Juan Crististomo Arriaga
String Quartet No.2 in A Major
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.
The opening movement, Allegro con brio, to String Quartet No.2 in A Major has for its main subject an attractive, bravura theme in the violin. Its rhythm seems to be based on his surname. The cello cleverly answers in its lower register finishing the phrase. Arriaga was particularly alive to the cello’s possibilities without actually having to give it a solo as he did in the first quartet. The second movement, Andante, is a theme and set of five variations. The theme is very simple, on the order of a children’s nursery melody but but the variations are ingenious and well-constructed. A Minuetto which follows is slight and has a classical Viennese sound to it. The gentle trio though unremarkable provides a good contrast. The finale, Andante ma non troppo-Allegro, is a stop-go or slow-fast situation a little akin to the last movement to Beethoven’s Sixth Quartet, La Malinconia. The skill, contrast and change of mood all illustrate Arriaga’s skill.