Composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his “String Quartet in F minor” in a state of intense mourning following the death of his sister Fanny. Two months later, he followed her into the grave.
One of Mendelssohn’s close friends, Julius Benedict, wrote that “it would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind and of the most poetic melancholy, as does this masterly and eloquent composition.”
Classical musicians associate the F minor key with tragedy, loss and hopelessness. On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the Brentano Quartet, the Yale School of Music’s faculty quartet-in-residence, will present a concert almost entirely in F minor. Preceding Mendelssohn’s F minor string quartet will be Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor, BWV 881, Beethoven’s “Serioso,” Adolphe’s “Coiled” and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor. This concert in the Oneppo chamber music series will take place in Sprague Hall.
“[The Brentano Quartet] makes it a priority to transcend all of the mechanics and processes of building a string quartet and playing together,” said cellist Alex Cox. He added that the quartet goes “to the heart of communicating deeply and truthfully how they feel about the music.” Cox is a member of the School of Music’s fellowship quartet-in-residence, which is mentored by the Brentano Quartet.
The program will open with the Bach prelude. According to Brentano cellist Nina Lee, the piece introduces the idea of F minor “as a place of compressed density that allows little or no brightness to enter.”
The quartet will then perform Beethoven’s “Serioso” quartet, which plays a central role in the program. The remaining works were influenced by this Beethoven quartet. “Serioso” is Beethoven’s shortest, yet it is among his densest.
The namesake “Serioso” comes from the third movement’s tempo designation, “Quartetto Serioso,” and characterizes the quartet’s dark mood. The only exception to this brooding tone appears at the ending with a hopeful major passage. Brentano quartet violinist Mark Steinberg described the ending passage as the “resurrection” to the rest of the piece’s “crucifixion.”
“The material of the piece is tightly coiled, often as if trapped in a cage: figures dart upwards only to collapse down on themselves, test foundations by digging downwards only to claw their way back up,” Steinberg wrote in his program notes.
In 2019, composer Bruce Adolphe wrote “Coiled” as a reaction to the “coiled intensity” of Beethoven’s “Serioso” quartet. The Brentano Quartet commissioned the work, and according to Lee, Adolphe taught and studied the Beethoven quartet for decades, immediately responding to the idea “in his unique and clever language.”
The second half of the concert program will include two cornerstones of the standard string quartet repertoire: the Shostakovich and Mendelssohn. Both pieces were composed after the deaths of loved ones.
The Shostakovich is dedicated to the life and memory of the Beethoven Quartet’s second violinist, Vasily Shirinsky, who passed away in 1965. Shostakovich maintained a close relationship with the Beethoven Quartet for many years — this group of musicians premiered almost all of Shostakovich’s string quartet compositions.
Violinist Nanki Chugh ’22 said that the work represented a “dark and eerie evil, sometimes lurking in the shadows, at other times inescapable and at other times a looming presence.”
Shostakovich divided his 11th quartet into seven movements played without pause. Traditional quartets have four movements with deliberate breaks between them. In long stretches of the piece, only two or three of the four musicians play at a time. This evokes the idea that one member has passed away, and the others must continue on. The sixth movement, “Elegy,” is the piece’s emotional climax.
The final piece, the Mendelssohn, begins with trembling low notes from the cello that evoke terror. Fast scalar passages and dissonance continue through all four movements until the piece reaches a dark and tragic close.
“This music is an exploration of grief,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of that in this piece, and it’s interesting to hear that embodied in sounds — really painful sounds — that are quite accessible.”
According to Lee, the Brentano Quartet tries to choose their own concert programs whenever they can, and that “selecting works along a thread of thought” differentiates their programming from that of other groups. They make these decisions in an attempt to make concerts a participatory experience for all audience members.
“Chamber music, and even classical music in general, can feel like a specialist kind of entertainment or art,” Cox said. “But I think when you have a group like the Brentano Quartet, they present a performance that speaks and communicates so clearly and so well to anyone with any level of musical understanding that everyone will have serious thrills listening to them.”
The Brentano Quartet’s next concert will be on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, one day after the Oneppo concert. The Quartet prepared an entirely different program for the Carnegie Hall concert.
Phoebe Liu | email@example.com