CDE84531 Hans Gal Edinburgh Quartet

Gál String Quartets

Gl String Quartets

Product Description


Hans Gl
String Quartets vol. 2

Edinburgh Quartet

Quartet No. 2  Op. 35
Quartet No. 3  Op. 95
5 Intermezzi  Op. 10

Sound Sample
Quartet No. 2 Op. 35

Preludio. Un poco agitato;

Toccata. Vivace ma non troppo;

Canzone. Andante;

Intermezzo capriccioso. Presto;

Rondo. Allegretto commodo.

The decade of the 1920s was important for Gál as a period in which he consolidated his compositional craft and in which he found his individual voice. This was recognised in many ways: the ever more frequent performances of his compositions, especially the success of his operas, a contract with the publisher Simrock (1924) and the recognition by the City of Vienna with the Award of its Art Prize in 1926 as well as a prize from the Columbia Broadcasting Organisation for his First Symphony in 1928.

Gál’s second Quartet, written in 1929, thirteen years after his first, is a highly idiosyncratic composition. Though lasting just under half an hour, the work is cast in five, not the more usual four movements; the ‘extra’ is a dance, with more than a hint of the Polonaise, coming after the centrally placed slow movement.

Compared with the first Quartet, this work shows an enormous development in Gál’s compositional technique as well as a deepening of his interior world. The writing for the strings is much more independent, and the prevalent use of contrapuntal textures sometimes leads to astringent harmonies, occasionally bordering on the atonal. But this being Gál, we are never far from some tonal orientation, albeit with inflections shared by such diverse composers as Strauss and Bartok. The resonances created by the double stopping and the non-functioning nature of the harmony in the climactic passage of the second movement are unusual for Gál, as is the momentary feeling of abandonment into some wild and savage dance. Close thematic integration and the way that the opening theme permeates all the movements bring to the work both concentration and a tensile strength of musical logic.

The first movement is extraordinary. The musical material, which might give a first impression of being relaxed, even prolix, is in fact highly coherent and concise. As with many other movements structured along sonata lines, the opening holds the key here in the first two bars. The work begins quietly, even casually, almost as though we were catching up on something which had already begun. Though the theme on the first violin is angular, it is given a lyrical character, further supported by the gentle triplets underneath. The motif of a falling semitone and a rising fifth on first violin could hardly be more basic, and yet in Gál’s hands it grows and develops, generating nearly all the other material, not only of this movement but of the whole composition. The triplet soon acquires a life of its own as it is transformed to a prominent motive in an imitative build-up, leading to a much more positive statement of the opening theme. The second subject, first played in the viola’s higher register may appear to be new, but the melodic rise of a fifth recalls the opening, but now blossoms into a tune of romantic, Viennese sweetness. There is one curious passage a little later in the exposition which demands comment. Beneath a very high pedal B, the three lower instruments play with the opening rising fifth in spiccato quavers, almost as though they are searching for a theme and a key which duly arrives as the codetta - based on the second subject.

The development is notable not only for its varied textures but for its contrapuntal combinations of various thematic fragments. There is a false reprise, very much in the Haydn tradition, in the wrong key, with the cello imitating the first violin. More counterpoint is employed later at the stunning climax of the development. The initial material is imitated in the upper three parts while the cello plays a strident pedal C at the bottom of its register, a truly memorable texture and one which shows how multi-faceted the opening theme can be. The recapitulation follows an anticipated course but the second subject is introduced by the second violin, now with a bitter-sweet quality mixing major and minor harmonies no longer so confident of its mood. The speed is reduced, the texture quietens as a short coda brings the movement to a gentle close.

Though there is an element of extroversion about the second movement, hence its title of toccata, there is more of the scherzo about its character. Gál demonstrates much invention in the variety of quartet writing, with pizzicato and arco juxtaposed, and with quick changes of texture, sometimes the two upper instruments are pitted against the other two, sometimes there is only one line, sometimes two, and so on. The constant presence of the anapaest rhythm gives a sense of forward motion and the generally quiet dynamic level enables the more extrovert moments to be really dramatic. The rising fifth is heard at the opening and further thematic integration is worked out in the ‘trio’ section in which the second subject of the first movement is clearly recalled.

The slow movement begins with a wonderfully expressive melody on the viola. Although the key is clearly G minor, a prominent sharpened fourth degree gives the tune a strong modal flavour. The hint of a folk origin to this movement is strengthened by the simple harmonic basis supplied by the cello’s pizzicato chords. When the opening tune is played by the second violin, the first violin adds a descant which quotes the first part of the second subject from the opening movement. This is turned upside down at the last appearance of the tune, again on the viola. There is a very sweet and harmonious central section to this movement in D major, in which the first violin plays a melody (again derived from the first theme) high above the stave. Is there a hint here of a similarly quiet moment towards the end of the scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, where the programme suggests the soul is entering heaven? Whatever associations we might bring, the stillness and the transforming mood of this section is in marked contrast to the sad and angular modal melody which dominates the rest of the movement.

The last two movements run together but are of contrasting character. The Intermezzo is another dance-like movement with light and translucent textures. Against an insistent dotted rhythm on the lower instruments (perhaps reminiscent of the finale of Schubert’s D minor Quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’), the first violin has a tune which begins with the same rising fifth of earlier movements. Quickly the movement works up to a climax recalling the second movement, but here the rustic dance has a heavy triplet tread. A central section in a calmer F Major, begins with a tune based on the shape of the opening theme over a pedal F. This leads to an extended passage of stable tonality and intriguingly simple counterpoint. The scherzo returns, but as it unwinds towards the end we suddenly find that we have entered the Finale - an active Minuet metre accommodating the anapaest motive of the second movement, the rising fifth, and the mix of triplets and duplet rhythms of the first movement. The second subject, though closely modelled on that of the opening movement, now has the feeling of resolution in its melodic and rhythmic extensions almost as though what we had heard before was incomplete and needed this development to make its full statement. But then that is also true of all motivic development throughout the whole Quartet.

Gál’s utter mastery of his musical material, the sense in which the work grows from its almost casual start to its quiet ending unusually with all four players in harmonics - makes this a deeply satisfying work not only for players but also for listeners. The harmonic language is secure and well founded in the tradition of the basic principles of western tonality. There are surprises but they make their effect because of the clearly understood parameters of ‘normal’ harmonic procedures. Gál’s is not a radical world which seeks to challenge accepted procedures as an avant garde composer might; it is deeply embedded in the European tradition, is civilised and exists for those who have the patience to listen attentively and the background to know what to listen for. In this way Gál’s well honed technique commands a respect and love. This is true chamber music of a remarkable quality.

Quartet No. 3 Op. 95

Energico. Allegro molto moderato;

Scherzando. Grazioso e leggiero;

Cantabile. Adagio;

Con umore. Allegretto.

This composition was written in 1969, remarkably forty years after its predecessor. In the intervening years Gál had undergone changes in his circumstances which are very difficult to grasp in their totality. From being the Director of the highly prestigious Music Conservatoire at Mainz, with musicians of international reputation and brilliance as his friends performing his compositions, he had to begin a new life, after being displaced both geographically and culturally. The seizure of power by the Third Reich and the subsequent devastation of the Second World War fundamentally changed perceptions of humanity and civilisation. Gál’s own life was turned upside down as he and his family emigrated to Britain to begin a new life. One of the ways in which he made a living was by cataloguing the Reid music library at the University of Edinburgh, this by someone who could well have graced the position of professor at that August institution. As a defence, Gál developed even further his pragmatic and philosophical attitude towards life and its challenges. However, in the gap of forty years, life, culture and music had undergone radical transformation, especially in attitudes towards the new for its own sake. Looking back now over that time nearly forty years ago, we can see only too clearly that fashion in music, as in art generally, rewarded that which overturned formerly ‘correct’ approaches to technique and sound, perhaps as a means of moving forward as quickly as possible. As with many artistic movements that followed upheaval, there were the genuinely new and radical ideas as well as somewhat of a fringe whose task was to promulgate extremes. Whereas the confidence to be radical and new needs courage, to hold to values which are considered out-moded also requires a special type of conviction.

In some respects the musical vocabulary Gál uses in his third quartet is radical in that it has not particularly changed in the forty years gap. We can see this as an entirely legitimate stance in the face of a ferment of concepts of sound-worlds both practical and impractical. Until Schoenberg wrote his essay Brahms the Progressive, similar statements were made about Brahms and we now know how misleading the conventional view held by many of Brahms’ contemporaries has proved to be.

To a musician who knows the classical repertoire of string quartets, Op.95 has an important and unforgettable resonance of Beethoven’s last middle period Quartet in F minor subtitled ‘Il Serioso’. Gál’s third Quartet is a substantial work, lasting just under a half hour. It is in four movements, with the anticipated slow and dance-inspired movements centrally placed. The key of B minor, which begins and ends the work, exerts a strong influence throughout, and the whole composition exudes a charm not always found in works of a more aggressive caste. In some ways this composition is one of the most approachable of Gál’s works: the structures are handled with exemplary clarity, the harmonic language follows grammatical patterns to build up tonalities, and the themes and tunes are used as signposts to guide the listener through the logic of the work.

The first movement begins with a striking texture in which the cello announces a striding theme covering a register of over two octaves. This theme is defined as much rhythmically as through its melodic shape, first falling and then rising. A second theme of importance is played by the three upper instruments and begins with a syncopated long note and ends with a sharply dotted rhythm. This is taken up by each instrument in turn and effects a transition. The second subject group is based on this same material, using it to new expressive ends a fully developed tune on the principal violin takes its shape from the third bar of the opening theme, and the following aggressive build up from the cello uses bar 5.Other elements of the opening theme are recalled before a descending codetta passage moves into a repeat of the whole exposition, necessary because of the concentrated nature of the musical discussion.

The development is well focused on the first theme but always with some modifications, giving the material a sense of growth and development. A new quintuplet figure appears as a counterpoint and the rhythmic variety becomes much greater, culminating in the final cello entry which leads to the recall of the opening. The recapitulation is begun with the opening theme played now by the first violin but in quiet, almost contemplative mood, in contrast to the opening. The second subject is recalled on the viola, and the new quintuplet figure of the development is firmly integrated into the texture as the movement moves towards an extended coda. This not only extends the structure, but further develops the opening material, but in a contemplative way. Earlier tensions are now resolved as the movement ends in calm serenity.

The Scherzando, in G Major, is a movement of great charm in the tradition of dance-inspired central movements of larger compositions. It is light both in material and texture recalling the character of a Viennese Ländler, easy going and tuneful.

The slow movement begins with a broad, expressive, soaring melody on the first violin, first heard unaccompanied. The line is highly chromatic, almost as though the composer is searching out a key, which is eventually established as E flat a huge distance from the B minor of the opening of the work. Chromatic inflexions are frequent in a great outpouring of melody; deep emotions are recollected, but the state of mind is tranquil. Each return of the opening tune is re-harmonised, revealing ever more about the tune’s deeply wrought character. This is the most beautiful movement in all Gál’s quartets and shows not only how thoroughly integrated he is into the classical and romantic quartet tradition, but also reveals his deep love for the medium.

The mood of the slow movement is hard to break, but in characteristic fashion, the composer turns to humour as the best solution. Returning to the original key of B minor the mood is immediately lightened with a quiet, almost unassuming theme, first heard on the viola, in which the interval of a fourth plays a prominent role, first falling and then rising. This interval played an important part in the cello theme which opened the work. A second subject, in the high register of the first violin, recalls the shape of the second subject of the first movement, but is more angular in interval but smoother in rhythm. The opening movement seems somehow never far away, though much of this finale inclines towards the major mode. Though the movement may be marked to be played with humour, there is no sense that it is other than solidly constructed and clearly argued. This finale may be light-textured but the supreme mastery of the writing, with its highly chromatic vocabulary, and its richness of invention, make it an unusual but highly satisfying conclusion to a remarkable work.

Each of the four movements is very sharply characterised - more than in the earlier Quartets. And yet the way the whole work belongs together is more subtle than the cyclic implications of Op.35. One footnote concerns the endings of all four movements all of which are unusually concentrated cadences with important chromatic inflections; the first three at a quiet dynamic but the last one is loud, almost as a final summing up.

5 Intermezzi Op.10

Allegro con moto; Andantino; Presto; Allegro commodo; Allegretto con grazia

This is the earliest published work for string quartet by Hans Gál. Written when he was in his early twenties these pieces show many of the later characteristics of his writing. Each of the Intermezzi is well characterised and written with considerable skill in using the instruments. Whereas the figure of Brahms is never far away, there is an individuality about Gál’s implications of modality which marks his vocabulary as something apart. There is something of a folk quality about much of the writing (for example the middle section of the first). The second Intermezzo subdivides the quartet into two upper (arco) and two lower (pizzicato) players, whereas the third uses a bouncing bow technique to good effect in a quiet opening. The fourth is at a comfortable walking pace with a louder and more modal central section, in which the first violin, and later cello, play singing lines of melody. The last one begins with the cello and there is an element of a mock fugue in the imitative entries of the other parts. However any thought of intellectual music is soon banished with a contrasting section of gentle sweetness, in the unusual key of G flat. The return of the initial section develops the material with some rather surprising harmonic turns of phrase.

The five pieces which make up this ‘Serenade’ are short and of simple ternary or rondo forms and show Gál, even as a young composer, fashioning his material into natural-sounding music of great charm and directness.

In an article written for the Mainzer Anzeiger in December 1929 Gál wrote:

Even those who are already predisposed to music must…be awakened to a higher, more intensive, truly artistic musical sensitivity, as musicians as well as listeners.

In the second and third quartets, and in the Five Intermezzi, we see how this statement becomes almost a manifesto. The appeal is as much to the listener as to the player, a true chamber music concern. The challenge to us is to pick up this gauntlet, so that Gál’s experiences enrich ours.

I would like to pay tribute to Eva Fox Gál for her help in supplying biographical detail and for further information please refer to

© Roger Bevan Williams Sept.2006Gál String Quartets