LEE HYLA – Two String Quartets

American Modern Contemporary composer Lee Hyla [1952–2014] wrote four string quartets. To me some of his music is quite difficult but I find the string quartets to be very approachable. Hyla’s music came to my attention while reading Twentieth Century Chamber Music by James McCalla, which was published in 1996.

The Second Quartet is in three movements – there are no composer markings present. The work opens in a slightly frantic, mechanistic manner, with a flurry of non-musical sounds. After this brief section, lamenting violins duet in rubato fashion, with a vague accompaniment that provides no guide to the harmonies present. The violins rattle along, eventually moving into some intense phrases before becoming quite aggressive. A section of pizzicato flourishes follows, with much rhythmic punctuation. Now the violins reach out with strong melodic statements as the cello makes lunging interjections. The ending is very peaceful.

The next, comparatively brief movement begins with a muted cello ostinato and sparse violin statements. The dynamics are very quiet. Two violins simply drift across the accompaniment in a very restrained manner before a pause has the violins returning in a most gentle passage with little music to be heard, leading to a faded end.

The final movement opens with a similar texture to the first movement. Similarly, it moves into a section of seemingly random violin and cello statements. The violins now lower the intensity and move into a furtive phase, with a dense texture and seemingly disturbed violins, which to me, evoke Babbitt and Carter. Nearing the end, a touch of fine abstract beauty can be heard before a faded conclusion.

The Third Quartet is a one-movement work, again not particularly long. Sumptuous, gentle violin tones drift into existence with superb, precious melodic lines, creating a most attractive soundscape. The mood is pure introspection as the music drops back to one violin for a time. When the ensemble returns, the mood is sustained, gradually becoming more expansive – this is a beautiful place to be. A hint of dissonance leads abruptly into an animated passage. Rapid-fire rhythmic lines are very forceful in this is brief section. Now thundering rhythmic phrases are heard, in a section which moves into a period of considerable, and vigorous entropy. The violins develop a wall of sound and the feeling of machines is again evident. The tension increases with rapidly trilled violin phrases and strong cello. Again, a return to a peace is most pleasing – the violins are just so expressive here with their long tones eventually fading to completion. It’s all over…

The review CD, Lee Hyla: We Speak Etruscan, performed by Speculum Musicae is on New World Records. Apart from the two string quartets there is also a four-movement Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra No. 2, and two chamber works. As mentioned, I found these works to be quite confronting at times. The CD is available on Amazon US.

It can also be found on Spotify with quartets 2, 3 & 4 on earsense and YouTube. I found the video clips of performances fascinating as they illustrate the demanding physical effort required to perform these works.

Listenability: Two satisfying quartets together with other, more challenging works.


2 thoughts on “LEE HYLA – Two String Quartets”

  1. Thank you for this beautiful consideration of Lee’s Quartets–which I am just seeing now:)
    I wopuld love to post a link to your essay on his website.
    Let me know if this would be OK with you.

    All best
    Katherine Desjardins
    (Lee’s widow)

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