Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf String Quartet no. 1 in D

performed by the Kubín Quartet


This work, unlike many of the quartets from Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert (and Haydn) that we’ve discussed so far, while still bearing a ‘no. 1’ moniker, is not a first attempt, nor is it a youthful work. Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, despite being unfortunately (or at least today seemingly comically named) was a famous virtuoso of his time.

The family was originally, humbly, just Ditters, but Papa Ditters did well for himself in the military and got his young son Carl into music programs, at which he obviously excelled. Wikipedia tells us about both his success and his name:

In 1773 the prince-bishop appointed him Amtshauptmann of nearby Jeseník (Freiwaldau), one of several measures to help entice the cosmopolitan composer to remain at isolated Johannesberg. Since this new post required a noble title, Ditters was sent to Vienna and given the noble title of von Dittersdorf. His full surname thus became “Ditters von Dittersdorf”, but he is usually referred to simply as “Dittersdorf”.

While you may never have heard of him, as the above states, he was of considerable importance. This website states that he “was recognized as a child prodigy on the violin and one of the great violin virtuosos of the 18th century,” that he toured in his youth as a virtuoso, and that:

he is generally regarded after Mozart and Haydn as one of the most important representatives of the Vienna Classical era… He knew both men personally and the three of them sometimes performed string quartets in Vienna along with Vanhal. Dittersdorf played first violin, Haydn second violin, Mozart viola and Vanhal played cello.

The same website tells us that this “no. 1” is not necessarily his actual first quartet, and is widely considered to be one of his masterpieces. The score, which I have sitting in front of me now, seems less substantial than most restaurant menus, more like a pamphlet. I have read nothing to explain why the man, who moved and worked alongside some of the greatest names of his era, is not remembered or held with equal esteem, nor do I recall how I first came to hear this work. Perhaps I’m an exception, someone who somehow managed to remain ignorant of such an important, talented figure.

Regardless, this quartet is no less than first-rate. Delicate, lyrical, rich, but also pristinely straightforward and simple, it is an instantly captivating work. Let’s listen to it and then talk about it, specifically (if I haven’t quoted enough) a comment that Wikipedia makes about Ditty’s style that might give a hint as to why he isn’t a pillar of the Classical repertoire.

The quartet is in three movements, beginning with a somber, almost dark introduction in unison D’s, but the first violin lets some light in by introducing the first sparking, simple melody. Things continue to get more nimble and the first subject blossoms beautifully, leading into the second subject, with eight note, sixteenth note, and triplet runs throughout, a brisk, chipper, yet splendidly lyrical opening.

This figure shows up repeatedly, and acts as a good milestone for the first movement.

When the exposition repeats, however, it doesn’t lead us to what might seem like the first subject, but back to the unison D ‘introductory’ bit, for a second go round, second violin entering a third below the first, simple, but really wonderful, with an F# minor passage (maybe? something with more and more sharps), a long four bars of first-violin offbeat quarter notes leading us to A major and triplets, then sixteenths.

The exposition begins with the same unison figure that began the piece, but this time in F major. And here, my dear reader, is what’s significant. It’s a good thing this material from the exposition is really satisfying, because the development is essentially just a repeat of said content in a few different key areas, almost verbatim. We were in F, then we did it with a few more flats, then had our unison figure that opened the piece, in F#, then right to D, exactly where we began. The recapitulation reviews the opening with the advantage of a little more variety, and that’s our first movement. There is a repeat at the end, but it seems it is not observed (or I wasn’t paying attention).

That first movement makes up almost half of the quartet (more if all the repeats are observed, I would imagine), and we are now into the minuet, also in D major. The minuet proper is in two parts, as is the trio, marked alternativo, playing through D minor before the minuet returns. There is almost more variation or interest here than in the opening movement, but it is equally as engaging. The trio reaches the most pained, struggling, harmonically distant climax of the work before returning to the nice two sections that make up the minuet, which is itself Classically cordial. It conjures up imagery of the most polite game of hot potato ever, maybe hot tea, being passed from one instrument or pair of instruments to the other, a call-and answer over very short distances, before finally ending once everyone has their turn.

The final movement takes this kind of play even more seriously, with a truly breathtaking little movement in a sort of rondo form. Still in D major, there are two contrasting themes, to the first section, one marked by crisp, light, exuberant sixteenth notes in first violin; for the second, quartet suddenly clicks into step and play an ominous, breathtaking, shadowy eighth note tune that returns to our fresh, sunny sixteenth notes.

Next is the longest sustained D minor passage of the work, actually marked Minore, in short, crisp unison. There are passages that recall the major key theme from the opening, and it builds wonderful tension before resolving back to our opening sunny theme, back in D major and plainly marked Maggiore, and ends with a polite little coda, as if calming down and saying goodbye.

Minore

The piece overall is so simple, so charming, so approachable, yet it stands up to  repeated listenings, and I enjoy it every time. What’s interesting about the work, and what I hinted at earlier, is what Wikipedia says about the composer’s work overall:

His symphonic and chamber compositions greatly emphasize sensuous Italo-Austrian melody instead of motivic development, which is often entirely lacking even in his best works, quite unlike those of his greater peers Haydn and Mozart.

Yes, I’d agree on both counts. The work is sweepingly, delightfully melodic, each new theme or passage pleasantly, alluringly delectable, there is doubt. But what is also readily apparent is the almost stark lack of development in the piece. There’s almost nothing in the way of use of such themes to go anywhere. Granted, certain sections pass through different key areas for some variety, but it’s a bold move to do so little in the way of motivic or structural development, something that, as Wikipedia says, Haydn and Mozart were known for. Perhaps it’s just that an approach like that works in a three-movement 14-minute quartet, and wouldn’t for anything much larger. What matters is that it does work, the piece is successful on the strength of its melodic, lyrical content alone.

Is that the reason his 100+ symphonies, his string quartets and all the rest didn’t stand the test of time? I’m not sure, but listening to this work sure made me wonder. Granted, I’m not familiar with anything else he wrote, but after reading the Wikipedia article, it seems strange that his name doesn’t show up more often.

Anyway, that may have been an over-detailed discussion of this terribly charming work, but what it really comes down to is these few simple little sections, the piece broken down into its individual constituents, each as fetching as the one that came before it, strung together into a delightful little package, a real pleasure to listen to.

We’ll definitely have to get around to his other quartets. Actually, I just purchased the six quartets played by the Gewandhaus quartet, and in the first comment, a reviewer describes them thusly:

All 6 are in three movements, major keys, and strive for no great depth of feeling – just a general Gemütlichkeit – but the ideas have novelty, there are modulatory surprises, and there’s lots of character.

Gemütlichkeit is apparently ‘coziness.’ I’d agree with that.

I’m looking forward to the rest, Ditty. Stay tuned.

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