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Morrison Artists Series: Alexander String Quartet

Friday, December 7, 2012
Photo of Alexander String Quartet
SF State’s longtime quartet-in-residence has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premiere ensembles over three decades. Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, the quartet has also established itself as an important advocate of new music through more than 25 commissions and numerous premiere performances. The Alexander String Quartet is a major artistic presence in San Francisco, serving as directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center at SF State and ensemble-in-residence of San Francisco Performances. Pre-concert talk: December 7, 7pm. Master class: December 7, 2pm, Knuth Hall. Free.
Creative Arts Building, McKenna Theatre


  • Mozart (1756–1791): String Quartet No. 23 in F major, K. 590 (1790)
  • Cox (1961–): Patagón (2011)
  • Intermission
  • Schubert (1797–1828): String Quartet No. 13 in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden (1824)

Related events

Press coverage, December 5, 2012

Program notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): String Quartet No. 23 in F major, K. 590 (1790)

The story of Mozart’s visit to Berlin in spring 1789 has become the stuff of legend. It tells of how the music-loving King Friedrich Wilhelm II was desperate to receive Mozart, how the composer played before the king and queen and how he was rewarded with a golden snuffbox full of a hundred louis d’or and a commission to compose six string quartets for the king and six easy keyboard sonatas for his daughter. Mozart returned to Vienna but was able to complete only three of these quartets, thereafter nicknamed the “King of Prussia Quartets,” and was forced to sell them for quick cash during the poverty of his final years.

The problem is that this tale appears to have been a complete fabrication on Mozart’s part: While Mozart did visit Berlin in May 1789, all the evidence suggests that the king did not receive him, gave him no gift and commissioned nothing. Faced with having to return to Vienna in utter defeat, Mozart borrowed money to pass off as the gift from the king and created the story of the commission. Certainly he did not seem to take the commission—if it ever existed—very seriously: He wrote one quartet immediately, two more a year later and then forgot about the whole thing; when these quartets were published, there was no hint of a royal dedication.

Of the three completed quartets, the Quartet in F major was the last, composed in June 1790, more than a year after Mozart’s return from Berlin. Tradition has it that the cello-playing king had instructed Mozart to give a prominent part to the cello in these quartets, and this he clearly tried to do (even if only as a way to preserve the fiction). But Mozart was not particularly interested in the cello as a melodic instrument. Giving the bass instrument in the ensemble an important thematic role violated his sense of what quartets should be, forcing him to reduce the roles of the second violin and viola, and to sacrifice the interplay of four voices for a more brilliant, concertante style. Indeed, by the time he wrote this quartet, the prominence of the cello had faded and, after the first movement, vanishes altogether.

Many have remarked that this quartet is built on asymmetric phrases that give it unexpected expressive power. It is also remarkable for its thematic concentration: The second movement, for example, is built on a single theme. A further measure of this quartet’s economy of means is that—just as in the Symphony No. 40 in G minor—three of the four movements are in sonata form.

The concertante style of the first movement is most evident in the dialogue between first violin and cello and the fact that cello is given the second subject. The development is typically short, and after a lengthy recapitulation the movement seems to vanish with an almost offhand gesture. The Andante is not merely monothematic—It is built on a bare minimum of materials: Mozart presents a rhythmic figure in the first two measures and then builds most of the movement from that rhythm. The asymmetry of phrase lengths is most evident in the third movement, where the opening phrase of the minuet is in seven bars and the opening of the trio in five (rather than the conventional eight). The Allegro, full of contrapuntal brilliance, offers the first violin a concerto-like part. After so much dazzling music, the ending of the quartet is a masterpiece of understatement.

—Eric Bromberger

Cindy Cox (1961–): Patagón (2011)

Patagón is the ancient, archaic name for the land of Patagonia. My newer compositions increasingly link to nature and landscape, and this latest string quartet evokes the idea of the far away, the other-worldly and the remote. Last year I spent a sabbatical leave in travels to South America, and I was particularly inspired by a trip to the Valdes peninsula, a large nature preserve in southern Argentina.

In this string quartet I try to elicit as many colors as possible, by using many different playing techniques—especially techniques involving bowing and harmonics. In the beginning you will hear an odd effect that string players call the “seagull”; it involves playing an artificially produced harmonic (by touching the string above a fingered note) while simultaneously gliding down the string—a very beautiful and eerie sound that does indeed evoke seagulls. Also in the opening is a gesture played col legno, or with the wood of the bow. It is a kind of “heartbeat” idea featured throughout all the movements.

Very prominent in the piece is the use of harmonics, where the player touches the string at a node that produces pitches that follow the overtone series. Other special techniques include playing near the bridge of the instrument, for a very glassy sound (“sul ponticello”), playing on the fingerboard for a very white, subdued quality (“sul tasto”), and pressing the bow very hard against the strings while bowing slowly (“overbowing”). This last effect produces a harsh, crunchy sound that is sometimes difficult for the player to control. The third movement in particular was inspired by a couple of special days I spent with my family seeing the southern right whales (huge creatures that came right up next to our boat!) and visiting an enormous penguin colony—more than half a million—at Punta Tombo, which my 11-year-old daughter particularly enjoyed.

The titles of the movements pretty much explain themselves, but the last bears some note: The “southern cross” is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of our northern star. Like the northern star, people use the southern cross constellation as a fixed guidepost in the night sky, and other constellations are seen as revolving around it.

The Alexander String Quartet commissioned this piece for the occasion of its 30th anniversary season, and it is gratefully dedicated to them.

—Cindy Cox

Radical, traditional, original, archetypal, Cindy Cox derives her “post-tonal” musical language from acoustics, innovations in technology, harmonic resonance, and poetic allusion. As Robert Carl notes in Fanfare, “Cox writes music that demonstrates an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental color and texture....This is well-wrought, imaginative, and not easily classifiable music.”

She has received awards and commissions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Fromm Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, American Composers Forum, ASCAP, Meet the Composer and Gemeinschaft der Kunstlerinnen und Kunstfreunde International Competition for Women Composers. She has been a fellow at the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals, MacDowell Colony and Civitella Ranieri and William Walton foundations in Italy.

Recent performances have taken place at the American Academy in Rome, Festival Architecture et Musique in France, Kosmos Frauenraum in Vienna, Münster Gesellschaft für Neue Musik, REDCAT/Cal Arts Theater in Los Angeles, Carnegie and Merkin halls in New York City, National Gallery in Washington, Library of Congress, Kennedy Center, Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Philharmonic series and by notable ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet, American Composers Orchestra, National Symphony, California Symphony, Paul Dresher Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, Composers Inc. and the Earplay Ensemble.

There are three complete recordings of Cox’s chamber music, two on the Albany label (la mar amarga and Nature is) and one on New World (Columba aspexit). She is also recorded on Capstone (two recordings), Arpa Viva, Inflorescence, Mark and Valve-Heartz of Cologne. Her scores are published through World a Tuning Fork Press (

Cox earned her doctorate in 1992 from Indiana University and studied composition with Harvey Sollberger, Donald Erb, Eugene O’Brien and John Eaton. As a pianist she studied with famed Mozart and Schubert specialist Lili Kraus. Cox is the Evelyn and Jerry Chambers Chair Professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Franz Schubert (1797–1828): String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden (1824)

In fall 1822 Schubert became extremely ill, and every indication is that he had contracted syphilis. The effect on him—physically and emotionally—was devastating. He was quite ill throughout 1823, so seriously in May that he had to be hospitalized. His health had in fact been shattered permanently, and he would never be fully well again. The cause of his death five years later at 31, officially listed as typhoid, was probably at least partially a result of syphilis. Emotionally, the illness was so destructive that he never went back to complete the symphony he had been working on when he contracted the disease—It would come to be known as the “Unfinished.”

By early 1824 Schubert had regained some measure of health and strength, and he turned to chamber music, composing two string quartets, the second of them in D minor. The nickname Der Tod und Das Mädchen (“Death and the Maiden”) comes from Schubert’s use of a theme from his 1817 song by that name, as the basis for a set of variations in the quartet’s second movement. In the song, which sets a poem of Matthias Claudius, death beckons a young girl; she begs him to pass her over, but he insists, saying that his embrace is soothing, like sleep. It is tempting to believe that, under the circumstances, the thought of soothing death may have held some attraction for the composer.

The quartet itself is extremely dramatic. The Allegro rips to life with a five-note figure spit out by all four instruments. This hardly feels like chamber music. One can easily imagine this figure stamped out furiously by a huge orchestra, and the dramatic nature of this movement marks it as nearly symphonic (in fact, Gustav Mahler arranged this quartet for string orchestra in 1894, a version that is still performed and recorded today). A gentle second subject brings a measure of relief, but the hammering triplet of the opening figure is never far away—it can be heard quietly in the accompaniment, as part of the main theme, and as part of the development. The Allegro, which lasts a full quarter of an hour, comes to a quiet close with the triplet rhythm sounding faintly in the distance.

The Andante con moto is deceptively simple. From the song Der Tod und Das Mädchen, Schubert uses only death’s music, which is an almost static progression of chords; the melody moves quietly within the chords. But from that simple progression Schubert writes five variations that are by turns soaring, achingly lyrical, fierce, calm—and the wonder is that so simple a chordal progression can yield music of such expressiveness and variety.

After two overpowering movements, the Scherzo: Allegro molto might seem almost lightweight, for it is extremely short. But it returns to the slashing mood of the opening movement and takes up that same strength. The trio sings easily in the lower voices as the first violin flutters and decorates their melodic line. An unusual feature of the trio is that it has no repeat—Schubert instead writes an extension of the trio, almost a form of variation itself.

The final movement, appropriately marked Presto, races ahead in 6/8 meter. Some listeners have felt that this movement is death-haunted, and they point out that its main theme is a tarantella, the old dance of death, and that Schubert also quotes quietly from his own song Erlkönig. Significantly, the phrase he quotes in that song sets death’s words “Mein liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir” (“My dear child, come go with me”), which is precisely the message of the song Der Tod und das Mädchen. What this movement is “about” must be left to each listener to decide, but it is hard to believe this music is death-haunted. The principal impression it makes is of overwhelming power—propulsive rhythms, huge blocks of sound, sharp dynamic contrasts—and the very ending, a dazzling rush marked Prestissimo that suddenly leaps into D major, blazes with life.

—Eric Bromberger

The Morrison Chamber Music Center is supported, in part, by a generous gift from the May Treat Morrison Chamber Music Foundation.

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