A Musical Pilgrimage: Part 2

Of course our odyssey is not as linear as it might have appeared from the previous post, punctuated as it is by a welcome diversion East for the Prokofiev Cello Sonata. Although I have made it my business to seek out and listen to the first movement of this work, I profess no great familiarity with it and do not feel qualified to comment on it in any real detail. However it is patently a great sonata and in Michael’s capable hands it will be an undoubted success. If it is anywhere near as good as last year’s Brahms sonata then it should succeed in occasioning uncharacteristic paroxysms of self-doubt in Rostropovich, should he be listening from his place in the Soviet equivalent of heaven.

Furthermore Dvorak’s American Quartet, the apogee of our journey, is technically Czech; but it is so powerfully evocative of the land from which it takes its name that it transcends its European roots to be a truly international work, echoing the composer’s own New World adventure from which this quartet and his ninth symphony sprang forth. The evocation comes from the manifold pentatonic melodies which constitute the quartet’s principal thematic materials, presented and developed in accordance with European classical tradition. Thus we have a first movement sonata built around two distinctive pentatonic subjects, redolent of Negro spirituals in their joyousness and purity. This is followed by a slow second movement in which luscious and lyrical melodic themes, spread over painfully beautiful close harmonies, are underscored by a persistent viola mantra, the campfire around which the other instruments sing their sensitive and haunting songs. The third movement alternates between a light scherzo and a rather darker trio, and involves the intricate development and distribution of no more than two or three melodic ideas between various combinations of instrument. Last of all is a breathlessly exciting finale which takes the story of the American dream all the way to the Western frontier. In this sense one can even see the American Quartet as a Westward journey itself, carrying the Mayflower of the quartet form to what must have seemed, at the time the work was composed and America was still expanding, like the very edge of the world.

It is however far more than a geographical progression which our programme undergoes. The contrast between the Emperor and the American could hardly be greater. The Emperor, with its deep sense of form and artistry, is the ultimate aristocratic quartet, celebrating the finery and majesty of the imperial court; conversely the American, filled top-full with the wordless stories of slaves and cowboys, is a quartet of the common man, a quartet of the heart rather than the head, a gorgeous and glorious hymn to the men who built the land of the free from scratch. It is a tale of the power of hope and the dignity of hard-won democracy, and we invite you to come and listen to it, and the rest of our musical pilgrimage, next week.