Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) String Quartet No. 1 is one of the first works he composed under the tutelage of the renowned composer Ferruccio Busoni. It shows the young Weill ready to take on the world and discard the Romantic German garb of his youth. A string quartet in B minor written only four years earlier, and never published in his lifetime, has its musical feet both in the 19th and 20th century. The quartet on this program is most assuredly a modern work.
Busoni, for one, considered the String Quartet noteworthy, the young Weill’s best work to date. (Did the Busoni influence reflected in the work have anything to do with that, a cynic might ask?) Busoni even recommended the work to the prestigious music publishers, Universal Edition, writing:
“Weill’s string quartet [is] a work of splendid qualities… I know of no other work by a 23-year-old of the present day that is so attractive and worthwhile… I emphasize… that you should promptly grab this talent…” Busoni’s recommendation was taken. As Kowalke points out, Universal Edition was pleased with their decision to publish Weill when, a few years later, his Threepenny Opera was a smash hit.
The String Quartet was originally in four movements, though Weill reconsidered and revised it, substituting the present “Introduktion” in place of the first two movements. The entire piece is played without pause.
Weill is emancipated from the major/minor tonal system in the brief Introduktion, which brings to mind the angular and atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Like Berg, though, Kurt Weill is unafraid of landing on familiar sonorities (major or minor chords, for example) from time to time. The note F serves as a tonal focal point of sorts, though not so much as a tonal center as a jumping off point for the movement.
The second movement is a wacky, out-of-sorts Scherzo, far removed from the 19th-century model of Beethoven or Brahms. It dances with a fresh, contemporary lilt, romping, skipping, and bobbing like someone “twisting” at the waltz party.
The Choralphantasie is a reverential homage to the counterpoint of J. S. Bach, but still in modern garb with those occasional bouncing-off-the-wall moments. An aggressive statement in the low strings (viola and cello) makes an announcement that drives to a semi-fugal quasi-lament.
Weill uses special string effects such as playing near the “bridge,” producing an otherwordly sound which sounds like a distant buzzing beehive. A singing cello line akin to a cantor’s prayer precedes a final return to the chorale texture of the movement’s opening. Weill leaves us with a surprising, and sunny, major chord to end the Quartet.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He is also a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.