IRVING FINE – The String Quartet

American Modern composer Irving Fine [1914-1962] wrote one string quartet. It has been recorded as a one and two movement work – I guess it doesn’t make any difference – it is the same music. I am going to discuss the Juilliard String Quartet performance, which is in one movement.

The First Quartet was written in 1952, which corresponds to the era I believe the American String Quartet movement came of age.

The work opens with an abrasive violin tone, and a dissonant nature. The feeling moves from rubato to a stilted, rhythmic section with furtive melodic lines moving the music forward. A prominent cello phrase leads to a total change of mood, which is rather controlled. Lamenting violins are heard; the feeling is thoughtful, and peaceful. The same emotional sound space continues for some time and the measured approach is appealing, even though there is no tonal music to be heard here. Now the violins become more assertive, with sharp rhythmic forays, accompanied by a pizzicato background. I have a fondness for these busy, abstract musical spaces and I am not disappointed. Strong, dissonant harmonised lines cry out and the sound is bordering on desperate. A return to the opening is short, but incisive before a pause then ensues, which is likely the place where it is sometimes divided into two movements.

Now the sound becomes slow and moody as violins play sustained tones with little accompaniment. One violin goes shrill and underlying harmonies are gradually introduced. This paints a fascinating musical picture, filled with pathos and surreptitious pizzicato cello lines, leading to a sense of abstract beauty. The slightly dissonant melodies here are superb as the violins cover a wide range, from the shrill to the warm. A new feeling begins to unfold with a quivering viola providing a background for assertive violins. The intensity increases and the ensemble now move forward as one, maintaining a hectic pace, laced with dissonance.

A further pause leads to another secretive sound scape, where the violins emote great feeling with the raw tone first encountered in the opening, again prominent. This music has a sense of desolation as the violins look inward, with the pizzicato cello murmuring behind them. The conclusion is extended and mysterious.

I don’t believe I can recall one singable melody in this piece. It is steeped in the Early American Modern tradition and sits well alongside the works of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. It’s a shame that Fine never wrote further quartets.

The work can be found on at least three separate CDs, in various states of availability. They are An Irving Fine Celebration performed by the Colorado Quartet, the review CD The Music of Irving Fine performed by the Juilliards and Notturno / String Quartet / Other Works performed by the Lydian String Quartet. It appears that only the first mentioned is still on CD – all three albums are compilations and can be had as MP3 downloads on Amazon US and UK.

There are several versions on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Great non confronting abstract work from the early 1950s.


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