Verdi String Quartet in E minor

performed by the Venice Quartet, or below by the Shanghai Quartet

I’ve written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a Quartet!

Verdi on his own String Quartet

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born near Busseto, in the Parma province of Northern Italy on October 9 or 10, 1813, the first child of “a provincial family of moderate means.” His father was an innkeeper, and Roger Parker, a music historian, is quoted in Verdi’s Wikipedia article as saying that the family wasn’t as poor and “illiterate” as the composer would later portray his upbringing.

He showed an unmistakable talent for music from a very young age, having become the official paid organist of the local church at the tender young age of eight. His parents had arranged for a solid education for him, private tutors and all, and of the compositions during his teen years, he later said:

From the ages of 13 to 18 I wrote a motley assortment of pieces: marches for band by the hundred, perhaps as many little sinfonie that were used in church, in the theatre and at concerts, five or six concertos and sets of variations for pianoforte, which I played myself at concerts, many serenadescantatas (arias, duets, very many trios) and various pieces of church music, of which I remember only a Stabat Mater.

The above comes also from Parker. We won’t discuss his entire biography here, because he’s discussed in great detail on Wikipedia, but he later found himself in Milan, and a city of great cultural importance. He found himself at La Scala, attending concerts where he would hear works of Bellini and Rossini, and where he would make connections that would “stand him in good stead.”

The composer, as you must know, would later go on to become internationally, timelessly famous for his operas, but not before a few failures and the tragic deaths of two of his young children and later his wife. In his career, he put out many great successes, but in contrast with his early years and those sinfonie and concertos andf marches, cantatas, serenades, etc., he really only composed operas, and we will be discussing exactly zero of them this month. He couldn’t go without a mention, though, so here we are with his only (surviving) chamber work, a string quartet dating from 1873, during a delay in a production in Naples of his opera Aida. The quote that opens this article expresses his own emotions, perhaps surprise, perhaps perplexity, about having completed the chamber work.

Edition Silvertrust says of the work:

A successful chamber music work did little for an Italian composer’s reputation or wallet. Verdi attached no particular importance to the Quartet, but it was so unique and original sounding that it became the best known string quartet by an Italian composer. Yet, the truth is, it is not so well known.

The notes continue to remark that he is “along with Wagner, rightly considered the most important opera composer of all time,” but even those who recognize his greatness “rarely stop to investigate” this chamber work of his.

It is in four movements, with a total playing time of about 25 minutes. The first movement has two subjects, but, Silvertrust says, “The movement is not developed in the traditional way and has many surprises and interesting twists and turns.” Can we find a sense of drama, of operatic flair in this smaller-scored work from the master of the stage? Let’s see.

Silvertrust describes the opening theme as “a dramatic, urgent melody,” but it doesn’t develop any tinge of urgency, per se, until the cello enters with his contribution to the ends of the phrases. It becomes more charged as it proceeds, and develops greater momentum as the cello becomes more vocal. Things do settle down for the second subject, and become more lyrical in nature. The movement, as mentioned above, is not laid out in a standard sonata form, but there is still a cohesive sense of drama as the first theme appears again here and there, with very effective string writing throughout.

The second movement feels like a scene change, a clean cut from one thing to another, entirely different yet related as part of the larger whole. It’s serenade-like, an aria for the violin. It’s simple, unpretentious, but effective. It’s not a simple long melody, though, with some bursts of more violent or plaintive passages, it isn’t just a break from the action, but a compelling chapter of its own, with plenty of expressive room for the quartet’s performers to reach into and enjoy.

The scherzo is marked prestissimo and is a short movement of excitement and intensity, to my ear full of rich Italianness. The trio, though, is relaxed and serene, like a quiet afternoon nap in a beautiful countryside before the storm of the scherzo returns. It’s concentrated in nature, full of operatic drama, but so effective for only four instruments.

Interestingly, though, if we look at the marking for the finale, it’s titled ‘Scherzo Fuga.’ Well, we just had the scherzo, didn’t we? Indeed we did.

Perhaps shamefully, I haven’t discussed what a fugue actually is on this website with the word in the title, but they’re often of a serious nature. Think Bach, or Beethoven’s Große Fuge. It’s very serious, cerebral kind of music, obviously still beautiful but musically intricate.

Verdi, being Italian, used the term ‘scherzo’ in its original Italian meaning, not the musical connotation of the triple-meter musical form, which we have just seen he is perfectly capable of writing! Instead, here, he uses it to refer to a ‘joking’ manner, so the fugue we have is a lighter one, not anything philosophical or gravely serious, and as you listen to the movement, you certainly hear much contrapuntal motion, lines that intertwine around each other, but not in a pedantic way. He clearly shows his compositional chops here, so I may be alone in thinking it just doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the quartet.

Wait until some of the more sweeping, charged moments of this final movement, though, and we can see the overall atmosphere that ties these four chapters together.

And what do we hear in it that we could attribute to Verdi, the great composer of opera? An operatic, lyrical dramatic nature? A carefree, untroubled pastime, like a master sketching in his sunroom with the intent of showing no one? A compositional masterpiece?

All yes, probably, and yet this work is quite rarely performed. I can understand how things like Aida, Nabucco, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and more all kind of outrank this piece as masterpieces from Verdi’s pen, but what a gem to have something entirely different and of equally high quality from the man known for such enormous compositions.

Again, we’re not touching on any of his operas this time around, but it’s certainly a fine introduction to the opera series we’re doing this month, and maybe a little surprise for some listeners. Chamber music won’t really be the focus this month, but we will still have a few important, notable string quartets on the way, so do stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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