The Lydian String Quartet, Up Close and Personal

The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)
The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)

 

Here are two clips which provide an intimate, virtual front row seat to the excellent, Boston-based Lydian String Quartet. You’ll get a sense of the subtle communication that takes place between members of a fine chamber music group. Hours of rehearsing together allow for spontaneous musical conversations to unfold as one voice reacts to the timing and phrasing of another.

Formed in 1980, the Lydian String Quartet won the 1984 Walter W. Naumburg Award for chamber music. The group’s varied repertoire includes numerous works by living composers. The members of the quartet are faculty members at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many years ago, as a student, I was lucky to spend a few weeks one summer studying with “the Lyds.”

Here is the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Completed in November, 1825, this music takes us into the strange world of Beethoven’s late string quartets. First violinist Daniel Stepner talks about the music here.

…and here is the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet. Second violinist Judith Eissenberg offers a few thoughts about the music here.

  • the Lydian String Quartet’s website
  • Find the Lydian String Quartet’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon

Unfinished Schubert

puzzle_incomplete-1

No, not the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, a piece which feels strangely complete at two movements. We’ll get to that masterpiece at some point, but today let’s listen to the unfinished C minor string quartet (Quartettsatz, D. 703) Franz Schubert began in December, 1820. Schubert completed the first movementAllegro assai. Interestingly, its opening bears a slight resemblance to the hushed, shivering string lines in the first movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony, which was started eight months later.

Schubert only completed 41 bars of the exposition of an Andante before permanently abandoning the work. Did he just get too busy with other projects? Or, as musicologist Javier Arrebola has speculated (citing other unfinished Schubert works from the same period), perhaps it “…did not yet represent the great leap forward he was striving for.”

Regardless, the greatest composers seem to innately know when the creative powers are speaking, or not. The C minor Quartet’s second movement remains a beautiful and intriguing fragment. The music simply trails off where Schubert stopped…

Clean Bandit’s Electronic-String Fusion

Electronic Band, Clean Bandit
British electronic band, Clean Bandit

If you haven’t heard the British fusion band, Clean Bandit, take a moment and listen. Founded in 2009, the band has hit on an interesting blend of string quartet and electronic dance music. The group, which includes violinist Milan Neil Amin-Smith and cellist Grace Chatto, grew out of an undergraduate string quartet at Cambridge University. This article describes how Clean Bandit developed almost by accident-the result of experimentation with pre-recorded string quartet tracks.

Dust Clears was released last June:

Rather Be, released in January, debuted at number 1 on the UK Singles Chart:

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Death and the Maiden

Following up on last month’s post, let’s return to the music of Franz Schubert. Now we’ll hear how Schubert cleverly turned the melody of one of his songs into the second movement of a string quartet.

Let’s start by listening to the song Death and the Maiden, written in 1817.  It’s performed here by the legendary contralto, Marian Anderson.  The text is from a poem by Matthias Claudius.  Follow the English translation below.

Death and the Maiden D.531…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Death:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Did you notice all the ways Schubert musically evokes the mood of the poem? The repeated rhythm suggests a solemn funeral procession, perhaps a march towards inevitability.  We hold our breath in anticipation as the same note is repeated in the melody, while the harmony underneath changes.  One interesting aspect of the melody is that it modulates from the key of D minor to F major (1:39) and then slides back again.  These keys are related because they both have B-flat as their only accidental.  Did you notice the sudden and transformative shift to D major at the end?  Consider the significance of Schubert’s choice to turn minor into major at this moment.  What emotional impact does this create?

Eight years after writing this song, at a time when Schubert was confronting his own mortality, he returned to this melody for the second movement of a string quartet.  First you will hear the melody played simply, without embellishment. Then, Schubert launches into a series of brilliant variations that feature different instruments of the quartet.  It’s amazing how many new musical ideas and contrasting moods can spring from this simple tune!

String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden) D.810…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

II. Andante con moto

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Now that you have heard this excerpt you may be inspired to listen to the other three movements of the quartet.  Pay attention to the exciting interplay between the four voices (two violins, a viola and a cello) as musical ideas are passed back and forth.  I think you’ll agree that from the fiery opening of the first movement to the fast and wild Presto it’s an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying musical roller coaster ride. Here are links to the rest of the piece: I. Allegro,  III. Scherzo Allegro molto IV. Presto.  

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts on the music.