Juan Crististomo Arriaga
String Quartet No.1 in d minor
Juan Cristostomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola (1806-26) died shortly before his 20th birthday but during his short life showed tremendous promise. He was born in the Spanish-Basque city of Bilbao. His father was a part-time musician, and it did not escape his notice that Juan been born on the 50th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. As a result, the first two Christian names of both composers are the same. It is for this reason and his prodigious talent that Arriaga became known as the “Spanish Mozart.” Interestingly, his music sounds more like Schubert—whose music he was unlikely ever to have heard—–than that of either Mozart or Haydn.
A child prodigy, by age 10, he was playing 2nd violin in a professional string quartet and had written an Octet for String Quartet, Bass, Trumpet, Guitar and Piano. Like Mozart, Arriaga composed his first opera, Los Esclavos Felices (The Happy Slaves) at the age of 13. It was performed immediately and enjoyed considerable local success. Recognizing that their son was more than just talented, Arriaga’s parents decided to send him to Paris to further his musical education. There he studied violin with Baillot and composition with Fetis, the well-known music historian. Fetis later wrote that Arriaga mastered harmony in three months and counterpoint in under two years. By 1824, at the age of 18, Arriaga was appointed to teach harmony and counterpoint at the Conservatory. His three string quartets, which were composed during 1821-22 at the age of 15 and were the only works published during his lifetime.
String Quartet No.1 in d minor is perhaps the most striking of the set because of the Spanish melodies which appear throughout. The first theme to the opening Allegro, while not particularly Spanish, is dark and forceful and played in unison to create a powerful effect/ The music is at one and the same time unsettled and restless, energetically charging here and there. It is with the captivating second theme, introduced by the first violin, that we initially hear Spanish melody. The second movement, Adagio con espressione, is rhythmically very intricate. The opening theme is tender and expressive while the the second theme, full of pathos, reminds me of a similar utterance in Schubert’s Death & the Maiden. In the third movement, Minuetto, is more or less traditional, however, the trio section presents a formal 18th century Spanish dance, perhaps a precursor of a modern day flamenco dance with guitar. The finale, Adagio-Allegretto, has a slow introduction followed by a riding-type theme