While the Austrian Classical-period master Franz Josef Haydn is credited with developing the string quartet (and the piano trio, and the symphony), it was Papa’s student Beethoven whose towering achievement in the form inspired and/or intimidated all who followed. Beethoven’s 16 quartets, and especially his formally innovative and emotionally stunning late quartets (12 to 16, written while mostly deaf), are the ones to which the tradition answers…sometimes in numerologically aware ways.
Schubert – Beethoven’s young friend on the Vienna scene – stopped at 15 quartets, probably out of respect, and requested that Beethoven’s No. 14 (my favorite too) be the last music he heard on his deathbed. The great 20th-century adopter of the form, Dimitri Shostakovich, also cut himself off at 15. The classically minded Romantic composer Johannes Brahms was slow even to attempt a string quartet, so imposing was his reverence for Beethoven’s. He produced quintets, trios and essentially any kind of chamber music except the string quartet before finally entering the conversation with the two quartets of Op. 51.
As the traditional wing of Romanticism (Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák et cetera) gave way to Modernism, the symphony and most of the other classical forms handed down from Haydn and Mozart passed from common use. Even so, such pivotal composers as Debussy and Ravel wrote string quartets – one each, with Ravel’s especially becoming a canonical mainstay – and the form is still regarded as an essential and unforgiving test of a composer’s prowess with harmony, four-part “chorale” counterpoint and formal design. And late Beethoven is still the last word.
For Woodstock’s Maverick Concerts, the string quartet is bread-and-butter. Each season, the majority of the world-class talent that Maverick welcomes comes in the form of internationally known touring and recording ensembles dedicated to the performance of string quartets, old and new (for they are still written and commissioned with regularity). This summer, the longest-running chamber music series in America will features a number of the world’s great string quartet ensembles: the Escher, the Harlem, the Jasper, the Jupiter, the Pacifica, the Amernet and, on Sunday, June 30, the Shanghai Quartet, now in its 26th year of traversing Eastern and Western repertoire. The Shanghai will be presenting the Maverick debut of composer (and recently appointed Bard College dean) Tan Dun’s piece for string quartet, Feng Ya Song. Also on the program are Dvorák’s beloved Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Op.51 and Beethoven’s Quartet No.12 in E-flat major, Op.127, the first of the late quartets.
On Saturday, June 29, the Maverick season commences with a performance by Grammy-winning jazz pianist Bill Charlap and his trio. Charlap has worked with numerous titans of jazz: Phil Woods, Tony Bennett, Gerry Mulligan, Wynton Marsalis, Freddy Cole and Houston Person. Charlap’s trio, formed in 1997, is now recognized as one of the leading groups in jazz worldwide. Tickets for both concerts range from $30 to $55, with a substantial discount for students.
Bill Charlap Trio
Saturday, June 29 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, June 30 at 4 p.m.
Maverick Concert Hall
120 Maverick Rd., Woodstock