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R/Evolution: A Millennium of Musical Mavericks

R/Evolution: A Millennium of Musical Mavericks


1586 words
program notes by Chris Myers

An exploration of music for string quartet spanning 10 centuries.

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Copyright © 2018 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

A Millennium of Musical Mavericks

Hildegard von Bingen
O virtus Sapientiæ (Oh Strength of Wisdom) (ca. 1175)
arranged for string quartet by Marianne Pfau

Lived: 1098-1179 in modern Germany (primarily Disibodenberg, Rupertsberg, and Eibingen)

Best-known works: Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (The Harmonic Symphony of Celestial Revelations)


  • her frequently soaring melodies pushed the limits of both vocal range and expression

  • her music is unusually melismatic (setting a single syllable to many notes) for its time and often features intricate iteration of small motivic units

  • nearly all of her works are musical settings of her own texts, inspired by mystical visions she experienced

  • her texts and musical settings show an intense focus on the nature of femininity

Hildegard’s music here paints the images within her text. When Sapientia— the personification of Divine Wisdom— is praised as “circling, circling, encompassing everything”, listen to how the music circles around a single note. She is then described as “three-winged” (a reference to the Trinity): “one wing soars to the heavens [the Father], one saturates the earth [the Son], and the third is everywhere [the Holy Spirit].” The music follows suit, soaring to the highest note of the piece with the first wing before descending to the lowest with the second.

Claudio Monteverdi
“Pur ti miro” from L’incoronazione di Poppea (“I Adore You” from The Coronation of Poppea) (1643)
arranged for string quartet by James Bartelet

Lived: 1567-1643 in modern Italy (primarily Mantua and Venice)

Best-known works: L’Orfeo (Orpheus), Madrigals (Books 1-9), Vespro della Beata Virgine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin)


  • basically invented opera

  • early proponent of basso continuo (in which a primary melody is performed over a bass line and improvised harmonic accompaniment), an innovation which helped usher in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque

After three acts of drama, Emperor Nero finally manages to banish his wife, Ottavia, and is free to marry his lover, Poppea. The opera ends with Nero and Poppea rejoicing in their love for one another with this passionate duet (the beauty of which was likely a bit unsettling to Monteverdi’s audiences, in light of the Renaissance belief that Nero later killed Poppea).

Johann Sebastian Bach
Contrapunctus 1 from Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue) (ca. 1742)

Lived: 1685-1750 in modern Germany (primarily Leipzig)

Best-known works: The Brandenburg Concertos, Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Mass in B minor


  • brought the contrapuntal forms of the Baroque period to their greatest heights

  • his music epitomizes the shift from the modal system of the Renaissance to the tonal system of the classical period

  • solidified the dominance of four-part harmony

  • pushed the limits of key centers and modulation in his work

The Art of the Fugue demonstrates the breadth of musical invention available from a simple melody by presenting 14 fugues and four canons of increasing complexity— all developed from the same theme. Contrapunctus I is the first movement of the work.

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet op. 33 no. 3 “The Bird”: I. Allegro moderato (1781)

Lived: 1732-1809 in Austria (primarily Vienna) and Hungary (primarily Esterháza)

Best-known works: Symphony No. 94 Surprise, Symphony No. 45 Farewell, Die Schöpfung (The Creation)


  • basically invented the symphony and string quartet as we know them

  • taught Mozart and Beethoven

  • early innovator in the development of sonata form

  • embraced musical humor in a way few before (or since) have

The Opus 33 quartets marked a profound change in style for Haydn. Accompaniment figures evolve fluidly into melody, and melodic motifs merge gracefully into one another in a manner which would come to epitomize the Classical style. Haydn was quite conscious of this development, writing that these quartets were “a new and completely special type” of music.

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, op. 18 no. 6: IV. La Malinconia (1798)

Lived: 1770-1827 in Bonn, Germany and Vienna, Austria

Best-known works: Symphony 5, Symphony 9, Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight”


  • infused Classical style and form with a drama and expressiveness which evolved into the Romantic style

  • pushed the limits of scale and form

  • personal struggles pervade his works in a way which would evolve into the Romantic ideal of the tortured artist

“This piece must be treated with the greatest delicacy” reads the score for this movement, titled “The Melancholy One”. After an introduction evoking this spirit, the music seems to escort us into a Viennese ballroom, where we encounter an elegant version of a German folk dance. Something about the gaiety is held at a distance, however, and the music finds itself struggling to embrace the dance amid intrusions from the opening melancholy.

Claude Debussy
String Quartet in G minor: II. Assez vif et bien rythmé (1893)

Lived: 1862-1918 in Paris

Best-known works: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), La Mer (The Sea), “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque


  • developed an approach to music in which harmony and tonal color are inextricably linked

  • use of chords more for color and atmosphere than for structure was the most significant innovation in harmony since the rules of classical harmony were established in the works of Bach and his contemporaries

  • extensive use of non-traditional scales, especially modal and whole-tone scales

Melodic and harmonic lines emerge and evolve organically, interacting with one another in a dizzying array of timbres and sonic palettes that create what Debussy called a “musical continuity”. This quartet focuses on the development, not of notes and rhythms, but of sounds— an idea largely foreign to Debussy’s predecessors, and one which his musical descendants have yet to escape.

Florence Price
String Quartet in G major: II. Andante (1929)

Lived: 1887-1953 in Little Rock, Atlanta, and Chicago

Best-known works: Symphony in E minor, Suite of Negro Dances, “Songs to the Dark Virgin”


  • first African American woman to be performed by a major orchestra (Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E minor in 1933)

  • effortlessly integrated African American spirituals and blues into the European classical tradition

  • composed dozens of concert works while simultaneously working as a silent film organist, writing jingles for radio ads, teaching piano, and raising two daughters as a single mother

There’s something strangely familiar to the opening theme of this movement, but it’s not because you’ve heard it elsewhere. It’s a typical feeling when first encountering the music of Florence Price, who grew up suffused in both African American folk music and the European classical tradition. This is music that straddles two worlds and occupies both with equal comfort and authority, unfolding with such ease and confidence that we feel like we’ve known it our whole life.

Dmitri Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 3: III. Allegro non troppo (1946)

Lived: 1906-1975 in St. Petersburg/Leningrad and Moscow

Best-known works: Symphony No. 5, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Violin Concerto No. 1


  • better at ticking off Stalin than just about anyone except Trotsky

  • fused modernist techniques with folk music and the classical tradition in way that had popular appeal

  • infused his outwardly supportive works with subtly subversive messages

Pretty much every piece Shostakovich composed either irritated the Soviet authorities or was written to “apologize” for a previous work that had done so. His Quartet No. 3 is the latter, showing his “repentance” after the “ideological weakness” of his Ninth Symphony. (It’s always safest to put Shostakovich’s “contrition” in quotes.) To ensure that he wouldn’t be accused of elitism again (or at least not quite so soon), Shostakovich renamed the movements of his new quartet shortly before the premiere to imply that it tells the story of a people struggling against the forces of war. This third movement was renamed “The forces of war are unleashed”.

Philip Glass
String Quartet No. 5: Part IV (1991)

Lives: born 1937 in Baltimore; divides his time between New York and Nova Scotia

Best-known works: Einstein on the Beach, Music in 12 Parts, Koyaanisqatsi


  • one of the pioneers of musical minimalism

  • introduced new instrumental ensembles— often featuring electronic keyboards and other instruments associated with popular music— to contemporary classical concerts

  • brought new styles of contemporary classical music into the film, dance, and theater worlds

If you’re expecting Glass’ trademark pulsing chords and repeating arpeggios, this piece may surprise you. In Quartet No. 5, Glass explores sounds and moods rarely found in his earlier works. When his familiar techniques and harmonies do make appearances, they emerge in the context of more fluid, expressive, and drawn-out phrases, interrupted by thoughtful pauses that add greater poignancy and depth to the pensive harmonies typical of his music.

Caroline Shaw
Blueprint (2017)

Lives: born 1982 in Greenville, North Carolina; resides in New York

Best-known works: Partita for 8 Voices, “Say You Will” Remix (Kanye West feat. Caroline Shaw)


  • uses non-traditional sounds and popular idioms within traditional forms

  • youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music (2013, Partita for 8 Voices)

  • blurs the line between genres, having recorded with musicians ranging from the Yale Baroque Ensemble to Kanye West

  • she (and her piece Hi) were central to a storyline in the fourth season of Mozart in the Jungle

Blueprint views Beethoven’s Sixth Quartet (part of which was performed earlier on this program) through a kind of aural kaleidoscope, deconstructing it into melodic fragments which are reassembled in a musical collage.