Danish String Quartet
Friday, April 22 at 8:00pm
(1913 – 1976)
Three Divertimenti (1936)
‘An alleged suite’, a curated suite of dances:
Prelude, Charpentier: Prelude
Allemande, John Adams: Pavane: She’s so fine
Gavotte, John Adams: Stubble Crochet
Sarabande, Felix Blumenfeld: Saraband
Courante, Traditional: Polska
Gigue 1, Charpentier: Gigue Française
Gigue 2, John Adams: Toot Nipple
(1797 – 1828)
String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden” (1824)
Andante con moto
Scherzo Allegro con moto
Caramoor dedicates this concert to the memory of Helen-Mae Knafel Askin.
This program is approx. 90 minutes in length, with no intermission.
About the Program
The Three Divertimenti for string quartet by Benjamin Britten originated as a suite of character movements for string quartet entitled Alla Quartetto Serioso: ‘Go play, boy, play’; the subtitle references a quote from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The suite was originally conceived as a five-movement set of musical portraits of Britten’s friends from his schools, South Lodge and Gresham’s, but Britten only completed three in 1933. The first portrays David Layton, who was a fellow violist at Gresham’s; and the third is a portrayal of Francis Barton, a friend from South Lodge, Britten’s earlier private school. The movements initially bore the titles PT, At the Party, and Ragging. When Britten heavily revised the movements in 1936 and transformed them into the Three Divertimenti, the original titles were withdrawn and changed to the less specific Alla Marcia, Alla Valse, and Alla Burlesca.
While there is no detailed account of what these movements portray, the initial titles of the work give us a clue as to what those stories might be. As the Burlesque originated as a movement entitled Ragging, one can imagine a narrative where Britten, who served as head boy at South Lodge, attempted to protect his good friend Francis Barton from a swarm of bullies, and this incident may have been the initial spark that ignited Britten’s pacifist ideals that would inform his music for the rest of his life.
The “sniggers and cold silence” that Britten perceived as a response at the Wigmore Hall premiere of the Three Divertimenti caused him to withdraw the work and keep it from publication. Britten may have been particularly sensitive to this criticism due to the particularly personal nature of these works, which did not appear again until after his death.
“The Britten Divertimenti are new to us,” says Danish Quartet violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. “We played his String Quartet No. 2 and just love his language. We all feel he is an underrated composer in many ways … These little pieces are a super-nice little appetizer for a concert. It’s just great writing and he really knows what he’s doing. It’s highly original! It’s modern but still has clear references to the past.”
“Then we move into the dance suite. The thought behind this was that we play a lot of folk music, which traditionally served quite a clear function, whether it was dance or for social gatherings or in a church. There was always a clear purpose or function to that music. And that made us think about how dance and music are connected,” Sørensen explains. “In the Baroque era, many composers wrote dance suites, [J.S.] Bach probably being the most famous of them. We thought: why not try to rethink these dance suites, this century-old form of music, and see what we can do? It’s basically just taking an old bottle and putting some new content into that bottle. All kinds of composers have written music inspired by some sort of dance, and that’s also why, in this particular suite, we put together seven movements spanning almost 350 years. We start the suite with music by the Baroque composer [Marc-Antoine] Charpentier. Then we continue with John Adams, who wrote this amazing piece, John’s Book of Alleged Dances. And we found that quite interesting musically but also were intrigued by the funny title.”
In program notes for his work, Adams explains that “the dances were ‘alleged’ because the steps for them had yet to be invented (although by now a number of choreographers, including Paul Taylor, have created pieces around them). The general tone is dry, droll, sardonic.”
“So we took some movements and put them into the bottle with one of our own arrangements of folk music,” continues Sørensen. “Well, this particular arrangement actually came about when we were doing a concert with Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. There’s not much repertoire for string quartet and singer so we decided to arrange some material. This is actually called a dance song, whatever that means, but there’s a tradition, mainly in Sweden, that you can actually sing the dances. So it’s not like a typical vocal song, as we would think; it’s more rhythmically potent. So we arranged that for her to sing the melody and then we did the accompaniment. Afterwards, we just did a pure quartet version of the piece and thought it fit quite nicely and into the suite.”
“Then we have a sarabande by Russian composer Felix Blumenfeld. The movement is quite slow, really romantic in its sound. We just thought it was an interesting project to try to take a musical form that was so predominant in the Baroque era and try to see how that would sound in 2022.” The suite concludes with other movements from the Charpentier Concert pour 4 parties de violes, H 545 and the Adams Alleged Book of Alleged Dances.
February and March of 1824 proved to be particularly prolific months for Franz Schubert’s chamber music output, completing the Octet in F major, D 803; String Quartet in A minor “Rosamunde”, D 804; and String Quartet in D minor, D 810 “Death and the Maiden.” This spurt of creativity in part stems from a health crisis caused by his contracting syphilis two years prior. He shares his misery in a letter written to his friend Josef Kupelwieser:
I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating variety) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore’. I might as well sing every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday’s grief.
The slow movement of the D minor string quartet features five variations on a theme from a song Schubert wrote in 1817, “Death and the Maiden.” In the text taken from a poem by Matthias Claudius, a terror-stricken maiden begs Death to pass her by, only to hear that her pleas are futile. It is difficult to avoid viewing this work as a meditation on death, from the intensity of the first movement’s opening gesture to the speedy tarantella in the last movement, a swirling dance meant to ward off illness and death.
Sørensen and his fellow quartet members often think about the challenges they face when they program works that are pillars of the standard repertoire. He shares, “The tricky thing about playing incredibly well-known pieces like ‘Death and the Maiden’ is how to make it your own. How do you find your own style and your own way of playing the work?” The Danish Quartet’s spirit of finding new ways of presenting older forms, shared in their creation and presentation of An alleged suite, provides insight into the creative process that guides them through the challenge Sørensen describes in tackling Schubert. The quartet has recently resumed their Doppelgänger project, in which they explore new facets of Schubert’s last three string quartets and his String Quintet in C major, D 956, via newly commissioned pieces inspired by those works and continuing in the spirit of Schubert’s journal entry from March, 1824 written around the same time he was completing his “Death and the Maiden” string quartet:
O imagination! thou greatest treasure of man, thou inexhaustible wellspring from which artists as well as savants drink! O remain with us still, by however few thou are acknowledged and revered ….
— by Daniel Doña
Daniel Doña is a violist and Senior Lecturer in Music at the Boston University School of Music, where he serves as Chair of the Committee for Antiracism & Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access. He is an avid chamber musician and a member of the Arneis Quartet.
About the Artists
Danish String Quartet
Frederik Øland, violin
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello
Among today’s many exceptional chamber music groups, the Grammy-nominated Danish String Quartet continuously asserts its preeminence. The Quartet’s playing reflects impeccable musicianship, sophisticated artistry, exquisite clarity of ensemble, and, above all, an expressivity inextricably bound to the music. The recipient of many awards and prestigious appointments, including Musical America’s 2020 Ensemble of the Year and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, the Danish String Quartet was named in 2013 as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists and were appointed to The Bowers Program (formerly Chamber Music Society Two).
In 2021 – 22, the Danish String Quartet introduce Doppelgänger, an ambitious 4-year international commissioning project. Doppelgänger pairs world premieres from four renowned composers — Bent Sørensen, Lotta Wennäkoski, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Thomas Adès — with four major works from the masterful chamber music repertoire of Schubert. In addition to performances of Doppelgänger, the Danish String Quartet gives over 20 performances throughout North America in the 2021– 22 season. Highlights include debuts at the University of Georgia, Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center, Shriver Hall, and Virginia Arts Festival with return trips to Boston’s Celebrity Series, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Ensemble Music Society of Indianapolis, Chamber Music Cincinnati, and University of Washington’s Meany Hall, and a tour of Florida. European highlights include tours of Denmark, France, Germany, and Amsterdam.
Violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørenson and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard met as children at a music summer camp where they played soccer and made music together. In 2008, the three Danes were joined by Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. Their latest album, Prism III (ECM) — featuring Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 131, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1, and Bach’s Fugue in C-sharp minor, BWV 849 from The Well-Tempered Clavier— was released in March 2021.
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The Danish String Quartet is currently exclusive with ECM Records and has previously recorded for DaCapo and Cavi-Music / BR Klassik.
Caramoor thanks the following:
The Music Room theatrical lighting was a generous gift from Adela and Lawrence Elow.
Caramoor is proud to be a grantee of ArtsWestchester with funding made possible by Westchester County government with the support of County Executive George Latimer.
Caramoor’s programming is made possible, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.
No photography or video / audio recording permitted.
Silence all mobile devices and alarms.
Wear a mask unless eating or drinking.