History of String Quartet Music within a String Quartet: Rochberg’s Third

Jan 31st, 2017 | By | Category: Album No. 1002, All Things Reconsidered, The Best New Old Thing, Uncategorized

I first encountered this when I was 12 or so, at the listening station in the public library. Wanting to hear something a little different (i.e. not the usual pop favored by 12-year olds or the “conventional” classical with which I was familiar), I selected this LP and one of traditional Chinese music.  I found the Chinese one pretty but not very interesting (I would later revise that opinion considerably), but this Rochberg quartet fascinated me.  Later, I asked for (and received) a copy for Christmas; some years later it disappeared while I was in Japan; and some years after that I found it again at a used record store and re-bought it.  I haven’t looked for it on newer forms of recorded media.

Part of the interest in this piece comes from its fusion of styles. It’s “classical,” for sure – but from what time period?  Wild avant-garde riffs straight out of Xenakis freely intermingle with stylings reminiscent of Bartok and Shostakovich, which as often as not lead into lush Romanticism in the manner of Mahler or even Schubert.  The first movement presents all of these in fragmentary form: a suspended “horror” motive repeats various numbers of times while other material is suggested more quietly.  The second movement is a highly accented Bartokian march.  Perhaps unusual for a “modern” classical composition, it is something of an earworm.  I’ve often caught myself whistling or humming it.

These first two movements form the first section.

Quite lengthy for a piece of chamber music, the entire Quartet is divided into three sections (fast – slow – fast) with increasing duration and complexity. The second section is taken up by a single long, slow movement, a set of variations.  The theme is stated immediately at the beginning.  Reminiscent of the gorgeous adagio from the Mahler Fourth, it unwinds slowly, always remaining in its sumptuous neo-Romantic mood, though it nonetheless seems to grow directly out of the march which preceded it.

Side Two of the LP contains the third and longest section. Relentless in its rhythmic intensity, it begins with a second march recalling some of the Shostakovich quartets, with a demented pseudo-waltz in the middle.  There are hints of the “horror” motive from the first movement.  A long series of allegros follow (“Scherzos and Serenades”), mixing several stylistic tendencies.  Intensity and dissonance increase, though not linearly – some of the “Interludes” return to the “Mahler” style, though harmonically ambiguous enough to still suggest a gathering of atonality rather like the entire progression of Mahler’s music through his symphonies.  Finally everything comes to a scorching climax as the “horror” motive returns and the piece ends with Stravinskyan ferocity: “The Rite of Spring” as a string quartet.

Taken in its entirety, this quartet sounds as complex and “prog” as the late Romantic symphonies and symphonic poems it suggests. Rochberg is looking back at past styles form the viewpoint of several decades later.  Though it’s “Mahler in the middle,” the modernism at the beginning and end firmly places it in the mid/late 20th century.  The various “earlier” styles are skillfully and superbly composed – they sound exactly as if they were written by their respective composers; Rocherg must have studied these styles intently.  Yet, they never combine into any form of a synthesis.  This is neither a strength nor a weakness.  The quartet is a collection of pieces in various manners, confined to a structure where the end is like the beginning.  It is something of the history of string quartet music presented (out of order) in a single composition or “playlist.”  It is not really intended to be “more” than that, and it doesn’t need to be (though the framing within iterations of “horror” certainly suggest the terrors of the 20th century).  Classical fans of all sorts will find something to like (and possibly to dislike as well) here.

  • Artist: George Rochberg (composer); The Concord String Quartet
  • Title: String Quartet no. 3 (1972)
  • Year of release: 1973
  • Year of first hearing by writer: 1973
  • Label of original release: Nonesuch
  • Format listened to: LP

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7n_HKbyeVbE – first movement

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgpUEs6jnGY – second movement

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye8Roh_k11w – variations (same recording as LP)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pL-eAm-To0 – fourth movement (by students)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPqqkHnFaY0 – entire third part

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