String Quartet No. 1 “Metamorphoses Nocturnes”

Born May 28, 1923, Dicsöszentmárton, Hungary (now in Romania)
Died June 12, 2006, Vienna

The generation of young Hungarian composers coming of age in the decade after World War II faced some very specific–and potentially deadly–problems.  In those years artistic life in Hungary was rigidly controlled by the communist government, which insisted that its artists conform to the doctrine of Socialist Realism: art was to serve the people and to support the government, and it should be simple, easily understandable by the masses, and politically correct.  Even the music of Hungary’s greatest twentieth-century composer, Béla Bartók, was out of favor because of its complexity. Composers were rigidly cut off from developments in the West like serial or electronic music, and as a young composer György Ligeti found that the only musical avenues open to him were patriotic choruses, music for children, and music for school orchestras.  Composers could either accept this situation or–if they were lucky–get out, and Ligeti chose the latter path: he escaped from Hungary during the 1956 revolution and eventually became one of the leading voices of avant-garde music in post-war Europe.

Even before he left Hungary, Ligeti was writing music that he knew would be unacceptable to Hungarian authorities, and one of these pieces was his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1953-54 and subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.”  Formally, this quartet may be thought of in several ways: as one continuous movement spanning about twenty minutes or as a sequence of miniature movements played without pause (the quartet is made up of a series of very short episodes at different tempos).  The governing principle in this music is the continuous variation of material introduced at the very beginning (hence the quartet’s subtitle).  The music begins very quietly (the marking is Allegro grazioso): over softly-rising lines from the lower voices, the first violin plays a series of shapes (marked piano, dolce, and espressivo) that will form the basic material for the evolving variations.  The music then leaps between a number of very short variations.  Sometimes these can be almost brutal in their speed and ferocity, and these episodes demand brilliant playing from all four players.  These alternate with slow sequences, and some of these are expressive and quite beautiful: an Adagio, mesto (“sad”) introduced by the second violin; an Andante tranquillo that produces a deep, organ-like sonority; a saucy waltz marked con eleganza, un poco capriccioso; and others.  Ligeti’s harmonic language can be gritty–at some moments the instruments can be clustered a half-step apart, other passages are set in quarter-tones, and the music is often spiked with strident, dissonant chords.  At the end, all four instruments create a web of sound made up of barely-audible glissandos played entirely in harmonics, and finally the music fades into silence on reminiscences of the opening material.

One of the impressive things about the Quartet No. 1 is how good it sounds.  Everyone hears the influence of Bartók’s quartets on this music, and Ligeti incorporates some of that sound-world into his own music, including “Bartók pizzicatos” (plucked so sharply that they snap off the fingerboard), glissandos, and harmonics.  Throughout, there is a freshness, a brilliance, and a clarity to the writing that makes this music exhilarating to hear.

Ligeti knew that this quartet would be unacceptable to the political and musical authorities in Budapest, and he did not try to have it performed there.  The first performance of the Quartet No. 1 was given in Vienna by the Ramor Quartet on May 8, 1954.


A Palace Upon the Ruins (A Song Cycle)

Born 1946

A note from the composer: A Palace Upon the Ruins tells of a promise never kept. The inspiration for these songs came from a story from the past that speaks of the healing of an unresolved trauma. These impressionistic verses explore themes of loss, awareness, healing, and redemption.

Water is the framework within which the story is set. Here the idea of water serves as a symbol of spirit. As water takes many forms - fog, ice, and rain for example - the astral, too, manifests in many forms.  Six musicians play six songs. The number six is one of harmony. It is a number of service, balance, compassion and forgiveness.

The piece concludes with the restoration of balance and beauty.

- Elizabeth Cotnoir and Howard Shore


Marsias for Oboe and Crystal Goblets

Born 1943

Now 70 years old, Mario Lavista has established his reputation as one of Mexico’s foremost composers and one of its most imaginative thinkers.  He studied piano as a boy and enrolled in the National Conservatory, where he was a student of Carlos Chavez; graduate work followed at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and his teachers in Europe included Nadia Boulanger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Henri Pousseur.  Since 1970 Lavista has taught at the National Conservatory, and he has also been a visiting professor at a number of American universities, among them Chicago, Cornell, Indiana, and the University of California at San Diego.  He founded the musical journal Pauta in 1982 and has been its editor ever since.

Lavista has been drawn in particular to experimental procedures: he has performed with improvisation ensembles, composed electronic music, and participated in interdisciplinary projects.  He has composed one opera (Aura, based on a story by Carlos Fuentes), orchestral works, chamber music, and a large number of pieces for dramatic production: incidental music for the theater, dance scores, and music for film and for television.  In 2013 he received the Tomás Luis de Victoria Composition Prize, awarded to the outstanding Ibero-American composer.

Marsias, which Lavista composed in 1982, reflects his interest in unusual sonorities and forms, and it has become probably his most frequently-performed composition.  Marsias is scored for a single oboe and eight crystal goblets, which are played by six “crystalists,” as someone has dubbed them.  Lavista requires that these crystal goblets be filled with different amounts of water so that they sound in fifths as the players run their moistened fingertips around the rims of those goblets.  The effect is to create a curtain of wispy, ethereal sound that functions as the accompaniment–or perhaps simply the background–for the oboist, who must perform with a variety of extended techniques: pitches can be slightly off-center, and the oboe makes a range of strident sounds sharply at odds with the sound of the crystal goblets.

In Greek mythology, Marsyas was a satyr who found a reed flute that had been cast aside by its inventor, the goddess Athena.  Marsyas learned to play that flute, and in a fatal burst of self-confidence he challenged Apollo, the god of music, to a competition; the rules stipulated that the winner could do whatever he wanted to the loser (music competitions were tougher in those days).  Apollo won the competition and exacted a gruesome revenge: he had Marsyas nailed to a tree and skinned alive, and Marsyas’ flowing blood became the river in Phrygia that bears his name.   Ever since then, the name Marsyas has been synonymous with hubris and its dangers.

Listeners may be well advised not to look for too direct a depiction of the events of that myth in Lavista’s score.  Much of the appeal of this music lies in its sharp contrast of sounds, particularly between the delicate curtain of sound created by the crystal goblets and the aggressive and often angular oboe interjections.  It is a sound-world all its own–and a very imaginative one.


Viola Zombie

Born 1954

American composer Michael Daugherty has always been fascinated by American popular culture, and that passion has been the driving force behind his music.  The titles of his works make clear the range of his interests: he achieved early success with two pieces written for the Kronos Quartet (Sing, Sing: J. Edgar Hoover and Elvis Everywhere) and he has written a Metropolis Symphony made up of five movements inspired by different characters from Superman, a piano concerto called Le Tombeau de Liberace, an opera titled Jackie O, a concerto for four bassoons called Hell’s Angels, and Desi, a work for symphonic winds.  It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Daugherty is an unsophisticated composer: he has studied with Charles Wuorinen, Pierre Boulez, Jacob Druckman, and–in Europe–with György Ligeti.

When the XIXth International Viola Congress asked Daugherty for a work to be premièred at that gathering, he responded with a viola duet that he titled Viola Zombie, and this was premièred during the congress in Ithaca on June 16, 1991.  Viola Zombie takes its inspiration from the music that accompanied old horror films, which were full of creepy effects, sudden attacks, tremolos, glissandos, and (sometimes) the sound of a theremin–listeners will make out bits of theme and sound effects they may remember from old horror films, including the theme of one classic television series from the 1950s.  But Viola Zombie is not just a playful remembrance of movie nostalgia.  This is a very tough piece for the two violists, who must play throughout their range, create a variety of sounds (particularly with ponticello bowing and left-handed pizzicatos), and solve the problems of coordination that come with playing some distance apart (Daugherty suggests a separation of twelve feet).  A prominent feature of Viola Zombie is its use of the tritone, or augmented fourth (for example, middle C and the F# just above it).  This clashing, strident sound, which seemed to those in medieval times to have something devilish about it, was referred to as diabolus in musica and was often prohibited (Saint-Saëns used it memorably in his Danse macabre).  Here Daugherty opens the piece with the tritone sounded col legno battuto, or struck with the wood of the bow.

In his own program note for Viola Zombie, Daugherty riffs on Rod Serling’s voiced-over introduction to The Twilight Zone, and listeners old enough to remember that program will enjoy hearing Serling’s famous words come back in a slightly different context: “You’re traveling through another dimension–a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind–a journey into a world as vast as space and as timeless as infinity, where two violas separated stereophonically on stage explore the musical and timbral possibilities of the imagination.  You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.  That’s the signpost up ahead... your next stop–Viola Zombie.”


String Quartet No. 2 “300 Weihnachtslieder”

Born 1967

A note from the composer: I’d been fond of old German Christmas songs for a long time and intended to compose music connected with them when the Arditti String Quartet asked me for a new piece.

I consulted several old sources of approximately 300 such Christmas songs from Speyer, Berlin, Cologne, Lübeck, and elsewhere, most of them dating between 1500 and 1750. Amongst them were the Speyer Gesangbuch and the Finnish Piae Cantiones (which, despite its provenance, is German). I also listened to recordings of church bells dating from the period and the same territories as the songs. My new Quartet uses spectra of such bells as a harmonic and modal resource and also the rhythms of bells ringing from these regions.

It was not my intention to make the German Christmas songs literally audible on the surface of this piece but to allow their melodic contours, moods, rhythms, and texts to affect my music. Indeed, most of them are so absorbed into the fabric of the music that they are rarely discernible. The songs remain an elusive presence, mysteriously threading their way through the seven movements. I made long melodic chains from the pitches of these beautiful songs, stringing them together, separating their rhythms from the melodies and applying both pitches and rhythms independently and freely through the music, as well as changing their tuning. Although this renders most of the tunes unrecognisable, the spirit of the melodies, their varying and lively contours, as well as the texts of the songs affected every bar of this piece very strongly. For this reason I gave this Quartet the somewhat extravagant but technically accurate subtitle.

From time to time one of the better-known Christmas songs emerges briefly and fleetingly at the surface of the music. I have given each movement a title from one of the Christmas songs as an indication of the mood, textures, and pacing of each section—although this is not programme music.

This work explores a tuning system I first deployed in my Symphony (2003), my ensemble piece Book of Hours, and my orchestral work Eden (2005). It uses non-tempered intervals outside normal Western tuning. Unlike most such tuning systems, however, this uses only intervals larger than a semitone. For this reason I call the tuning system “macrotonality” as opposed to microtonality, which exploits intervals smaller than a semitone. The varied harmonic and modal possibilities which arise out of this tuning imbue the whole work with special colours and moods that could not have been obtained otherwise.

Movements 1 – 4 are played with a break in between, but Nos. 5, 6, and 7 are played continuously. The same playing technique is used to conclude each movement—the sound of “vertical bowing,” i.e., brushing the strings vertically instead of bowing them horizontally, as is normal. This sonority, therefore, concludes the whole piece as well.

    I. vom Himmel  (“from Heaven”)

Bell-like pizzicato chords punctuate this movement, contrasting with more sustained melodic ideas. Brief fragments of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern and (on high cello at the end) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen emerge fleetingly and in different tunings through the music.

    II. resonet (“let it resound”)

As indicated by the title, much of the harmony of this piece is derived from the resonance of old German church bells. However, none of the attacks of these harmonies is particularly bell-like (many of them start quietly). The linear melodies are distantly derived from the carol Resonet in Laudibus, amongst others.

    III. schön leuchtet (“brightly shines”)

The bright textures and dancing meter of this movement refer both to its title and to the bright sonorities of the Zimbelsterne, star-shaped circles of bells rotated on old German organs to give the effect of a carillon whilst music is being played. (These bells are most commonly used at Christmas.) Much use is made of bright plucked harmonics and tremolos.

    IV. ein Kind geboren (“a Child is born”)

A largely slow, meditative movement exploring the more sombre colours of the Quartet. No vibrato is used; the melodies are slowed down so much that they cannot be heard melodically at all. The loud sound just before the end perhaps represents the birth.

    V. O Engel, kommt! (“O Angels, come hither!”)

Sharp attacks in chords of two or more pitches are contrasted with scurrying textures at increasingly faster speeds.

VI. Gaudete! (“Rejoice!”)

This is the only movement entirely in normal tuning. The bell chord at the opening recurs many times through the movement, each reappearance triggering a progressively longer span of intervening music. So, although the tempo does not slow down, the movement is, in effect, a long retard. The jerky rhythms of this movement are directly inspired by the joyously chaotic rhythms of German bell ringing.

    VII. Lieblich, freundlich… (“Dearly, friendly…”)

A surreal, yet serene, epilogue. A nearly complete statement (again in altered tuning) of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is shared between the viola and cello, the former with tremolo bowing, the latter playing harmonic pizzicato. The music lulls itself to sleep…

String Quartet No. 2, “300 Weihnachtslieder,” is dedicated to the Arditti String Quartet, lieblich, freundlich… and was co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla Music Society for SummerFest, Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, and Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.

- Julian Anderson