Beyond Bartok and Shostakovich:  A Survey of Some Less Often Heard 20th Century String Quartets

Many chamber music afficianados are familiar with the six string quartets of Bela Bartok, and the fifteen penned by Dmitri Shostakovich.  The Ravel String Quartet is never lacking for performances, and thanks to modern ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, many contemporary works in this medium are getting heard. 

In many ways the string quartet format is well suited to the 20th century idiom - stripped down, linear, serial, neoclassical.  Likewise, the format fits well in a time where classical musicians are discovering the "punk work ethioc" - DIY.  Just as the typical rock band has four members, the string quartet provides an avenue for a few young musicans to get together and play music that would not be heard if it required larger forces.

So, with that in mind, I combed the record shelf for some less often heard works that show how well the quartet works with the 20th Century style.  Some of these are hard to find, but all have been issued on CD at one time or another.  And, as far as I know, none have been recorded by the Kronos Quartet.  Enjoy!

Carl Nielsen: Quartet in E Flat Op 14 (1898)

Well, if you haven't already figured it out from this web page, Nielsen is one of my favorite composers.  Still, for a long time I thought of his quartets as being a less important part of his output.  Revisiting them, I found a lot that I liked.  He wrote four in all, of which two are early works, which are somewhat unremarkable.  The last two quartets come from his mature period: the Quartet in E Flat Op 14,and the Quartet in F Op. 44.  These are both very engaging melodious works, but I'll focus on the Opus 14 here.  Even though it was not written in the 20th century, it's close enough.

If you know Nielsen's symphonies, stylistically this is closest to the Symphony No. 2.  It opens with a gregarious main theme (Example 1) which spontaneously spawns counterpoint as it develops.  The second movement is one of his adagios that looks forward to the immense "Adagio Melancolico" in the Second Symphony.

The third movement is in cut time, and its opening theme (Example 2) has a similar feel to the corresponding movement in the Third Symphony ("Sinfonia Espansiva").  It develops into something quite more energetic, also like Espansiva, (Example 3) energetic and free.

The Finale is a bit more Brahmsian, with a bit of a country dance feel to it.  It brings a genial end to this quartet, which , while written in the 19th century, looks forward to the 20th, and Nielsen's mature style.

Examples are from Carl Nielsen String Quartet, "Carl Nielsen, 4 String Quartets, etc."  (Deutche Grammaphon DG1156-2)

This two CD set has all the quartets and also includes a recording of the Wind Quintet.

Alexander Zemlinsky:  Quartet No. 4, Op. 25 (1936)

Zemlinsky is a composer strongly associated with the Second Viennese School.  He was a teacher of Schoenberg and a friend of Berg, and although he did not write serialistically (the systematic atonal style invented by Schoenberg), he was an influence on both men's music.  His most famous work is his "Lyric Symphony", a large work for vocal soloists and orchestra reminiscent of Mahler's "Das Lied von Der Erde". 

The Fourth Quartet in particular, written about a year after Berg's death, pays special tribute to Zemlinsky's friend, with a lyricism teetering on the edge of tonality and atonality, pointing toawrds serialism without completely going there.

Arranged like a suite, the quartet is in six named movements, which can be seen as three sets of slow-fast movements:

Theme with Variations
Finale - Doppelfugue

The slow movements are most reminiscent of Berg's lyricism, while the fast movements have a drunken cabaret 'Weimar Republic' feel to them.  The agiated Intermezzo (Example 1) brings to mind the uneasy state of affairs in the world in 1936.  This movement also shows Zemlinsky's complete command of the kind of advanced string quartet writing that makes four stringed instruments sound like six or seven.  More of that can be heard in Example 2 , which is the end of the slow theme and variations movement, transitioning directly into the double fugue.  Hear how the slow movement's theme gives birth to this fugue, which is only three minutes long but takes us on a wild ride to the finish.

Examples are from The Lark Quartet, "Schoenberg and Zemlinsky String Quartets"  (Arabeske Recordings Z6671)

This fine CD also includes Schoenberg's Quartet Op. 7.  A must for listeners interested in the Second Viennese School.  As the samples here show, it is a beautifully recorded CD of some fine quartet playing.

Peter Mennin: Quartet No. 2 (1951)

Well I saved the best for second to last - and this work is one of Peter Mennin's finest compositions.  It is an exiting quartet that clearly demonstrates his unique style to those who seek it.  Defying exact classification, Mennin's music falls somewhere between the "Americana" composers like Roy Harris and Aaron Copeland, and the academic atonalists such as Milton Babbitt.  If you have never heard Mennin's music, this is a great place to start. His Symphony No. 5 has also been recorded several times. 

At the outset of this quartet, Mennin wastes no time getting started, getting our attention with dissonant chords from the first bars (Example 1) which quickly leads into an exposition in his contrapuntal style.  While using a thoroughly modern, but still tonal language, Mennin stated that the biggest influence on his music was Renaissance polyphony.  And while his music is not always 'easy listening', the listener who looks for the imitative polyphonic backbone to Mennin's works will be rewarded with a deep appreciation of one of America's unique 20th century voices.  Later in the first movement, the pace breaks down to an adagio (Example 2) which ends with a whimper, leaving these musical questions posed at the outset temporarily unresolved.

After an agitated scherzo and a brooding slow movement, we come to an energetic finale built on the themes of the first movement that drives this piece to a stirring climax.  Example 3 contains the last bars of this masterwork.  To me, dear reader, this is some of the most exiting chamber music to come out of America, ever. 

Examples are from The Kohon Quartet, "American String Quartets Vol. 2 1900-1950" (VOX  CDX 5090).

This CD set, is out of print but worth seeking out through used CD outlets.  Used vinyl copies may also be available.  Featuring quartets by nine American composers, to me the Mennin is the standout piece in the collection.  Your mileage may vary!

Sulkhan Tsintsadze:  Quartet No. 6 (1967)

Tsintsadze was a Soviet Georgian composer, a professional cellist, and a writer of twelve string quartets.  I would say he had a lot in common with Peter Mennin, in that he did not write strictly formalistic, academic music, but also he did not write in the accessible 19th century "Russian Romantic" style emplyed by a great number of Soviet composers.  Like Shostakovich, his music falls somewhere in the middle, not too old fashioned to be boring, but also not too modern to be "difficult listening".  His music also contains Georgian elements, but not being an expert on Georgian traditional music, I really can't comment on that any further.  And, did I mention that he really, really knew how to write for strings?  Yeah, he was a string quartet stud.  In writing for strings, he used every trick in the book, and a few that aren't in the book.

This quartet reminds me of Mennin's quite a bit, though it is highly unlikeley that the two influenced each other directly, as little of their music crossed over the Iron Curtain that divided them during their lives.  Tsintsade's Sixth is a one-movement work divided into five parts.  It is a unified one-movement piece in that the whole work grows out of the theme that is stated in the opening bars (Example 1).  This theme eventually leads to a brief fugue, which burns itself out, and leads to a very poignant andante.  In one remarkable passage of that andante, one can listen to each of the four members of the quartet playing with a different bowing/plucking style.  I am not a string player, so I can't name them all, but listen for yourself (Example 2) and see what I mean.

The piece then picks up into an 'Allegro Scherzando' which has a burlseque, but also a folk dance quality to it (Example 3).  At the culmination of this wild dance, we fall back into the abyss.  Here in Example 4 is the point at which the Allegro collapses into the andante molto sostenuto which takes up the last seven and a half minutes of this 19 minute work.  Note how, ehen the cello first states the final andante theme, it is shadowed ever so quietly an ocatave up by one of the higher strings (violin or viola, I'm not sure which).  This theme then grows into a fully developed slow movement.  The lyric string writing at this point is almost heartbreaking.  Like Icarus, no matter how hard this quartet tries to fly high, it always comes crashing down.   Is this a frank statement on the harsh realities of Soviet life, or a broader commentary on the human condition?  It is left to the listener to decide!

Examples are from The Georgian State String Quartet (which Tsintsadze was once a member of) , "Sulkhan Nazidze and Sulkhan Tsintsadze Quartets" (Sony/SPB Classics SMK 66 363).

This excellent CD may be out of print but is well worth looking for.  It also contains a quartet by Nazidze dedicated to the memory of Tsintsadze, and some miniatures for quartet by Tsintsadze, based on Georgian folk songs. Even if you don't like modern music, (and if you don't, I can't help you!), the miniatures alone are worth the price of the CD.