The Takács Quartet opens the Chamber Music Society of Louisville’s 81st season Sunday at Comstock Hall. | Photo by Amanda Tipton

In a Chamber Music Society of Louisville concert on Sunday, Oct. 14, in Comstock Hall, the Takács Quartet will take listeners on a musical tour that spans the arc of the enduring art form of the string quartet.

Or, at least, where it came from and how we got to today.

In three composers, the Takács bounds from the string quartet’s origin with composer Joseph Haydn in the 18th century, to Johannes Brahms in the 19th century, to Dmitri Shostakovich in the 20th century — with selections from each that are not only representative of three styles and three moods, but include three specific quartets that are frequently played and often recorded.

And well-loved by chamber music fans.

Probably that’s just a happy coincidence for the opening program of the Chamber Music Society’s 81st season. A coincidence that one of the world’s finest string quartets, the Takács, would touch three centuries of string quartet creations. But we’ll take it, and thanks!

The Takács Quartet was formed in Budapest in 1975. | Photo by Amanda Tipton

The concert also serves well as a prelude to the 2018-19 Chamber Music Society season, which includes a look into what’s happening today — in the 21st century. In the following four concerts through April 2019, other touring groups, some of them up-and-comers, present new ideas about small-ensemble music.

Some will mix new music with the standards of the historical repertoire. One is a wind quintet, another a trio, another is a young quartet on the verge of stardom, and next month in its second concert, on Nov. 4, violinist Tessa Lark takes the Chamber Music Society stage as a soloist.

It’s a nice format for the Chamber Music Society, which has, from its inception in 1938, endeavored to highlight each season with one of the world’s top performing groups. That began with the Budapest String Quartet playing many times in the early years, through the Juilliard String Quartet, the Guarneri Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio and Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.

Last year, the Emerson Quartet appeared for the ninth time, and this year Takács makes its fourth appearance.

The Takács (it’s a Hungarian name pronounced something like TOCK-esh) was formed in Budapest in 1975 but has been based at the University of Colorado since 1983. Just one of the original members, cellist András Fejér, is still playing with Takács, with violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, and violist Geraldine Walther replacing members as they retired.

Observers say the changes in personnel have injected new vigor into the group over time. But Takács definitely retains the Hungarian tradition of obsession with string quartets.

Haydn ups his game
A painting of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

Joseph Haydn didn’t invent the idea of music for four-stringed instruments, but he created the lasting string quartet union of two violins, viola and cello — a group sound that includes just enough of everything, and not too much of anything.

If the symphonic orchestra (also created by Haydn) consisted of, say, eight first violins, and eight seconds, with more violas, cellos and basses, a Haydn quartet offered one player in the first violin part, one for the second, a viola and a cello — from the top of the register through a lower range.

Listeners can hear each of the moving parts singularly and clearly. Not music to fill up a cathedral with sound or rock a giant concert hall, but a more intimate ensemble best suited for a parlor or small recital hall.

Haydn was so famous in his time he was called twice to live in splendor in London — staying until he just couldn’t get enough time alone to do anything, and would then return to Vienna. He was born in 1732 and died in 1809 — which meant he came along to follow Bach with a 50-year career, and in his later years became the teacher of both Mozart and Beethoven.

Well, not long for Beethoven. That didn’t work out. But he and Mozart became fast friends and musical collaborators in the most cerebral way. At the top of musical thought.

In fact, Haydn had already written many quartets before he met Mozart, who was 25 years his junior. But the master was so impressed with the genius of his virtuoso pupil that he went back to the drawing board to produce much more colorful and melodic quartets, a la Mozart.

It is these later quartets that are now Haydn’s most played. And it is the second of the six quartets that comprise Haydn’s Opus 76 grouping that the Takács will perform. It was written between 1797 and 1798, when Haydn was 65. To give that a little context, John Adams was the second president of the young United States.

The Takács Quartet in action. | Photo by Amanda Tipton

One thing listeners should be on the lookout for in this Haydn quartet is the theme in the first movement, which, according to experts, jumps around in “fifth” chords and comes back in all four movements.

Just trying to hear that, of course, does not mean one will be able to. Nobody stands up and announces, “Second verse, same as the first.” Most of us will simply fall into the artistry of the Takács Quartet.

But listening for what one might pick up of the constructions and weavings of an entire work is something audiences in the 18th century loved about string quartets: They could hear the moving parts and try to “see” how the smaller pieces fit together in the whole construction.

And so can we!

Brahms and Shostakovich

Which brings us to Johannes Brahms, who is represented in the Takács concert with the “Quartet in A Major” of 1873. Brahms came along after Beethoven, who had expanded classical music in every direction — especially in size, scope, complexity and emotion. Brahms encompassed all those things, and was a romantic, too, living in a century of Romantic music.

Listeners will hear that in the Brahms quartet. Notes coming along strong at points, but then giving way to lightheartedness and beautiful, delicate phrases. Then back to boldness.

And all of the Brahms is thickly orchestrated, especially compared to Haydn. A Brahms quartet is velvet-seat, opera house worthy. Richly romantic.

Dmitri Shostakovich

And, boy, does that contrast to Dmitri Shostakovich, the 20th-century Russian composer. Actually, we should say 20th-century Soviet Union composer.

Much of Shostakovich’s life was knotted up with politics. He was a Communist in a Communist Society that prized Russian national music.

But this listener doesn’t think the Shostakovich quartets are about politics. Not at all. Yes, they’re sometimes brutal, sometimes harsh. And political philosophy stuff could be there if one wished to read it into the music.

But for this listener, Shostakovich is about winter. The earth. The Russian cold. The snap of a twig heard across a frozen landscape.

Other ideas get conjured up in the listening. And it’s not always bleak winter. The Fourth Shostakovich has rounded-off edges and is almost smoothly sumptuous in its strings. But I still like the notion of that twig snapping in the forest. A clear note of nature, no matter how lonely.


All Chamber Music Society concerts are held at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoons in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville School of Music. The hall is fairly large, more than a recital hall (there’s one of those, too, at the music school). But it is not big. Comstock has nicely upholstered seats and high wood-paneled walls — within which the sound resounds.

Tickets are $40, or $35 for seniors and $5 for students.