French composer Henri Dutilleux [1916–2013] wrote one string quartet. Titled Ainsi la nuit, which I believe translates to Thus the Night, it was written from 1973-1976. Apparently, before it was composed, Dutilleux intently studied the quartets of Beethoven, Bartok and particularly, Webern’s Six Bagatelles (thanks Wiki).

I must confess to being somewhat ambivalent about this work in the past; some sections seemed to grate with me. I can never quite work out why it is so popular, especially among the theorists. However, somebody suggested it via email so I thought I would try it. The version that I will review is in seven named (all in French) movements, performed by the Juilliard Quartet, who premiered the work. I’ve noticed that several other versions have an extra five short movements inserted.  I believe they all contain the same music; they just seem to be bridging movements. The Orpheus String Quartet compress it into two movements!

Nocturne opens with a slightly dissonant chord, followed by some string sound effects, before the two violins play short motifs. There are several violin swoops and one violin forms a melody. There is a lot of sound in the background. It might be a pizzicato, an effect or a violin melody. A repeated motif forms and is picked up by the ensemble. This leads to the end.

Miroir d’espace has a string effect introduction, before random notes appear from each instrument. It doesn’t last very long and the movement is basically all string sound effects, with the occasional violin interjection.

Litanies starts with a solo violin. There is a strong, rhythmic motif presented with string effects spread around it. The motif ceases and the first violin plays some melodic material, with more effects, particularly pizzicato. It seems to stop on a random note.

Litanies 2 is the longest movement in the work at 3:40. The start is reminiscent of some of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II. It has a longing melody, swapped between the two violins. Recurring motifs are supported by abstract interludes from the ensemble. I really like the level of abstraction in this movement.

Constellations starts frantically, before settling into a passage of string sound effects. There are violin and cello melodies present, and also a sense of birdsong, to end.

Nocturne 2 is the shortest movement at 51 seconds duration. A bird-sounding violin acts like a bird too, with deliberate swoops.  The other violin offers supportive phrases before the movement degenerates into pure string sound effects.

Temps suspendu has another Feldman-like introduction with subtle violin melodies. There are some scurrying sounds but mostly it is two violins with effects in the background; quite engaging, really. The violins continue to assert themselves for the duration.

You can probably tell by now that this is not a tonal work. I don’t know about Beethoven or Bartok, but I do hear a lot of Webern, particularly his penchant for miniature movements, and the serial movement in general, in this piece. It’s definitely more abstract than the Berg that I recently reviewed. To me, it is basically a dissonant soundscape, but I did enjoy it.

There is a saying ‘all music is sound, but not all sound is music’. This particular piece is music to me. I believe that some late 20th century composers crossed the line from sound into noise, for its own sake. This however, is just an opinion, and we all hear and relate to music differently, and that’s admirable. End of sermon.

As to availability, there are several versions at Amazon US and UK. Being only around 18 minutes long, it will always be paired with another one or two quartets. Some CDs have it together with the Debussy and Ravel quartets. I am always ready to recommend the Juilliard String Quartet – their version of the above three quartets is on Sony Classical.

The Dutilleux is on Spotify and YouTube, with three versions to be found on earsense.

Listenability: Not for the faint-hearted. Would suit closet Modernist…


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