DONALD KEATS – A Mysterious Journey

American Modern composer Donald H Keats [1929–2018] wrote two string quartets. I was unable to locate the First but the Second is still available. Keats came into prominence as part of the 1950s American string quartet movement.

The Second Quartet, marked poco adagio, opens in an eerie manner with an ascending ensemble arpeggio which strangely includes a lone pizzicato note. A brief solo atonal violin passage laments before it is strengthened by another pizzicato interjection and the subsequent introduction of the ensemble. The cello paraphrases a violin melody and the music develops a mysterious, but warm sound. A slightly energised section features further interjections before it dissipates, leaving a shrill solo violin. The cello asks questions and the end is a gentle litany of sounds, concluded by several cello pizzicato strokes.

The next movement quickly settles into a tempo, but is again mysterious. Formless violin lines dance above intermittent cello assertions – the tension is palpable here. Some strummed ensemble chords lead to a further shrill solo violin passage, which quickly develops into a series of introspective harmonised chords. Now the violins are alone as they crisscross with lamenting melodic lines, although very sparse cello rumblings are occasionally heard. A return to one iteration of the harmonised chords makes for a fascinating, introspective passage. The shrill solo violin is often heard in this movement, usually developing into an ensemble section. Now the music darts around and a muttering of atonal notes ends with a flourish.

The final, andante movement occupies the same sound space as the first movement. I really love these 1950s style sounds – they are just so evocative in their abstraction. Strummed pizzicato cello sounds form a backdrop to the violins’ cryptic utterances. A passage of seemingly random notes generates an energy, lifting the violins to thrusting melodic lines which eventually leads to the expression of a sombre atmosphere. There is significant pizzicato in this work, appearing in many different musical spaces. During this whole work, there never appears to be any cohesion or recurring melodies – it is just a fascinating journey. A shrill violin fades to close with the occasional pizzicato cello.

This is intellectual music, it doesn’t present much emotion. Having said that, I marvel at the composer’s ability to create assorted moods with these modern techniques.

The review CD, titled Robert Stewart & Donald Keats: String Quartets, on the NWCRI label is performed by the Beaux Arts String Quartet. This is probably an augmented Beaux Arts Trio recording, which I haven’t come across before. I intend to discuss the Stewart Third Quartet which is contemporaneous with the Keats, at a later date – it is a fine work.

This disc can sometimes be found on Amazon US and UK and is always available as an MP3 download.

The CD can be heard on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Serious modern music.


2 thoughts on “DONALD KEATS – A Mysterious Journey”

  1. Hi Steve. I think CRI is one of my favourite labels, especially for mid 20th century American composers. It’s a pity that they are no longer particularly active, with quite a few deletions as well.

    Best wishes, JH

  2. Another terrific find! I love the CRI-New World Records company with a passion, but I hadn’t heard this release before.

    Keats sounds like he was trying to emulate Shostakovich, only in an atonal idiom. Particularly in the third movement, there are march-like figures and mournful melodies that remind me of dour old Dmitri. By contrast, the Robert Stewart quartet on the same set sounds more radical and, yeah, maybe a little academic in spots.

    Hope all’s well, and happy new year!

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