One more performance of my fifth quartet this spring: this Sunday, April 25th, at 6 pm the Emerson Quartet will play in Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. There’s also a slow piece by Samuel Barber and some quartet by a guy named Ludwig. I’m a big fan of both of them, but it’s pretty safe to assume that neither of them thinks much of me.
Though I’ve already said much about this piece, I’ll take this last opportunity to say a bit more, and then I’ll move onto other topics, at least until next fall.
The last movement of this variation-obsessed quartet is a Fantasy Variations. What is the definition of Fantasy Variations? There really isn’t one, as far as I’m concerned. Fantasy Variations, in my book – or better yet, on my blog – means whatever the composer wants it to mean.
In contrast to the segmented approach of the first movement’s Theme and Variations, the second movement’s slinky Chaconne and the third movement’s ABA Passacaglia, this last movement is through-composed, more continuous and, well, more fantastical. The All Through the Night melody is present throughout, but only barely. More prominent is a somewhat grisly version of the Brahms lullaby, which begins the movement and resurfaces in various guises over the course of the next ten minutes. The real organizational principle, though, is not a musical object – such as a melodic theme – but more of an emotional/intuitive/narrative concept. I took the last line of the song – “I my loving vigil keeping all through the night” – and fashioned variations on the notion of a parent sitting beside a crib in the dark, slipping in and out of the madness to which we are all prone when close to exhaustion, deprived of visual stimuli, and fearing the worst for our loved ones.
So the Fantasy Variations have poetic (as opposed to technical) titles like Shadows, Zephyrs, Absence, Howling, etc. There is a strong narrative line, but we’re not in the world of 19th-century narrative – the kind that starts with “I am born” and continues through a chronological series of adventures – this is rather a narrative that jump-cuts back and forth between past and present, carving a clear emotional arc while progressing in a seemingly illogical sequence.
In other words, the last movement takes us through the night, but without any comforting – or maddening, as the case may be – references to clock time.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how frequently reviews of the piece have referred to its complexity, because I don’t think the complexity that listeners are experiencing is a matter of surface detail, although I suppose there is plenty of surface detail to go around. Rather, there is a complex artistic progression from the four-square first movement to the loosey-goosey last – a progression that can’t really be described in words. I suppose one could objectify it as innocence-to-maturity, as long as one understands that innocence and sophistication are not mutually exclusive. In other words, sophistication can be adopted as a mask for innocence – as it certainly is in the first movement.
But here I just said this couldn’t be put into words, and yet I’m fumbling foolishly for a way to do just that. Sometimes a fella just can’t help himself.