Will's Record of the Week

Strings, Attached

Two weeks back we ventured the first purely instrumental recording in this series, asking what might be learned from a long-ago string quartet playing a scherzo in a way that seemed to reflect some kind of special information. Several readers reacted with interest, which encourages me - a big part of what we do at Teatro Nuovo is an attempt to bridge the traditional gaps between vocal and instrumental work. So here’s another, again an example of the questions a string quartet can raise and, possibly, answer.

The question this time: In the minuet from Mozart’s quartet K. 421, what’s the idea behind the reverse-dotted rhythms? If we compare the Juilliard Quartet of circa 1960 with the Klingler ensemble featured in the previous post (this time its founding members, recorded in 1912), we hear almost two different pieces:

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It seems the Klinglers didn’t think of it as a “rhythm” at all, but a bunch of throwaway grace-notes - which maybe Mozart didn’t have any handy way to write, but which might later have been written as something like this:


In this case, we can listen to five other early quartets and confirm that almost everybody seemed to agree with the Klinglers on this aspect. They all had their own ways of shaping the piece, but four out of the five clearly treat the short notes as rapid, unmeasured “flicks.” Those four are the Wendling, Elman, London, and Flonzaley quartets, recorded between 1910 and 1928. The fifth - the Philharmonic Quartet of London, recorded 1920 - has a different and equally surprising reading. They treat the notes as slurred pairs, and seem to take the reverse-dotted rhythm as a hint that there should be a gap of silence after each pair (but again, not as a literal rhythm).

Now, if we want to be rigorous about this, we have to ask some questions before concluding anything about what Mozart imagined in the 1780s. Can we think of a time or a reason why it might have changed between his day and that of the records? Why did the Philharmonic Quartet do it differently from the Klinglers and the other four? Did anybody leave written explanations of the matter? And so forth. And all those questions will lead to other questions. But without the old records, we wouldn’t even know to ask the first one. That’s why they are a goldmine.  

Another thing to think about:  in the early days, it was hard to record a “real” orchestra - so the instrumental accompaniments for Caruso, De Lucia, Battistini, and the rest were arrangements  for small ensembles dominated by wind and brass. This means the players we hear may not have had opera-house experience at all, and even if they did, they were not playing their normal parts or in a normal context. That creates a layer of uncertainty if we hear them doing something interesting or challenging - would it really have been that way in the theater?  

String quartets, on the other hand, could be recorded in their accustomed formation - and most  quartets of those days were attached to a standing orchestra (or at least started out that way).  The original members of the famous Budapest Quartet were principals of the Budapest Opera pit band. They have stuff to tell us opera folks today. Example: the cadences in the first variation from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. Here is one played by the Oslo String Quartet in 2013 and then by the Budapesters in 1927:

Well, the first violinist in the old record holds out his high note like a graceful Verdi soprano - that’s obvious enough. And we have plenty of evidence to show that stopping the action at such cadences was standard in opera, back at least to Rossini days and quite probably still earlier. But you might have to listen a second time to notice that they offer an answer to what is often a pressing practical question: What should the accompanying players do? On this, the written sources are generally silent.

They have three notes to play. Consider the options:

  1. They could space out their triplet in proportion to the elongated “soprano” note, but to do that they would have to guess how long it is going to be held, and somebody would have to communicate the guess to the others if they’re hoping to execute it together.

  2. If we’re in the orchestra pit, a conductor could decide both the length and the spacing, which means singer and players alike would need to follow the baton. But Italian opera didn’t even have conductors until around 1870, and for a long time even after that it was still up to the singer to generate his or her own interpretation of the music. And anyway, a seeming “liberty” that is actually controlled by a silent boss loses some of its charm. No wonder the use of rallentandos like this declined so strikingly over the course of the 20th century, as conductors gained ascendancy in the interpretive process.

  3. They could do what the Budapesters do here: finish their business (again gracefully), and then just wait. This is from players who were used to accompanying their sopranos night by night in the pit. I have a feeling they’re telling us how it was generally done there.

Meanwhile, hearing the Budapesters expand at the phrase-endings (where the Oslo players don’t even tap the brakes) raises the simple question of “why”? Cadences round off a thought. They are punctuation points in the discourse. Not all are the same, of course - but when these players were active, there was a strong inclination for cadences to bend the tempo, like a double-space between paragraphs of text. Ferruccio Busoni (the composer of Doktor Faust) took the same approach playing a fugue of Bach:

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It’s doubly important for opera, where the musical rounding-off so frequently coincides with finishing a thought and preparing the mind for the next one in the poetry. Here are five examples from familiar Verdi arias. All come at the first cadence in their respective pieces, at the end of the first quatrain of verse - confirming the completion of an initial musico-poetic thought that is to be followed by some kind of departure, contrast, question, or complementary thought:

Condotta ell’era in ceppi / Al suo destin tremendo
Col figlio sulle braccia / Io la seguia piangendo. Maria Passari - Il trovatore

Mal reggendo all’aspro assalto / Ei già tocco il suolo avea;
Balenava il colpo in alto / Che trafiggerlo dovea. Luigi Colazza - Il trovatore

Sempre libera degg’io / Folleggiar di gioia in gioia
Vo’ che scorra il viver mio / Pe’ sentieri del piacer. Giovannina Coliva - La traviata

Nume custode e vindice / Di questa sacra terra
La mano tua distendi / Sovra l’egizio suol. Oreste Luppi - Aida

Quand'ero paggio / Del duca di Norfolk ero sottile,
Ero un miraggio / Vago, leggero, gentile, gentile. Antonio Pini-Corsi - Falstaff

Who would make these rallentandos today? The score gives no hint of them - unless maybe at a certain time, the mere fact of a cadence was a hint.