Classical Connections: The Melody Lingers On

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The title comes from a song by Irving Berlin, first recorded in 1928 by Ruth Etting, once known as “America’s sweetheart of song”.  Of course, melody – lingering or otherwise – is one of the most important features of music.  During the early Middle Ages, most music consisted of a single melody and precious little else.  The composer Joseph Haydn once remarked that “melody is the main thing; harmony is useful only to charm the ear” and the musical theorist Johann Philipp Kirnberger put it more bluntly saying that “the true goal of music – its proper enterprise – is melody”.

For many people, melody is the most memorable feature in a piece long after other aspects of the music things are forgotten, so in that respect Irving Berlin hit the nail on the head.  During the second half of the twentieth century, melody temporarily became less relevant in classical music, prompting the irritatingly pompous Sir Thomas Beecham to remark that composers should write “tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.”  In contrast, Aaron Copland, known for his ability to write fine melodies, commented that a melody isn’t “merely something you can hum.”

The Kontras Quartet. (fanjoy labrenz photography)The Kontras Quartet. (fanjoy labrenz photography)

So this week, here are two popular works full of memorable melodies.  They’re both for string quartet which nearly always consists of two violins, a viola player and a cellist.  This type of ensemble emerged sometime during the eighteenth century and has been popular with composers ever since.  Haydn wrote seventy works for string quartet; Mozart wrote twenty-three and the ever-prolific Luigi Boccherini churned out more than ninety.  Beethoven’s eighteen quartets are considered to be some of the finest ever written, especially the later ones.

Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer, who incidentally was also a medical doctor and a chemist, managed only two string quartets because much of his time was engaged in scientific research.  Even so, he was particularly adept at crafting jolly good tunes.  So good were they, that many were borrowed (or stolen, if you prefer) for the 1953 musical Kismet, set in a fictional Baghdad during the time of The Arabian Nights.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (first movement). Kontras Quartet (Duration: 08:08; Video: 720p HD)

This quartet was written in 1881 when the composer was on holiday, staying with a friend in Zhitovo, a country town in Southern Russia.  The first movement has been described as “one of the most perfect examples” of Borodin’s lyrical style and it’s full of lovely melodies and magical changes of key.

The four movements are presented on YouTube as separate videos, listed on the right-hand-side of the screen.  Unusually, the second movement is not a slow one, but a quick and lively scherzo in which you’ll hear a melody which later became better known as Baubles, Bangles and Beads.  The slow third movement is beautiful and you’ll probably recognize the main theme as yet another hit from the show, And This is My Beloved.

The Kontras Quartet is a brilliant young American string quartet based in Chicago and has established an international reputation.  This is a fine recording in which the four players work to produce a balanced, seamless and perfectly synchronized performance.

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904): String Quartet No 12 in F, Op 96 (“American”). Prazak Quartet (Duration: 25:05; Video: 360p)

If any string quartet can stake a claim for the most popular work in the chamber music repertoire, it has to be this.  I first encountered it as a teenager and thought it was the best quartet I’d ever heard.  This performance has been watched over 218,000 times on YouTube alone, so there’s clearly an audience for chamber music.

The work dates from 1893 when the Czech composer was Director of the National Conservatory in New York City.  Like Borodin, he was taking a summer holiday when he wrote it.  Dvorák stayed in the small Iowa town of Spillville which was home to a small Czech community.  Even today the town has only a few hundred residents.

Dvorák sketched the quartet in just three days and completed the entire work less than a fortnight later.  He’d recently completed his famous New World Symphony and the string quartet contains many similar American-sounding themes, often using the sweet-sounding pentatonic scale.  For a long time, it was assumed that Dvorák had used genuine folk songs and spirituals and although the composer heard many American folksongs during his stay, all the melodies in the quartet are largely the composer’s own.

The Prazak Quartet was established in 1972 and it’s interesting how these Czech musicians approach the work.  Unlike some American and British string quartets that tend to go for a smooth and restrained performance of this work, there’s no pussy-footing around here and the musicians give a lively and passionate performance that seems to bring out more of the Bohemian qualities of the music.