Melartin String Quartet no. 1 in Em, op. 36 no. 1

performed by the Meta4 Quartet

(cover image by Aaron Burden)

We welcome Erkki Melartin back to the blog, after around a year since the Finnish symphony series, but finally with his first quartet. There’s (perhaps unsurprisingly) precious little information available about this piece, but we’ll do our best. At the very least, knowing nothing about it and giving it a listen, it provides a fine experience, showing a composer who’s more than adept in the form.

Melartin’s first three string quartets were bundled and published together in his catalogue as op. 36, even though the composition of the three pieces span around six years, with this first appearing in 1896, the other two after the turn of the century.

That opus number gives the impression that this work is a later composition than it is. His op. 1, a suite for piano four hands, dates from 1899! Not until his op. 7 do we reach something from the 20th century.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a duration of about 23 minutes.

  1. Allegro (07:25)
  2. Menuetto scherzando (03:04)
  3. Andante (07:39)
  4. Finale (Presto) (05:14)

The first movement begins with a beautifully Romantic statement, no introduction or preface, just a plunge into a richly melancholy sound world. This plunge is breathtaking, the kind you take when you’ve jumped into a freezing pool. It catches you even if you expect it. This kind of chilly melancholy is, I hate to say, somewhat similar to the sound you might expect from Sibelius. I say I hate to say that because Melartin was overshadowed by Sibelius for basically his entire career. It also calls Brahms to mind, though, especially in the much lighter, delicate second subject. Despite the melancholy first subject, which returns after a long pause to begin the recapitulation, the movement actually ends quite brightly. This is a relatively small first movement, which I suppose is proportional to the size of the piece overall, but still very satisfying.

The second movement is the shortest of the bunch. It’s a bucolic little minuet, ‘scherzo-like’, and the trio makes a good argument that Melartin has a fine touch for the melancholy in perfect balance, as we heard in the first movement.

The third movement is slightly longer than the opening allegro, making it the longest movement of the bunch. It appears to be a theme-and-variations, with some distinct pauses between sections, but I could be wrong. It is in general a lighter movement, a little bit episodic, but the middle movements here don’t carry the same heft that the outer do.

The finale, marked presto, actually begins with the briefest of introductions before things speed up. The first theme is not really anything especially outstanding, but has a sense of urgency to it. It leads, though, out of nowhere, to Dvorak! We have this rustic, countryside sound that Dvorak gave us in his American chamber works, and this relaxes the tension quite a bit. Overall, the piece turns out to be bright and positive.

I’ll say that this work is by no means even approaching any ‘greatest’ quartet list, unless we confine it perhaps to Finnish composers, perhaps only of the 19th century, though. What I mean to say is that while the work is not spectacular, it is a very strong first effort. The young Melartin isn’t shattering any moulds, but gives us a quartet that shows he has a thorough understanding of what the quartet form is capable of.

And as his first of four, we can expect that his later quartets (the fourth only a little more than a decade after this first one) will surpass it, and indeed the only real information I found on any of Melartin’s string quartets are comments on the very high quality of the third and fourth. We shall get there.

In the meantime, though, go give the first a listen. It’s a somewhat compact but very respectable young work that gives a compelling argument for why you should get to know this man’s work better.

We’ve got a few more Finns this week, so please stay tuned for them, and thanks so much for reading!


2 thoughts on “Melartin String Quartet no. 1 in Em, op. 36 no. 1

  1. One thing that does distinguish this from Sibelius is the fact that it falls into the category of “minor-key symphony or string quartet that ends in the major”. None of Sibelius’s works fall into said category, I’ve noticed, which, to my knowledge, makes him virtually unique among Late Romantic composers. Beyond that, there wasn’t very much to make this piece stand out from the crowd at all, I’m afraid, at least on first listen (but thank you, as ever, for giving me the opportunity to hear it)…

  2. The 4th string quartet is indeed Melartin’s strongest. I would recommend to give it a listen, as I would actually call it a near-masterpiece.

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