« Le quatuor à cordes, écriture et pratique »
avec des membres du Quatuor Voce,
Stéphane Goldet, musicologue et
Bruno Mantovani, directeur artistique du festival
animée par Tristan Labouret, musicologue
Hôtel Hermitage, Salle Belle Époque


Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Salle Garnier

Durée approximative 1h20 

22H30 – AFTER

avec le Quatuor Voce
Novotel Monte-Carlo

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quatuor à cordes no 13 en ré mineur, K. 173

Dmitri Chostakovitch
Quatuor à cordes no 3 en fa majeur, op. 73

Claude Debussy
Quatuor à cordes en sol mineur, op. 10

Quatuor Voce
Sarah Dayan et Cécile Roubin, violons
Guillaume Becker, alto
Lydia Shelley, violoncelle

Le Quatuor Voce remercie particulièrement Monceau Assurances, la DRAC Pays de la Loire la Spedidam, le CNM – Centre National de la Musique, ProQuartet- CEMC et les membres de Carré Voce pour leur soutien 

String quartet experimentation

Mozart’s experiments

Vienna, summer of 1773. While staying in the city of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set about writing a cycle of six string quartets. Inspired by the innovations of the father of the classical style (notably his Quartets op. 20), the young composer forged new musical techniques which radically changed the expressiveness of his works. Indeed, the cycle seems far removed from hisQuartet, K. 80, composed along the lines of the eighteenth-century trio-sonata, which gave the major part of a voluble musical discourse to the two violins. In his new cycle in general and more specifically in the Quartet K. 173, Mozart plunged into a thematic and contrapuntal approach, favoring brief, insistent motives. The Allegro moderato that opens the work is startling even today – its five-note motive, repeated and hammered out by the four instruments in unison, prefigures the Beethovenian combats of the following century.

Sixteen years later, Mozart’s writing had greatly evolved, albeit not in a way that could be anticipated just by considering the Quartet K. 173. Having received a commission from Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm II, the composer began a new cycle of quartets, in which he highlighted the cello, his patron’s favorite instrument. The Quartet K. 575, clearly shows this inverted quartet balance – the start of the finale feels almost like a cello concerto! But Mozart is more subtle. In reality, each of the instruments in the quartet are more independent and individual, dialoguing like characters in an opera. This conversational and lyrical style is particularly eloquent in the second movement, where Mozart reuses his gentle song Das Veilchen (The Violet), composed four years earlier. Doubling of instruments in thirds and elegant ornaments give the impression of a double lovers’ dialogue between the four players. Was the composer already thinking of Così fan tutte, which he would write some months later?

Whatever the case, Mozart certainly appears to have considered the string quartet an experimental laboratory, where he could test, in intimate chamber music, methods that he would exploit in larger works (symphonies, operas and major religious works). The final fugue of the Quartet K. 173, confirms this hypothesis. Once again, Mozart was following Haydn and his op. 20, but it is clear that the young composer wanted, above all, to put his own quartet-writing mastery to the test. By choosing a subject that descends the chromatic scale, step by step, over eight notes, Mozart refuses to give his finale a conventional melodic and rhythmic character, preferring to pose himself a radical challenge – one which foreshadows the dodecaphonic experiments of the Second Viennese School.

Shostakovich’s secrets

Almost two centuries later, Dimitri Shostakovich made use of the theories of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples – the viola’s solo line at the start of Quartet no. 13 (written in 1970) presents all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, one after the other. This is all the more surprising since, eleven years earlier, in the journal Sovietskaya Muzika, the composer had violently condemned dodecaphonism! This condemnation wasmost likely dictated by the Party. It is nonetheless interesting to point out that Shostakovich had, in the same article, accepted that dodecaphonic music was “able to express the state of total despondency, exhaustion or anguish in the face of death.” Indeed, this melancholy character pervades his Quartet no. 13, which is a somber work, in (unusually) one-movement, that one might reasonably see as a chamber-music requiem by a composer in his twilight years.

Like Mozart, Shostakovich found string quartets to be the ideal genre for giving free rein to his creativity, whereas his symphonies and operatic works were carefully scrutinized by the Soviet regime. He composed ambitious structures in this medium, worthy of his works for full orchestra. Written in 1946, his Quartet no. 3 consists of no less than five movements, the first and last echoing each other in a convoluted symmetry, with the finale recollecting the first theme of the Quartet’s opening Allegretto, in melodic and rhythmic inversion.

This compositional technique is not without extra-musical significance. Shostakovich had originally given titles to his five movements, beginning with “Calm unawareness of the approaching cataclysm” and ending with “The eternal question,” passing through “Ominous rumblings,” the unleashing of “The forces of war” and “Homage to the dead.” While the end of the work appears to express a return to an initial peaceful situation, this resolution carries with it all the post-war period’s turmoil, after the horror of the fighting, and its fear of an uncertain future. The third movement, moreover, contains the seeds of the great Symphony no. 10, which would make such an impression some years later, shortly after Stalin’s death. In the Allegro non troppo, we already hear both the dry chords that will launch the symphony’s orchestral military machine and the signature motif from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Did Shostakovich wish to thus denounce not only the atrocities of the recently ended war but also those committed by Stalin’s regime? Impossible to prove, this remains a possibility.

Debussy and Ravel’s new world

There are numerous similarities between the Quartets of Debussy and Ravel, written ten years apart (1893 for the Debussy, 1902-1903 for the Ravel). Both were early works, endowed with scherzos rich in Spanish-style pizzicati, meeting the formal requirements then fashionable, while laying the foundations of a new musical world. They marked both composers’ only incursion into the string-quartet genre.

It must be said that both of these first efforts are masterpieces. Created thanks to the Société nationale de musique, founded to promote French music, these scores met this purpose by following in the footsteps of César Franck. The use of a “cyclical” motif that serves as a common thread throughout the works’ four movements stems directly from the Franck school. Debussy and Ravel go further, however, moving away from tonality to explore modality. The G minor announced by Debussy is misleading, since the composer actually uses the ancient Phrygian mode right from the Quartet’s opening theme. As for Ravel, he employs numerous pentatonic motifs. In vogue from Mozart’s time to that of Shostakovich, sonata form – with its opposition of two tonalities, represented by contrasting themes – here is singularly revamped.

In reworking timbre and polyphony, the two young French masters gave new life to the string quartet. Debussy opened the way in his second movement, creating effects that were unprecedented at the time – the viola’s motif, initially perceived as thematic, is transformed into a static presence in a constantly shifting harmonic and rhythmic landscape. Ten years later, Ravel played extensively with textures and their combination, using pizzicati, mutes, bariolages, tremolos and audacious doublings. The composer considerably enriched the expressive palette of the quartet, creating a succession of colorful scenes, in which the poetic and pictorial world he would create in his orchestral masterpieces is already detectable. The many octave passages between first violin and viola, for example, give a glimpse of the future Jardin féérique from the Contes de Ma Mère l’Oye – a magical world that today’s composers continue to explore.

Tristan Labouret

Photo ©Sophie Pawlak