American String Quartet

Peter Winograd, violin
Laurie Carney,
Daniel Avshalomov,
Wolfram Koessel,

A Concert for the Friends of Maverick

Sunday, September 7, 2014: 4 pm


String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, “Emperor” Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Poco adagio — cantabile
Menuetto. Allegro
Finale. Presto

String Quartet No. 2 in E flat Major, Op. 12 (1829)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante
Canzonetta: Allegretto
Andante espressivo
Molto allegro e vivace


String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1865)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Allegro non troppo
Andante moderato
Quasi minuetto, moderato – Allegretto vivace
Finale. Allegro non assai


Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


Internationally recognized as one of the world's foremost quartets, the American String Quartet celebrates its thirty-eighth season in 2013–2014. Critics and colleagues hold the American in high esteem, and many of today’s leading artists and composers seek them out for collaborations.

The quartet is also known for its performances of the complete quartets of Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Mozart. Their recordings of the complete Mozart string quartets on a matched set of Stradivarius instruments are widely held to have set the standard for this repertoire. In 2014, the ASQ will perform the complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets at Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum.

To celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary, the ASQ recorded an ambitious CD, Schubert’s Echo, released in 2010 by NSS Music (founded by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg). Recorded at New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, Schubert’s Echo features three works never before recorded together: Schubert’s monumental String Quartet in G, D. 887, Berg’s dramatic, atonal String Quartet, Op. 3, and Webern’s visionary Fünf Sätze (Five Movements), Op. 5. Schubert’s chamber music had no influence on his contemporaries for the very good reason that it was largely unknown in his lifetime. The surprise revealed by this recording is that Schubert’s impact extends to a later generation of Viennese composers, whose music in many respects is the antithesis of Schubert’s. These works reveal, in the context of each other, the continuum of the quartet repertoire.

The American also champions contemporary music. The quartet has commissioned, premiered, and recorded works by distinguished American composers, including Claus Adam, Richard Danielpour, Kenneth Fuchs, Tobias Picker, and George Tsontakis. The ensemble has recorded on the Albany, CRI, MusicMasters, Musical Heritage Society, Nonesuch, and RCA labels.

The American Quartet’s innovative programming and creative approach to education has resulted in notable residencies throughout the country. The group continues as quartet-in-residence at the Manhattan School of Music (1984–present) and the Aspen Music Festival (1974–present). The ASQ also travels widely abroad and teaches in Beijing, where, in the summer of 2013, they returned for their ninth residency at the Great Wall International Music Academy.




The Quartet will return to Beijing in 2014 to help celebrate the Academy’s 10th anniversary. The Academy involves eighty of the world’s most promising young violinists, violists, and cellists. The curriculum focuses primarily on developing solo and chamber music skills, with additional opportunities to rehearse and perform concertos with the Great Wall Festival Orchestra, a professional Beijing orchestra organized with the sole purpose of supporting the young artists of the Academy.

Formed in 1974 when its original members were students at The Juilliard School, the American String Quartet was launched by winning both the Coleman Competition and the Naumburg Chamber Music Award in the same year.



Although Joseph Haydn was basically stuck in Prince Esterhazy’s palace for most of his career, he nonetheless achieved a great deal of international renown. When the prince died in 1790, Haydn had few obligations, a nice pension, and several attractive offers. He decided to visit England, where his music was greatly admired.

The String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3, is one of six from Haydn’s last completed opus of quartets, dedicated to Count Joseph Erdödy of Hungary. Since he had by this time already started traveling to London, Haydn was writing with the tastes of the general public in mind rather than just those of the musical aficionados of Vienna.

The opening movement (Allegro) is based on a lively theme, which is given a variety of treatments. After the usual statement and development, it is traded back and forth among the instruments, put into the minor, and played against strongly accented, rustic-sounding viola and cello bowings. A dramatic pause announces the accelerated ending.

On his trips to London, Haydn was impressed by the English anthem “God Save the King,” and decided to write one for Austria. His hymn, which set the words of “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (“God Save Emperor Francis”) by Lorenz Leopold Haschka, became the Austrian anthem, and was later adopted by Germany as well. This string quartet was given the nickname “Emperor” because the slow movement (Poco adagio, cantabile) uses this tune as the basis for a theme and variations. Since the fall of the Third Reich, only the third stanza has been used as the national anthem, with its first line, “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (“Unity and Justice and Freedom”) serving as the country’s national motto. The tune is also found in many denominational hymnals.

The beginning of the Menuetto: Allegro is lilting and rhythmic, like the courtly dance for which it was named. As it develops, however, Haydn adds weightiness to the music by including a passage in the relative minor. When the central Trio starts, it is also in the minor, this time with brief forays into the major.

Haydn continues the serious tone of the music with the unusual practice of opening the Finale: Presto in a minor key (C minor). Instead of the jovial finale style we expect from him, he gives us an intensely dramatic movement.

Although he was a child prodigy, his parents spared Felix Mendelssohn the grueling lifestyle of touring and display that young Mozart had endured. Felix had friends among the elite of political, social, and artistic society. He made a lasting friendship with Goethe when he was twelve and the author was seventy-two. He was an accomplished graphic artist and writer, and his composing career was steady, prolific, successful, and fulfilling. He was admired throughout Europe, and practically worshipped in England. Unfortunately, he died in 1848 at the age of thirty-eight. He never got to see the extraordinary changes that music underwent in the second half of the nineteenth century—a time that should have been the latter half of his own career. Nevertheless, he has left us some remarkable music, more so for having been written by such a young man.

The String Quartet No. 1 in E Flat, Op. 12, starts with a short, slow introduction (Adagio ma non troppo). When the Allegro non tardante comes in, the fragmental motif of the introduction, with its distinguishing rising leap, is expanded into a full theme, played mostly by the first violin. In the development section, all parts play important roles. With brief exceptions, the movement stays lyrical and fairly subdued throughout.

Instead of a Scherzo (which, since it derives from the Minuet, is set in a triple meter such as 3/4), Mendelssohn writes a Canzonetta in 2/4 time. Like a Scherzo, however, the Canzonetta has short, repeated sections; regular, dance-like rhythms; and a central section with a different character (in this case, faster). The Canzonetta has much of the feeling of Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The slow movement (Andante espressivo) is one of Mendelssohn’s songs without words, sung by the first violin with lush harmonic accompaniment. After a brief moment of intensity marked con fuoco (with fire), the gentle song returns.

The Finale (Molto allegro e vivace) is the longest of the movements. It is written in 12/8 time (four beats to a measure, with each beat divided into three). Continuous eighth notes and lively themes—one minor, one major—maintain the driving rhythm, punctuated by more lyrical sections that stay in tempo. Near the end, the solo violin brings back the theme from the first movement. Mendelssohn learned this technique, known as cyclic structure, from studying the works of Beethoven. The exciting motion of the Finale is thus softened, reminding us of where we started out.

Most of the composers of the latter part of the nineteenth century, including Johannes Brahms, lived in the shadow of Beethoven, and their works—especially their string quartets and symphonies—had very grand models with which they could expect to be compared. Brahms, by nature a perfectionist, reportedly discarded twenty or more string quartets before agreeing to let two be published as his Opus 51. He had at least two private performances of the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2, after which he made extensive revisions. The piece took almost a decade from composition to publication.

The work opens (Allegro non troppo) with an expansive four-note melody that leaps up and down and encompasses a full octave. It includes the notes F – A – E, which made up the motto theme of Brahms’ friend the violinist Joseph Joachim. The notes stand for Frei, aber einsam (Free, but alone). The movement ends with that theme in imitative counterpoint, each instrument playing some version of it but entering at different times so that they overlap.

The slow second movement (Andante moderato) is one of Brahms’ signature lyrical melodies, now in A major. The calm is interrupted twice, however, by fierce tremolos (fast bowing on the same note) in the inner parts, and by an intensely dramatic, almost opera-like declamation in the first violin and cello. The dreamy reverie returns, and the movement ends serenely.

The third movement (Quasi minuetto, moderato) starts delicately in the high ranges of the violins, back in the home key. The mood is abruptly changed by a faster passage with fugato (fugue-like) elements. Brahms completes the symmetry of the movement by repeating the Minuet.

The violin opens the Finale (Allegro non assai) with a dramatic statement that is echoed by the cello. Once again, canons and other Baroque techniques abound, sometimes in the intense rhythms of a Slavonic dance, other times as a gentle waltz.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg