WILLEM PIJPER – The Last Two Quartets

Dutch Early Modern composer Willem Frederik Johannes Pijper [1894–1947] wrote five string quartets, with the last remaining uncompleted. I am going to discuss String Quartets Nos. 4 and 5.

The Fourth Quartet, written in 1928, contains four movements. It opens in a hesitant mood with a gentle, abstract, almost formless structure. Atonal violin lines drift along until eventually, a tempo is established. There is also a sense of scurrying violins, together with a rather oblique cello. This creates a fascinating, early twentieth century soundscape, with minimal melodic development – I should also mention that the sound is very quiet throughout, until it finally drifts into oblivion.

The next, very brief movement, is marked allegro and starts in an energetic manner. Again, there is no real sense of structure as the instruments thrust and parry with each other. The end comes quickly with a feeling of susurrus as the music quietly dissipates.

Lamenting violins, a little more tonal this time, introduce the third movement. The sound is one of tonal violins over atonal cello and viola. The texture gradually thickens, led by the cello, but this is only temporary, as a return to the opening feeling is this time almost completely atonal. A pizzicato cello and violin provide a rhythmic structure and the intensity is quite strong (for Pijper). The ending, again, just falls away to nothing.

The final movement features a pizzicato viola and walking cello. String sound effects combine with sporadic somber melodies, which are transformed into a positive mood and then into more atonal abstraction, at tempo. Now the violins express wonderful, transcendent atonal melodies as the music moves back into rubato, casting aside all semblance of rhythm. This is very delicate music, wistful in spite of its atonality. A period of longing cello and violin lines concludes the work.

The unfinished Fifth Quartet contains only two movements, apparently both written in 1946. The first, marked allegretto, begins with a similar feeling to the previous work, which I find unusual as they are eighteen years apart. There is however, possibly a maturity in evidence as the music is slightly more coherent, even exhibiting some melodic development and conversational sections. The violins are assertive at times but the effect is still that of an atonal soundscape, interspersed with some lyrical melodies, which are attractive. This lyricism persists, leading to a wonderful, extended melodic section. The end comes with a feeling of great tranquility.

The second movement is slow and sombre, with the cello particularly prominent in supporting the violins as they gradually develop an intensity, which does not last. A moving solo cello statement is joined by soft, lamenting violins – this is definitely music of the heart. A period of intensity is brief and the status quo is resumed. Plucked cello accompanies two quite violins to a conclusion.

I can only speculate as to what this music would have sounded like if completed. I can say that the composer has a strong continuity of style which permeates the last two quartets, at least. Listening to the first three quartets, composed between 1914 and 1923, reveals them to be more conservative, with a gradual tendency to abstraction and introspection as they progress.

The complete quartets can be had on Five String Quartets performed by the Schoenberg Quartet which is available on Amazon US and UK, mostly Used and New through Amazon resellers. The Schoenberg’s are also on a box set of Dutch string quartets, a 5-CD set titled The Dutch Legacy, from Amazon UK and Presto Classical, which looks rather promising. There is a further version of String Quartets Nos. 4 & 5 on a separate release, paired with a symphony. This is available as a download, and sometimes from Amazon resellers – useful if you only want the quartets.

Both of the single CDs mentioned are on Spotify and the five quartets by the Schoenbergs are on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Fine, non-confronting Early Modern works.


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