Monday, May 18, 2009

S.Q. Daily #6: Saint-Saëns No. 1

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

Day #6: Camille Saint-Saëns
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 112

Welcome back to S.Q. Daily. We'll be exploring French quartets all this week, in chronological order by composer's birth:


First, the Saint-Saëns. Visit Naxos for audio if you're a subscriber, or you can listen to four 30-second previews on Amazon.

This quartet really surprised me with its ambitious musical ideas, motivic unity, and variety. I think I had placed Saint-Saëns earlier in history than he was, and that, in general, I frequently underestimate a lot of music written before, say, Firebird (1910, 1919 Suite).

The entire work is around 30 minutes in length. It's a short and enjoyable 30 minutes, but if you only have time for one movement, listen to the second (5:34). (The Equinox String Quartet has a great 90-second excerpt.) At quarter note = 184, this liveley section is shot through with catchy syncopated melodic figures just half a beat ahead of the pizzicato accompaniment. The rhythmic coordination and ensemble awareness required to perform this piece are quite impressive.

The second movement's off-beat feel is directly anticipated by a motive from the first movement, highlighting the tight motivic unity running throughout the composition as a whole. Despite the frequent return of material, though, Saint-Saëns always keeps things fresh, varying the tempi, textures, ranges, and harmonies with skill.

Although every member of the quartet must hold her/his own and count like mad for a convincing execution of this piece, the first violin is often the center of attention. With ample melodic material, fast runs quite high in the range, and tricky rapid bowing, the part comes only slightly short of virtuoso soloist playing without abandoning the concept of the quartet as an equanimous ensemble.

For a parting factoid: Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) wrote this first of two quartets in 1899, at age 64. His second was in 1918, only a few years before his death in 1921.

Tune in tomorrow for Vincent d'Indy's Quartet No. 2!

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