CHARLES IVES – String Quartet No. 1

American Early Modern composer Charles Edward Ives [1874–1954] wrote two string quartets as well as incidental music for the genre. I previously discussed his Second Quartet and have noticed in my blog statistics that this review is very popular, so I thought a look at the First Quartet would be in order. The First is a student work, composed when Ives was studying at Yale University. It is significantly less progressive than the Second and is tonal in conception. The CD liner notes state that Ives quotes melodies from at least seven hymns or popular songs and the work is titled From the Salvation Army – A Revival Service. It contains four movements; three of which have multiple tempo markings so I shall only refer to the first mentioned.

The quartet opens at an andante tempo with a fugue of stately style. This is developed for a time until a rise in tempo brings a slightly rhapsodic feeling. Now, echoes of the opening fugue are heard and transformed with various melodic developments. There is a strength about these melodies, likely from some hymn source. A quivering section leads to a faded chordal end.

Next, an allegro movement brings forth a lilting melody, followed by variation on this melody. Some sweet sounds are heard as the composer expresses an appealing, positive feeling – this is joyful music. There are many tempo changes, which lead to multiple wonderful moments. A slow section of rich chords leads back into the opening melody and the violins again dance with vigour and joy. A totally different passage is quite powerful, but soon gives way to a lyrical feeling to finish.

The third movement, marked adagio, is hymn-like in its purity. Gentle, wistful violin melodies combine with pastoral harmonies to create a most attractive soundscape. A new section is Mozart-like, but soon returns to the pastoral feeling – there are some rich melodies here. A quivering chordal passage leads into a quicker tempo which is quite powerful. Now we return to adagio and some further stunning melodies unfold. The end comes in a high register.

The final movement begins as an allegro, featuring rhythmically incisive ensemble playing. There is a great sense of forward movement, which eventually becomes becalmed. Now the violins are more expressive, at a slower tempo, before moving into another pulsating passage where the violins duet with marvellous melodic ideas. The ensemble gather forces, projecting a feeling of great strength and assertion. The violins rise above the ensemble, and conclude the work on a strong chord.

The review CD, by the Emerson Quartet also contains String Quartet No. 2, together with the only string quartet of Samuel Barber, Opus 11, written in 1936. This three movement work has a stunning adagio movement which Barber subsequently arranged as Adagio for Strings, which would have to be nearing the most popular piece of classical music from the twentieth century. Personally, I don’t find the other two movements very engaging so I don’t intend to discuss it here.

This CD is available on Amazon US and UK, along with many other pairings of Ives’ two string quartets.

There is also a plethora of versions of both quartets on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Pre-modern Ives at his finest.


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