American Contemporary composer William Howard Schuman [1910-1992] wrote five string quartets. He withdrew the first from publication in 1935, so we are left with four extant works. I am going to discuss the Fifth String Quartet which was composed in 1987. The work is in two, long, named movements; both are very slow, and mostly lacking in tempo.
Introduction opens with a barely audible violin, which is joined by a second, and then the cello. The music is mostly sustained notes, with little melody to be heard. A violin leads the ensemble into an interesting place, which is quite animated. A very high violin appears, together with harmony from the second violin. This is a most satisfying moment, as the violins reach out over a pulsing cello, which descends into its low register against a slightly dissonant ensemble. A brief pause leads into more solo violin and the ensemble seems intent on providing subtle harmony. A hint of a melody appears and the minimal accompaniment makes for a quite introspective moment. Now two violins are heard, both sustained; the cello and viola play gently in the background. The cello provides as much, if not more action than the violins.
The cello returns to silence, leaving the two violins to go it alone, again with sustained tones. A sound emerges from the ensemble, with the viola sounding flute-like and quite energised. A cello and violin phase has one violin, again joined by another and the cello throbs a harmonic web behind them. There is no melody, just a sense of longing. A pause leads to a cello statement of long, sustained tones and the violins respond with a mildly dissonant texture. This builds into the loudest music heard so far. Another pause brings a solo, slightly melodic violin that increases in intensity to close the movement. This is a false ending as, after a pause, we hear a series of held chords, quite like the opening of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12, but on the other hand, they are sound worlds apart.
Variations; Epilogue again begins with a solo violin. This time it expresses a gentle major key melody in its high register. It’s not long before an answering violin is heard. They duet for a time, and a solo cello makes the same positive melodic statement, which is then harmonised by a violin. The full ensemble creates a fugal sounding mood. A pause leads to some playful violin mutterings, before the second violin enters and they chase each other through the passage, deconstructing the previously heard melody. Eventually, the viola comes in as pizzicato, completely taking control. The cello enters, creating a compelling section; the viola carries on. Now ensues a passage for violin and pizzicato viola, which soon drops out.
After a pause the previous texture is reintroduced; this time the cello has a part to play and the pizzicato disappears. Jaunty violins begin to duet and there are references to the opening melody. The entry of the cello makes for a busy passage. There is a rhythmic melodic phase where the opening melody is again deconstructed. The playful violin returns but a serious tone ensues with morose melodies, sometimes slightly dissonant, unfolding.
Now we are back to sustained violin tones that eventually begin to hint at a melody; it’s very sparse. This is a wonderful soundscape as instruments drift in and out. Slowly, dissonance builds while the intensity decreases. Violins express over a plucked cello and the mood is again morose, and deeply abstract. There are several solo sections for the various instruments. A solo violin assumes control one last time before it is joined by a second violin; this is very introspective. A cello drones long tones and a violin stays until the conclusion.
I feel that I may have overlooked some of the passages in this magnificent piece. It’s just so long, with many moods to savour. It would be one of the longest reviews that I have produced.
The review CD William Schuman – Three String Quartets is performed by the Lydian String Quartet and is available on Amazon US and UK. It also contains String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3. These are both likeable, early works. No. 2 is quite energised and No. 3, a little folksy and sometimes serious. Interestingly No. 4, composed in 1950, is very avante-garde, which seems to me to fit the tenor of the American String Quartet at that time. It was 37 years later that Schuman composed his last quartet. Maybe that’s why it seems so considered.
Listenability: I found it to be pensive, but deep emotionally.