Gustav Helsted: String Quartet no. 4 in Fm, op. 33

performed by Steve’s Bedroom Band (I think) (more about that below), or from a very recent recording on Dacapo, linked below

(second, third and fourth movements)

Gustav Helsted was born 30 January, 1857, and was a composer.

That’s literally all the English Wikipedia says about him aside from a list of his notable works. Thankfully the Danish article is far more plentiful.

He was born in Copenhagen to Carl Helsted, who was also a composer, and the nephew of another composer, one Edvard Helsted. Young Gustav studied at the Royal Danish academy under (among others) Niels Gade, the man with whom we began this entire Danish journey. In his late 20s, he was awarded a scholarship and traveled through Europe, returning to Denmark and holding a number of posts as organist at different churches, but also held concerts of organ music from the likes of Handel, Bach, and even more modern folks like Cesar Franck. He was a cofounder of the Danish Concert Society, as well as a number of other associations or societies, where he served alongside Carl Nielsen and other composers. The Danish Wikipedia, also not lengthy, concludes with a quote:

His music is described by contemporaries as “peculiar”.

Gerhardt Lynge writes: “He keeps himself far from the highways, always working as a highly-seeking artist chooses its agents with extremely finicky taste, swear blindly to ideals…

(Gerhardt Lynge skriver: “Han holder sig langt fra de banede Veje, arbejder altid som en stærkt søgende Kunstner, vælger sine Midler med yderst kræsen Smag, sværger blindt til Idealerne…”)

DaCapo records, who (very) recently released a formal, professional recording of this work, begins their discussion of Helsted by saying:

“Drily humorous” and “bizarrely sarcastic” are phrases that the Danish Encyclo­pedia uses in a description of Gustav Helsted’s personality. The striking, the awkward, the categorical and the will to push things to the extreme were indeed typical of Helsted as a composer. At least so his music was perceived in his time.

So here we are with what’s likely a world-premiere recording of a work, but we’ll address that more later. As mentioned in a recent article, Gustav Helsted was also a teacher of Rued Langgaard. Perhaps that’s where the peculiarity comes from. I’ll be honest: I haven’t heard any of Helsted’s other works, but I like this quartet enough to share it. Interestingly, his op. 1 is titled ‘Erotic Songs,’ for piano and voice, from 1883. That’s quite a start, huh? He wrote two symphonies and four string quartets, of which this is (obviously) the last.

It’s in four movements, and totals about 25 minutes of playing time. The work is crisp and pungent from the get-go, with an opening gesture that sticks with the listener, which is put to use later. The entire beginning is angular, with pronounced intervals before things round out to what feels like the end of the introduction. After that train of thought is finished, it rounds out and morphs into a softer theme, something with more curves than edges. It’s pretty easy to see, then, how everything subsequent to this seems to stem from those few opening bars, like vines that sprout from soil and climb up a lattice, but that’s not to suggest a soft, flowery idyllic sound. The music isn’t necessarily troubled, but it is, as the marking suggests, ‘fiery’, or a bit more mellowly stated, agitated sounding. There’s a connectedness, a kind of incessant repetitiveness, that gives the work a restless feeling, even into the second movement.

We’re met with another emotional marking, presto appassionato, and indeed it is that. It’s a bit more rounded, or lyrical, but still with a sort of frenzied sound, like someone rushing through a crowd trying to find something in their pockets on their way to a flight they’re late for. There is a delicacy here, a pleasing interaction of voices; my description of the agitation and sense of rush in the work isn’t to say its sound is irritating or grating. Not at all, but it has a slightly frenetic momentum that’s quite pronounced, but suitable for this scherzo-like triple meter movement.

When things do slow down, though, the mood is positively melancholic. We go from a fiery, agitated first two movements which spring from nothing and maintain a tightness of expression, to this, an almost funereal slow movement. With things slowed down a bit, as if exhausted, we can appreciate the harmonies and interweaving of voices: the low cello, and what’s slowly, grimly built on top of it. It’s some time for us to breathe, and provides great contrast to the faster movements, but there’s no real emotional respite.

And then bam, the final movement begins, and the angular, pronounced, carved out intervals from the first movement seem to have returned, but somehow different, hardened, perhaps, or focused. After that, though, a really tender, suddenly brighter theme develops, and the contrast here is more pronounced than in the first movement. Instead of one developing from the other, these two ideas, an angular, harsh one goes head-to-head against a warm, welcoming theme. The work, as noted above in the title, is in F minor, but this theme here seems sunny and carefree. The question, then, is how will this compact little drama end?

There are some faster passages, and some stops and starts, increase of tension, but more pertinently, a sense of connection, of unity, interwoven with the beginning of the work, a very successful balance of variation and uniformity, a thorough yet economic use of content akin to Brahms, but with far more quirk. The finale of the work is a small surprise, satisfyingly concluded.

A note here on Steve’s Bedroom Band. He was somewhat difficult to track down online, but we exchanged some correspondence about other string quartets. It seems he is one person who records the four separate parts for a quartet and mixes them together. It’s quite a feat, and while his recording is obviously not of the quality that the above-linked Dacapo issue is, it’s been more than enough for me to get familiar with a work that I’d say is quite compelling. I can’t find exactly when Steve’s recording was made, but it was certainly before the Dacapo release, and a look at his IMSLP page reveals that it seems the man is undertaking the incredibly noble task of recording works that may not ever be recorded or that people have forgotten. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say I did not purchase the Dacapo release, but may in the future, because I’ve grown familiar with Steve’s, and it’s good enough for me. It’s people like that, who do pretty selfless, noble things for music, that might just get some of this stuff a sliver of the attention it deserves.

Also, Helsted was a name that came up via Rued Langgaard, another ‘quirky’ or ‘peculiar’ or ‘rejected’ Dane, but Helsted was also a student of Gade. One wonders, then, if Langgaard’s uniqueness, his quirkiness, came from Helsted, if perhaps that outsider ‘do your own thing’ kind of interestingness owes something to Helsted. I suppose it’s a difficult question to answer, but we shall have slightly more time to think about it with another piece coming up next week, so stay tuned for that. Vi ses snart.

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