Friday, March 19 @ 7pm

Carlos Simon - Elegy: A Cry from the Grave 

Franz Schubert - Quartet in GM D.887 

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SIMON: An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave (2015)


We live in a world where political decisions impact our lives each day. Too often, these decisions reinforce discriminations and inequities. In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The aftermath of Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s decision were met with protests, demands for justice and reform, and an increase in Black representation within Ferguson and Missouri’s political spheres. Brown’s murder was part of a century-long practice of racist profiling and violence; Carlos Simon’s musical rumination is part of a history of Black artists responding to this painful reality. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Simon writes concert music and film scores in a style that incorporates elements of neo-romanticism, gospel and jazz. His string orchestra work – An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave (2015) – is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and those who have been “wrongfully murdered by an oppressive power.”

Simon states: “The recurring ominous motif represents the cry of those struck down unjustly in this country. While the predominant essence of the piece is sorrowful and contemplative, there are moments of extreme hope represented by bright consonant harmonies.” A one-movement work less than 6 minutes long, An Elegy opens with icy tremolos and slow slides that are pushed to the background through the rich, layered entrances of viola, cello and first violin. The texture ranges from a united front, fragmented motives, impressionistic effervescence and lyrical sorrow, a network of emotions and perspectives aching to be recognized and supported. Simon’s work  expresses the fragile possibility of justice and accountability in response to police brutality; the idea that hope is sustaining, but also sporadic and fleeting, if systemic changes are not made. 

© 2020 A. Kori Hill


SCHUBERT: Quartet in GM, D.887 (1826)


Franz Schubert wrote chamber music all his short but prodigious life, writing the first of twenty string quartets when he was only fifteen years old. Given his life of only thirty-one years, it may seem incredible to speak of a "late" period, but Schubert's music went through a dramatic transformation around the time he turned twenty-four. In 1820, Schubert composed his famous Quartettsatz in C minor, a complete first movement for an otherwise uncompleted string quartet. Henceforth known as his String Quartet No. 12, the magnificent Quartettsatz ("string quartet movement or piece") inaugurates a period of new maturity featuring several cardinal aspects of Schubert's style that would dominate the remaining quartets in ever expanding power and scope. Chief among these traits is a dichotomous pairing of restless angst and lyrical sublimity. It is as if Schubert and his music became positively transfixed by the stark polarity between dark and light, an unresolved juxtaposition of agony and ecstasy. This is the essence of the Quartettsatz and the remaining three quartets that may be properly regarded as his late works. The ultimate work in this series of string chamber works and the final work of Schubert's life was the towering String Quintet in C Major, the most supreme incarnation of this very same trajectory. Just before it comes the String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, the epic quartet on the program tonight.

Schubert wrote his final string quartet during a period of ten days in 1826 around the same time that Beethoven finished his own late essays in the genre. Schubert, a long time admirer of Beethoven, would be a bereft torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral in 1827, just one and a half years before Schubert's own death in 1828. Despite this proximity in time and place as well as a shared heritage of Viennese classicism in which both men were eventually regarded as supreme masters, the late quartets of Schubert and Beethoven are remarkably dissimilar if not, in some ways, opposites. Like Beethoven, Schubert was in the midst of blazing his own trail in a fresh and significant evolution of quartet style. Unlike Beethoven, Schubert was cut short. Hence the tragically accurate inscription on Schubert's tomb, "The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes."

The String Quartet in G Major is chamber music on a massive scale. The first movement alone lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes depending on the tempo and whether repeats are honored. Within the first few measures, Schubert establishes his familiar dichotomy between light and dark as a G Major chord transforms simply, suddenly and significantly into G minor. This mercurial and fundamental battle between light and dark rages on until the very end of the quartet some fifty minutes later. Schubert's arresting introduction soon softens into floating light with a telltale signature: a quiet, fluttering tremolo of quick triplets punctuated by a germinal motif fragment in a dotted rhythm. With a steep rise in dynamics and the fully marshaled force of the ensemble, the introduction morphs into the primary thematic material that will course throughout the movement in continuous alteration with a second lyrical theme soon to come. In a unique approach to sonata form, Schubert seems to co-evolve both theme areas in successive waves as each interrupts the other while internally growing more elaborate. Far more "development" happens in the traditional areas of exposition and recapitulation than the literal development section itself, which is relatively brief by comparison. Instead, there is contrast, expansion and variation in an endless matrix of sudden contrasts in modality, texture, dynamics, rhythm and mood. It is not until the last few bars that the battle finally yields to a briefly stable victory for G Major.

The second movement Andante is the slow movement of similarly vast proportions and emotional intensity. A delicate elegiac theme features the cello with a somber, moderate cast in E minor that rises only briefly in its second reprise to a brief smile of temporary relief. Suddenly, a huge surge of dark passion interrupts the suave lament as if the first movement were rushing back complete with dotted rhythms, nervous tremolos and abrupt, stabbing gestures. Once again, Schubert is positively transfixed with two contrasting ideas that seem to recur more often and more directly than classical forms seem to encourage. But as in the first movement and throughout much of his oeuvre, Schubert never says the same thing twice. Each recurrence brings a change of instrumentation, texture, rhythm, key or modality, sometimes only as a subtle nuance. The casual listener finds repetition on the surface while the deeper listener discovers endless diversity exploiting gorgeous, resilient musical ideas in a constant state of transformation.

A much lighter and shorter Scherzo breaks the spell with a tensile agility that suggests Mendelssohn who, during the same year of 1826 would have been a teenager hard at work on his remarkable overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream. The nimble scherzo gives way to a supple trio, a sweet, swaying ländler that may well be the only untroubled section in the entire quartet. A sublime duet between cello and violin dances like a poignant dream lost so quickly in the ensuing tumult.

Schubert concludes his final string quartet with the perpetual motion of a sonata rondo in a typical 6/8 meter at a brisk clip, for the most part a high-spirited dance. Characteristically, the first several measures feature an unstable tonality flickering by the beat between major and minor and just as quickly, restless modulations to new keys. Many commentators have likened the finale to an opera buffa where Schubert's temperamental drama assumes a comedic cast in a kind of frantic parody of itself. The combination of reprise along with prominent developmental aspects crafts a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms first established by Haydn. The comparatively effervescent character of Schubert's conclusion is merely a pause in the seemingly endless flow of his mightier passions. From the last string quartet, Schubert moved on to the singular String Quintet, a musical thread we will resume in an upcoming concert this season at Kohl Mansion.


© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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