Exploring Wellesz, Part 1: The String Quartets

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WELLESZ: String Quartets Nos. 3, 4 & 6 / Artis Quartet Wien / Nimbus NI 5821

After reviewing the Auner Quartet’s CD at the end of September and having been highly impressed by the String Quartet No. 5 by Egon Wellesz, I decided to make it my business to investigate this composer in more depth, and so, naturally, the first place I decided to start was with more of his string quartets.

Apparently, Wellesz wrote his quartets throughout his entire creative life, starting early on and continuing into the late 1960s (he died in 1974). The first two quartets on this CD date from 1918 and 1920, respectively, while the Quartet No. 6 dates from 1947, by which time he was firmly committed to writing music with very modern harmonic and melodic structures. Which isn’t to say that the earlier quartets are fully Romantic works; on the contrary, even in the Quartet No. 3 Wellesz was using some very astringent harmonies, but the overall flow of the music was melodic, and there are several moments where he resolves the harmony in a very tonal manner.

Indeed, the surprisingly broad melody in the first movement of the Third Quartet is almost like a song, a melody so tuneful that one could easily hum it on his or her way out of the concert venue, and Wellesz continues in this vein even when the tempo is increased and the theme changes. It put me in mind of some of Scriabin’s or Mahler’s pieces when they were at that stage where they were on the brink of changing their styles but still had a toe, or perhaps a whole foot, in the waters of Romantic musical style.

But of course, the bottom line is that the music is both original and well crafted. Wellesz did not write bad music, as Hanns Eisler did; he was too well grounded in the basics of composition and too serious an artist to turn out something inferior, at least in the string quartet genre. Interestingly, however, Wellesz at this stage of his career did not use any chromatic movement of either melody or harmony and only occasionally extended chords.

The second movement begins with a bang, the cello viciously plucking a note that resounds against his instrument when he lets go, creating an almost violent-sounding rhythm against which the top three instruments play, the viola in counterpoint to the violins. Later in this movement, Wellesz does use some chromatic movement in the harmony borrowed from the French school though his basic design owes more to the German. But then comes the third movement, and suddenly we’re in another world, with very close harmonies that at the outset almost sound like Ligeti, though he then settles back a bit into “mere” atonality. Indeed, this entire movement is an experiment in vacillating harmonic solutions, yet Wellesz manages to avoid making it sound forced or artificial. In the lively finale, he releases his grip on bitonal and atonal experimentation, providing us with a lively piece in the minor that includes a nice little fugue.

The fourth quartet, written a year before Wellesz published the first serious study of the music of Arnold Schoenberg, owes more to the 12-tone school than its forebear but is not a serial work. Indeed, it sounds more like the music of Berg, and in the first movement also uses more lyricism than Schoenberg of this period. Yet despite its lyrical content, Wellesz does not create memorable tunes here; everything is deadly serious and conspicuously avoids any attempt at popularism.

Yet if this quartet sounds austere, it is nothing compared to the almost savage-sounding opening of the Quartet No. 6, though after the opening Wellesz surprisingly reverts to a rather more melodic contour. Even so, this doesn’t last long, and before you know it you’re in the middle of a brief but spirited atonal fugue passage which then leads back to slower, more melodic material; but this doesn’t last long, either, and the fugue picks up from where it left off and becomes ever more intense. The somewhat “bouncier” but no less atonal second movement also features some nice counterpoint. These last two quartets, however, seem to fly by the listener; the movements are relatively short and sometimes linked, producing an almost headlong progression that one must pay close attention to or become hopelessly lost in the music’s structure.

These are absolutely brilliant works, leading one to wonder why on earth Wellesz has been largely marginalized and forgotten. He was surely one of the most interesting composers of his time.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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