NORBERT BURGMULLER – A Life Cut Short – SQ No. 1

Late Classical Czech composer Norbert Burgmuller [1810-1836] wrote four string quartets in his short life. The first was written at age fifteen, followed by the second and third at sixteen. By the final quartet he was twenty-five. Mozart wrote his first quartet at age twelve but I think I prefer the Burgmuller. To me the music comes across with influences of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven although I have no proof for that assertion; it just sounds like it. He may have never heard any Beethoven. If he did it could have been the first six quartets, Opus. 18, although I also hear similarities to the Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59, 1-3.

I am going to discuss the first quartet, which I find quite mellifluous and energetic. For one who doesn’t listen to many Classical quartets, I found this one rather engaging.

The quartet opens with a flourish which leads into a very attractive melody. The flourishes return and a violin melody is developed over a convivial ensemble. The intensity of the violin increases with many sweeping bow strokes. A subtle change ensues with the cello having a say. Two strong chords lead back into a melodic section where the violin stretches out and tells quite a story. An ascending melody gives way to a quiet section and a solo cello interlude. Again the two chords lead into a new melodic section. The composer uses these chords to delineate sections of melodic development. The opening melody returns and is recast. The sound is somewhat like Haydn and early Beethoven. By this time the melody has been turned upside down and inside out; the development is very effective. Nearing the end we have a slightly frantic section and the movement ends on a sustained chord.

The next movement, marked adagio, begins with some held chords and a smattering of a melody that hangs in the air. There is no tempo here. A pause introduces a more vigorous section where the violins spar in building to a peak which then returns to the slow tempo. Now the mood becomes busy for a moment and a repeat of the first movement ascending melody is heard. This is developed over a passage and the ending comes with a flowing line into a chord.

The finale opens with a dashing violin line that cuts through the ensemble as they attempt to keep up with it. This is all very lively but strangely, also somewhat stately. The violin pursues a wispy phrase until the ensemble assert themselves with some powerful interjections. This is followed by a two-violin dialogue. Every time the ensemble re-enters, the passage goes up harmonically, which gives the music a positive thrust. A cello interlude is interrupted by an interjection where the violin moves into its high register. The final interjection is repeated, reharmonised and maintained until the end of the work.

This is an enjoyable work, as are the later three quartets. They are available as two separate CDs on the MDG label, performed by the Mannheim String Quartet, on Amazon US and UK. They are not on my Spotify but all four quartets are on YouTube and earsense.

I shall conclude with a slightly cryptic quote from Romantic composer Robert Schumann:

After Franz Schubert’s death no other death could cause more sorrow than Burgmuller’s. … His talent has such brilliantly excellent qualities that only a blind man could entertain doubts about its existence.

I’ll take that mixed metaphor as a compliment!

Listenability: A Fine Late Classical quartet.


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