Quartet for Strings No.6

on a purpose-selected tone row


(1) Allegro con moto assai - Presto non troppo - Allegro con moto
(2) Rondo tenebre - Adagietto - Tempo I - Allegretto ma non troppo - Tempo I - Allegro molto - Presto - Allegro comodo - Tempo I - Andante espressivo - Tempo I - Larghetto rassegnato

Date Duration Listen
8 November 2013 40'30" Realization (.MP3) Score (.PDF)
55.6 MB 756 KB

This is my third (and possibly last) recent composition based on the work's own tone row, rather than some arbitrary, pseudo-diatonic arrangement of roots aping tonic-dominant-submediant, etc, relationships. While the Symphony Op.45 and the Octet Op.46 both featured twelve fairly broad areas of harmonic structure based on a row, this quartet goes even further, utilizing the inverse, retrograde, and retrograde-inverse forms of the row, as well, to create forty-eight distinct successive harmonic domains spread asymmetrically across the two large movements comprising the piece. The first movement uses the twelve tones of the basic row itself, shifting tonality about once every 90 seconds; the second movement shuffles much more rapidly through the remaining thirty-six stations of the extended row, acquiring a new tonal center on average once every 30 seconds or so (interrupted by the periodic returns of the rondo theme, of course).

I say this may be my last work (at least for a while) based on a similar harmonic scheme, because I find the results frankly unconvincing - and the more subtle the art going into the scheme's creation, the more unconvincing it seems to become. Not offensive, not disturbing, not confusing, not irritating: just vaguely aimless and weak. My compositions based on more conventional harmonic patterns impress me as being more purposeful and dynamic, and I think I may decide to follow that path generally, going forward.

Speaking of the second movement's rondo structure, I was well into the compositional process before remembering to my chagrin that Bartók's sixth quartet was itself in the form of a giant, dark, multi-movement rondo, so I must have been paying subconscious tribute to the master here with that choice. Other structural curiosities include the fact that the allegro-presto-allegro of the rondo's large, central section are a rough analog of the entire first movement's tempos. Furthermore, the andante was formed by forcing its permutations of the row to inhabit exactly the same attacks, durations, and voicings of the earlier allegretto, then performing them in strict retrograde. It should be obvious how much irrepressible hijinks and levity went into the creation of this enormous rondo.

OK, then. Now that the elephant (of Bartók's 6th Quartet) is in the room, it may be time to trundle the children off to bed and start exploring some of the darker psychological corners of this reporter's mind. Anyone who remembers the glee I experienced a couple years ago while using the tone row from Schoenberg's 4th Quartet to mercilessly taunt his famously superstitious memory with a 13-instrument, 13-movement, Opus 13 - copyrighted on a Friday, the 13th, and performable in 13 minutes and 13 seconds - may also remember the discomfiting tweak I received while researching his life at that time and suddenly realizing he had died just a scant few weeks before I was conceived. And anyone who knows me, knows I place far more credence in the Vedantic and Buddhist scriptures, than in any of the Western, monotheistic ones.

But, first, we must go back even further and recall the infamous "Curse of the Ninth," due to which the hundred years after Beethoven's death became increasingly bizarre and unlikely for symphonists. First Schubert left only nine (with one Unfinished); and then Bruckner, and Dvorák, and Glazunov; until finally Mahler - beset by the untimely death of a daughter, his wife's infidelity, and foreknowledge of the heart condition that was killing him - thrashed around refusing to call Das Lied von der Erde his ninth symphony, and just barely failed to finish a tenth before dying. Luckily for all subsequent symphonists, the Russians Shostakovich and Miaskovsky put "the curse" definitively to rest by writing 42 between them.

So that's not what my problem is. My problem is that Bartók only wrote six string quartets - and now so have I. It doesn't matter that Hindemith wrote seven, or Miaskovsky 13, or Shostakovich 14, or Holmboe 21. Only Bartók matters, when it comes to string quartets. It doesn't matter that it's ridiculous in the extreme for me to even think about comparing my quartets to Bartók's: since his six virtuosic and complex masterpieces were assembled over the course of twenty some years of a life's work, and my six naive and simplistic little squawks have all come about in a relative instant of time, among other things. The fact is that in the back of my mind, a narrative keeps bubbling up wherein the sixth quartet strikes the beginning of the death knells.

Naturally, it doesn't help that Schoenberg - who cackles beyond the grave every time the absurd thought crosses my mind that I might have been his reincarnation - only left behind 50 published opus numbers, when he died - and that this quartet is my Opus Number 48. It really doesn't help in any regard.

Nevertheless, there is another possible narrative in all this. If I go back to my original great quartet-idol - the Master of all masters, Ludwig van Beethoven - I can remember his first six quartets were written in a brief enough period of time to all be included in a single opus number. And that his seventh - the first Rasumovsky - marked the beginning of his middle period in the form and represented a revolutionary advance over his own earlier style. So ... all I have to do is compare myself to Beethoven, and use him as my model for all future activity ... and Bartók and Schoenberg be damned. ;p


For those who are scoring at home, a useful observation to make here is that every eighth opus number among all my works has been a string quartet. Therefore, if I live to write a seventh one - whether it accomplishes a revolutionary improvement over my own former style or not - it will necessarily be my Op.56. Place your early bets now, but don't plan to retire on your winnings.

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