There are times when we find ourselves isolated from the world around us, as did all of the composers featured in our Music and Isolation program. It may be because of vocation or employment (von Bingen, Haydn), psychological trauma (Gesualdo), physical impairment (Beethoven), or persecution due to political beliefs (Nancarrow). For these five composers isolation provided opportunities to funnel undivided energy into their craft, resulting in experimentation and uncompromising musical vision. We are lucky that they gifted the world with these astonishing works that leave an indelible stamp with their intensity, imagination, and highly intricate and expressive writing.
We open tonight with vocal works from the medieval and Renaissance periods arranged for string quartet by our dear friend Alex Fortes. Columba aspexit transcends plainchant with colorful text and ecstatic soaring lines, revealing Hildegard von Bingen the visionary. By comparison Carlo Gesualdo’s text painting reflects his tortured psyche: darkly expressive with startling juxtapositions of harmony.
The rest of our program offers a perspective into how Haydn, Beethoven, and Nancarrow took advantage of their isolation to experiment musically. Each took the concept of a fugue (traditionally an “orderly” or “academic” endeavor) and made it his own. Haydn wrote his six Op. 20 string quartets while working in seclusion at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. These early masterpieces elevated the art of string quartet writing, and the fugue finale of Op. 20 No. 2 illustrates Haydn’s unmistakable tongue-in- cheek wit. American-born Conlon Nancarrow moved to Mexico in 1940 to avoid the persecution that many people with similar leftist leanings faced during this time, and lived there until his death in 1997. He is best known for his player piano studies, written with the idea that automated components could produce complicated rhythmic patterns more quickly than live performers. His Third Quartet is at once zany and confounding with each part written in a different meter. With four self-contained temporal states there is a wild balance for the quartet of interaction and putting blinders on!
We will close with Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet Op. 131, which we feel encapsulates elements of all the other works on the program. Both Beethoven and Nancarrow took the concept of a fugue (traditionally an “orderly” or “academic” endeavor) and made it his own. Beethoven begins his Op. 131 with a slow fugue, featuring a frustrated theme that attempts to ascend, but is constantly pulled back down to earth. He, like Haydn, also imbues moments of his writing with humor and comic relief — most notably in his fifth movement, a scherzo. This quartet explores the physical and sonic limits that four players can reach, and yet also finds the sublime and generous nature of humanity.