Posted in Project 2: String Quartets

Research Point 5.4: Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988)

The aim of this research point is to listen to Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988) with a score, then discuss important features with the piece, such as the use of the string quartet or the recordings in the work, as well as include some background information of the composer. I will first start this post by providing a brief biographical outline of Steve Reich, before focusing on the main aspects of the composition. Although I have went much over the 400 word-count in the brief, I believe some points I make, particularly about the ‘reality check’ and ‘shock of the banal’ near the end, very relevant to my studies.

Short biography of the composer

Born in 1936 in New York, Steve Reich (Fig. 1) is known for his artistic contributions as one of the main exponents of Minimalism – a contemporary classical art music style devoted to the ideals of simplicity, such as repetitions and combinations of simple motifs/harmonies, which developed in response to the complexity of the intellectually sophisticated style of avant-garde music (Britannica, 2020).

Fig. 1. Steve Reich (n.d.)

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Research Point 5.3: An ever-changing, multi-faceted discipline of musical analysis

The aim of this research point is to carry out a small-scale investigation into different methodologies of musical analysis in order to create an overview on how to approach various aspects of music to refer to later on in the degree. Along these lines, the instructions specified to look at both the musical analysis in a broad sense, as well as more particularly at some key practitioners and their individual methods, all while referring to some personal thoughts on the subject.

To begin, after spending considerable amount of time trying to find different definitions of musical analysis, I realised that despite all my previous training in music, I was never once asked and likewise, never considered to ask myself, what this discipline actually was. Instead, I was always given different tools by my teachers in order to ‘unpack’ a musical piece, without knowing precisely where these analytical devices had come from, what makes them valuable, as well as why use them in the first place. As such, this was my first opportunity to not only inquire more into the analytical tools I’ve learned how to use prior to the course, but also generally start to reconsider what I’ve been taking for granted in my previous studies.

In this direction, I first turned to Bent’s (1987: 6) all-embracing outlook that musical analysis is “the means of answering directly the question ‘How does it [musical phenomena] work?”. This question, I believe, puzzled the minds since the advent of sound and even humanity itself. A curiosity that evolved into early systematic, yet still ‘auxiliary’ tools in the Middle ages, and finally grew into a kaleidoscopic and labyrinthine discipline of its own right from the mid-18th century onward, attracting answers that differ from analyst to analyst, who developed their own methodologies.

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Research Point 5.2: String Quartet

The aim of this research point is to inquire into the history of string quartet from its beginnings in the 18th century to the present day, as well as note down important composers of the genre and the quartet’s relationship to social and cultural contexts. To start off, I will first write about the origins of quartet with some points on the emergence of the term and then move through the history of the genre up to the present day.

Obscure early origins

String quartet denotes an ensemble of musicians consisting of four string players – two violinists, a violist and a cellist, as well as a musical genre that follows the large-scale sonata structure and considered by many the supreme form of chamber music. Once I began researching, I found that the string quartet’s origins are very obscure with no clear-cut, direct precursor (Eisen, 2001)

Although there were perhaps Renaissance ensembles in the 16th century that might have resembled the quartet structure, composers at the time were not concerned with definite instrumental color, though according to Pincherle and Norton (1929: 78) “the instrumentation by ‘families’ of “homogenous type in which the four members, each defining a different tessitura, were graduated in exact imitation of the four parts of the vocal quartet” in the polyphony style of the time. However, with the development of the figured bass system in baroque music, the medium of four stringed instruments were abandoned except in England with the genre called fancy based on the Italian fantasia (Apel, 1969: 306).

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Exercise 5.5

This exercise is about making a piano arrangement of the first 30 bars of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18 No. 1. The brief specified to include some basic background information regarding the piece, which I will commence this post with.

Beethoven’s Op. 18 is consisted of six string quartets, commissioned for Prince Joseph Lobkowitz and published in 1801. In composing the quartets, Beethoven drew from the legacy of Haydn and Mozart, even copying Haydn’s Op. 20 and Mozart’s 1785 quartets, in order to understand how to write for the medium (11). I found this especially interesting – although he had studied violin in his apprentice years and had played viola in the Bonn orchestra, Beethoven was primarily a pianist who improvised and composed at the keyboard (10), and as such he had to study the genre. Along these lines, it is not surprising that he had heavily revised quartet No. 1, writing to his friend Karl Amenda: “I have greatly changed it, having just learned how to write quartets properly.” In this sense, the quartet is an important evidence of Beethoven’s growth as a musician and composer, showing his mastery over the quartet texture he had recently started exploring.

The first movement, Allegro con brio is in F major in 3/4 follows, opening with a two-bar motif that is boldy stated in unison. The motif permeates the whole movement, overlaid into Beethoven’s rather complex contrapuntal writing. The motif also introduces the organization of two-bar segments in terms of the metrical beat, with the first being strong and the second weak.

My arrangement of the first 30 bars for piano is below:

In my opinion, the first half of this segment was quite easy to arrange. I didn’t have to alter anything in terms of pitches. The articulation also remained mostly the same, except for two instances of dynamic reconsideration at bar 14 and 16 in which I could only retain diminuendo, but not the initial crescendo due to the differing nature of the instruments. While the violin could easily achieve the rising and falling dynamics of a long note in a single sustained bow by altering pressure, this is impossible on the piano due to the percussive nature of keys.

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Exercise 5.4

The task of this exercise is to analyse the different textures in the second movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 No. 3, known as the ‘Emperor’.

To begin, the movement is structured as theme with four variations. The theme is Haydn’s own hymn God Save Emperor Franz, harmonized in four parts of the string quartet. The texture here is homophonic, with the hymn being played in the first violin.

In the first variation, the theme is situated in the second violin, accompanied by fast arpeggiated first violin with semiquaver notes that contrast the slow notes of the hymn. Personally, the texture here reminds me of the floral organum – the hymn notes are like cantus firmus on top of which the other part provides elaborate floral passages.

Next, the theme is played by the cello in the second variation, on top of which the other three parts add free contrapuntal layers in long notes. This texture is very Renaissance-like, reminding of motets of Palestrina and other composers we looked at in the first part of the unit.

In the third variation, viola plays the hymn, with the other parts entering separately, creating moments of two-part, three-part and finally, four-part contrapuntal texture that often contains canonic echoes. The treatment is again in free counterpoint.

In the final variation, all the voices start at the same time, with the theme brought back to the first violin, this time in the higher register. There is an interesting blend between homophonic and contrapuntal textures, with the distinction almost blurred. What I find especially exhilarating is how approaching the end, the whole melodic structure becomes increasingly chromatic, introducing a new tension before softly resolving into the final cadence.

Overall, I really enjoyed listening to this movement of Haydn’s quartet, which was like a journey to me. I think it’s really special in its construction of textures that honor the previous polyphonic traditions – such as the organum-like first variation and the free Renaissance-like counterpoint found in the other variations. Approaching the final notes, these are blurred into the modern homophony and the chromaticism by which Haydn brings his hymn back into the musical reality of his contemporary era of classicism.