JOHANNA BEYER –The First Two String Quartets

German-born American Early Modern composer Johanna Magdalena Beyer [1888–1944] wrote four string quartet works. There is also a movement for string quartet from 1938.

The First Quartet was written in 1933-34 and opens with an unusually short first movement, marked allegro. Wispy, tonally ambivalent violins express over a strange accompaniment. At times, the cello resembles a bassoon, giving the sound an Early Music flavour, although the note selection is far removed from that era. This is a measured modernity that moves forward in a gently atonal manner.

The next movement, marked lento, is easily the longest of the work. Eerie violin melodies are in a distinctly Early Modern style, while the music is very sparse. Again atonal, the violins reach out with unusual melodic lines, the occasional glissando adding to the air of mystery. There is a very uniform dynamic, with no instrument being particularly prominent. As the music progresses, the glissandi become more prevalent, and sometimes an occasional flourish can be heard. This is peaceful, abstract music that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, perhaps that is its attraction. Nearing the end, a slight busyness emerges, but the mood is sustained. I feel like I am viewing a painting, picking out different elements as my eyes wander. The final notes are two quietly dissonant, sustained violin tones.

The third movement is more expressive, opening with some questioning violin statements that sometimes evoke a response. This is music of a different texture, with the cello being prominent and the individual voices much clearer than the first two movements. There is something of a sense of Milton Babbitt or Elliott Carter about this music, although the texture is more gentle than these composers. A long glissando violin line is joined by a second to conclude.

The final movement, again short, is marked presto. Sustained dissonances introduce the music, and this is probably the slowest presto I have heard. Glissandi dominate, together with other string sound effects. The music ends as it started, with dissonance.

The Second Quartet, from 1936, is considerably shorter than the first, which was not substantial either. A brief allegretto first movement opens with angular, dissonant melodies – there are even some harmonised, albeit dissonant, melodic lines. I think I detect a parody of some popular early American song here, possibly a hymn, with the cello sounding like a tuba, which adds to the effect.

A largo movement follows and the texture is very sparse, with atonal musings making for another very delicate, mysterious atmosphere. Long tones reach out of the middle register and a violin inhabits the upper register with shrill glissandi. The music is very static here and again, for me, evokes a painting. The end is unexpected.

A cello introduces the third movement and the texture is similar to that previously heard, with a violin in the middle register and further shrill glissandi from another. This is the first time that a tempo has been heard as the cello provides a stilted pulse. Again the music just stops.

The final movement is extremely brief and consists of a whirring sound from a violin, together with a lumbering cello. Its one minute existence soon concludes.

My overall impression is that this music is very avant-garde for its time. However, the sustained, restrained nature of these works is wonderful, the music just is…

The review 2-CD set, Sticky Melodies, performed by The Astra Chamber Music Society on the New World Records label, is a compilation of various chamber works. It is available on Amazon US as New and Used and as a download from Amazon UK, useful if you only want the two quartets. This would be a reasonably cheap option as the two quartets only add up to seven movements.

The set can be heard on Spotify.

Listenability: A subdued collection of Early Modern characteristics.


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