” paradigm that Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart, with an emphasis on balance and transparency. The Allegretto first movement begins with a questioning rise in the viola, a motive that volleys from voice to voice. The movement’s compact gestures arise and recede with utmost efficiency, but the overall affect is somehow breezy, not terse. Questions and answers also dominate the finale, which Beethoven labeled with an enigmatic heading: “The Difficult Resolution.” He outlined two themes, first a rising question—“Must it be?”—followed by the descending response, “It must be!” As tempting as it may be to ascribe some deathbed significance to this existential riddle, the origins are fare more prosaic, stemming from a correspondence in which Beethoven chided his publisher about an unpaid debt.
© 2018 Aaron Grad.