Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg*

Danish String Quartet

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin
Frederik Øland,
Asbjørn Nørgaard,
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin,

Sunday, August 9, 2015, 4 pm


String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 (1889)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

Allegro energico
Andante amoroso
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Finale: Allegro (inquieto)

Arcadiana, Op. 12 (1994)
Thomas Adès (b. 1971)

I. Venezia notturno
II. Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön
III. Auf dem Wasser zu singen
IV. Et… (tango mortale)
V. L’Embarquement
VI. O Albion
VII. Lethe


String Quartet No. 9 in E Flat, Op. 117 (1964)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Moderato con moto

next week

Saturday, August 15, 8 pm | Julian Lage, jazz guitar,
with Scott Colley, bass, and Billy Mintz, drums

Sunday, August 16, 4 pm | Trio Solisti
Music of Schubert, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff




The members of the Danish String Quartet speak for themselves: “As a string quartet, we find ourselves at the core of the classical music world. On a daily basis we delve deeply into works by great masters such as Beethoven and Mozart, but we also play the occasional folk gig. Over the years we have had the opportunity to perform in major concert halls across the world. Sometimes a friendly reviewer has written nice things about us, too.

“We are three Danes and one Norwegian (the cellist), making this a truly Scandinavian endeavor. We are often joking about ourselves being modern Vikings. (Perhaps a touch more harmless than our ancestors—we are not pillaging cities or razing the English coastline!) We are simply your friendly neighborhood string quartet with above-average amounts of beard.

The three of us met in the Danish countryside at an amazing summer camp for enthusiastic amateur musicians. Not yet teenagers, we were the youngest players, so we hung out all the time playing football and chamber music together. We became best friends. In 2001, professor Tim Frederiksen of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen got in touch with us and started coaching us on a regular basis. All of the sudden, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen, we were a serious string quartet. It all happened so fast that none of us seemed to notice the transition.

“Time passed and we grew up. We were enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music and our life as music students had begun. In 2008 Norwegian cellist Fredrik joined in, generously adding to the amount of beard and general Vikingness of the group. During his free time, Fredrik can be found fixing or sailing his sailboat somewhere in Scandinavia.

The rest of us spend time with different hobbies—old cars, cooking, gaming, reading, playing, talking, and drinking.

“There is so much amazing music to delve into, and our hope is to continue our travels through life and music together as a quartet. We want to be able to share our music with as many people as possible. And of course, the ultimate goal is to beat Valentin Berlinsky’s [Borodin String Quartet] world record of “most years in the same chamber music group.” We will reach that goal around 2060 and on that day we will host a giant feast—you shall all be invited!”

In 2009 the Danish String Quartet won first prize and four additional prizes in the eleventh London International String Quartet Competition. The quartet was announced NORDMETALL–Ensemble Prize Winner 2010 in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival in Germany. In 2012 the quartet was appointed to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program.

The quartet was the Danish Radio Artist in Residence in 2006. The residency gave the quartet the opportunity to record all of Carl Nielsen᾿s string quartets in the Danish Radio Concert Hall. The recordings were hailed by the critics as extremely successful. Their 2012 album of works by Haydn and Brahms was called “a very fine recording” by The New York Times. The quartet was awarded the Carl Nielsen Prize 2011, which is Denmark’s highest cultural prize.


Starting in the early nineteenth century, many European countries went through a form of self-definition known as nationalism. Some sought to assemble their various sections as a unified whole (Germany and Italy, e.g.); some fought to overthrow oppressors and become autonomous (Italy); others worked to create a national identity (France, starting with the French Revolution in the eighteenth century). The musical aspect of nationalism involved the discovery and embrace of indigenous folk music, and the incorporation of that ethnic music into art music. Composing music that celebrated the identity, character, or natural beauty of one᾿s country was another aspect of nationalism, as was the composition of patriotic music. Chopin wrote mazurkas to honor Poland; Albéniz paid homage to flamenco and other forms of Spanish music; Elgar, although slightly later, glorified the “pomp and circumstance” of British life; and Aaron Copland celebrated the wide-open spaces of the United States.

Scandinavian musical nationalism is represented by Jean Sibelius of Finland, Edvard Grieg of Norway, Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) of Sweden, and Carl Nielsen of Denmark. Nielsen was renowned as a conductor, teacher, and writer as well as a composer. He wrote in all musical genres, but is best known for his incidental music for theater, his six symphonies, and a large body of strophic songs, based on Danish poetry, that celebrate the ordinary Danish people. The most celebrated of his songs is “Jens the Roadmender,” which is known by every Dane and has been arranged for every instrument and ensemble. He wrote four string quartets, of which today᾿s is the most widely performed.

The String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 13, opens with a tense theme that is given dramatic treatment (Allegro energico). A lyrical second theme in the relative major (B flat) is introduced by the cello. These two themes are developed and combined, with new reworkings up to the very end of the movement.

In the slow movement (Andante amoroso), we hear Nielsen the songwriter, with a flowing and romantic tune in E flat major. An obvious division is made to a new section (Agitato), now back in the home key of G minor, after which the gentle first theme returns.

The third movement is the scherzo (Allegro molto), again in a new key (C minor). The cello interrupts the galloping action with a brief, horn-like call several times. The trio (in G major) uses folk-like themes above a repeated open fifth pattern by the cello, in imitation of folk music accompaniments. Later in the movement, other instruments take over the call motif.

In addition to new music, the finale (Allegro inquieto) recalls various themes from previous movements, in what is called cyclic structure. The final modulation is into G major for an exciting finish.

Thomas Adès is a renowned pianist and conductor as well as a successful British composer. His works have been performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Melbourne and Sydney Symphonies, and the Boston Symphony. He is the youngest ever recipient of the Grawemeyer Award (2000), and won the 2014 Grammy award for Best Opera Recording for his second opera, The Tempest. He served as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival (founded by Benjamin Britten) from 1999 to 2008.

Arcadiana for string quartet is a collection of musical images. Adès said that each of the movements was “an image associated with ideas of the idyll—vanishing, vanished, or imaginary.” It has been noted that the odd movements refer to water in some way, and the even movements make allusion to the land. In Venezia notturno, rocking motion depicts the canals of Venice, and a wispy musical texture evokes the nighttime. The title “Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön” (“It sounds so wondrous, it sounds so beautiful”)is taken from Mozart᾿s The Magic Flute, when the kidnapper Monostatos is bewitched by Papageno᾿s magic bells. Adès references Schubert᾿s lied of the same name in Auf dem Wasser zu singen, a song in which the poet floats in a rowboat watching the sunset and thinking about the passage of time. The central movement, whose full title is Et in Arcadia ego (tango mortale), is jarring and dissonant. The title is translated “Even in Arcadia I (death) exist.” L᾿Embarquement is a reference to Antoine Watteau᾿s painting “L᾿Embarquement pour Cythère” (Cythera was thought to be the birthplace of Venus), and also to the orchestral air with that title by François Couperin. The penultimate movement, O Albion, has become a favorite work by itself. Albion is an archaic word for England, and this hymn-like movement seems to call forth the image of a bygone era of serenity. The finale, Lethe, makes use of harmonics to create an eerie sound, depicting the river of forgetfulness in the Greek underworld.

Dmitri Shostakovich did not initially intend to spend a lot of time writing string quartets. In 1938, however, he began a string quartet movement—a common exercise for composers—and was so struck by the musical possibilities that he continued working on it, completing it in six weeks. He never stopped writing in this genre, giving us a total of fifteen masterpieces.

The String Quartet No. 9 in E Flat, Op. 117, is neither a political statement like those in his Third (“Why? And for what?&8221;) and Eighth (“Dedicated to the victims of fascism and war”) Quartets, nor the dissonant adventure of his late quartets. Like several of his other quartets, it is a personal message or homage to a beloved friend or family member—in this case his third wife, Irina. Here he explores classical form combined with Russian folk influences. The violin introduces the first theme (Moderato con moto), perhaps representing his wife. The cello adds a more masculine but still playful theme. Finally, the instruments join in offering a short folk-like tune in the highest range, with bouncing accompaniment.

There are no substantial breaks between the movements. In the first of two slow movements (Adagio), a thick and mostly homophonic texture set in a minor key creates an unsettling atmosphere. Occasional solo flights by the violin and viola add poignant personal statements.

Although it is not in a triple meter, the Allegretto serves as the scherzo. As scherzos evolved from minuets to ländler(country waltzes), here the composer takes that evolution further, giving the movement a polka-like quality. Shostakovich wrote that his teacher, Alexander Glazunov, taught him to make this type of movement special: “Everything must be attractive in the scherzo, and most important, unexpected.” The outer passages in the ABA structure are fast and quiet, while the central section is loud and frenetic, with offbeat accents. It slows down at the end, and turns into the beginning of the second slow movement.

Shostakovich᾿s quartets often have more than the four traditional movements, in the tradition of Beethoven᾿s later works. This Adagio contrasts two textures: the first—solo violin against chorale-like ensemble—is periodically interrupted by the second—sharp pizzicato (plucked) chords. At times, the texture thins out to a single solo instrument—a technique Shostakovich would return to many times in his string quartets.

Dramatic violin playing over forte pizzicato chords brings elements from prior movements together for the finale (Allegro), which is the longest movement. A new Russian folk-like tune plays above drone-like open fifths. Solo passages are accompanied by spare but intense plucked or bowed chords. The ending has all the instruments in unison, playing the simple folk tune from the first movement, now turned into a bold bass statement.

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 miriam@hvc.rr.com.

Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg