Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: String Quartets of Tsontakis,Wheelock, Rodriguez, and Godfrey

04/09/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The String Quartet was initiated by Joseph Haydn. His pieces were written for, and performed by, the educated amateur, often an aristocrat and his friends and family. It was parlor music in the best sense of that phrase. Mozart joined in the fun, and then Beethoven pushed the medium into the professional realm when his works were finally written for a group of professional musicians.

Since then the genre has been one of great attraction to composers, not only because of the presence of many established quartets, but also because of the nature of the medium itself. The composition of the group-four string instruments from highest to low- allows a composer to engage in the art of musical conversation without the distraction of color. It is thus a fecund environment in which to work out ideas.

This has been true in the early part of last century with the creation of the bodies of quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich, as theirs is a rich addition and extension of the repertoire. It is no less true of the latter half of the twentieth century, and in the following I recommend a few works I think worthy of your attention.

Stephen Albert, upon hearing that I was writing string quartets, asked how I had the temerity to do so considering the overbearing presence of Bartok's. My response was "Well, how can you write symphonies after Beethoven and Mahler, or songs after Schubert." The answer of course is that you just do. I should have also said, "Why don't you ask your teacher and mentor, George Rochberg?", who wrote seven of them. Maybe it is time to go back and listen to these, particularly from the third onwards, as this period, the 70's, and these works, mark his break from serialism and his turn to neo-romanticism. They are passionate and playful, as if the composer had found a wonderous new/old playground in which to write. In many respects, they are the pioneering foundation for the quartets of the following composers.

George Tsontakis has written six string quartets, the last two recently commissioned and performed by one of my favorite ensembles, The Cypress Quartet. I look forward to hearing these. Even if he doesn't write another, his contribution to the genre has been already been huge. I find his intimate music among his best, and that is so with these quartets. In the third and fourth, he shows a suave sense of melody and his harmonic language is personal and true. The fourth is, it must be said at the outset, a work of religious substance. The text of the hymn is the works title, "Beneath Thy Tenderness of Heart". The first movement quotes the hymn and then weaves subtle variations upon it. The movement does indeed express tenderness, not a quality that is found all that much in 20th century history. It also displays qualities of affirmation and even purity of spirit, and this is found in its unabashed, and very well handled, mostly tonal universe. Movement II, marked Scherzo, is less about a joke than about the joyousness of speed and a quick darting free abandon. Yet there are indeed sudden shifts of dynamics and register, and even an obsessiveness of motivic repetition, that provide a droll humor or a slightly charming perversity. Movement III, marked Postlude, The Madonna Weeps, has long sections that start with a smashed major chord, followed by dissolution into an ambiguous atonal world, marked by clear and articulated chords changing ever so slowly. Above those chords a very high violin softly wails, and then at the phrases' conclusions, trails off into the stratosphere. Through the repetition of this phraseology, time seems to cycle back upon itself, containing the state of transcendent despair.

Donald Wheelock wrote his third and fourth quartets in 1988 and 1992 respectively. In the Ciompi Quartet's empathetic performances of twenty years ago they are revealed as impassioned conversations displaying more of this composer's emotional landscape than he usually reveals. They are finely textured, impassioned, and structurally solid. Here his contrapuntal proclivity comes alive, and there is a pervasive sense of dynamism. The music is intense and emotionally gripping. While sometimes spikey, it is not overly so. The fourth, in one movement, is a tour de force. It combines simplicity and complexity in equal measure, moments of severe intensity followed by lush quiescence, rhythmic vibrancy and placid, cantabile melodies. After a long and chaotic journey, it ends quickly and quietly, like a puff of smoke disappearing. All of this takes place within a harmonic field of wide inclusiveness, yet tonally grounded, always focused and sharply heard.

Robert Xavier Rodriguez's Meta 4 (1994) was written for the dance, but it does just fine as an independent concert piece. The title is a nice word play on the pervasive presence of things "4" in the piece: four players, for movements, a theme of four notes... you get the idea. The first movement- soliloquy and cannon- starts with a tender melody played in unison that is characterized by wide expressive leaps, a reappearing ornamental figure, mostly placed in a high tessitura that is sometimes searing. The canon is more steady, full and luxuriant, at the end effervescing and leaving hardly a trace. The second movement scherzo- in measures of two beats rather than the usual three- is made up of short pizzicato and motivic bursts, as well as slight tempo changes that provide a tongue-in-cheek effect. The third and fourth movements are again more lyrical, like the first, but of differing natures. The former is made of weaving lines of stepwise motion in its first and third parts, with a much more active rhythmic canon trio as the second part. The latter, a toccata, comes across as a neo-romantic/minimalist hybrid, with steady sixteenth-note motion overlaid with lines of syncopations.

Daniel Godfrey has been writing in a tonal idiom for a long time and it shows. His String Quartets 2 & 3 are lyrical and lush, contained in a mostly narrative structure, but contain just a dose of whimsy and humor, so they never descend into the mundane or trivial. The pacing is such that the ear can easily trace the transformation of the materials. The sound world is neo-impressionistic, warm and aglow. The Cassats do a lovely job with them.

All of the pieces mentioned above are serious works. They lie firmly within, and extend, the tradition. None are ironic and neither do they pander. They require concentrated listening, something that happens less and less in our time. Yet there is still a scene for serious string quartet pieces, as more and more string quartets come on line after graduating from our many conservatories and schools of music. There are still chamber music societies in many cities across the land that frequently hire string quartets. It would be great if they, and the quartets they engage, would present and perform these and other pieces of the very recent past. What if each performance were to include a classic- Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert; a work of the twentieth Century- Bartok, Shostakovich, Rochberg, Ligeti, Corigliano; and finally a newly commissioned work or one from the last twenty years or so? This isn't exactly revolutionary stuff, but wouldn't this make for a much richer experience, for performer and listener alike? What if, what if?