Sublime String Quartets

NACO at the Fourth
ADOLPHUS HAILSTORK

String Quartet No. 2, Variations on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

A prolific composer, Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) has long established a reputation for works that masterfully blend eclectic elements from European, Euro-American, and African American music traditions, often emphasizing melody. He wrote his String Quartet No. 2 in 2012 for the Marian Anderson String Quartet’s Continuing the Legacy project, which commissioned American composers to create works for string quartet based on songs of the African diaspora. 

As this work’s title indicates, Hailstork took as thematic basis the tune of the classic African American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which he creatively transforms in complex ways. The variations unfold seamlessly, each one distinguished by changes in melodic material and ensemble texture—from song-like phrases expressed by one or two instruments to dense counterpoint involving the entire quartet, combining bowed and plucked strings. Certain variations feature syncopated jazz rhythms and blues riffs, while piquant dissonances add chromatic colour throughout. 

Hailstork has written that the theme is “interrupted by abrupt dissonant chords that serve as ‘fate motifs’ to remind the listener that the ‘carry me home’ in the spiritual text is an end-of-life request.” Occurring in threes, these chords are first introduced in the aggressive opening of the piece, which is then followed by an energetic set of variations. Later, there’s a slow episode of wistful character, the nostalgic reverie of which is briefly disturbed by the “fate motif”, and gradually leads into another spirited segment of propulsive energy. After a pause, the nostalgic mood returns, though now rarified as the first violin soars ethereally. Despite the twice-interjection of the “fate” chords, the music melts into peaceful tranquility, as the cello sings the original tune to draw the piece to a serene close.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

DVOŘÁK

String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, “American”

I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Lento
III. Molto vivace
IV. Vivace ma non troppo

The “American” String Quartet is one of Antonín Dvořák’s (1841–1904) best-known chamber works. It’s among a group of pieces (along with the “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto) that he wrote during the period he spent in the United States, from 1892 to 1895, as director and professor at New York’s National Conservatory of Music. As a respected composer who wrote in the nationalistic style (that is, incorporating national folk song into art music forms), he was there at the invitation of the Conservatory’s founder, Jeannette Thurber, to help guide U.S. composers in creating music of a national American style. These works integrate what Dvořák absorbed in his research of traditional American music, which included Amerindian melodies, spirituals, and popular songs like those by Stephen Foster, and thus represent a stylistic model that also sought to appeal to the tastes of American audiences.

Dvořák composed this string quartet in June 1893, during an enjoyable summer break in Spillville, Iowa, where there was a small farming community of Czech immigrants. The town’s rural setting likely inspired the work’s pastoral tone. Although it does not contain any actual American melodies, String Quartet No. 12 in many ways epitomizes what came to be regarded as the composer’s “American” style. You’ll hear in all four movements characteristic elements (as music scholars Jan Smaczny and Klaus Döge have identified) such as open-hearted, balanced melodies (often using pentatonicism), drone accompaniment, energetic or flowing rhythmic ostinatos, and strongly syncopated rhythms.

In conventional sonata form, the opening Allegro has two main themes—the first, introduced on viola, optimistic and jaunty; the second, on first violin, tender and slightly sentimental. The middle section develops the rhythmic motifs and syncopations of the first theme, and there’s a fugato on a sombre version of the second theme. The slow movement has a melancholy cast, featuring intensely lyrical exchanges and duets between the first violin and second violin or cello.

Good cheer returns with the scherzo, which has two sections in F major and F minor; the latter uses an augmented version of the main theme. At certain moments, the first violin plays a very high variant of the melody; it’s based on the song of the scarlet tanager, a bird the composer heard on his walks in the Iowan countryside. The Finale is high-spirited, with joyful melodies driven by syncopated accompaniment. Later, a chorale is introduced—another Spillville reference, this to the organ Dvořák played for services at St. Wencelas Church—after which the main melody returns, to bring the quartet to an exuberant finish.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

PAUL WIANCKO

LIFT for String Quartet (Part III)

Paul Wiancko (b. 1983) is a highly regarded cellist and chamber musician who has performed with artists ranging from Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mitsuko Uchida to Chick Corea, Norah Jones, and members of Arcade Fire. It’s not surprising then that his work as a composer reflects his multifaceted interests in different styles and genres of music, combining them in fresh ways in pieces that have been described as “dazzling” and “compelling”.

Wiancko composed LIFT in 2016; it was premiered that year by the Aizuri Quartet, who subsequently performed it widely and recorded it. From their “insider’s” perspective, they’ve described the piece as “a virtuosic tour-de-force for the string quartet” in which Wiancko “channels his love of jazz, improvisation, hip-hop, and folk music to create a rich sonic palette.” In the composer’s words, “LIFT is an investigation of elation in its musical form… I joyously explored the capacity for harmony, colour, and rhythm itself to evoke and inspire. [The] piece ultimately represents the journey of a soul—laid out in fervent, celebratory detail.”

You’ll hear tonight the work’s third and final movement, which consists of three wildly contrasting sections. The first, marked “Glacial”, consists of sustained notes that shift as in layers, the mood becoming increasingly intense. After reaching an impassioned climax, the tension gradually dissipates via expressive glissandos, subsiding into the “icy” sound of bows playing sul ponticello (near the bridge of the instrument). “Maniacal”, the second section, is a wittily surreal mash-up of jazzy melodies and syncopations. The final section “Lift” is an ecstatic celebration, blending minimalist and folk-fiddling elements that revel in vibrant sonorities and richly varied sonic textures.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

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