ELIZABETH BELL – A Breath of Fresh Air – String Quartet No. 1

American composer Elizabeth Bell [born in 1928] wrote one string quartet and one symphony, both of which appear on the CD that I am about to discuss. The quartet was written in 1957.

The work opens with a lone violin, soon to be joined by a sparse cello and viola. This is an amazing mood. The instruments seem to be meandering and there is no noticeable melody; yet it’s pure atmosphere. A change brings the cello to the fore momentarily and then we are back into the soundscape. A dialogue begins to evolve and then the cello slows it down again. The piece continues as a reverie. The violin moves into the high register and as it reaches the conclusion there is a slight lift in dynamics until the ensemble drop out, one by one and the violin breathes its last note.

The second movement opens with three sharp, dissonant chords. The cello enters and the violin begins with an atonal melody. The dissonant chords recur a number of times with atonal violin melodies filling in the gaps. This is beautiful abstract music. Now a solo violin introduces a new section, interrupted by more chords. The cello takes on the melodic function as the ensemble converse in the background. Eventually they all blend together into one sound. There are new chord interjections and new melodies. The cello rhythm and violin melody lead into the conclusion of two sharp, indeterminate chords.

The third movement is slow and opens very quietly with two violins playing long melodic lines. After a time, the cello adds support. The violins continue with plaintive, sparse melodies. A slight period of abstraction and pizzicato follows and the cello makes a lonesome statement. Now it is back to one violin until the ensemble re-enters. The violin fades out to conclude.

The final movement opens with a swirling, mildly chaotic passage. Several chord interjections appear and the cello supports the two violins. The music is very busy and rhythmically incisive passages alternate with freedom. The atonal violins are enthralling as they sustain the various moods. A solo violin enters for a moment but it is soon back to the quartet and alternate chaos. There are two rhythmic chords and then a sustained chord to end the work.

This is a brief review and I consider I need to justify it. The piece runs for 23 minutes but each movement has a number of static sections. This is not uninteresting, in fact it is magnificent. It is a unique work in that I cannot think of any other work in this style. Mostly it is a beguiling, atonal romp!

It is available, paired with the symphony, as Music of Elizabeth Bell on Amazon US. I couldn’t find it anywhere else. The symphony is interesting, slightly Mahler-esque.

Listenability: Marvellously mild Modernism.

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