In this post I will list the string quartets I’ve listened to, including Classical, Romantic, as well as modern and contemporary string quartets. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my post for Research Point 5.2 here.
Classical string quartets
Franz Xaver Richter – Six String Quartets Op. 5 (c.1756)
This is the earliest set of string quartets I could find. Interestingly, I found that Richter comes from the school of Mannheim composers, who led a change of musical style in Europe and influenced the Classical style developed in Vienna. I realized that I actually didn’t know anything about the Mannheim school and so this seems to be an area of music history that I’d like to update in the future, especially since I found multiple contributions and innovations by these composers. At any rate, all six quartets are in three movements, contrasting the later four-movement structure of the genre. Although quite polyphonic, Op. 5 quartets clearly follow the melodic-harmonic idioms of the Classic period. For example, in the finales of quartets No. 1 and 2, the fugal episodes are embedded within a sonata structure. In terms of instrumentation, I think there is a variety of writing for all four string instruments with each given concerto-like passages, though there are also moments of duets in the sharing of the melodic material. However, I was really surprised to see in the score that the role of cello and viola were at times reversed. In these moments, in a peculiar way, cello acts as a solo instrument in the tenor register, while viola provides a bass line. Regardless, I found the outer, more spirited movements very invigorating, while the slower movements sound more like operatic arias. Although these aren’t considered as masterpieces, I believe Richter’s quartets hold a historical importance, which show the musical foundations from which Haydn and Mozart built their own string quartets on, but nonetheless, I also find them well-written and interesting in their own right. Since I haven’t previously researched into the Mannheim school, looking at the score, I am aware that I was unable to really distinguish more specific stylistic cues in relation to the Viennese School. As such, I’d like to carry out some future investigations in this area in order to move towards considering the Classical era with more specificity, rather than maintain this generic perspective I have on the epoch.
Op. 1, 2 (c.1767-62) and 9 (c.1769-70)
In relation to my research, I would call the six quartets in Op. 1 five-movement diverimenti. The opening Presto movements are fast and vivid in their irregular phrase-lengths with sudden contrasts in texture, dynamics and register, wherein the quartet seems to engage in some witty conversations of banters and repartees. Among these, one my favorite is the first movement of No. 1 in Bb major in 6/8, which sounds very youthful and fresh in the rising arpeggios, surprisingly sounding both bold in the attacks of the bow, but also balanced with the softer, piano notes. In terms of the topical content, I believe it recalls the fanfarish elements of the hunting music. In the places of second and fourth movements are the slower minuets, which often receive a comic take on the relative minor in the trios (secondary section of the ternary form). This is something I found quite peculiar, but I soon learned to be a stylistic trait of Haydn’s. One of the minuets that really caught my eye was the second movement of No. 5, which I found very eloquent in the way it contains moments chromaticism and often shifts between the major and its relative minor in surprising ways. Near the end there is also an interesting passage that uses unisons. I also have to mention that to me, generally, all these slower movements sound like accompanied arias for the first violin. The central, third-movement adagios in their sostenuto, lyrical phrasings often reminded me of hymns especially when these were chordal. Finally, the finale prestos are quite similar to the first movement to me, also with unpredictable phrase-lengths and energetic drive, making the whole form almost cyclical. Op. 2 contains another six quartets, also representing the five-movement divertimenti. Although quite similar in form, these are set in minor keys and I also found the minuets a bit more folk-like and adagios even more soulful. Comparing to all the others, however, to me No. 6 is the most interesting, since it somewhat breaks the mold of these early quartets, beginning with a slow theme and variations, also replacing the central adagio with a scherzo. This quartet to me signals Haydn’s desire to challenge the form and content of this still novel genre to explore its possibilities more fully and inventively.
In this direction, I listened to Op. 9, which represent Haydn’s more ‘mature’ quartets. Curiously, these were still dubbed Divertimenti a quattro, however, I found them miles different from the Op. 1 and 2 divertimenti. Instead, Op. 9 is structured into weightier four movements, which I thought to be a lot more symphonic, spacious and serious in sound. Comparing to the quick-firing rhetorical gestures of the early quartets, the opening movements of Op. 9 have a much more leisurely pulse in Moderato, allowing elaborate figuration to take place, especially in the first violin. My favorite is the sonorous opening of No. 1. with musette-like drones and multiple pedal points. However, No. 5 and 6 abandon this format, with No. 5 in particular being a set of variations like Op. 2 No. 6, while the No. 5 seems to recall the musette-like fanfares of Op. 1 No. 1. In my opinion, this conveys the way Haydn as a composer oscillates between convention and invention in his own music – how the development of new pieces are never linear, but rather circular in one’s stylistic vocabulary. Although minuet and trio from early quartets is somewhat retained in the second movements with rustic textures and folk-like sound carried over from Op. 1 and 2 quartets, I found them more developed in the rhythmic content, where, for example, in No. 3, the first violin in duple meter seems to play a stubborn game against accented triple time of lower instruments. The trio in No. 1 is also quite interesting in the way it doesn’t seem to reach a formal close, but lingers on the dominant. More interestingly, No. 4 represents an exceptions, since the minuet is no longer rustic, but points more towards the traditional courtly dances with moments of fluttering at the cadences and the persistent, rich-sounding double stops in the trio’s first violin that makes the sonorities much thicker. Nonetheless, my favorite are the third movement adagios, which are at times reminiscent to Italian virtuoso arias with rhapsodic openings or ending cadenzas, like in No. 1’s, where the strings seem to recall a Sicilian-like ornate serenade. I also found the opening of the C minor adagio in quartet No. 2 extremely poignant in the way it seems like a keyboard improvisation transcribed for strings, which make me perhaps question if Haydn indeed reused this from his previous material. Lastly, the lively final movements are much more contrapuntal comparing to Op. 1 and 2, almost like baroque toccatas or fugues, though No. 3 for instance is more rustic and folk-like. My favorite is No. 5 finale, which is set in sonata form and based on dominant seventh chords, where I particularly enjoyed the way it seems to fade into pianissimo in the coda. Though the No. 6 finale is also very peculiar in the way it concludes the whole quartet set in binary dance form in a more comic way. In general, I think I could spend hours analyzing Op. 6 quartets and marvel at the way their elements interact with past and future stylistic traits of Haydn.
Op. 33 (1781) and 64 (1790)
Haydn’s next set of six string quartets, Op. 33, was composed almost a decade after Op. 20. During this pause, all the composer’s energies were focused around directing the music for around 50 operas (5 of his own), particularly the comic opera buffa, as well as marionette productions at the Esterhazy palace. Having trained in drama the past few years, I was really intrigued about the marionette operas – a genre I haven’t heard about previously. But without moving away from the focus on the string quartets for this post, I hope to explore this in future units. At any rate, I believe the influence of the operas is clear in terms of the overall lighter and calmer sentiment of the quartets, which provide a sharp contrast to the storminess and the Sturm und Drang style of Op. 20 pieces. In this sense, the pieces are often humorous in character, including musical in-jokes and stealthy changes of keys and textures that are musical equivalents of pratfalls and one-liners. I have to mention here that the idea of music conveying comedy is something I have been more and more interested to explore recently – perhaps another thing to note down for future investigations. Op. 33 is also the first quartet set to include jokey scherzi in place of minuets, as well as witty rondo finales replacing intense fugues of Op. 20. Before I move onto how I found each quartet, I just wanted to mention here that Op. 33 quartets are interestingly nicknamed “Russian” quartets, but not at all due to the musical style, but rather because Haydn dedicated the pieces to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia.
In term of No. 1, I was really surprised how the first movement pretends to start in D major before suddenly settling in the home key of B minor. I found it very sneaky how the work opens with a bright and positive theme in the violin accompanied by the viola, only to be quickly overtaken by a gloomy theme suddenly entering in the cello. Throughout the movement this switcheroo between the light-hearted major and gloomy minor continues. This idea is also continued in the next movement with the dramatic scherzo in the minor and innocent trio in the major. In general, these kind of unpredictable and deceptive reversals between the major and minor keys, accompanied by their contrasting feelings of lightness and darkness, is something I have never encountered and a real treat for the ears – what I would honestly like to try in my future works! As for the third, andante movement, the major key and its happy mood seem to have taken over with the singing style of the quartet reminiscent of an operatic aria. Interestingly, there are moments where the 4th degree of the scale is curiously lifted with the tonic pedal sounded – something that sounded to me like a statement in the Lydian scale, whose acidity (which I mentioned in my post about the modes) adds a kind of humoresque feeling.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
K80 (1770) and K155-60 (1772-3)
In terms of K80, it is Mozart’s first string quartet in four movements, composed when he was only 14. It is nicknamed ‘Lodi’ after the northern Italian town where Mozart composed the piece. Although it is often considered as a juvenile piece composed under his father’s supervision, I still found it graceful overall and believe this piece showcases Mozart’s early mastery of the chamber music, particularly the Italian, the forms and sonorities of which he seems to have absorbed during his tour in the country. I have to say that I have never considered the influence of Italian music on Mozart – somehow I was only taught about him as an exclusively Viennese/Austro-German composer in my previous studies. In any case, the first movement is a soft Adagio in binary form. I found the texture very crisp, allowing for a texture in which various nuances of articulation can be observed, such as the shifts from duplet- to triplet-beat divisions which I really enjoyed. The second movement in Allegro is also set in binary form. It offers a nice contrast to the previous movement, alternating between lively virtuosic displays and some more subdued, but still dynamic fugal sections. The third movement is a menuetto and trio, which I found to be the most graceful out of all movements. The rondeau finale seems to recall the second movement in the Allegro tempo as well as its initial melodic contours – somewhat of cyclicity coming through. This movement is my favorite in the way the refrain theme builds up the rhythmic energy, only to be suddenly interrupted by a playful pause that sets up the coda, which surprisingly ends with a hushed cadence, despite previously extending on the movement’s fast ascending lines. Really enjoyed this surprise!
Moving on to K155-60, this set of six quartets are dubbed the Milanese quartets after their place of composition. All six contain only three movements, in a fast-slow-fast layout reminiscent of the Italian opera overture pattern. In general, like the Lodi quartet, I found them to reflect the gallant Italian style. However, in comparison the former, I found these quartets to contain clear sonata patterns, especially in the lyrical slow movements, as well as certain places of the more contrapuntal writing that foreshadow the eventual Viennese texture, including the melodic and motivic touch that will be known as uniquely Mozart’s.
Op. 10 (c.1782-5)
What I found really interesting is that the publication of Haydn’s Op. 33 set of string quartets coincided with Mozart’s arrival in Vienna, and inspired him into revisiting string quartet composition, leading to this set that he in turn dedicated to Haydn. I really enjoyed the variety of styles, including the Sturm und Drang and its tragic implications of No. 15 in D minor, the tonally mysterious, perhaps even shocking, opening of No. 16 in E-flat in which the octave is followed by a diminished fifth – all played in unison, then the unique No. 19 in C major nicknamed the “Dissonance” for the lack of harmony and fixed key in the extraordinary slow introduction, all to the opera-buffa-like light-hearted finale of No. 17 in B-flat major nicknamed the “Hunt”. It is truly incredible the range of influences on Mozart’s music and I believe I have also started to recognise some of these most easily then before.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Knowing that Beethoven copied some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets, many consider this set to demonstrate Beethoven’s mastery of the genre as developed by Haydn and Mozart. Furthermore, being a product of what is considered his first period, they are often considered less critically acclaimed than Beethoven’s later quartets. Knowing that Beethoven copied some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets, many consider this set to demonstrate Beethoven’s mastery of the genre as developed by Haydn and Mozart. Furthermore, being a product of what is considered his first period, they are often considered less critically acclaimed than Beethoven’s later quartets. However, I think it’s important to inquire into these pieces not as Beethoven’s exploration of the legacy he has inherited, but also in their own right – how they extend the established structures with expressive contrasts, elaborate textures, complex and intense, with quite a few glimpses of his future compositions.
Three Razumovsky quartets op.59 (1805–6), ‘Harp’ quartet op.74 (1809) and ‘Quartetto serioso’ op.95 (1810)
All three of these quartets highlight a deepening of Beethoven’s style inaugurated by the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, with the expansion of the movements and the slow introductions. Comparing to Op. 18, Op. 59 quartets are twice as long. I found it quite interesting how the No. 1‘s cello is always higher than the accompaniment and how the 1st violin doesn’t play so much at the top. The Scherzo really surprised me, as there are moments of just repeated rhythmical notes, where the quartet reminded me more of percussive instruments. I found that for the second, slow movement of No.2, as Czerny mentions (cited by Thayer, 1964) Beethoven composed the piece as he contemplated the starry sky and thought of the music of the spheres – which might explain why I found the movement so sublime. On the other hand, No. 3 seems to be a reaction to Mozart’s ‘Dissonance ‘ quartet, the idea of which extends by not reaching the home key of C until 14 bars even after the Andante introduction. Op. 74 was nicknamed the ‘Harp‘ by players due to the plucked, pizzicati notes of the first movement, which show Beethoven’s sensibilities to the instrumental color and textural possibilities of the string quartet much like the percussive scherzo of Op. 59 No. 2 above – these particular effects I would love to try myself if given the opportunity to write for the genre. As for Op. 95, I was really surprised it completely contrasts the previous pieces by how much it compresses the musical material. Overall, it is very interesting how Beethoven uses the genre of the string quartet to both extend his legacy, as well as explore new avenues of possibility such as new textural colors, but also react to his own music by both broadening its reach, but also compressing it at other times.
Romantic string quartets
Op. 12 (1829) and 13 (1827)
These two quartets explicitly relate to Beethoven’s late quartets (like op.74 and 95 I mention above). As for Op. 12, the slow introduction to the first movement in Op. 12 in Eb major to me represents a reaction to and against Beethoven’s Harp Quartet Op. 74, which I wrote about above. Among many echoes, the clearest is the way Op. 12 opens with a direct paraphrase of the Harp Quartet’s opening phrase. Knowing that Beethoven died only a year or two before Mendelssohn published his Op. 12, I wonder if these instances might perhaps serve as his farewell to the composer? Nonetheless, despite these echoes, I still found the first movement stylistically different from Beethoven’s aforementioned piece. In this light, it sounds much more dramatic and almost operatic, especially in the first violin, where there are passages that remind me of recitatives. In fact, this recitative-like quality is also retained in the third and fourth movements. The operatic quality can also be seen in the way Mendelssohn introduces a new gloomy melody in the second violin in the development section, which is an unusual place to introduce new material in relation to the classical convention – this created an image in me of an ominous character suddenly entering the operatic stage. And like a character, in a very incidental manner, the ominous theme continues to haunt the music, appearing both near the end of the first movement and again in the finale. As such, I would say that the dark theme’s cyclic recurrence represents Mendelssohn’s reframing of Beethoven’s popularized cyclic form in a new, stage/operatic-like context.
Interestingly, in the second movement, Mendelssohn replaces the expected scherzo with a canzonetta. Since canzonetta is known as an Italian vocal genre of dancelike rhythms and imitative texture, I was quite surprised to see it in an instrumental context here. To me, the stage-like quality is even more pronounced in this movement – perhaps even theatrical in its programmatic suggestions, being mostly silent with tiptoeing passages – as if the string quartet, with plucked strings and short, rapid bow strokes, represents masked characters sneaking up on the stage during a courtly dance sequence. This is until the piu mosso, where the string quartet seems to introduce a fantasy world of elven/fairy-like characters with drone pedals. Personally, this pastoral touch reminded me of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons too.
The third Andante movement is a very brief movement with two operatic passages marked con fuoco, leading back to the operatic realm of the first movement. However, comparing to the recitatives of the opening movement, I found this Andante much more aria-like. Moving into the turbulent finale without a pause, in a curious manner, the movement begins in C minor, rather than arriving back to Eb major, as is expected in relation to the traditional quartets. Mid-way through, the melodic material from the first movement melodic returns and the home key is reached only in the coda, whereby the music finally comes to a standstill. This delay in returning to the home key with the accompaniment of familiar music material provides quite a literal effect of reaching home after an exhausting journey. Finally, I have to mention that in my previous music education, I was always taught that Mendelssohn’s music is absolute music, so this almost programmatic, theatrical/scenic/operatic environment suggested in Op. 12 is really absorbing to me.
Contrasting Op. 12 and 13, there is a ‘classicizing’ approach in this later string quartet by Mendelssohn. Taking lead from the quartet style of Haydn and Mozart, Mendelssohn seems to attempt to conflate the principle of his ‘songs without words’ with classical techniques of motivic working into the genre. While I found this interesting, personally, to me Op. 12 and 13 are more imaginative in terms of presenting story-like instances and what they evoke in the listener. However, I can’t deny the compositional richness of Op. 44, where there are all sorts of techniques in the sense of motivic development.
Being a requiem dedicated to his sister who passed away, Op. 80 represents a powerful withdrawal into subjective introspection distanced from the classical formal conceptions. In general, I was absorbed to see that a string quartet could be used in this context. Baring no resemblance to his previous quartets, the music seems to be angry and at times brutal. To me the phrases seem to embody the composer’s pain and frustration through repeated accentuations, furious tempos and the dark and gloomy keys. I believe this work almost placed me inside the composer’s psyche – through all the emotional hues he has experienced dealing with his sister’s death. The honesty that encapsulates the composition is also breathtaking – the honesty I strive to add to my own music.
Op.2 (1862), String Quartets in Bb (1869) and D major (1869-70)- both without opus number; and Op. 89 (1876)
Dvořák represents a Czech tradition of string quartets. However, he still seems to draw from Austro-German influences, combining these with melodic features of Czech folk music. For example, the first quartet seems to be under Mendelssohn’s influence, whereby Dvořák explores the cyclical form. Op. 2 was followed by three quartets without opus numbers (B♭ major in 1869; D in 1869–70; E minor in 1870), which show the influence of Liszt and Wagner. op.16 (1874), in which Dvořák returned to classical formal principles and clear thematic structures. On the other hand, his later quartets, like Op. 80 I listened to, although conforming to the same models, intensify the national stylistic elements of Czech music.
Modern and contemporary string quartets
String Quartet No. 1 (1900)
Reger became the new central figure in the Austro-German quartet tradition, influencing Schoenberg, Bartók and similar composers. His No.1 has highly chromatic outer movements and is fast and driven, held in check only by intensive counterpoint, though the middle movements are more emotional and more tame in relation to the tradition. In general, I though the overall effect of straining at the bounds of the string quartet by continually giving the parts important passages simultaneously, a very interesting device that allows a uniquely charged atmosphere to emerge.
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56 (190)
This five-movement string quartet is subtitled as ‘Intimate voices‘, which programmatically suggests a quality of an intimate or inward conversation taking place. Overall, I found this very inventive and original. At any rate, a dialogue-like call and response phrases of the violin and cello open the first movement. The melody is mournful, perhaps even lonely, which sets an introspective mood. From there, however, the full ensemble joins in with a long theme of step-wise motion characterized by punctuating figurations and firm chords. Here, the way the parts weave through into a rich contrapuntal texture reminds me of murmurs of voices speaking different things all at the same time. I really enjoyed how the movement climaxes into final thick double-stopped chords with fifths and octaves in a very powerful conclusion. The second movement is a hurried, ricocheting short scherzo, though in duple and not triple meter, connected to the first movement by the murmuring musical motifs. Here, it is worth mentioning that the quartet follows the tradition of cyclical form quartets. However, Sibelius structures the thematically linked movements into an arch, anticipating the later use by Bartók and Shostakovich, where the outer, ‘bookend’ movements embrace two scherzi, which in turn frame the central slow movement. But back to the scherzo, I really liked how the tremolos start rather softly, and perhaps somewhat nervously, which reminded me of different moments of worries and anxiety we all experience in our daily lives. However, as the movement progresses, the phrases increasingly brighten from part to part, which I really enjoyed. Moreover, Sibelius also seems to be revealing the theme over time so that it emerges only towards the end – this to me is like an extension of a somewhat similar device Debussy used in his Prelude a L’apres-midi d’un faune, though much more extreme. Personally, I would find it very interesting to use this device in my music too for a kind of delayed and suspenseful effect. As for the central slow movement, it represents the intimate, soulful, deep and emotional nucleus of the work. I find there is a lot of uncertainty in the phrases, the way they are rhythmically unsteady and filled with unstable and flimsy rubato. The lyrical themes also sound almost like in isolation, as if trying to grasp for security in the gentle pleading lines, confessional in tone. Like the first scherzo, the second scherzo is also connected by motivic similarity to the first movement in the murmuring figures, however, comparing to the former, it is a true triple meter scherzo (though I remember writing about duple meter scherzos in Composing 1 unit that aren’t so uncommon). Comparing to the first scherzo, the tonality is a lot darker and the themes are more restless, stomping forth through a nervous motion that constantly undermines the pulse of the folk dance patterns. The overall tone is of turmoil, as if the voices are forced into an argument, playing like intrigues during a social dance event. The polyphony of the first movement surfaces again in the finale. This time, however, the fierce perpetual motion surges forward into a frantic tarantella, with the two-part stretto textures painting a picture of the voices participating in a close cat-and-mouse chase – the urgency of which I found overwhelming, especially in the tremolos. I found it exceptionally powerful the way the music rushes into the final, definitive-sounding cadence as if rebellious, but on the other hand, with so much nervousness built up through the movements, it also made think of a mental breakdown. Perhaps leaving the listener wonder which of these options it could be, the piece makes us engage at the edges of our seats with a memorable ending.
String Quartets No. 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6
Bartók had gone forward from Reger’s model to folk music in his String Quartet No. 1 and No. 2. Both of them begin with slow, chromatic, meandering fugues and end with a dance. Moving from the exacerbated Romanticism of his first two quartets, Bartok’s next two quartets are based on the style where vividly expressive elements become building-blocks in structures of closely made mirror patterns and symmetries in No. 4 and No. 5. As I mentioned in the learning log post on the first movement of No. 4, the sonata forms are often concealed, and the larger form is established by overarching palindromes. Generally, I found these quartets more objective and experimental, though the idea of palindromes does interest me, but more in line with the writing of Sibelius’ Voces Intimae quartet I wrote about above. Howevere, I truly enjoyed No. 6 quartet, in which Bartok finally reaches a new Romantic style developed through variations, while continuity is created at a very local level by intensive imitative textures.
No. 1 (1905) and No. 2 (1907-8)
Schoenberg reacted to Max Reger’s expansion of the scale of quartets and cyclic form, in his own D minor Quartet (1905), so that an immense single movement scherzo and Adagio episodes emerge from within continuous development. Unlike Reger, however, he introduces new effects – harmonics, pizzicato, sul ponticello – that I found both expressive or ironic. On the other hand, No.2 (1907–8) shows Shoenberg’s break with tonality, with the introduction of a soprano to sing poems by Stefan George in the last two movements, where I found that the power of the quartet is greatly compromised into only an accompanying part of the whole.
Lyric Suite follows a private programme relating to the great love affair of his later years, and to that end uses quotation from Tristan und Isolde). I found the use of serialism very passionate when intertwined with his Romantic voice and delicacy of scoring. This is certainly what I haven’t encountered before for the technique and what really inspired me to give it another shot.
Op. 28 (1924)
This concise string quartet is based on the tone road of the Bach motif. The themes weave into tight canonic threads of sounds through each of the three movements, with an extreme reduction in the intervals and rhythmic values that can appear. I found it to be a real distillation of the twelve-tone technique. Something I surprisingly really enjoyed…
Fourth String Quartet (1989-90)
This quartet represents a reaction to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, which I wrote about above. Like Schoenberg’s piece, Ferneyhough’s Fourth String Quartet includes two movements with soprano, with the text being derived from Ezra Pound’s Canto LXXII and Jackson McLow’s gloss on the same Canto. Generally, I found the dialog between different movements or between the quartet and the voice as a kind of philosophical discussion. Almost like a debate between a speculative person and a traditionalist. Though this intellectual dimension of the piece and Ferneyhough’s style don’t really match my musical taste, this quartet made me nonetheless curious to learn more about his music that I am not so familiar with.
WTC 9/11 (2011)
I found the overall concept of this string quartet very similar to Different Trains. Like the latter piece, WTC 9/11 is based on the semi-(auto)biographical, real-life event, this time the September 11 attack in 2001. Like Different Trains it contains three movements, all situated in different time frames and Reich also uses voice recordings in his speech melody technique as related to the happening, specifically from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), as well as parts of interviews with family, friends and neighbors that lived in Manhattan at the time.
One thing unlike the Different Trains is that the tempo is consistent throughout the entire piece. Another thing for me is the overall atmosphere which I found a lot more terrifying, particularly in the way Reich’s music recreates the chaos and terror of the event, most notably with the panicked recordings taken from the day of the event itself to which the string quartet reacts in an almost devastating effect. As such, the words seem to burn through the music’s fabric and I was truly jarred throughout the piece. The first movement, 9/11/01, begins and ends with a violin imitating the sound a phone makes when left off the hook – something I found incredibly absorbing. Voice recordings begin with NORAD air traffic controllers concerned with the off-track American Airlines Flight 11, and move to FDNY recordings related to activities on the ground. In the second movement the voices shift to interviews conducted in 2010. Finally, in the third movement, Steve Reich takes inspiration from his friend the composer David Lang, creator in 2003 of World To Come, “WTC” being the common acronym of both their works. Only this movement seemed a bit comforting to me, which finally mellows out and enters the days following 9/11/01, a time when bodies were amassed in large tents on the East Side of Manhattan. Despite this dark connotation, Reich incorporates the Jewish tradition of shmira – which I learned denotes to keeping watch over the dead. This Jewish liturgical music underscoring has been truly heart-felt and comforting, even with the pitch of a dial tone echoing again at the very end.
String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
This string quartet, subtitled ‘Company’, is yet another programmatic string quartet, being initially conceived for theatre rather than chamber music. Having listed quite a few programmatic string quartets in this post alone, I think my views on the genre representing exclusively absolute chamber music has been drastically changed. And as someone interested in programmatic music, I would love to experiment with the string quartet in this very context. At any rate, Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned as incidental instrumental music for the actor Fred Neumann’s monologue adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s prose-poem Company (1979), originally representing four separate musical interpolations of the work.
Interestingly, I found that Glass chose the string quartet as the medium for the adaptation because it allows for “introspective and passionate quality well suited to the text” and how the four movements mirror the four places Beckett himself referred to as the “intercices as it were” (cited in Wise Music Classical, n.d.). Moreover, I read that Glass’ process included extracting the music from the action and that Beckett himself was pleased at the space the music left for the drama. Indeed, I found Glass’ modal inflections and metric shifts to not only contain the plaintive, but also dramatic quality – something I would have said to contrast one another too much to be unified under one context prior to this piece. Having studied drama, I was quite familiar with Beckett’s themes of death, solitude and the questions of identity in Company. And though I found some of this in the intensified lyricism present in the composition, I believe the String Quartet No. 2 is able to stand on its own, addressing Beckett’s piece more from an abstracted angle. As someone who started writing programmatic music from quite a literal angle, I think this approach to source material is the one I would like to lean towards more in my future works. I believe this abstraction of the source material is also magnified in the opening instructions of the piece that focus on one’s imagination: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’
In terms of the work itself, as I would expect from Minimalism, Glass’ quartet is a thematically cohesive cyclical ‘monochrome’ work, whereby all four short movements are closely related. In general, I have really grown to like these monochrome settings in Minimalism, which place expressive emphasis on the instrumental levelling and subtle shades resulting from the shifting textures. I feel like this is something I haven’t yet explored in my work and would be very interesting to do so in the future. Moving on to the structure of the piece, the first movement is a series of variations on a simple harmonic scheme with a static tonal center, where the movement mainly occurs in the inner lines. Keeping with the same harmonic space, the second movement is faster with more aggressive figurations, whereby the underlying steady rhythm is resisted by the hemiolas in the upper lines introducing a tension between triple and duple meter. The third movement revisits the contours of the first, with only slight harmonic alteration and textural elaboration. Meanwhile, the fourth movement revisits the second movement’s tension between triple and duple meter, however, there is a more somber tone that fades to a whisper. What I found the most captivating is that the music seems to continue off from something that happened prior and seems to melt into something that will happen after. With the abstracted treatment of the programmatic motivation, I believe Glass allows the listener to imagine what this something could be – perhaps the most powerful thing to grant a listener.
Thayer, E. (1964) The Life of Beethoven. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wise Music Classical (n.d.) Philip Glass: String Quartet No 2 “Company” (1983). At: https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/work/12797/String-Quartet-No-2-Company–Philip-Glass/ (Accessed 16 August 2020)