String Quartet in E minor
October 27, 2019: Quartetto di Cremona
Verdi suddenly found himself with time on his hands in a hotel room in Naples in the spring of 1873. Teresa Stolz, his leading soprano, had fallen ill just after Don Carlos had opened and just as concurrent rehearsals were to begin for Aida. Since she was to sing in both, things ground to a halt and Aida’s premiere was postponed several weeks. Did Verdi relax? Did he work on another operatic project? No—to everyone’s great surprise, he wrote his only piece of solely instrumental music, his String Quartet in E minor. What possessed him to write a string quartet, that most hallowed of media, late in life and without prior experience? We can only assume he was confident he had the skill and wanted to prove it, and because the chance might never come again.
On April 1, just after Aida opened, he invited seven or eight guests to the Hotel delle Croce, where he had set up music stands and four chairs. Soon four musicians from the theater orchestra—identified only as the Pinto brothers, violins, Salvadore, viola, and Giaritiello, cello—entered and played the Quartet for the surprised but delighted guests. They were so pleased that they demanded an encore, which Verdi granted, though he himself was unsure whether he liked the Quartet. “I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly,” wrote Verdi to Count Arrivabene several weeks later, “but I do know it’s a Quartet!”
For a time Verdi refused to publish the Quartet or to allow other performances, though he did schedule another himself, this time for an invited audience of 100 guests at the Hôtel de Bade when he was in Paris in 1876 for a production of Aida. The Quartet was again received with great enthusiasm, which finally led Verdi to consent to its publication. He must have begun to think fondly of it, for he later indicated he would be willing to conduct a full string orchestra performance of the Quartet in London. Though many commentators have weighed in on whether it has the “proper” sort of working out expected from the Germanic tradition, or whether any operatic “weaknesses” have crept in, the fact remains that it contains wonderful melodic ideas, skillful and idiomatic writing for the strings, and—something Verdi enthusiasts delight in—an occasional hint of one or another of his operas.
Verdi had studied the Classic quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with his composition teacher Vincenzo Lavigna, and it is said that he kept scores of them on a shelf above his bed. Verdi’s Quartet does not sound Classical, nor German, but it does maintain a light enough texture and enough elements of Classical form to sound retrospective. The sonata-form first movement centers around a melancholic wisp of an idea that begins in the low register of the second violin, then begins again, and is finally expanded. The process is repeated again an octave higher with the first violin. Several commentators have found hints of Aida in this theme, which then generates a great deal of activity. The second theme brings a contemplative though brief contrast in smooth four-part writing. Verdi condenses the form so that the first theme is still being developed until the recapitulation begins with the second theme.
The second movement contrasts graceful, lilting outer sections with a sweet theme in longer note values and another restless, agitated section. The chromatic inflections of the outer theme give it a more Romantic than Classic flavor. Its return at the midpoint of the movement, between the two episodes, hints at rondo form, though this appearance occurs in a very remote key.
The extroverted third movement, which begins at a lightning quick pace, imparts an impish off-kilter effect with its many irregular phrase lengths. The trio section has the cello “sing” an expressive melody to light pizzicato accompaniment—a section that would sound right at home in one of Verdi’s operas. His return to the opening follows traditional scherzo-trio-scherzo form.
Verdi shows off all his contrapuntal prowess in the fugal finale. This is a gossamer fugue, however, not majestic nor weighty, prompting Julian Budden’s characterization as “a light-hearted Grosse Fuge,” referring to Beethoven’s monumental quartet movement. The composer himself labels it “Scherzo Fuga,” employing the term scherzo in its original meaning of a merry jest, rather than as a designation for a movement like his third, in triple meter and ternary-form. Several commentators have heard in this finale a premonition of the conclusion of Falstaff, the great comic opera of Verdi’s last years.
© Jane Vial Jaffe