Chamber Music: Dead or Alive?

When asked why he had never composed a string quartet, French composer Pierre Boulez responded, “The string quartet is dead.” Boulez (b. 1925) is famous for his musical obituaries. He once declared that “Schoenberg est mort.” By this he did not mean that Arnold Schoenberg’s system of atonality was bankrupt, but that Schoenberg had not gone far enough in his manic systematization of music. So Boulez went even further into the la-la land of the avant-garde, whose premise he once famously pronounced: “Once the past has been gotten out of the way, one need think only of oneself.”

Those who did not wish to make that journey into amnesia were declared “useless.” Though now nearing the end of his own life’s span, Boulez unfortunately maintains his mortician’s grip around the musical life of Paris, where a musical friend informs me it is still difficult, because of him, to find a concert of “forbidden” music written by “useless” composers.

Maybe what Boulez really meant is that he wished the string quartet was dead. The good news is that the string quartet never died and is alive and well. Over the past several issues of CRISIS, I have tried to bring to your attention the undiminished vitality of the symphonic form, which had like-wise been declared dead. Here, I will attempt the same in respect to some of the vital, but little-known, chamber music of our time.

For instance, the Kontra Quartet has brought to completion its extraordinary traversal of Vagn Holmboe’s 20 string quartets on the Dacapo label. The most recent CDs in the series, volumes 6 and 7, contain the last five quartets, four of which are based on the times of day, and a fragment of String Quartet No. 21, on which Holmboe was working when he died in 1996 in his native Denmark. Holmboe was perhaps the greatest European symphonic composer after Sibelius and Nielsen, with 13 symphonies to his credit. The Bis label has recorded this remarkable legacy.

Holmboe’s richly contrapuntal thinking also naturally lent itself to the string quartet, and his cycle easily stands beside the great achievements of Shostakovich and Robert Simpson. There are many treasures in this music, though I am almost inclined to call them “hidden” because Holmboe’s style is so reserved. He had little interest in surface display. These last five quartets, like the others, are concentrated and tightly argued. They therefore require concentrated listening. There may be no blinding epiphanies in this music but, as in the works of his model, Haydn, these quartets maintain a steady, indeed extraordinary level of craftsmanship and inspiration. Patient listening reveals a musical intelligence of the highest order.

Recognition has come late for David Diamond (b. 1915), who labored on alone through the hard, arid years of the avant-garde, which spurned his tonally centered music. Yet Diamond’s eleven symphonies stand him in good stead as perhaps the greatest American symphonist of the 20th century. When I interviewed Diamond several years ago in Crisis, he wondered if, like Shostakovich, his quartets would only be discovered by the public after he had died.

As if Holmboe’s works by themselves were not a sufficient rebuke to Boulez, we now also have the unfolding cycle of Diamond’s eleven quartets. The Albany label has recently released volume 3 in its ongoing traversal by the Potomac String Quartet. Thanks to Steve Honigberg and his Potomac partners, Diamond can hear his vindication in these stunning performances. Diamond is a more emotionally intense composer than was Holmboe, and the elegiac passion of these works is compelling. He veered in and out of a highly chromatic style, so the newcomer to his works should approach him through his early, more accessible quartets. The Albany series is a treasure trove.

I often wondered if American composer Harold Shapero (b. 1920) is a one-work composer, which would be a shame. To the general public, he has only been known by his brilliant, scintillating Symphony for Classical Orchestra (you simply must hear this work on either Bernstein’s mono Sony recording or Previn’s stereo one from New World Records). A new release on New World Records gives the lie to this reputation with chamber works that entrance in every way. The longest work here, the Serenade for String Quintet (a chamber reduction of Shapero’s Serenade for Strings), is 35 minutes of sheer delight. I defy you not to be charmed by this neoclassical confection. I cannot recall a modern chamber work in which there is a greater sense of play, something sorely missing from most 20th-century music. This is a work of wit, gorgeous lyricism, and spiky rhythms. The Lydian String Quartet plays it with elan, as it does the two other works on this CD: a lovely String Quartet from 1941 and a precocious 1937 String Trio that shows Shapero flirted with atonality as a teenager but grew out of it, much to the detriment of his reputation. Do not miss this treat.

I have only recently discovered a New World CD of George Tsontakis’s Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 that was released a decade ago. These are two of the most profoundly engaging string quartets of the last 20 years. American composer George Rochberg, who led American music out of the wilderness of serialism back in the 1970s with his own stunning series of Concord Quartets (also available on New World Records), wrote the moving liner notes to this release. He points out that the Third Quartet marks for Tsontakis a turning away from the world of Tsontakis’s Second Quartet, a “severely introverted and intense semitonal [atonal] work.”

While the Second, says Tsontakis, “was submerged in the seemingly inescapable malaise of our time,” the Third, titled Coraggio (courage), “offers a certain exuberance and brightness, an optimism that might be based on our blindness—a momentary lapse into forgetfulness—to what surrounds us, or else perhaps on the tenacious human spirit we have inherited, where even in the worst of times there is a taking of heart and welling up of courage.”

In the Third, Tsontakis accepted his “inheritance?’ meaning the great tradition of music with which modernity broke. In the Fourth, Beneath Thy Tenderness of Heart, he goes to the heart of that tradition and makes the source of courage explicit. As Rochberg writes, “Tsontakis is not ashamed to be heard praying aloud.”

The subtitle to this quartet comes from the Russian hymn that opens the work and whose unsung words ask Mary “to deliver us from perils.”

This music contains perils, prayer, and hard-won deliverance. In his embrace of tonality, Tsontakis has mastered the expressive uses of consonance and dissonance, especially using the latter in his powerful portrayal of anguish in the soul. There is no space here to give the details of how ingeniously Tsontakis achieves this, but ingenuity is not the point here. This is a great work of spiritual struggle and deep consolation. I have listened to it many times, and its richness is inexhaustible.

The Fourth Quartet was an award winner at the Kennedy Center Awards in 1989, which shows that sanity has returned to our prize system. Greatness achieved is now greatness recognized. The American String Quartet gives exhilarating performances of both works.

The young British composer John Pickard (b. 1963) speaks the same language as Tsontakis. He writes that “above all, we must decide how we want to relate to the past.” Contra Boulez, Pickard’s choice is to “actively seek to make my quartets a small part of a tradition which contains so much of the music I love and which stretches from Haydn and Beethoven to Shostakovich and beyond. In an age of ‘post-modernist’ fragmentation, insincerity and cultural disintegration, this strikes me as an honorable and worthwhile artistic aim.” Dutton Digital has released a CD containing Pickard’s Quartets Nos. 2-4, played with total commitment by the Sorrel Quartet. The Second Quartet is immediately engaging in its broad lyricism and energy “A work warm and lyrical in character” is what Pickard said he wanted to create, and he has succeeded. The Third starts more abrasively, but its turbulence subsides in the deeply moving, somber second movement, marked Molto intensivo, that demonstrates the depth of Pickard’s inspiration. Pickard has also written three symphonies. I wish I could hear them.

There is only room for a last quick note on an even younger composer, the Swiss-French Richard Dubugnon (b. 1968), who has been hailed by Le Figaro as “the son of Ravel and Prokofiev.” If that sounds appealing, and it should, try his dramatically expansive and seductive Piano Quartet on the budget Naxos label, accompanied by his other first-rate chamber pieces.

Evidence for the vitality of contemporary chamber music is so overwhelming that even Boulez has had to admit it, as he did to the leader of the Arditti String Quartet: “Remember what I said about the string quartet being dead? I am sorry. I was wrong.” He should be.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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