ÉMILE GOUÉ – A Wartime Quartet

French early 20th century composer Émile Goué [1904–1946] wrote just three string quartets. Recruited into the French artillery in 1939, he was captured in 1940 and spent the rest of WWII incarcerated in a POW camp. I have a particular fondness for European string quartets written from 1900-1950 and there are many French composers in that time frame – the somewhat obscure Goué being a terrific example.

As expected, the experience of captivity affected the composer substantially. His interest in philosophy and the spiritual life led to some revealing quotes, which I found on Wikipedia:

“Captivity” – he confided in 1942, a year of despair and anguish – “removes almost all contact with real life, therefore almost all inner life” […] “Frequent solitude is necessary to enrich one’s inner life, and all solitude is lacking” […] “The hardest thing is not to be hungry; it is to feel one’s spiritual level lower.”

In 1941 he composed his Second Quartet, which I am about to discuss. It is in four movements.

This work commences in a propulsive manner with brisk, overlapping eighth-note motifs, setting up a fascinating mood, which moves through various harmonies, all the while keeping up the rhythmic intensity. A change has some quarter-notes now superimposed onto the previous rhythm. This soon dissolves into a gentle, optimistic section which simmers until a new pulse is heard. Plaintive melodies, with wonderfully harmonised chordal sounds are profoundly beautiful, with expressive melodies a feature. A return to the opening pulse leads to a strong cello presence and further overlapping lines, again at a lively tempo. A gentle wash of chords lets you down easy.

The following movement is an exercise in lush, pastoral writing. The sweetest of melodies drifts across a sympathetic background. A brief pause does not change the sound immediately, but in time the mood intensifies before pausing again. Now the music pushes on and frequent pauses allow the composer to investigate the textural presentation of his characteristic melodies. The end is a slightly delayed chordal passage.

The third movement has the cello making an assertive statement which is answered by the violins. After several iterations of this pattern, a mysteriously harmonised cello statement opens the music up to another pastoral mood. A recapitulation of the opening conversation unfolds – this time however, the feeling is not as structured and the cello sometimes flows over into the violins’ responses. A new passage has a more extravagant manner, with the cello providing rhythmic impetus and plenty of solo moments, one of which leads to a considered flourish.

A bevy of trilled string sounds opens the final movement. Harmonised melodies develop a rhythmic section before the introduction is presented again. Now a prancing solo violin leads the ensemble into a slow, then quick section. A return to a lush, harmonised passage is wondrous as it gently winds down to a conclusion.

I cannot understand how this work came out of a concentration camp. The music never descends into sadness, but constantly seems to breathe, and bring life to the listener. Also, there is no sense of the modern here – it is certainly not of its time, and likely not of its place…

The review CD, Emile Goué: Chamber Music, Vol. 1 performed by Quatuor César Franck comes from CD Baby, which surprises me. It is available from Amazon US, apparently as a CDR but a Google search reveals quite a few available copies – I found one at Walmart. It is well worth seeking out.

The music can be found on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Thoughtful, but ultimately beautiful string quartet that transcends the circumstances of its creation.


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