Concerto for String Quartet SOLOString Quartet No. 2

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The apparent oxymoron in the title of String Quartet No. 2 refers to a formal peculiarity of the work: four of its five movements end in a solo cadenza for one of the instruments—the fifth movement opens with this cadenza—which forms a recurring theme throughout the work.

It is as though we are given the cadenzas of four concerti, two for violin and one each for viola and cello. The word “SOLO” underlines the distinction between the instrumentation of a traditional string quartet and that of a concerto for string quartet and orchestra or ensemble—a genre introduced by Louis Spohr in 1845. Here the chamber music form and the concerto form are subsumed under a single formal principle.

The designations of the different movements can be understood in formal-analytic terms or as descriptions of the emotional mood that prevails in each section. These titles were chosen during or after composition, in the manner of Debussy, but they do not impose a programmatic interpretation or relate to each other to form an overarching theme.

First Movement

The first movement’s title, D’APRÈS BACH * graininess · recitative with rhythmitechnical fugue · cadenza I, roughly describes its formal structure. Conceived as a purely pizzicato movement, it is inspired by the “Knocking Recitative” from Bach’s Cantata No. 61. Whereas in Bach’s work the Lord knocks at the door patiently and with “even-tempered regularity” (Philipp Spitta), in this piece the execution and the expression of the sound are far more radical. It is not, however, to be understood as a religious-programmatic reinterpretation of the biblical text (Revelation 3:20), but rather as an artistic confrontation with the great master’s music. The first cadenza is given to the cello, in part because pizzicato and knocking techniques can most clearly be differentiated on this instrument.

Second Movement

O’ER OPEN GRAVES IT WHISPERS * with cadenza II is the title of the nervously fluctuating second movement, and describes its fluid aggregate state. The entire movement is played on muted instruments, making the sound not only softer and quieter, but also giving it an amorphous, falsetto quality—as though breathed through the ether. After apparently coming to an end, the movement is set into motion once again by a cadenza on the second violin, almost like an appendix or afterthought.

Third Movement

The third movement, HOQUETUS PRAELUDENS, uses a medieval musical technique known as hocketing: the four musicians never play simulaneously, but rather “when one pauses, the other plays, and vice-versa” (Franco von Köln, 13th century). In this sense the movement can be viewed as a quadruple cadenza, since each instrument in effect plays a solo. Thematically it serves as a prelude to the slow movement that follows, and it has all the difficulty of an etude—not because of any technical problems it poses to the individual musicians, but because of the special demands it makes on them as an ensemble.

Fourth Movement

The large-scale fourth movement bears the title BENEDIKT DREAMING * chaconne-notturno · the night mare rides · cadenza III. It has the character of a lullaby. The beloved viola leads the other instruments in the chaconne and also takes on the cadenza—the heart of the work.

Fifth Movement

The final movement, CHASSE · SERMON · PRAYER * with introductory cadenza IV con choral includes wild pizzicato passages and thematic recapitulations combined into a musical pot-au-feu. Then, as though a metaphorical door has been opened, it broadens into the solemnity of a sermon. The quartet draws to a close in the hush of prayer.