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A Musical Pilgrimage: Part 1

And so to autumn, a season of maturing blackberries, blushing leaves and Tyne Consort recitals. There is a real sense of progression to this year‘s programme, from the finery of the European imperial court, to the wild undiscovered spaces of the New World. The contrast could scarcely be greater; yet it is more a happy accident than a grand design. The journey begins with early Mozart, which by definition means young Mozart, very much child as well as prodigy. Fittingly, the E Flat quartet throbs with carefree youthful enthusiasm. Even its A Flat slow movement, positioned between confident, pulsating outer movements full of melodies the composer liked so much he happily re-used later in life, is calm and reassuring, lacking in cynicism. The whole quartet is the Mozart of the popular imagination: enormously likeable and with everything sounding exactly as it should.

The serious business of the first half is Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, a quartet of such distinction that it has its own name. Its name derives from the hymnal theme of the second movement, Haydn’s original dedication to Emperor Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor. Its seriousness lies in the ceremonial majesty of its melodic phrasing and the formality of its dimensions. It does not lack fun; however it is conscious of its own responsibility to provide the grand, sweeping Emperor’s hymn with a suitable context, and it does not disappoint. The most notable musical aspect of the three faster movements is how derivative they are of the quartet’s first bold melodic statement, with its heavy anacrusis driving towards a powerful C major chord. This theme permeates the whole quartet and undergoes a variety of transformations throughout, reappearing in a range of keys – from a rough, rustic drone in E Major in the first movement development, then cautious and mysterious in A Minor in the trio of the third movement, to the dark and intense C Minor chords which characterise the finale – each with its own characteristic mood. This monothematic approach, a long way from the standard sonata form of Mozart with its masculine and feminine subjects, could become tiring in the wrong hands, but Haydn’s skilful treatment of his melodic ideas makes each new expression of the theme sound fresh and novel, while ensuring the unity of the whole is maintained.

Against this the second movement variations sound a world away, but they succeed in showing an altogether softer side to imperial power. As with the other movements, Haydn succeeds emphatically in repeating an idea while keeping it interesting, and each successive variation adds a new layer of intrigue and complexity to the theme. But it is the powerful simplicity of the theme which makes the variations possible. Of course it is now well-known as the German national anthem (an irony perhaps, as it pre-dates the German state by several decades). Still, in the sparse, intimate setting of the string quartet, it emerges as a melody of surprising sensitivity, even vulnerability. The Emperor with no clothes, perhaps.

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