GEORGE ANTHEIL – A Pointer To Minimalism? – SQs Nos. 1 & 2

American composer George Antheil [1900-1959], wrote three string quartets. The interesting thing about his work is that String Quartet No. 1 shows the earliest examples of Minimalist technique that I have heard. Antheil uses mechanically sounding ostinato passages in his work and I believe that these are one of the pointers to the development of Minimalism.

String Quartet No. 1, in one movement, was written in 1921. It is a Modern work, commencing with a basic ostinato motif that wouldn’t be out of place in a Phillip Glass or Morton Feldman quartet. This motif is intertwined with other similar material which gives the introduction a strong rhythmic impetus. After a time, this gives way to a beguiling quiet passage, which also has a strong Modern character. Then it’s back to the motif. The music continues to oscillate between quiet, abstract passages and the ostinato. Even the rhythmic passages have great melodic variety. Occasionally it drops the rhythm altogether and falls into rubato.

This piece is only 14 minutes long, but I found it wonderfully fulfilling. That basic motif to which I keep referring, is fascinating; so far ahead of its time!

String Quartet No. 2 written in 1927 is titled For Sylvia Beach, With Love, and is in four movements. No. 3 is also in four movements. These two quartets are quite conservative, only showing Modernist elements occasionally. They each feature a fine slow movement, both very beautiful. The quartets seem to be more folk-like, with simpler melodies and many pastoral passages. The CD I have also contains two charming small suites, Lithuanian Night and Six Little Pieces for String Quartet for Mary Louise Bok. The former has a pleasing slow movement.

The particular version under discussion is The Complete String Quartets by the Del Sol Quartet on the Naxos label. There is at least one another version but I’ve not heard it.

There are several issues on Amazon US and UK and it can be found on Spotify. You can also sample several of Antheil’s quartets on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Some delightful Modernism interspersed with the conservative. Music to be savoured.


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