Thursday, May 14, 2009

S.Q. Daily #4: Britten No. 2

S.Q. Daily: A Composer's Listening Journal

Day #4: Benjamin Britten
String Quartet No. 2, Op.36

Not long ago, there was a time in my development as a composer when all I thought about was harmony. Pitch-organizing schemes became my primary focus, and subsequently the source of my musical joys and frustrations. It was like taking sides, driving my stake into the territory of one tribe or another and setting up my little pup tent there for all to see.

While I still wrestle with this issue at times (usually intentionally), I have started to develop other aspects of my process. Although my study of the quartet repertoire has scarcely begun, it has already afforded me a keen awareness of texture.

Here are three brief examples:

1.) Musical texture does not need to remain constant within a given section. The obvious chordal interruptions seen in the two previous works are at work again, serving both as moments of demarcation and as independent thematic elements in their own right.

Rehearsal letter B of Britten's first movement is an excellent example of an active texture in which each member provides multiple sonic layers in rapid succession. The cumulative effect of their efforts is a rich web of sound that gives contrast and the impression of a larger ensemble. (I really want to explore a similar "dovetailing" texture somewhere in my quartet!)

2.) A single member of the quartet is capable of creating an exciting accompaniment upon which one may hang a melody. We've seen this already in the
Bartók and the Shostakovich. One player sets up a recurring figure that acts as a canvas upon which the featured content can be drawn. See rehearsal letter F (vn II), letter L measure 8 (va), and letter M (vc). This really frees up the rest of the players to make indivual contributions to the passage.

3.) Melodic doubling accomplishes more than a thicker tone; it injects great timbral variety into an otherwise quite heterogeneous ensemble. Movement II features extensive use of two-vesrus-two pairing with mutes. The melody is enhanced by the unison and octave doubling. The remaining pair, then, works together to present a broken-chord accompanimental figure using contrary motion.

Of course, a single string instrument also carries much expressive potential, as the cello and viola demonstrate in the first half of Movement III. This texture was rarely seen and never sustained in the other two compositions I've heard this week. It serves to vary the composer's timbral pallate while providing a nice contrast for the listener - not to mention a perfect opportunity for the soloist to show off!

And finally, a general note on Britten:
What impresses me most about much of Britten's music in general is his convincing marriage of traditional tonal gestures and forms with a modern harmonic language. The result is consistently fresh, intelligent, lyrical music that avoids both pompousness and clichés.

(Well, they're getting a little shorter. I'll try to keep tomorrow's down to 5 paragraphs!

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