CHAPTER 4: String Instruments

 

LISTENING LIST 4.1

Listening Guide 4.1.1

Historical Background

Composer: Steve Reich (b. 1936)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: American

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Reich has been active as a performer of his own music.  He has, however, made his living primarily as a composer.  He is arguably the most influential composer alive.

Different Trains, I. “America – Before the War” (1988)

Instrumentation: string quartet and prerecorded tape

Duration: 9 minutes

Mode: major and minor

Form: The music is organized around eleven snippets of text.

Comment: After a short introduction, the music slows down gradually over the course of snippets 1-4.  The tempo picks up a little during number 5 and resumes its initial tempo at 6.  7-11 assume a still faster pace.

Listening Guide 4.1.2

Historical Background

Composer: Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Hungarian

Life and work: Born to a non-musical family that encouraged his talents, Bartók eventually taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and was also active as an ethnomusicologist—someone who researches the music of other cultures.  He toured as a pianist and also made some money as a composer.  Though well-known in certain circles, he was largely forgotten by the end of his life.  Today, however, his music is widely performed, and he is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

String Quartet No. 4, V. Allegro molto (1928)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 5 minutes and 15 seconds

Mode: freely tonal

Form: ternary (A, 0:00; B, 1:56; A1, 3:09; Coda, 4:47).

Comment:  The piece is very dissonant (“harsh”).  But listen for how Bartók, to relieve the tension, brings the instruments together onto the same notes.  (The end of the A section, for instance.)

Listening Guide 4.1.3

Historical Background

Composer: Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: Czech

Life and work: The son of an innkeeper who was also a musician, Dvořák was an organist and violist before turning to composition full-time in his early thirties.  He eventually became an internationally famous composer, who even taught in United States for a short while.  His music has had a steady presence in the repertoire since his death.

Piano Quintet No. 2, op. 81

III. Scherzo (Furiant) (1887)

 Instrumentation: string quartet and piano

Duration: 4 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: major

Form: ternary (A, 0:00; B, 1:36; A, 3:31).

Comment:  A “furiant” is a fast Bohemian dance that changes between duple and triple meter.  This piece is also a clear example of traditional ternary form.

Listening Guide 4.1.4

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Violin Sonata No. 9, op. 47, “Kreutzer”

I. Adagio-Presto (1803)

Instrumentation: violin and piano

Duration: 11 minutes

Mode: major and minor

Form: sonata-allegro (introduction, 0:22; exposition, 1:48; development, 4:32; recapitulation, 7:00; coda, 9:58).

Comment:  As with any sonata, listen for the multiple melodies.  Here, after the main melody that opens the exposition, there are two additional melodies: during the exposition, you hear them at 2:54 and 3:46; during the recapitulation, they reappear at 7:57 and 8:50.

Listening Guide 4.1.5

Historical Background

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: German

Life and work: From a profoundly musical family, Bach was employed as a musician by churches, royal courts, and schools throughout his life.  While he had a prestigious position at the end of his life, his music was almost entirely forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

V. Chaconne (1720)

Instrumentation: violin

Duration: 17 minutes and 45 seconds

Mode: minor and major

Form: A chaconne repeats the same chord progression over a consistent bassline for the duration of the music; over this bassline, the music continuously develops.  The first instance of Bach’s chosen progression takes place over the first twenty seconds of music.

Comment:  In addition to the chaconne form, a ternary approach to the music’s structure is easy to discern.  The opening A section is in D minor.  The B section, which still continues the chaconne progression, turns to major and begins at 9:02.  Minor returns—hence, “A”—at 14:06.

LISTENING LIST 4.2

Listening Guide 4.2.1

Historical Background

Composer: Harry Partch (1901-1974)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: American

Life and work:  One of the true originals of American music, Harry Partch invented his own instruments, his own tuning systems, and he largely eschewed anything traditional in music.  Though he did spend some time teaching in universities and living off grant money, he was at times very poor.

“Leaving Carmel, Californi-el”

from U.S. Highball (1955)

Instrumentation: string quartet and voice

Duration: 4 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode:  major (freely tonal)

Form:  non-standard.  The music is arranged around snippets of text that announce where the train is leaving from.

Comment:  An important precursor to Different Trains, U.S. Highball tells the journey of Slim, a hobo in the 1930s traveling across the U.S.  Based on Partch’s own experiences, the piece takes a very catholic approach to the string instruments, which musicians are called upon to play in unconventional ways—with the wood of the bow (“col legno”) and behind the bridge (“sul ponticello”), to name two examples.  In addition to the rhythms imitating the freight trains, the string imitate the vocal lines as well.

Listening Guide 4.2.2

Historical Background

Composer: Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: French

Life and work:  Born into a family where music was a pastime but not a profession, Ravel was encouraged in his musical studies,   Despite a lack of success at music school, Ravel went on to become a world-renowned composer, fulfilling engagements as a conductor and pianist of his own works.  His works remain popular with audiences.

String Quartet in F major

II. Assez vif – très rythmé (1903)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 6 minutes and 20 seconds

Mode:  minor (Aeolian) at opening, then changing

Form:  ternary (A, 0:00; B, 1:58, A1, 4:55).

Comment:  Among the most popular movements in all of chamber music, the second movement of Ravel’s only string quartet features some of the most famous “pizzicato” (plucking) passages ever composed and a beautiful, enigmatic middle section at a considerably slower tempo.  Note also the stunning rhythmic contrasts.

Listening Guide 4.2.3

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Piano Trio, op. 97 “Archduke”

I. Allegro moderato (1811)

Instrumentation: piano trio (violin, cello, and piano)

Duration: 10 minutes and 15 seconds

Mode:  major

Form:  sonata allegro (Exposition: 0:00; Development, 3:35; Recapitulation, 6:54; Coda, 9:35).

Comment:  One of the signature works of Beethoven’s middle, “heroic” period, the “Archduke” is notable for its expansive length and technical difficulty.  Though it begins with a short piano solo, the piece features the violin and cello prominently; indeed, Beethoven’s use of the instruments became typical for chamber music, as his trios became the models for future works of this kind.  As always with pieces in sonata-allegro form, listen for the second theme.  Here, it appears in the exposition at 1:53 and in the recapitulation at 7:58.

Listening Guide 4.2.4

Historical Background

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: German

Life and work: From a profoundly musical family, Bach was employed as a musician by churches, royal courts, and schools throughout his life.  While he had a prestigious position at the end of his life, his music was almost entirely forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Cello Suite No. 1 in G major (ca. 1720)

Instrumentation: cello

Duration: 19 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode:  major

Form:  This is an example of a Baroque suite.  Typically, such pieces have four core dances that appear in a consistent order: Allemande (moderate, in four), Courante, (fast, in three), Sarabande, (slow, in three), and Gigue (fast, triplet subdivisions).  Composers usually added other movements, particularly between the Sarabande and Gigue.  Dances in Baroque suites are almost always in binary form (AABB).  The chart below lays out the form of the suite.

Comment:  Due in part to the fact that the cello overlaps more with the range of a spoken voice, Bach’s first cello suite is considerably less intense than his Chaconne for violin.  Though there is a fair amount of repetition, absent here is the obsessive retreading of a consistent chord progression.  Instead, we are treated to a series of gently changing moods, each imbued with a dance-like lilt, though these would not have actually been danced to. 

LISTENING LIST 4.3

Listening Guide 4.3.1

Historical Background

Composer: John Adams (b. 1947)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: American

Life and work: Though not from a particularly musical family, Adams began composing at age ten and studied music at Harvard, becoming a music professor at various schools after he graduated.  His music started to gain attention in the late seventies, and his 1987 opera Nixon in China was a tremendous success.  He is among the very most prominent composers alive. 

Shaker Loops, Part III: “Loops and Verses” (1978)

Instrumentation: string orchestra

Duration: 6 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode: freely tonal

Form:  This is a piece that has shape more than form.  The music articulates a gradual rhythmic crescendo (that is, the rhythm slowly, incrementally gets faster).  Coming out of a frenzied fervor, the instruments arrive at a “wild push-pull section” beginning at around 5:05 that is the climax of the entire four-movement work.  The pushing and pulling gets quieter and higher and leads continually into the work’s final part.

Comment:  The propulsive rhythm, clearly formal concept, and blended string sound make Shaker Loops an exciting and accessible work for strings.  Listen for the very high solo cello at the opening of “Loops and Verses.”  Listen for how the other cellos have a melodic line that echoes the solo imprecisely: this is an example of the “looping” that in part gives the work its title.

Listening Guide 4.3.2

Historical Background

Composer: Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: Russian

Life and work: An eminent chemist, educator, and advocate for women’s rights, Borodin might just be the greatest composer who made his living outside of music.  He is particularly known for this piece as well as his opera, Prince Igor.

String Quartet No. 2, III. Nocturne (1881)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 8 minutes and 30 seconds

Mode: major

Form:  ternary (A, 0:00; B, 2:32; A1, 4:55; Coda, 7:12).

Comment:  One of the most famous melodies in all chamber music, the theme is played first by the cello, then by the first violin.  In both cases, Borodin begins the theme in an extremely high register of the instrument.  In the return of the A section, notice how he echoes the theme in higher and lower registers.  This section also features some lovely cello pizzicato. 

Listening Guide 4.3.3

Historical Background

Composer: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: German

Life and work:  Born into a musical family, Brahms worked as a pianist and choir director before achieving fame as a composer.  During the height of his career, he was regarded as a standard-bearer for traditional musical values in an age that placed too much emphasis on flashy originality and formal ambiguity.  His music has remained in the repertoire since his death.

Piano Trio No. 1 op. 8, III. Adagio (1854, rev. 1889)

Instrumentation: piano trio (violin, cello, and piano)

Duration: 9 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode:  major and minor

Form:  ternary (A, 0:00; B, 2:43; A1 6:12).

Comment:  Though this piano trio is one of Brahms’s early works, the third movement was dramatically changed in the 1889 revision.  The eight-chord piano chorales create a sense of almost cyclical harmony in the first A section, though the return of the A has harmony that is less predictable.  Notice how the B section goes into minor, and Brahms adds some beautiful fast notes to the return of the A.

Listening Guide 4.3.4

Historical Background

Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: Bohemian (today, Bohemia is a region in the Czech Republic)

Life and work: Biber was a violinist and composer who had a number of court and religious appointments.  He was well known as a violinist, and today he is considered one of the instrument’s most important composers.   His music, however, is rarely performed.

Passacaglia from Rosary Sonatas (ca. 1676)

Instrumentation: violin

Duration: 10 minutes and 15 seconds

Mode: minor

Form:  A passacaglia is like a chaconne in being a piece of music written over a constantly repeating bassline.

Comment:  Like Bach’s Chaconne, Biber also employs a ternary A-B-A structure in his passacaglia.  In the A section (0:00), the bassline is low in the violin; Biber transposes the bassline up an octave for the B section (4:28); and returns it to the initial register at the return of the A (6:51).  Though it seems to us now an obvious precursor to Bach’s work, Biber’s music was virtually unknown until its publication in the twentieth century.