1. Dmitri Shostakovitch, String Quartet No 3 in F Op 73 (1946)
Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975) wrote 15 symphonies and also 15 string quartets. His series of quartets has been compared in importance to that by Beethoven and together with the six quartets by Bartók it forms the most important series written in the 20th c. The numeral balance between symphonies and quartets is somewhat misleading, by the way, for it was not until the Fifth Symphony (1937) that the First Quartet appeared. The 13th quartet appeared just before the last symphony, in 1970, after which two more quartets would follow in 1973 and 1974 - the last one sublime but so bleak and death-haunted that it is difficult to listen to it (in contrast to the 15th symphony, where the darkness is at least somewhat lighted up by a sort of surrealist carnival). I have therefore selected the characteristic Third Quartet which is one of the finest in the whole cycle. It consists of natural and fluent music, "vintage Shostakovitch." The quartet is in five movements. The opening sonata-form Allegretto is bright and playful - featuring an innocent theme of Mozartian grace, like in the First Quartet. In the Moderato con moto we hear harsh repetitions and ostinatos, as if the pastoral world of the first movement is now under threat. That threat takes shape in the centrally placed Allegro non troppo, a grotesque and hard-driven march-cum-scherzo, typical ferocious Shostakovitchian music we also find in similar movements in the 10th and 11th symphonies. This is followed by an Adagio, which is in fact a passacaglia of great expressive power (it reminded me of the great passacaglia in Shostakovitch's First Violin Concerto), mixed with a funeral march (to lament the militaristic onslaught that has taken place in the previous movement?). The theme of the passacaglia is recalled in the mocking finale (Moderato), where it is played fortissimo at the climax, before the music fades away.
[Also see this interesting Introduction to the 15 quartets of Shostakovitch]
Recording listened to: Borodin String Quartet on EMI (with Second Quartet).
2. Nikolay Myaskovsky, String Quartet No 12 in G Major Op 77 (1947)
The Russian composer Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950) studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Here he also met Sergei Prokofiev with whom he became firm friends, despite the age difference. After graduation, Myaskovsky taught in Saint Petersburg, and from 1921 at the Moscow Conservatory, a position he retained until his death. Among his many pupils were Aram Khachaturian, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Rodion Shchedrin, and Boris Tchaikovsky. Myaskovsky was a prolific composer of symphonic and chamber music - he wrote 13 string quartets, between 1930 and 1950 (besides composing the stunning number of 27 symphonies between 1908 and 1949). The Twelfth Quartet was composed in 1947 and dedicated to Myaskovky's pupil Kabalevsky. It is in four movements. It opens with a rather desolate introduction, after which follows a luminous and flowing Allegro moderato, characterized by a soulful lyricism. The Allegro fantastico has energetic pizzicati and quixotic rhythms. The Trio is atmospherically lugubrious. The Andante con espressione is filled with chromaticisms, long melodic lines and muted strings. There are strong hints of the folkloric in the breezily confident Finale (Allegro non troppo). An admirable quartet, arguably Miaskovsky's best (other contenders are the Tenth Quartet, and some of the earlier ones, as Nos 2 & 3).
[Also see Nikolai Miaskovsky - A Survey of the Chamber Works, Orchestral Music and Concertos on Record]
Recording listened to: The Taneyev Quartet on Northern Flower (with Quartet No 13).
3. Grażyna Bacewicz, String Quartet No 3 (1947)
The Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was born in Łódź. Her father was Lithuanian. She studied at the Warsaw Conservatory and after graduation continued her studies in Paris, among others with Nadia Boulanger. She worked as principal violinist of the Polish Radio Orchestra and after WWII took up the position of professor at the State Conservatoire of Music in Łódź. The violin figures prominently in her compositions - she wrote seven violin concertos and eight violin sonatas (of which three for solo violin). She also wrote seven string quartets and four numbered symphonies. Bacewicz is one of Poland's most remarkable composers, whose works all show a joy in string-instrument sonorities. The Third Quartet was composed while Bacewicz was on a concert tour in Paris just after the war. It is marked by a neoclassicist style, but also by folk music and dance rhythms. The quartet brings not only Bartók to mind, but also Tippett (both composers introduced in Best String Quartets, Part Four). There are three movements. The opening movement is a subtly wrought sonata-allegro structure. The central slow movement is a graceful creation, with elegant melodic phrases. The rondo-finale is in high spirits, full of wit and invention, as if transported from the 18th c. In general this is carefree and optimistic music, but certainly not without depth and weight. The Fourth Quartet from 1951, by the way, is generally regarded as Bacewicz' best and it helped her also get international attention, but I have a personal preference for the brightness of her Third Quartet.
Recording listened to: Lutoslawski Quartet on Naxos (Complete string quartets on 2 CDs).
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was one of the most prolific French composers of the 20th c. His modernist compositions are influenced by jazz and make use of polytonality. Milhaud was born in Marseille and studied at the Paris Conservatoire where he met Honegger and Tailleferre with whom (and others) he would later form The Group of Six. Milhaud wrote operas, ballets, symphonies, stage works, film scores and also chamber music. Between 1912 and 1958, he wrote 18 string quartets (consciously one more than Beethoven). Some of these quartets are like a personal diary, others seem to be used for musical experiments. The Sixteenth Quartet belongs in the first category, as it was dedicated to Milhaud's wife Madeleine on their 25th wedding anniversary. The first movement (Tendre) is played entirely with mutes and weaves a leisurely contrapuntal discourse. Except for one passionate outburst, this is quiet music. The second movement (Vif) opens with a lively theme. In the third movement (Doux et calme) the players put the mutes back on for warmly lyrical music. The finale (Anime) is in contrast a joyously boisterous movement. In all, this is calm and tender music, exuding a pleasant human warmth, a great tribute by the composer to his wife.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii on Auvidis Valois (with quartets 2, 7 & 13).
5. Edmund Rubbra, String Quartet No 2 in E Flat Op 73 (1951)
The British composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) could be called a "composer's composer" (after the analogy with a "writer's writer"): a composer who is admired, appreciated and respected by fellow musicians, but who is not very popular with the general public, because his complex works are not easily approachable, or because he writes more from the intellect than the heart. Rubbra studied at the Royal College of Music and early in life earned his living by giving piano recitals or playing the piano for a touring theater group. After WWII, he became lecturer at the new faculty of music at Oxford University. As a composer, Rubbra devised his own distinctive style, discarding the at that time fashionable twelve-tone music, although he was certainly a modernist. His style is melody-based and therefore has a vocal feel; he works from a single melodic idea and then lets the music grow from that, without applying any formal rules. Rubbra is known for his eleven symphonies, for large-scale choral works (his Missa Sancti Dominici from 1948) and his chamber music, which shows a great variety. Between 1933 and 1977 he also wrote four string quartets. The Second String Quartet from 1951 is in four movements. The first and last movements are built along similar lines: they have reflective openings leading to vigorous dance-like music. The second movement is a scherzo called "polimetrico," with the four instruments playing independent rhythms - but it doesn't sound "difficult" at all. The third movement is a Cavatine, rarefied mystical music with a strong abnegation of ornament and therefore of almost monastic severity. This is a brilliantly written and deeply felt quartet, but also essentially reserved music, which repays repeated listening.
Recording listened to: Maggini Quartet on Naxos (with Piano Trio etc.).
6. Elliott Carter, String Quartet No 1 (1951)
The American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was a formidable figure in the musical world of his country. His life spanned more than a century and he remained very active as a composer into his most advanced years. Carter studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s. After his return to the United States, he held various prestigious teaching posts throughout his life, at Yale, Columbia, Cornell and the Juilliard School. Carter was a Modernist, whose style - after an early neoclassical phase - emphasized atonality and rhythmic complexity. He is one of the most important 20th c. American composers. Carter wrote in all five string quartets. The First Quartet was composed while the New Yorker Carter stayed in the Arizona desert. The impressive quartet was Carter's major breakthrough as a composer, a mature work in which he brought all his advanced techniques together. It is a long and complex piece, uncompromising in its gritty harmonic language, but if you keep Bartok in mind, you'll probably find your way through it. Although there are four movements (Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole (a sort of scherzo), Adagio, Variations), these are played without pause; the two pauses in the work occur within movements, the first in the middle of the Allegro scorrevole, the second one soon after the beginning of the Variations. The quartet starts with a solo cello recitative, which is completed by the solo violin at the very end of the work, like two bookends. Carter said that this was suggested by Jean Cocteau's film Le Sang d'un poète, in which the entire dreamlike action is framed by an interrupted slow-motion shot of a tall brick chimney being dynamited and collapsing - the collapse occurring at the very end of the film. An important technique used by Carter in this quartet is "metric modulation" (you can also hear this in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments of 1920, but Carter uses it in much more complex way): the music continuously changes meters by superposing one rhythmic pattern on another; that new pattern then supersedes the previous one and itself becomes the basic meter. Carter uses this technique instead of traditional tonal modulation. Thus this quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters, the one woven into the other or emerging from it, as Carter said, "like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written."
Recording listened to: The Arditti String Quartet on Etcetera (with the Fourth Quartet).
7. Heitor Villa-Lobos, String Quartet No 15 (1954)
Brazil's best known composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-59) is widely regarded as one of the most important 20th c. musicians of the Americas. He studied at the conservatory in Rio de Janeiro. Like Bartok in Hungary and Vaughan Williams in England, Villa Lobos explored the music of Brasil's indigenous cultures, from Portuguese, African and American Indian elements to the music of popular street bands. In 1917, he met both Diaghilev and Milhaud who came to Brasil, and was introduced to the music of Debussy and Stravinsky. In the 1920s, he stayed twice for prolonged periods in Paris, taking in the latest trends, and reaching a synthesis in his work between Brazilian and European elements. Besides his large-scale works, such as his many Choros and Bachianas Brasileiras, his symphonies and concertos, Villa-Lobos also wrote a considerable amount of chamber music, among which 17 string quartets. Villa-Lobos claimed to have learned quartet technique from studying the quartets of Haydn. The Fifteenth Quartet was composed in 1954. It is know as the "Harmonics" Quartet owing to the timbral effects at the beginning and end of the slow movement. The quartet is tonal and bright in tone. The first movement has a ternary structure with a dance-like coda appended. The slow movement mainly is serious in tone, with a central section suggestive of a modinha (a Portuguese song). The Scherzo displays youthful vitality, but the finale, which starts with the cello announcing the main theme, is unexpectedly slow and serious. This is complex music - for Villa Lobos in a more popular and folkloristic vein (as most people know him), listen to his Fifth Quartet.
Recording listened to: Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo (with quartets 3 & 10).
8. Mieczysław Weinberg (Moishe Vainberg), String Quartet No 10 Op 85 (1964)
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Russian composer of Polish-Jewish origin. In 1939, he fled for the Nazis (who murdered most of his family) to the Soviet Union, where he started his career in music with the help of Shostakovitch (who also had an obvious influence on the younger composer). The two composers remained friends and lived near to each other in Moscow, which facilitated the exchange of ideas. Weinberg left a huge body of work: 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 8 violin sonatas, 6 cello sonatas, 6 piano sonatas, film music and 7 operas, of which The Passenger has in recent years sparked a revival. Weinberg is sometimes ranked as the third great Soviet composer, after Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. Weinberg's seventeen quartets, like those of Shostakovitch to which they bear comparison in terms of quality and quantity, are personal works. Both friends carried on a sort of "competition" in quartet writing, spurring each other on. Weinberg's Tenth Quartet was written in 1964 and dedicated to the composer's future second wife, Olga Rakhalskaya - not coincidentally, a little earlier that same year, Shostakovitch had dedicated his Ninth Quartet to his wife Irina, and after seeing Weinberg's Tenth Quartet, would soon start work on his own tenth quartet. The present quartet is in four movements, but they are played without a break. The work starts surprisingly with an elegiac Adagio. When this dies away, the brilliant and virtuosic Scherzo suddenly arises. In the third movement, again an Adagio, material from the first movement is taken up and further developed. After a cello passage functioning as a bridge, comes the final Allegretto, which is like a charming waltz - but the last six bars return us to the questioning beginning of the quartet, completing the arch.
Recording listened to: Gothenburg Quartet on Olympia (with quartets 1 & 17).
9. Alberto Ginastera, String Quartet No 2 Op 26 (1958, revised 1968)
The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was born in Buenos Aires to a Catalan father and Italian mother. He studied at the conservatory of his hometown and just after the world also with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He has several teaching posts but in 1968 left Argentina for the U.S. and later Switzerland. With for example Villa Lobos in Brazil and Chavez and Revueltas in Mexico, Ginastera is one of the most important 20th c. composers of the Americas. His music, which contains work in all genres except the traditional symphony, is usually divided into three periods: "Objective Nationalism" (1934-1948), "Subjective Nationalism" (1948-1958), and "Neo-Expressionism" (1958-1983). In the first period he used Argentine folk themes in a straightforward fashion, while in the second period those borrowings became more abstract. In the third period he started using serial composition, microtones, indeterminacy, and polytonality. The Second Quartet stands at the beginning of that third period and is Ginastera's first work in twelve-tone style - in the expressive way of Alban Berg (with an admixture of Bartok). There are five movements. An Allegro rustico and a Furioso make up the two outer movements, and a further fast movement, a Presto magico (a strangely disquieting night scene), stands in third place at the center of the quartet, in turn framed by two slow movements, the Adagio angoscioso and the Libero e rapsodico. This is again a masterly quartet written in response to a commission from the renowned Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation.
Recording listened to: Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova (with Quartet no 1)
10. Aulis Sallinen, String Quartet No. 3 Op 19 "Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March" (1969)
Aulis Sallinen (1935) is a contemporary Finnish composer, who has written 6 operas, 8 symphonies, various concertos and chamber music - in that last category are also various works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. He studied at the Sibelius Academy, served as administrator of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and later in life was made a Professor of Arts by the Finnish Government, so that he could concentrate on composing full-time. While Sallinen's lyric writing shows a strong influence from his great predecessor Sibelius, there is also a certain harsh and satiric touch in his music that is reminiscent of Prokofiev, Shostakovitch and Weill. In the early sixties, he was influenced by serialism, but as his Third Quartet from 1969 shows, by the end of the decade was already moving away from it. The Third String Quartet was composed for an unpretentious reason: to be used at school concerts. The composer decided to use an immediately recognizable, traditional Finnish fiddle tune, "Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March," as the basis for a set of variations. The quartet is in fact a work of continuous variation in which the theme never disappears, ever present like a distant horizon. The opening of the quartet is deceptively simple: first violin and cello play the mournful melody two octaves apart, but slightly differently, giving the suggestion that what we hear is the echo of a march played in the distance. The instrumental techniques are quite varied, ranging from thrumming pizzicato chords to ghostly harmonics.
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Glass, Nancarrow, Sculthorpe and others).
11. Peter Sculthorpe, String Quartet No 8 (1969)
The Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) studied at the conservatory in Melbourne and later also with Egon Wellesz (see Best String Quartets, Part Three) in Oxford. For most of his life, he was professor at the University of Sydney. Sculthorpe wrote two operas, orchestral and chamber music, including 18 string quartets. He avoided atonal techniques, but instead studied non-Western music. His work is therefore often characterized by unusual timbral effects and a distinctive use of percussion. This is also clear in the Eight String Quartet from 1969. When writing this quartet, Sculthorpe was influenced by two Balinese idioms, ketungan, the rhythmic rice pounding music of Bali (used in the two fast movements), as well as by arja, a kind of Balinese song play (used in the three slow movements, and played con dolore). The first and last movements are almost entirely for solo cello. Like the third movement, they create a feeling of improvisation and are like timeless and placeless chants, deeply sad. The second and fourth movements, based on the ketungan, have strict meters which are more characteristically Indonesian. One can even hear the hubbub of village life in their dance-like plucks and swings.
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Glass, Nancarrow, Sallinen and others).
12. Ben Johnston, String Quartet No 4 "Amazing Grace" (1973)
The contemporary composer Ben Johnston (1926) is known for his use of "just intonation," making him one of the foremost practitioners of micro-tonal music. Just or pure intonation is "any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers," as Wikipedia states. It is a contrasting system from equal temperament, which dominates Western instruments of fixed pitch such as piano or organ. Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois from 1951 to 1986 before retiring to North Carolina. He was in frequent contact with such "avant-garde" figures as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis. Like Sallinen (No 12 above) and others, he was in his early music influenced by post-Webern serialism, but later moved to a more tonal style, as is clear from his Fourth String Quartet. The eleven minute quartet is as the name says a set of variations on the hymn "Amazing Grace," traversing different tunings, all in just intonation. The rhythmic language is of great complexity. This quartet was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago. It has been recorded several times, making it one of Johnston's most popular compositions.
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Volans, Ives, Bartok and others under the title "White Man Sleeps").
13. Henri Dutilleux, "Ainsi la nuit" for string quartet (1976)
The French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) developed his own idiosyncratic style, influenced neither by Messiaen nor by Boulez (but rather extending the legacies of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky). Although he incorporated some serial techniques, he felt ambiguous about serialism in general, especially its dogmatism. Dutilleux studied before WWII at the Paris Conservatoire and also won the Prix de Rome (without being able to go to Rome because of the outbreak of the war). After the war, he worked as Head of Music Production for Radio France and later as Professor of Composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He was composer in residence at Tanglewood in 1995 and 1998. Dutilleux wrote slowly, but all his works are perfect masterpieces, such as his Piano Sonata, the two symphonies, the Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain" (see my post Best Cello Concertos), the Violin Concerto "L'arbre des songes," and the present String Quartet "Ainsi la nuit," or "Thus the night." As the title implies, its atmosphere is nocturnal, like the progression of a dream. The rhythmically very complex score contains a broad range of string effects and differing colors. Dutilleux prepared himself by studying the Six Bagatelles by Webern and the Lyric Suite by Berg (see Best String Quartets, Part Four). There are seven interrelated movements played without a break: "Nocturne"-"Miroir d'espace"-"Litanies"-"Litanies II"-"Constellations"-"Nocturne II"-"Temps suspendu." Several techniques that are characteristic for Dutilleux are displayed in the quartet: "fan-shaped" writing (i.e. the voices of the four stringed instruments mirroring each other), the outlining of a tonal triad in a seemingly atonal work (a D Major triad: the pitch of D in the introduction, F Sharp in "Litanies II" and A in "Constellation," the climax of the work) , and a similarity of some melodies to the modality of the Gregorian chant (in "Nocturne I" and the opening of "Litanies II"). Ainsi la nuit also displays "progressive growth," a technique through which musical motifs can both recall music that was heard before or hint at music that will be played in later movements. This quartet is definitely one of the ultimate masterpieces of the 20th c. string quartet repertory.
[Guardian article about Dutilleux]
Recording listened to: Schoenberg Quartet on Koch Schwann (with chamber music by Debussy and Chausson).
14. Toru Takemitsu, A Way A Lone for string quartet (1981)
Tokyo-born Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was the first contemporary Japanese composer to make an impression in the West. Largely self-taught, he devised a style of his own, although there are elements of the Second Viennese School, Debussy, Messiaen and Cage. An interesting difference with Western music is that where all classical Western music is grounded in a bass, Takemitsu's music seems to float freely in the air. Toru Takemitsu was largely self-taught in music. In 1957 he attracted international attention with his Requiem for String Orchestra, which earned praise from Stravinsky, then on a visit to Japan. His major works include orchestral music like The Dorian Horizon (1966), and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977); concertos like Arc Part I for piano and orchestra (1963; as well as Part II from the next year), November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra (1967) and the viola concerto A String Around Autumn (1989; see my post Best Works for Viola); as well as many chamber works and music for solo piano and guitar. Takemitsu was also an important composer of film music, he scored hundreds of films, such as Harakiri by Kobayashi, The Woman in the Dunes by Teshigahara and Ran by Kurosawa. Takemitsu's shimmering sound world has an ephemeral quality and is usually capped by poetic titles. He liked to compare composing and listening to music to walking through a classical Japanese garden. The present quartet was commissioned by the Tokyo Quartet in 1981. The title comes from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, where the closing line of the long and abstruse novel reads: "The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the" (which unfinished sentence then links up with the first sentence of the novel like a snake biting its own tail). One could say that Takemitsu's quartet, which is just under 10 minutes, swirls along like the stream of words in Joyce which has become just a series of sonic objects. With its dizzying textures and coloristic effects, the rhapsodic music flows along naturally, like a surreal conversation. This is music of luminous beauty from Japan's most important 20th century composer.
Recording listened to: Tokyo String Quartet on RCA Victor (with quartets by Britten & Barber).
15. Alfred Schnittke, String Quartet No 3 (1983)
The Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) underwent the influence of Shostakovitch, before developing a polystylistic technique in works such as the epic Symphony No 1 (1969-1972) and his first Concerto grosso (1977). He studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where he also worked as a teacher until the early 1970s. After that, he mostly earned his money by writing film scores (more than 70 in 30 years time). Despite almost constant illness, Schnittke produced a large amount of music in all genres, including 10 symphonies, 4 violin concertos, 3 viola concertos, 2 cello concertos and 5 piano concertos, a Requiem and a very large amount of chamber music. Schnittke wrote his Third Quartet (of a total of four) in 1983 when his music began to become more widely known abroad, thanks in part to the work of émigré Soviet artists. The quartet, in three movements played without break (Andante-Agitato-Pesante), is a polystylistic work that uses various musical quotations, a sort of trademark of Schnittke's mature style. In the first movement we hear a cadential sequence from a Stabat Mater by Orlando di Lasso, the theme of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op 133, and the personal musical monogram of Dmitri Shostakovich, "DSCH." These three elements are not used as cheap pastiche or montage, but in fact form the organic basis for the whole quartet. Like a sort of punctuation mark, the opening cadence by Orlando di Lasso will return in its original form at important points in the work. As the quartet progresses, the musical material is pulled away from its original source. In the second movement it is turned into a complex and violent waltz-scherzo. The process is completed in the finale where the musical elements have been developed into the modern and original musical language of Alfred Schnittke himself. It all ends with the Shostakovich tetrachord in quiet pizzicato.
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with quartet music by Webern, Riley, Zorn, Barber, etc.).
16. Terry Riley, Cadenza on the Night Plain (1984)
Terry Riley (1935) is one of the pioneers of the minimalist school of Western classical music, whose work was influenced by both jazz and Indian classical music. Riley studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and University of California, Berkeley. Riley made numerous trips to India (one of his teachers in the U.S. was Indian) and also to Europe, soaking up new developments in music. He later joined Mills College to teach Indian classical music. Riley's music is usually based on improvisations through a series of modal figures of different lengths. A good example is his In C (1964). Riley began his long-lasting association with the Kronos Quartet when he met founder David Harrington at Mills. In all, Riley has composed 13 string quartets for the ensemble. Besides Cadenza on the Night Plain, their first album length cooperation from 1984, that are for example Salome Dances for Peace (1989) and Sun Rings (2002). The present quartet is grand in scope, it combines the repeated figuration of minimalism with Riley's Indian trained ability to develop a piece over an extended time period. It is dramatic, folksy and spiritual at the same time. It contains cadenzas for each individual player. There are thirteen separate sections in the 37-minute work, some with whimsical or humorous titles such as "March of the Old Timers Reefer Division." Riley's interest in spirituality is evident in sections such as "Tuning to Rolling Thunder," inspired by the ideas of Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder. In contrast, "Where Was Wisdom When We Went West?" recalls the unenlightened pattern of Western migration. This is beautiful, transcendent music, but with its feet solidly planted on the earth.
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (the album contains 3 other pieces for string quartet by Riley: Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, G-Song and Mythic Birds Waltz).
17. Philip Glass, String Quartet No 3 "Mishima" (1985)
Philip Glass (1937) is perhaps the most popular composer among America's minimalists. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music and also in the mid-1960s with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He came to minimal music after meeting Steve Reich after his return to New York. For the performance of his early minimal music, he founded the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing himself on keyboard). Later he also composed music for more traditional combinations. The prolific Glass has written operas, ten symphonies, eleven concertos, solo works, chamber music and film scores. He has written seven string quartets plus several other works for string quartet, such as his music for the 1931 classical Dracula film. The music of the Third Quartet was also originally written for a film: Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters from 1985. This film, framed by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima's highly theatrical suicide in 1970, is a biography of the controversial Japanese writer with interspersed dramatizations of some of his novels (see my Japan Navigator post about Mishima, the novel The Golden Pavilion, and his suicide). In fact, Glass wrote three types of music for this film: a large symphony orchestra plays the music for the sections about Mishima's novels, a string orchestra plus percussion the music for the day when Mishima committed suicide, and a string quartet plays the music for the biographical sections about Mishima's life and the people in it (in the film these sections are black and white flashbacks). The string quartet thus aptly reflects the most personal aspects in the film. There are allusions to Mishima's grandmother (whose romantic tales influenced his later thinking), his body building and his extremist right-wing advocacy. Glass has stated that he conceived the string quartet sections as independent music, that could stand alone as a separate string quartet. The six movements are "1957 Award Montage," "November 25 Ichigaya" [the date and place of Mishima's suicide], "1954-Grandmother and Kimitake" [Kimitake is the childhood name of Mishima], "1962-Body building," "Blood Oath" [obviously referring to Mishima's extremist activities], and "Mishima/Closing." The music in this quartet is "vintage Glass," stirring and mesmerizing.
[Official Philip Glass website]
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with quartets 2, 4 & 5).
18. Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988)
Steve Reich (1936) is with Philip Glass one of the pioneers of minimal music, with such signature works as Drumming (1970/1971) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974/76). But his absolute masterpiece is Different Trains, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape written in 1988. As background serves the biographical story that at the time of WWII, Reich made frequent train journeys between New York and Los Angeles to visit his parents, who had separated. Years later, he realized that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the United States, he might have been forced by the Nazis to travel in a train to a death camp. The work is scored for string quartet and digitally sampled voices. Using recorded speech as a source for melodies (which are then picked up by the instruments, playing along with the recorded voices) was a new experiment for Reich (although it had of course been done by Stockhausen in Gesang der Jünglinge from 1956, coupled with electronic music). The quartet also contains recordings of train sounds, as well as of sirens and warning bells, and prerecorded lines by the string quartet, thus effectively doubling or quadrupling the strings. Different Trains consists of three movements. In the first movement, "America - Before the War," two persons, Reich's governess and a Pullman porter, reminisce about train travel in the U.S. with sounds of train travel in the background. In the second movement, "Europe - During the War," three Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences in Europe during the war, including their being sent by train to concentration camps. Interestingly, the European trains have shrieking whistles, while the American ones are heard in perfect intervals, expressing the difference between war and peace. And in "After the War" the Holocaust survivors talk about the years immediately following WWII; there is a return to the American train sounds from the first movement. The sinister weight of 20th c. history sometimes makes this a difficult quartet to listen to. At the same time, Reich uses his shape-shifting minimalism to dazzling effect, making Different Trains his masterpiece.
[Official Steve Reich website]
Recording listened to: The Smith Quartet on Signum Classics.
19. Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, "Already It Is Dusk," String Quartet No 1 Op 62 (1988)
The Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) was born in southwest Poland and studied at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, an institution where he would serve as lecturer and provost himself until the end of the 1970s. Górecki became a leading figure of the Polish avant-garde during the post-Stalin cultural thaw. In the 1950s and 1960s he wrote Webern-influenced serialist works, like his colleagues in Western-Europe, but by the mid-1970s he had changed to a sort of "holy minimalism," as exemplified in his popular Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. More religious works would follow such as Beatus Vir, Miserere and a Requiem. In that respect he is frequently compared to composers as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, who share Górecki's simplified approach to texture, tonality and melody, in works often reflecting deeply held religious beliefs. And like Pärt and Taverner, Górecki has had enormous commercial success around the world, like no other recent classical composer. The First String Quartet was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The quartet is based on the tenor melody of a four-part church song by the 16th c. Polish Renaissance composer Waclaw z Szamotul (c1524-c1560), which is a prayer for children going to sleep: "Already dusk is falling, night closes in / Let us beseech the Lord for help / To be our guardian / To protect us from wicked devils / Who especially under cover of darkness / Profit from their cunning." In the Molto lento beginning of the one movement quartet, this motet is presented by the viola as cantus firmus in a "retrogade-inverse" canon with highly dissonant counterpoint. Three times it is interrupted by fierce chordal interjections of all players. This is followed by an Allegro deciso section which is a stylization of the wild dance music of the Tatra mountains (see Best String Quartets, Part Four, for the inspiration another Polish composer, Szymanowski, derived from this type of folk music). The brief coda is again based on the polymodal canon of the opening. Górecki himself described this quartet as "a kind of village dance music from the plains heard at night time from far above."
Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with Lerchenmusik played by the London Sinfonietta).
20. John Adams, John's Book of Alleged Dances for String Quartet and recorded prepared piano (1994)
John Adams (1947) wrote two solid string quartets, in 2008 and 2014, which are both in two movements and take between 30 and 40 minutes to perform. But I opt here for the earlier and more quirky John's Book of Alleged Dances for String Quartet and recorded prepared piano - I love the music of John Adams (such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Shaker Loops, the Violin Concerto and the opera Nixon in China), but just as in the case of colleague-minimalist Philip Glass, I feel he is at his best in smaller and less traditional forms. John's Book is a collection of ten short pieces of dance-like music, to be played by a string quartet, and with six pieces in addition accompanied by a recorded track of prepared piano sounds (the "prepared piano" is an invention of John Cage, a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects on or between the strings, so that it becomes a sort of percussion instrument). The dances can be played in any order or grouping. Adams calls them "alleged" because the dance steps still had to be invented at the time of composing them (these are in other words not traditional dances), but I believe that several choreographers have already put their hand to that. The music is sardonic, exuberant and rowdy, as is also clear from titles as "Alligator Escalator" (a sluggish escalator in a local department store), "Rag the Bone" (a scat-like song), "Dogjam" (a demon fiddle piece, "in twisted hillbilly chromatics"), "Stubble Crotchet" (an "early morning shave with an old razor") and "Pavane: She's So Fine" ("a tender song for a young teenager"). In his CD sleeve notes, Adams has provided highly entertaining notes (as quoted above) to explain these titles.Recording listened to: The Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with Gnarly Buttons played by the London Sinfonietta).
[Also see Earbox, John Adams' official website with introductions to his compositions]
[Also see Earbox, John Adams' official website with introductions to his compositions]
This does not exhaust the topic of the string quartet - there are many more beautiful quartets - but for the time being I rest my case. I will come back to chamber string music at some future time!
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen