COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 118

String Quartet No. 6 (2004)

for String Quartet

Duration: 11 min.

Dedication: to Mattias Vanderwerf

Premiere: 2011; S. Darling Quartet; Harvard Univ.

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There seems to be a strange trend in the careers and major works of certain American composers whom we think of as primarily traditionalists, conservatives and so forth. After having completed an impressive envelope of symphonies in structured, neo-romantic and melodic style, for their late career they turned to more opaque works of greater tightness and severity, perhaps indulging in serialism, thicker harmony than before and puzzling rhythms and sonorities. I would suggest Vincent Persichetti and William Schuman as examples of this phenomenon but there are many more. What was their motivation? A desire to make peace with the style of friends and colleagues in more atonal styles? (All the more interesting as the listener is unlikely to find the actual expression peaceful) A sense of having missed certain of the emotional/spiritual ranges that are natural to those styles? A sense that they had made their statements in full already, and did not want to repeat themselves in their own “mainline” idiom? Or “I can play this game, too?”, or even “Anything you can do I can do better?”

When I learned about serialism I had a mixed reaction, which I still, half a century later, not fully resolved. “It’s a GAME!” thought I, and indeed I still think so. Further “If I want to write music, I will write music; if I want to play a game, I will play bridge!” (And in fact, so I have, with many tournament championships to my credit). But 12-note melodies get into many of my works, Concerto Grosso No. 2; the Concerto for Two Trumpets, Timpani, and Strings; and several others. However, they do not get the serial treatment—the “matrix” and all the associated baggage.

I composed five string quartets before reaching the age of 30, as well as a sextet. There were some revisions in the 1990s. I was very pleased with the quality and variety of these works, but the disadvantage to that was that for 30 years further, I could not find another quartet in my imagination. I ultimately decided to use an atmosphere similar to that of String Quartet No. 4 (the darkest written thus far) and to make some usage of 12-tone idiom. Let me hasten to point out that the “row” material is well under 50% of the music (though more than in any of my other pieces) and  I am still basically “Rosner” however one takes that.

String Quartet No. 6 actually uses two 12-note permutations, presented at the outset by viola and cello—and either one will return here are there on any note: upside-down, backwards—the usual suspects. Of course, that lends certain melodic spin and unity to the work, one hopes. Other parts, and indeed harmonies, are free, and I think the real personality of the piece is in those aspects. One fingerprint in most of my compositions becomes very prominent here—I hope not to excess. Three instruments play a serious of entirely consonant harmonies. They neither fit any one tonality on the one hand, or any pattern of either of the rows on the other. However a fourth instrument holds a single note (or perhaps two-note chord) almost like a bagpipe for those few harmonies, and the harmonic progression goes in and out of consonance and various degrees of dissonance with that drone. Also there are passages where two instruments move in identical rhythms (all 16ths, for example) starting on an open fifth and moving by steps in opposite directions. Thus the alternate notes will be spaced at the 7th, creating brushing or clouding of the focus. Strangely I used this kind of texture in 1986 in From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow where it has an eerie quality of impending doom, yet in quartet no. 6, I think almost identical music has a more mellowing or softening effect.

The piece is in one rather uncompromising 11-minute movement. As consonant and dissonant sounds are used at will, and perhaps in combination, absolutely confident intonation is required; I do not believe that the music, however, is difficult in a “Paganini” sense of passage work, or even in intricacies of rhythm. When all this is clearly played, if I have succeeded, each hearer will take from it what he or she feels to be appropriate—anything from a tragic darkness to a strangely arresting meditative state. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)