By Devin Odell
Have you ever wondered, as I have, what it means for a piece of music to be in a particular key? One of the finest musical groups in the world, the Brentano String Quartet, will explore this question in February in a concert with an intriguing title: “The Dark, Coiled Intensity of F Minor.” The concert, the final event of Off the Hook Arts’ Winterfest, will be at the Rialto Theater in Loveland.
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To most concertgoers, the key of F minor probably means little more than a sense that music in a minor key often has a sad quality. To a music student, it might conjure up scales and arpeggios and trying to remember which four notes are flat.
But to a composer or musician, the key evokes a specific range of emotions and a rich musical history. And it is this set of associations that the Brentano hopes to share with the audience, Mark Steinberg, the group’s first violinist, told me when I had a chance to speak with him.
Although the pieces in the concert all share the key of F minor, they come from many different eras, ranging from a short piece by J.S. Bach dating from 1742, to Coiled by the contemporary composer Bruce Adolphe, composed in 2017. So, as Adolphe puts it, the concert gives listeners a chance to discover for themselves how composers throughout history “have felt about the key.”
The mood or emotions associated with any key are based in part on the way it feels to play an instrument in that key. For a string player, such as a violinist, F minor has an “opaque quality,” according to Steinberg. This is because the key does not include “open strings”–that is, notes played on strings without any fingering–so “there is not a lot of ring to the key” and the player must “fight for resonance.”
But as Adolphe and Steinberg both point out, the feel of a key is also shaped by the music that has been written in it. For most composers, according to Adolphe, it is a “dark, intense, highly emotional key,” one that, as Steinberg puts it, has an “anguished” quality, a feeling of being “stuck in one place.”
The first piece, the Prelude in F minor from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach, will serve as an introduction to the key. Bach originally wrote it for solo keyboard, which at that time usually meant a harpsichord or a clavichord, but for this concert the Brentano will play an arrangement by Steinberg for string quartet.
The group will then move on to the central piece in the concert, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, which has played a big role in establishing F minor’s special character. Known as the “Serioso,” a name given by Beethoven himself, it premiered in 1814 and is the shortest of his string quartets.
More than two hundred years later, the dramatic music is still jarring. I liked Steinberg’s description of Beethoven tearing musical ideas apart and then trying to fit them back together. Beethoven himself considered the work highly experimental, writing to a fellow musician that it had been “written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.”
The piece may also be an example of the benefit of financial support for the arts. The year before Beethoven wrote it, a group of nobleman provided him with an annual salary with no conditions on the amount or nature of the music he produced. I like to think that this is what gave him the freedom to compose such innovative and influential music.
The next work, Adolphe’s Coiled, was commissioned by the Brentano and Off the Hook Arts specifically as a piece inspired by the Beethoven. When the group performs the two pieces back to back, the audience will have the chance to hear how Adolphe comments on the Beethoven, using its musical phrases and ideas to create a work that he says is meant to convey the feeling of a spring that is tightly wound up and, eventually, flies.
After the intermission, the Brentano will provide two more examples of pieces in F minor inspired by the Beethoven. The first is Dimitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 written in 1966. The seven short movements, played in one continuous flow, are “heavily stamped with a sense of loss: reflective, brooding, austere,” according to one writer. This is fitting given that the work was dedicated to the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, who had died the previous year.
The concert will end with Felix Menelssohn’s powerful, romantic-era String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. This work, the last major piece written by the composer, uses the key to express a profound sense of loss at the death of the composer’s sister, Fanny.
The Brentano will perform the program at 4 p.m. on February 9, 2020, at the Rialto Theater and also at 4:30 p.m. on February 8, 2020, at Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder. Those wanting to hear more of the Brentano can also attend the Winterfest screening of the wonderful film “A Late Quartet” (starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken, among others) at the Lyric Cinema in Fort Collins at 7 p.m. on February 5, 2020. The group provided much of the soundtrack and its cellist, Nina Lee, appears in the final scene.
Devin Odell is a retired judge who lives with his family in Old Town Fort Collins. Off the Hook Arts is a Fort Collins non-profit that provides low-cost music performance education for students while cultivating a love of the performing arts through public concerts and special events.