Performance Thursday, February 16, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Brentano String Quartet

Weill Recital Hall
For part one of Fragments, the Brentano Quartet has invited three of today’s most imaginative composers to engage with unfinished pieces by Schubert and Bach to weave compelling new musical works. The new compositions will be played alongside the original ones to create an exciting evening of dialogue between music of the past and music of our present.
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The Program

Fragments: Connecting Past and Present

A shard of Grecian pottery. An ancient scroll, only a few words visible. The nascent emergence of a figure from a block of marble. Abandoned brushstrokes on a canvas.

Unfinished artworks carry within them the energy of creation. They engage our curiosity, prompt us to imagine ourselves as the artist, poised in mid-thought. They seduce us into imagining what might have been. Perhaps, in the right circumstance, we might imagine we can seduce the fragmentary artwork, start a relationship with it, envisage a completion. Billy Collins imagined just such a thing:

     January in Paris

      A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
                                                                                              —Paul Valéry

      That winter I had nothing to do
      but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
      on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

      but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
      unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets

      often turning from a wide boulevard
      down a narrow side street
      bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

      I followed a few private rules,
      never crossing a bridge without stopping
      mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
      and observe the flow of the river
      as I tried to better understand the French.

      In my pale coat and my Basque cap
      I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
      or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
      and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

      I would see beggars and street cleaners
      in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
      I would see the poems of Valéry,
      the ones he never finished but abandoned,
      wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.

      Most of them needed only a final line
      or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
      but whenever I approached,
      they would retreat from their makeshift fires
      into the shadows—thin specters of incompletion,

      forsaken for so many long decades
      how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

      I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
      sitting with a glass of rosé at a café table—
      beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
      cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache

      by Monsieur Paul Valéry himself,
      big fish in the school of Symbolism
      and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters
      of the League of Nations if you please.

      Never mind how I got her out of the café,
      past the concierge and up the flights of stairs—
      remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

      And never mind the holding and the pressing.
      It is enough to know that I moved my pen
      in such a way as to bring her to completion,

      a simple, final stanza, which ended,
      as this poem will, with the image
      of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
      her large eyes closed,
      a painting of cows in a valley over her head,

      and off to the side, me in a window seat
      blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.

It’s not often we have the chance to see or hear incomplete thoughts of great composers. Completed works come down to us having been considered, reconsidered, polished, and readied for presentation. But how fascinating it can be to get a glimpse into the workshop, into the process, into promising beginnings that never grew into their full selves. And how intriguing it would be to have composers of our day reach back and hold hands with some of the great composers of the past, entering, after their own fashion, thoughts started and left dangling, suggestive and mysterious.

For this Fragments project, we are exploring the idea of this linkage, reentering abandoned imagined spaces to discover what they might suggest when examined from a fresh perspective. Incomplete works are paired with new compositions by some of our most thoughtful and imaginative composers to form hybrid creatures. Traditionally mythical beasts of this persuasion, living in two worlds at once, have been believed to have magical powers. We are hoping for some magic here as we find out how today’s composers collaborate with their predecessors. As a celebration of the quartet’s 20th anniversary season, we have asked composers whose music speaks to us—some of whom we know well, some of whom we are working with for the first time—to write pieces to be played alongside incomplete works from the past. All have responded with vivid works which we are excited to present, new and old music speaking to each other as if the chasm of time were to vanish. For the duration of the program, at least, all the works coexist in the present moment.

Below are program notes for most of the music presented. Each new piece follows the fragment on which it reflects, with the exception of Charles Wuorinen’s Marian Tropes, in which the older music of Josquin and Dufay is embedded within the new work only.

—Mark Steinberg

Marian Tropes

There are no surviving unfinished works from the 15th century, as there are no scores, only part-books. By the time a composition of this period is copied or printed into a set of parts, the original score (if there ever was one) has been discarded; and clearly no one bothered to produce a part-book for an unfinished work. What we do have by way of fragments, however, are orphan movements intended for larger structures, most often fragmenta missarum, parts of the Mass Ordinary. Here I have interwoven two such, a Gloria of Josquin and a Kyrie of Dufay. The Josquin contains interpolated passages with texts dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and these Marian Tropes I have decorated with glissandi, which subsequently spread into other parts of the composition. Much else is added to and changed from the sources, and I have not hesitated to emulate the indifference of the period to the casual interpenetration of sacred and secular.

Marian Tropes is dedicated to the Brentano String Quartet, with deep affection and gratitude for their many fine performances of my work.

—Charles Wuorinen

“Quartettsatz” in C Minor, D. 703

Ushering in the set of three great string quartets Schubert wrote at the end of his life is a torso of a work, the “Quartettsatz” (quartet movement) in C Minor, written in 1820. This powerful movement was originally intended to be the first movement of a full quartet, and there exists a sketch for the opening of a second movement as well. It is not known why Schubert never completed the work, but the movement he did write is a masterpiece fully worthy of being in the company of the later, last three quartets.

The conflict between desire and reality is very often at the heart of Schubert’s music, a conflict at the root of what it is to be human. For we are rarely masters of Fate, and mortal longing defines the painful space between possibility and imagined fulfillment. By way of exploration, one can look at the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, as related by Ovid in the Metamorphosis. Pyramus and Thisbe, two of the most beautiful people in the land, are desperately in love, yet forbidden by their fathers to wed. Their sole communication is through a small hole in a wall, large enough to transmit a whisper, small enough that lips that offer a kiss will never know a response. They decide to steal away in the darkness of night and meet. On her way to meet her lover, Thisbe espies a lion who has recently feasted on prey, his mouth still awash in blood, and she runs off, inadvertently dropping her cloak. The hungry lion chews on the cloak, drops it, and leaves. Pyramus, looking for his love, stumbles first upon the bloody cloak and, thinking Thisbe was eaten by a monstrous creature, uses his sword to join her in death. Then, upon her return, Thisbe finds Pyramus dead and leans on the sword herself.

Terrible, incomprehensible forces coexist here with the beauty of tender vulnerability. The stranglehold of authority, the physical presence of the wall, the violence of nature, the impossibility of omniscience: All these are external obstacles interfering with the purity of love. But still the shadows they cast upon that love, spawning yearning and hope, introduce a fragility and an aching quality to that love that we recognize as deeply human. The renunciation of life as a reaction to thwarted love also exalts this love.

In the “Quartettsatz,” such elements exist in close juxtaposition. The piece begins with a tremulous figure reminiscent of the opening of that other great uncompleted Schubert work, the “Unfinished” Symphony; there is a sense of instability created that permeates much of the work, even in anxious figures that accompany otherwise lyrical themes. It is a precarious and poignant ambiguity that is quintessentially Schubertian, the song that is even more beautiful because it exists only in memory or in imagination. Yearning and desire are even more moving when one dares to hope despite being confronted over and over by unforgiving realities. In Notebook / To Lucien Freud / On the Veil from School of the Arts, poet Mark Doty speaks of “no hope / without the possibility of a wound.” Schubert shows us the forces that wound, and the immense sensitivity of the soul that hopes. In this piece, Fate deals the final blow.

—Mark Steinberg


I was delighted to be given the task of working with the unfinished Andante from Schubert’s “Quartettsatz,” D. 703, composed in 1820. This movement was to be the second (he completed the first) of the String Quartet No. 12. I chose to use the lovely theme Schubert wrote for this Andante as the basis of my piece, and I also incorporated the more urgent, dramatic configuration Schubert wrote as the beginning of a second section that he never completed.

I must confess that I started three versions of this composition based on the Schubert before arriving at the approach that I finally used and completed. Schubert’s graceful tune did not immediately suggest rhythmic variants to me, and my first attempts were to place the tune in a variety of surprising harmonic contexts, as if the tune, an intact 19th-century creature, were visiting distant harmonic worlds. These ideas did not work for me, as they were too deliberate, too self-conscious, and not truly inspired.

What finally worked was for me to liberate the tune from its 19th-century German rhythmic uniform and to allow it to dance naked in patterns of 11 notes grouped as four, three, and two plus two. For some reason, I have always enjoyed rhythmic groupings of 11. In fact, my piece And All Is Always Now, which I composed for the Brentano Quartet’s first violinist, Mark Steinberg, and my wife, pianist Marija Stroke, back in 1992 features some music in 11/16. When I set poems by Bronzino and Petrarch to music for the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in 2010, I learned that Petrarch’s poetry scans in 11 pulses per line, as opposed to the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s poetry. This was a wonderful discovery for me, and I again used a meter of 11/16 for an entire movement, setting one line of Petrarch’s. Another recent work of mine, Drumming a Dream, with choreography by Preeti Vasudevan, is based on Indian rhythms, including a culminating dance in patterns of 11 (Takadimi, Takita, Takadimi), which is closely related to the music in Fra(nz)g-mentation.

Back to Schubert: Once I set Schubert’s tune spinning in 11, I became inspired and the music flowed. Then, at a crucial point in the unfolding of ideas, I inserted another motif from the Schubert fragment, a chromatic phrase that Schubert left hanging on the page like a flag blowing in the wind. This motif also could spin and twist in a newly energized rhythmic wind, and this brought a new mood to the music.

Most inspiring of all for the composition of this piece, however, was the extraordinary playing of the Brentano String Quartet. I have known the quartet since its very first concert (in fact, I helped present that concert), and I have known Mark Steinberg since he was a kid in my theory classes at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division, where he already clearly showed the brilliance for which he and his Brentano colleagues are justly renowned today.

About the Title

is perhaps a complex title, but it accurately reflects the goal and nature of the piece. The music is based on a fragment by Franz Schubert, hence the name Franz imbedded in the Frag. Mentation, in addition to being the end of the word fragmentation, is a word in its own right, of course, meaning mental activity or, more simply, to think. This, then, describes both my task and its source—to think about and react to the fragment by Franz Schubert given to me by the Brentano String Quartet.

—Bruce Adolphe

Contrapunctus XVIII from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H

In this piece, Sofia Gubaidulina reacts to the great unfinished fugue at the conclusion of The Art of Fugue, which comprises expositions of three fugal themes but curiously excludes the original Art of Fugue theme. At the end of the extant section of the fugue, Bach combines these three themes, and in fact it has been shown that it is possible to further combine them with the Art of Fugue theme as a fourth, as most scholars believe Bach intended had he completed the work. The third of the themes spells out Bach’s name in musical notes (B being used in German for our B-flat, H for our B-natural), thus adding to the mystical nature of this fugue. Sofia Gubaidulina’s piece responds with music of heart-wrenching intensity, using the Bach themes involved, often obfuscated by wailing, writhing figures of her own. Searching glissandos, ghostly ponticello tremolos, and poignant, intense silences color a response to the Bach which amplifies and sheds new light on the deeply spiritual and enigmatic music of Contrapunctus XVIII.

—Mark Steinberg

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

Claude Debussy was no academic. Fed up with the rigors of conservatory training, he longed to compose in a style that was distinctly French, as opposed to the more Germanic intellectual and aesthetic ideals of his teachers. He was very much involved with the artistic currents of his time in his native country, especially Symbolism in poetry and in the visual arts. Attention was being shifted from concrete meanings and associations with reality toward meanings of a different sort. Symbolist art was to be understood as metaphorical and suggestive, pointing toward truths inaccessible through direct description. Thus, a poet such as Mallarmé or Verlaine could shift attention toward sounds of words and mystical images—a new, more purely sensual poetry. The painter Odilon Redon, who had enormous appreciation for Debussy, might depict a giant eyeball aloft in the manner of a hot-air balloon (or a cactus-man, or a crying spider) and in doing so shift the viewer’s understanding toward the exotic world of fantasy and the quirks of free association. Symbols, no longer referencing or tethering us to reality, were set free to engage our senses in new, foreign ways. Historically, the symbolist movement was a precursor to surrealism, and entering the dream world of later surrealist painters is not entirely divorced from the feeling of listening to Debussy’s music. Even within received forms there is often a sense of following the dictates of free-association rather than consciously constructed architecture.

Ironically, exoticism and what we now call “world music” furnished a large part of Debussy’s vocabulary in his quest to create something distinctly French. A Javanese gamelan (a sort of colorful percussion orchestra) performance at the Paris Exposition in 1889 left a strong impression on the composer, as did the music he came to know on a trip to Russia. Debussy’s creed was that French music should above all else exist to give pleasure, and the flavors of foreign lands were exploited for their sensual novelty, in the manner of the best fusion cuisine.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, written in 1893, has become one of the most beloved in the repertoire, partly because of the stunning sensual beauty and variety of textures Debussy manages to create with these four homogeneous string instruments. The sounds he creates flutter and undulate; his harmonic language is often iridescent. Turner was one of Debussy’s favorite painters, and the sense of motion and activity one sees in Turner’s skies and seas has aural analogues in so many moments of this piece.

The piece has as well a dramatic arc reminiscent of an epic journey in that one “motto theme,” proclaimed boldly at the opening of the piece, appears throughout in different guises and in a variety of settings. This theme is transformed rather than developed in the traditional sense. Because of this, a listener may feel he is following a protagonist through travels in unexpected lands, in the manner of Homer’s Odyssey or, to get back to France, Voltaire’s Candide.

As any hero feels on his home turf, the initial statement of the theme is forthright and self-assured, but it quickly slips away into uncharted territory. Already after its first encounter with alien material, the theme is more uncertain, modulating through various key areas looking for a way to understand new surroundings. Often one recognizes the theme in flight, or at sea, in transition from one experience to the next; other times it is self-assured again, as if settled in a new territory, albeit temporarily. The first movement ends with a furiously brilliant version of the motto theme in double notes, fully mobilized, in contrast to its more stable, if full of potential, version at the opening.

The scherzo movement features many new versions of this theme: one playful and jaunty that becomes an ostinato background; a more seductive, drawn-out version; plus a bravura, declamatory version on the lowest string of the first violin. This last, somewhat unexpected, version is perhaps a tip of the hat to Eugène Ysaÿe, the great Belgian violinist whose eponymous quartet premiered the work. Besides partaking, with its pizzicatos and repeated ostinato patterns, of the flavor of the Javanese gamelan, this movement also has a somewhat Iberian character, with rhythms and guitar-strums suggestive of flamenco.

The thoroughly enchanting slow movement is the only one in the work not truly having a version of the motto theme. Here, instead, there is an encounter with the new, the other. In the same key (very distant from the opening key of the work) and meter as the corresponding, and likewise profoundly eloquent, movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Op. 135, this movement also starts out with exploratory bars that lead into a broad, poetic theme. This, plus the addition of mutes, gives a distant, introspective quality to the movement. The only reference to the motto theme is in the build-up to the climax in the contrasting middle section, where the quick three-note turn of the theme helps to propel the motion forward, perhaps another possible, yet somehow impossible, transformation of the hero as seen only in a dream. When the opening theme returns, it is with a foreign note left over in the cello, suggesting that that which has been imagined and yearned for is not to be had in the end. The movement closes with an endlessly touching, ethereal sense of floating free from any reality-based problems, content and absorbed in a glowing vision.

The most uncertain part of the piece is the start of the last movement, for, while basking in the glow of a peaceful vision is pleasurable and liberating, eventually there is the moment of awakening. Here we have the return of the motto theme, chords that slip languidly, even groggily, and a section that builds up steam with the main theme gathering momentum to lead into the main section of the movement proper. There is a sense of preparing for a homecoming with the recounting of adventures, and there are two major climaxes that both feature the motto theme in full splendor. When the pace quickens twice as the piece nears its conclusion, there is a sense of great excitement and triumph. The hero has returned home, and this home is now bright with the possibilities of lessons won through experience—now G major rather than G minor, as it was at the start.

—Mark Steinberg

© 2005 Mark Steinberg

This concert and the Brentano String Quartet series are made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for young artists established by Mr. and Mrs. Anthony B. Evnin and the A.E. Charitable Foundation.
This performance is part of Brentano String Quartet, and A Golden Age of Music.

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