Robert Fuchs: String Quartet no. 1 in E, op. 58

performed by the Minguet Quartett

second and third/fourth movements

(cover image by Steven Wang)

Robert Fuchs was born on February 15, 1847 in Frauental an der Laßnitz, the youngest of 13 children. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory with Felix Otto Dessoff and Joseph Hellmesberger, both of whom Arthur Nikisch also studied with. Hellmesberger would also teach Enescu.

Fuchs’s own students would include Enescu, Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and more pertinent as you shall soon see, Jean Sibelius, Leevi Madetoja, and Errki Melartin, among others. In his composition career, he was admired by the likes of Brahms, as well as many respected conductors, such as Nikisch, Felix Weingartner, and Hans Richter. Fuchs wrote three symphonies, four serenades for string orchestra, a piano concerto, two operas, three masses, and a large body of chamber work, which is considered to be his strongest effort.

Today, we’ll discuss his first string quartet of four, which dates from 1897, after he’d written all the serenades, the piano concerto, two of his three symphonies, both operas… so it’s not an early work by any means. Fuchs was nearly 50 years old at the time, and I’d like to know why he got around so late to writing a string quartet, but it is indeed a fine one.

If you listen to lots of classical music, you might be able to identify that iconic, characteristically magical, Romantic sound that’s present in some of the finest works of the era. It’s so much more than a pretty tune. It’s about internal harmony, the structure, or really the logic, of the piece, how it develops a musical argument, leads you along, and each of the turns and angles and contours along the way, like the little things you’d enjoy on a beautiful hike: a whiff of wildflowers, a gust of refreshingly cool breeze, the chirps of birds… they are all part of the overall experience.

Not to get too cliche, but I feel like Fuchs’s first string quartet is a piece that unquestionably belongs in the highest ranks of the string quartet repertoire. At first listen, it’s pleasant, very charming, and I’d imagine also likely satisfying as a performer, but with each return to the work, I find the deepest satisfaction, a sense of that ineffable beauty and even, dare I say, that ‘spirituality’ that makes Beethoven’s music so deeply satisfying.

This is beyond evident in just the first movement. The main subjects presented here are memorable on their own, but the way these two golden threads are woven together to form the tapestry of the first movement, the longest in this quartet, is breathtaking. It’s supple and delicate, generally optimistic and bright, but shades of contrast from darker passages keep the first movement a safe distance away from being saccharine. The second subject is especially heartwarming, and each time it appears, I swear my heart flutters just a bit. It’s a wildly successful, very strong first movement, but the rest of the work continues it.

In fact, the second movement is another great example of the kind of chiaroscuro that Fuchs seems so adept at presenting. The movement begins with a pretty bouncy, even folksy, tune from violin, but the rest of the quartet answers with a much darker response. This happens again, with some variation, spinning out the darker response this time. The movement is marked allegretto scherzando so we can expect it to be a bit more subdued; nothing rambunctious here. There’s another great showing of delicacy and finesse, but never a bored moment. I don’t find myself just wanting to get on with it. It’s very enjoyable.

The language Fuchs is speaking seems like it might be most suitable to a somber slow movement, that that would be something he might have up his sleeve. However, the andante grazioso of the third movement, slightly shorter than the second, is also just slightly more subdued, a more free-flowing movement, sentimental, but not melancholy in the least. It languishes a bit, in the absolute best way possible, in enjoying some of the sweet, fragrant melodic lines that are being woven here, and we have a bit more time to savor the textures and sounds, but there’s no overindulgence.

The finale, shortest of the four movements, is the only real place where Fuchs rolls up his sleeves and gives us something exciting, very suitable for a finale. If you were worried that all this sweet softness was his attempt to cover some weakness in his writing ability, he shows here he’s just as capable at writing a finale (marked allegro con fuoco) as he is at a sweet first movement. It’s not roaring or growling or crunchy, but has a slightly nervous energy and bounce, which is contrasted with a softer but still exciting second subject. It’s kind of like the cloud that blocks the sun for a while, not a raincloud, but just passing through, making the subsequent sunshine that much richer.

If you’re interested in buying the score (and you should if you’re a quartet), Edition Silvertrust has it here. They usually have more plentiful program notes, but at the very least mention that it is “soulful” and call the third movement “harmonically quite interesting.” They mention the “dance-like main theme” of the finale, and if you, like me, have breezed through this quartet enjoying every bar, you’ll be heartily satisfied by the climactic, final flourish that caps off this piece in a perfectly exciting way.

It’s pieces like this that make the blog such a satisfying thing to do. What a gem this is! And to think I’d only really searched him out because his students (Mahler, Sibelius, Melartin, Madetoja) were so notable. As you will soon see, there’ll be more of the Finns to enjoy in the next five or six weeks, so Fuchs is kind of an introduction to (spoiler alert) another series I teased about a few weeks ago after the American one.

Thanks so much for reading, and please do stay tuned for some fantastic Finnish music.

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