American Contemporary composer Stacy Garrop [born 1969] has written four string quartets. I have chosen to discuss the Fourth Quartet, titled Illuminations, which contains nine titled movements, with two of them being very brief interludes. A PDF of the CD booklet can be downloaded here. This contains a host of fascinating information about this work and others on the CD. I would like to include three quotes, the first from the PDF and two from the composer’s website.
Stacy Garrop’s String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations was inspired by five illuminated pages from a medieval Book referred to as “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.”
Catherine of Cleves (1417-1476), duchess of Guelders and countess of Zutphen, commissioned her Book of Hours and received it around 1442. Today her Book of Hours is considered to be the masterpiece of the finest (although anonymous) Dutch illuminator of the late Middle Ages. “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” is one of the finest in the collection of Books of Hours in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
In trying to craft the experience of reading Cleves’ Book of Hours, the composer approached the work similarly to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As in Mussorgsky’s work, the audience follows the reader as he or she opens the Book of Hours, studies and reflects upon five illuminations, and then closes the book at the end of prayer.
I – The Book of Hours is opened
The work opens with a startling string tone and a violin starts to express a transcendent melody, accompanied by another violin and then, a lumbering cello. A delightful descending violin phrase leads to a solo violin section which fades to end this brief movement.
II – Catherine of Cleves prays to the Virigin and Child
Again a lone violin laments in a most introspective manner. The recording features a slight touch of reverb which sets up the solo violin voice beautifully. Now a sparse second violin repeats a simple phrase in accompaniment. The combination of the reverb and some glissandi adds to the wonder of this section. Slowly the music becomes more expansive, only to peter out, with the ambience of the sound lingering a little while.
III – Singing Angels
Another brief movement begins with shrill violins and a touch of dissonance – leading to a magical feeling. The cello is almost subversive as it mutters in the background, although it does not detract from the marvellous atmosphere. This music is reminiscent of Andrea Tarrodi’s string quartets – they seem to occupy a similar emotional soundspace.
IV – Interlude (book of Hours)
For 36 seconds the violin is featured expressing long tones over a canvas of shimmering strings.
V – Christ carrying the Cross
A deeply resonant, harmonised cello underpins a series of wistful violin phrases which eventually progress to strange, rhythmically charged lines, coloured with dissonance and savage violin jabs. The end is a rough, angry cello stroke.
VI – Interlude (Book of Hours)
A barely audible introduction develops into an aggressive conclusion in its 43 seconds duration.
VII – Mouth of Hell
Poignant violins introduce this movement. A sudden, unexpected thrusting cello leads into a dissonant passage for all instruments, with not a little glissandi. There is a brief relief from the dissonance but the intensity is frantic. The conclusion is a fascinating, almost violent rhythmic passage for the violins that just happens to lead straight into the next movement.
VIII – Trinity Enthroned
The previous mood now succumbs to a peace with strongly harmonised lines repeating a series of sparse chords. Slowly a melodic development unfolds, all the while maintaining the same harmonies. This leads to another fadeout.
IX – The Book of Hours is closed
The final movement has a serenity not dissimilar to its predecessor. A series of violin/cello interactions over a shimmering background is very alluring. Gradually the music disintegrates with each instrument having a say in the final throes of the piece.
It’s worth mentioning that the PDF CD booklet features some stunning visual images from the original manuscript.
I expect that some may consider this work as program music, but it doesn’t feel like it to me. Also, the titles of the composer’s works and individual movements often evoke a new age sensibility. Fortunately, this does not seem to be carried over into the music.
The review CD, Illuminations, on the Cedille label is performed by the Avalon Quartet. The disc is a compilation, also containing the Debussy Quartet, some incidental pieces by Benjamin Britten and a fine, one movement work, Tenebrae (‘Shadows’ in Latin) by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov.
It is available on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: All in all, a fabulous mixture of quartet works from a fine ensemble.