What an amazing week I’ve had. My wife took the kids for eight days to visit her parents while I stayed home and buried myself in my fifth string quartet. Felt so good just to lose myself in the music, from daybreak to past midnight.

I first drafted this piece back in 2002, got a commission for it last summer, began more pointed scribblings in the fall, spent ten days in January doing nothing else, set it aside for three months, then returned to obsess on it this past week. Ten days ago, the piece had mounds of problems that I didn’t know how I would resolve. Now I have over a half-hour of music that is just tweaks away from being finished. I’ll pretty much set it aside until June (two other big projects to finish in the meantime), then I’ll polish off the myriad editing tasks in time for the September deadline. The premiere will be in Cologne next March.

String Quartet No. 5: Through the Night takes on variation technique in a big way. I have written a few theme-and-variation movements and a few chaconnes over the years, but nothing on this scale. Taking the lovely and seemingly simplistic Welsh melody All Through the Night as my theme (in more ways than one), I’ve come up with the following four-movement scenario:

  • Twilight – Theme and Variations (12:00)
  • Dream – Chaconne (5:00)
  • Dream – Passacaglia (2:45)
  • Theme and Variations – Twilight (10:30)

The first movement takes a Classical approach to its theme and twelve variations, with clear-cut divisions between each one. The fourth movement is more along the lines of fantasy-variations, with outlines blurred and the seven variations morphing one into the next.

These two movements aren’t played off of one another in a postmodern juxtaposition. Instead, they present two different perspectives on the same material, from the clarity of early evening to the fantastical mind-wanderings of pre-dawn.

The chaconne takes a quirky harmonization of the melody through twelve variations in a moderate-tempo, triple-meter dance. The passacaglia prestos the first eight notes of the third phrase of the melody into a whirling scherzo – 51 variations in less than three minutes.

The piece is framed by two “Twilight” passages in which time is suspended while the theme dissolves in and out of a musical gloaming.

Finally, two dream-preludes introduce the inner movements. Each one is unrelated to the theme (though they are related to one another). Each of the movements that follow is permeated – one might even say infected — by the ambience of its dream-prelude.

This piece really plays to my strengths as a composer, with its combination of a clear-cut, almost restrictive structure and a central image – watching over a sleeping child through the wee hours – that has a powerful, visceral meaning for me. I’ve tapped into some wonderful ideas, musically speaking, and presented them in a polished but unpredictable flow.

And now my family has returned, so it’s back to my usual regimen of composing a couple hours a day.

And doing the occasional all-nighter on sentry duty.

Leave a Reply