“If we were all determined to play the first violin we should never have an ensemble. therefore, respect every musician in his proper place.” - Robert Schumann
For Music Saturday today, Luigi Cherubini’s (1760-1842) String Quartet No. 3 in D minor of 1834. Cherubini was born Florence and he studied at the conservatories in Bologna and Milan remaining in Italy until 1788, when he moved to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. He made his name as a composer of opera, but by 1805 Parisian tastes had changed and the heavy, serious operas that he, Gluck and others had been writing fell out of fashion. Cherubini then turned to religious and instrumental music. He served as director of the Paris Conservatory from 1822 until his death and was regarded as one of France’s leading musicians.
Beethoven considered Cherubini the greatest living dramatic composer, while Cherubini was perhaps the only important composer in France, who held Beethoven to be the greatest genius of the day. Perhaps no other contemporary composer studied Beethoven’s Middle and Late Quartets as did Cherubini, who both admired and understood them. Most others then living, regarded Beethoven’s Late Quartets as the work of a madman. That Cherubini truly understood and profited from Beethoven’s late work can clearly be seen in his Third String Quartet. No other contemporary chamber music work so closely approaches the profundity of Beethoven’s Late Quartets as does Cherubini’s String Quartet No.3.
The Quartet was composed in 1834 and is in four movements. From the very opening notes of the Allegro Commodo, we hear the depth of thought. A short recitative in the first violin is answered by the cello before the noble and boldly rhythmic main theme makes its entrance. The second subject is pure Italian melody with an unusual rhythmic accompaniment giving the music an almost Spanish flavour.
The second movement, Larghetto Sostenuto, might be an aria from an Italian opera. The lovely bel canto melody is given a very expressive accompaniment. In the third movement, Scherzo, Allegro, one can tell that Cherubini had Beethoven as his model (and not the Op.18 quartets which was all that Reicha or Onslow could understand) but the Late Quartets. The serious and syncopated main theme is given to the cello and viola to introduce. There is a brash energy to it. The middle section features a polonaise. The finale, Allegro Risoluto, although in the major, nonetheless, maintains the sense of energy of the previous movement and adds to it a sense of powerful struggle.
This quartet is an unqualified masterpiece. Sadly, it has not been available for many years and is rarely, if ever, performed in concert, although, it goes without saying, that it should be. Amateurs who take the trouble to plumb its depths will be richly rewarded. The painting above is “String Quartet” by Jack Levine.