9. Best String Writing
I’m pretty sure that I have no idea how to answer this question. The question of the ‘best writing’ is both so subjective and so dry that the mere act of entertaining the question runs the risk of boring yourself to death. I don’t think there is a way to answer the next four questions without dividing them into all sorts of separate categories. And since I grew up playing all sorts of violin music, the string instrument categories will take far longer than any other (also since there’s far more music for strings). So in the interests of (relative) brevity, let’s get started and you’ll get the hang of it as we go along.
Solo Writing: Bach d-minor Chaccone
(Josef Szigeti. Bartok’s favorite violinist.)
Duh. Bach, Bach and more Bach. The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the Cello Suites, are in a class of their own. And within unaccompanied Bach string writing, the Chaccone from the d-minor partita is its own class. Brahms considered the d-minor Chaccone to be the greatest piece of music ever written and made a fantastic piano transcription for the left hand only. One of my fondest memories of being a violin student was the moment my teacher opened up the Bach Partitas for the first time. She described the Chaccone as a violin being used as a full choir - and I can never listen to the piece without thinking of that analogy. Just a few years ago, a startling discovery was made. It was discovered that Bach had encoded the harmonies of no less than four different Lutheran chorales into the Chaconne - a feat for which Bach had to be particularly ingenious, considering the Chaconne is a dance in which the same eight measures of harmony are repeated from beginning until end. But Bach had a particularly important reason for stretching his art to its very limits. He wrote the Chaconne almost directly after returning home from a business trip to discover that his first wife was dead and buried. This is the music of his grief, a monument to his wife that still lives today.
With Piano Accompaniment: Franck: Violin Sonata in A
For most of his life, the Belgian composer Cesar Franck dwelled in obscurity as a modest church organist. It was only in his last two decades of his life that he revealed himself as a composer of startling vision, and only in the last three years of his life that his works received any acclaim. Like all his great works, the Franck violin sonata seems to have a cascading fountain of melody, some deliriously suggestive harmonies and an incredible, almost excessive sense of drama. But in this work, Franck practically re-invented the violin sonata. There had been plenty of other four movement sonatas before the Franck violin sonata, but few of them aspired to the epic sweep of a symphony. Don’t let the small size or the sunny demeanor fool you, Franck’s Violin Sonata might be the greatest French Symphony of the 19th century, and all it takes is two musicians.
Piano Trio: Haydn Trio in G-Major
Haydn is, still, the odd man out among the greatest composers. The fact that he is not considered the full equal of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert is one of the great scandals of music. Serious music lovers distrust fun, and no one has written more fun music (in both senses) than Haydn. Haydn’s fun is very serious, and the seriousness makes him all the more fun. Music neither has a greater master of form or a greater comedian than Haydn. He literally reinvented music for the 18th and 19th centuries as much as Louis Armstrong did for the 20th (and possibly the 21st). Mozart might be the elegant jokes of the parlor room, but Haydn is pure dirty jokes and beer.
String Quartet: The Late Quartets of Beethoven
(Holy Song of Thanks)
There are no more inexhaustible, mysterious works than the Late Quartets of Beethoven. There are also no works of art on which more bull**** has been written, which exerted more dangerous influence, which caused more snobbery on the part of classical musicians than the Late Quartets. But even so, what remains clear about all five (though really six) quartets is that Beethoven has reached the very summit of the human imagination. Just as Mahler’s symphonies bore witness to exactly what the world was in the 1900’s, just as the Beatles later albums bore witness to the world of the late 60’s, Beethoven’s Late Quartets - moreso than any other late period works, including the Ninth Symphony - bear witness to exactly what the world was in the 1820’s. Traces of every scrap of music that ever moved Beethoven are to be found in here - from the Bach preludes he played as a child to tavern songs to Jewish cantilation to country dances to the burlesque hall - and all reprocessed to a point of surreality that could only be thought of by the most powerful musical imagination the world has yet seen. What’s amazes today about the Late Quartets is not how exclusive they are, but how inclusive.
String Quintets: (tie) Mozart String Quintet in g-minor (extra viola), Schubert String Quintet in C (extra cello)
Anyone who thinks of Mozart as an effeminate composer of formulaic classicism needs to hear the g-minor Quintet. No powdered wigs here, no compunctions about writing outside the nine dots either. The first movement is dramatic in the extreme, even by Beethoven’s standards. The last movement begins so slow as to seem enamored in sludge before taking off like a rocket in the major key. Beethoven could have never written the Fifth Symphony without the example Mozart set here.
If the extra viola of Mozart’s quintet allows the ensemble greater agitation, then the extra cello of Schubert’s allows for an unfathomable richness. With the quartet, Schubert wrote perhaps the most purely beautiful piece of music in existence - less a work of chamber music than an hour-long song. Melodies poured out of Schubert as easily as we breath. And just when one melody is over, Schubert moves onto the next with a seamless transition. The whole hour-long work sounds less like a piece for five strings than a piece for five voices.
String Sextet: Brahms Sextet no. 2 in G
(The second sextet’s slow movement.)
No one did full harmonies like Brahms. Many critics call him overstuffed; since George Bernard Shaw they’ve been alleging that he can’t stop himself from adding more gorgeous harmonies, more formal experiments, more hidden musical codes, and all at the expense of the music’s expression. Are they listening? No composer ever wrote more beautiful music than Brahms, all the more beautiful for being emotionally understated. There are no pieces richer in beauty than the Brahms Sextets. Just listen.
String Octet: Mendelssohn String Octet
Among feats of musical prodigies, nobody, not even Mozart, beat Mendelssohn. He wrote the famous Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture at the age of 16. Shortly thereafter followed a String Octet with a level of compositional technique which no composer has yet equalled - including six minutes of 8-part counterpoint(!). The work is simply a miracle - eight musicians are all Mendelssohn required to create a symphony that is fully the equal of any by Beethoven. If Mendelssohn never quite got to this level again, we can forgive him. How could he?
Piano Quartet: Shostakovich Piano Quartet in g-minor
The historian Niall Ferguson once commented that Shostakovich’s Piano Quartet could be the soundtrack of the 20th century. Shostakovich wrote perhaps the finest chamber music of the entire century. But his chamber music is far less known than his symphonies. The symphonies are vast public statements that could never express his deepest feelings (he’d have been shot had he done so). But the chamber music is where Shostakovich reveals all, and his great sequence of chamber music begins with this small piano quartet.
Piano Quintet: Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major
Perhaps it’s thanks to his insanity, but Schumann is still underrated. But even in a generation that includes Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi and Wagner, I still think that Schumann was the finest composer of his time. It was the same mania that eventually drove him insane which weighted nearly everything he wrote with the danger and exuberance which no composer after Beethoven and Schubert could equal. This is the finest of his chamber works, with uncontainable energy and lyricism at every turn, and an excitement that often threatens to burst out of its contours.
Cello Concerto: Dvorak
(Yo-Yo keepin’ it real)
No composer since Haydn had written a great cello concerto. And no one has written greater one since. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is yet another masterpiece from the period when he lived in America. His homesickness inspired the New World Symphony, the American Quartet and the E-Flat Quintet. But the Cello fit the aching melancholy of Dvorak’s melodies like a glove.
Violin Concerto: Elgar (I’m serious)
Every great composer from Corelli to Thomas Ades has tried their hand at a violin concerto. Not a single one of them dare on the same level as Elgar. Unlike most great composers, Elgar’s first instrument was the violin, and it shows in violin writing far more idiomatic than Beethoven’s or Brahms’s. Unlike most works which put the cadenza at the end of the first movement, Elgar put his at the end of the final movement, and not only that, but he gives the cadenza orchestral accompaniment. Even without this stroke of genius, no violin concerto would feel as personal, as vulnerable, as tragic as Elgar’s. It is, simply, the finest violin concerto ever written. If you don’t believe me, listen to it.
Double Concerto: Bach for Two Violins
(David and Igor Oistrakh. Father and Son.)
Brahms’s Double Concerto gives it a run, but I must stay faithful to one of the pieces I begged my teacher to play when I was a kid. The first and third movement strike unbelievable virtuoso fireworks, at least when played at the proper tempo. But it is the second movement which makes it the greatest of all time. I can do no better than to slightly change around a Norman Lebrecht quote “This is a paragon of musical communication, a piece to be played and listened to in moments of grief and isolation. It tells us that no man is an island, that we can always find a music to touch the ones we know and love, that understanding is but a bow stroke away.”
Viola and Double Bass Concertos: nobody cares:).
String Orchestra: Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss’s memorial to the fallen of the Second World War is scored for twenty-three string players - each of whom has his own part to play. It is the culmination of an eighty year career in music and a final exhalation of musical Romanticism, which Strauss carried as far as the late 1940’s. Strauss wrote it while watching the Germany of his lifetime fall to smithereens. Every time I read another story about the London riots, the opening plays in my head.
Full Orchestra: Vaughan Williams Symphoniy no 5
Ralph Vaughan Williams grew up with the full, rich harmonies of the English choral tradition in which there is nary an open chord to be found. The lyrical passages of his symphonies are packed with ten, twelve, even fifteen-part harmonies. But never, not even in the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, did he put his full harmonies to better use. Aaron Copland unfairly described Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony as an experience that felt like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes. But Copland was completely wrong. Vaughan Williams 5 is another beautiful memorial to the dead of World War II. Vaughan Williams borrowed themes from his opera based on John Bunyan’s book, “A Pilgrim’s Progress.” One section is borrwed from the lyric "He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death", and another borrowed from the lyric "Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear." Long acquaintance with this piece has taught me that it’s one of the most unbearably moving pieces of music I know.
Best Strings + Other Chamber Music: Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time
(A movement for Cello and Piano only: “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
Olivier Messiaen wrote the Quartet for the End of Time while imprisoned in a German POW camp. He wrote for whatever instruments he had access: a violin and cello with a strings missing, a piano that couldn’t play certain notes, a clarinet with cracked reeds. Legend has it that the Quartet was premiered in extreme cold as 8000 POW’s sat rapt while Messiaen played the quartet with the POW camp’s three other musicians. The result is perhaps the very finest of all World War II memorials in music. Whether due to the story behind the work or not, there is no music which conjures the image of the death camps like this one.
Best String Orchestra + Writing: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
It is a shame that Bartok would only make this list once. Along with Beethoven, Haydn and Shostakovich he is the very greatest of string quartet writers. Shostakovich may be the greatest classical composer of the 20th century, but he is an end in himself. His entire life existed in a Soviet-imposed artificial 19th century, and because of that, he was able to channel the emotional earnestness of 19th century music. But if Shostakovich’s music was a look backward, Bartok prophesied the 21st century. He might be Schoenberg’s contemporary, but he belonged in the i-pod generation. He is one of the only composers of the early 20th century with a true conception of ‘World Music.’ He traveled as many regions of the world as he could to hear their folk music, and whatever novel techniques he heard he would assimilate into his compositions - would that he lived long enough to travel around North America. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a culmination of a lifetime of research into Folk Techniques. No composer has ever used string instruments more imaginatively than Bartok. And no composer was more open to the vast panoply of the world’s music than Bartok. He is a composer more of our time than his own.
...there’s no way I’m doing another seven of these today.