Living and Music: Britten String Quartet 2 and Refusal as Essential to the Human Spirit

One of the best things about being at Aspen Music Festival and School this summer is the other group in the Advanced Quartet Studies being the Omer Quartet comprised of Mason Yu, Erica Tursi, Joe LoCicero, and Alex Cox. We’ve grown up with them at school in Cleveland and it has been a privilege to see how far they’ve gone together and how they are continuing. A couple weeks ago, they performed the 3rd movement of the Britten String Quartet 2 in our weekly quartet studio class and they had me in tears. Since then, I have been listening to the quartet non-stop trying to understand why I was so moved. While I want to focus on the 3rd movement, the first two movements play pivotal roles in setting up the 3rd movement as the emotional core of the piece so I want to touch briefly on how they create and then destroy the stability of the key of the piece.

The first movement starts with a graceful C major chord expansion. This C major chord suspends, becoming the backdrop for the other voices which are safe to wander. They stay close at first, just loosely weaving in and around the chord. This opening always strikes me as mystical and not yet awake…or perhaps even pre-sentient. The weaving voices develop preference or primitive urges to stay on certain notes…this slight defiance by the weaving voices to the backdrop chord motivates it to change to something which will hopefully offer more stability. The Chord goes to G and then D… all this time, the voices are still searching. They get excited at the D chord and hover around it, obsessively cadencing until everyone suddenly dissolves into a high C, nostalgic for the opening. After this there are empty gestures made by the weaving voices, now utterly confused about their key after the remembrance of the C. One of the violin parts now starts working towards some kind of consciousness while the others pulse and suddenly we have sentience or the start of a new day. The whole quartet alternates leaping fast notes and little existential shrieks. It reminds me of being in a city in the morning when things are getting started and everyone is declaring or celebrating their lives, hawking their wares. Something particularly impressive about Britten’s compositional writing in this quartet is all the ways he can bring the personal and the universal into juxtaposition or conversation with one another. The opening is so universal with just a hint of the personal being formed. The part I see as a city seems almost like a birds-eye view of universal life with little zooms and flashes of people falling in step with each other, with you. Then everyone lapses into anxious utterings again, searching and the parts are written to be not quite together so that you hear the personal searching and loneliness of every voice (personal) but because they happen together, it reads also as universal. This happens the whole quartet- the same gestures and expressions happen in all the parts but at different times, creating universal personal emotion. The first movement ends cradled in the mystical C major chord of the opening. But while the C major chord expands, the other voices tiptoe the main rhythmic motive of the movement with pitches that still every so slightly defy the C major safety of the chord by wandering.

The second movement starts with unison fast figures while others do unison lurches or barks. These fast figures start becoming just one note apart from each other, giving the impression of trying to and being unable to catch up. The fast figures here do not seem unrelated to the anxious utterings of the first movement- without the score I would guess they are close to being the same figures sped up and closer together in pitches, giving them an even more harried feeling. These fast figures are paused a couple times when an instrument has an outburst of drunken hysteria which then return to the fast figures once again. The movement ends with the same lurches as the beginning, so consecutive as to give an eerie rocking back and forth instability.

The third movement begins with the lurches of the second movement, now much slower. This is no longer a reflex, primitive or careless as it was in the previous movement. This motive is now deliberate and profound. All the voices have the theme of the third movement and the difficult task of surpassing these lurches to the C Major of the piece together. They get there, but immediately, the viola lapses back to the Bb which starts the piece. Now everyone alternates two notes of the theme…calling out to each other or murmuring to themselves. Here as the other voices start to become personal and move, the cello part keeps insisting F to C. When the voices continue to wander, the cello part moves up a range and goes G to C, trying to show the way back to C with a stronger and brighter cadence. This is the seed of struggle which not only launches this movement but also the whole piece. Is it in our nature to question, to seek what isn’t safe?
Once again in the opening of this movement, Britten shows off his ability to make the universal and the personal one thing compositionally by giving them all the theme together at the same time and then breaking it into small pieces for each voice to speak out, still at the same time. The movement puts the voices through melancholy and resignation, unintelligible garbling, and pure anticipation in the form of the insistence of repeated gestures. There are moments where it seems the music has completely lost pulse as well as key…everyone in the aether, unrelating to each other, sequencing, going in circles latching on to nothing. Slowly, aimless melodies start to have purpose and the cello once again starts scales with trills at the tops cadencing back and forth in C major, showing the way. The first violin gets inspired and does the scales in the cadenza but gets lost…this affects everyone as they start playing again, ghostly trills almost in horror while the cello plays the theme, clearly lost as well. This is where I started to really lose it in the Omers’ performance. The cello cadences at the end of the theme, but this cadence hardly registers because we are traumatized by the randomness of intervals and purposelessness of everything that has occured in the last 10 minutes. The soft trills in the other parts miraculously cadence with the cello, giving us our first tentative taste of real C Major chord. The first violin, emboldened by this first taste launches into a C major scale but gets rerouted to the theme now encapsulated in outrageous, bewildered chords. The other voices tremolo, moving their bows as fast as they can in frenzied anticipation, wondering if they can find their way back. At the end of the theme, instead of going down, the first violin in these wild chords finds a way to change the direction of the theme to cadence up instead of down. This is finally what gets the other voices in their tremolo to find C Major. The first violin then takes the victorious plunge of a C major scale but slips into the Bb which starts the theme we have been struggling with the whole movement. But this time, the other voices immediately step in with an enormous C major chord, not letting any doubt in. The whole thing searching theme is played now again but between every note of the theme is a violent unshakeable C major chord. And this is what moved me so much. Because the chords keep going. And they play these chords together except for one part where they alternate, once again making the universal personal.

Of course these chords could be anything. But I like to think of them in the context of refusal. Britten had just visited the concentration camps and seen horrific things. The bleak and desolate landscapes in the third movement seem like they could have been influenced by his experiences. So do the senselessness of the drunk interlewds and the unintelligibility of the fast figures in the second movement. After everything that has just been emotionally invoked on us, the strength the piece ends with is incredible. This end translates for me personally into defiance. Refusal to accept certain things in the world as they are, refusal to be passive about certain things in the world and most importantly, it shows me that refusal and defiance are essential for the human spirit and for the Arts. I am encouraged to be violently impassioned for the things, ideas, and people I love.

like this quartet, which I will one day study with the score and write about in a paper. but for now, there is blogging. Just go listen to the piece. I’m doing it no justice…
but I refuse not to try,
Ling Ling

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