John Harbison

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String Quartet No. 6

World Premiere
April 29th, 2017 at the Candlelight Concert Society

Partly because of the superb example of Bartok, who still dominates the string quartet landscape of the 20th Century, six seems like a good number for a collection of quartets. The number also comes up in terms of Haydn (op. 20, 33, 64, and 76), as well as the Mozart set dedicated to Haydn.

The determination to write, and to conclude my own quartet enterprise with a Sixth came also from the image of the piece , with a sense of its character clarifying as I listened recently, at Tanglewood, to two pieces I have always loved, Bartok 6 and Haydn opus 76 no 6. The differences are so obvious, the Bartok is written in a questioning unstable idiom, one which he is still inventing, and it consciously sums up a lifetime of thought about the medium; the Haydn ends a set within a set, a lifetime enterprise, one for which he has also expanded, even discovered the basic premises, but one of which he accepted more of the “givens” than a progressive composer of Bartok’s time could ratify.

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Both pieces are sovereign masterpieces of civilized passionate musical thinking. But the after-image was disconcerting. I felt the weight, the sense of almost grinding responsibility Bartok was carrying, the grandeur of the quartet tradition, the responsibility to elevate, ennoble his listeners. In the Haydn piece I heard his immense joy in the the endless puns, double-entendres, false leads, and subplots available in musical grammar, I heard a composer concentrating on floating the balloon of that piece, not supporting—Atlas-like—the whole world.

Of course this leaves out complicating basic factors like the tonal system, the times in which the two pieces were written , the mood of the hearer, the relative performances.

But the experience remains important for my Sixth Quartet, and for what it brings to the evaluation of our musical situation, for what it can report about what it is to be alive in these times. I want to leave a lot of baggage back at home.

Just as I relied on the Cleveland, Emerson, Lydian, Orion, and ProArte quartets for a focussing of the ear in each of my previous quartets (likewise the Juilliard for The Rewaking), I feel I need for the best address to this final quartet the possibility of a consortium, of varied and diverse performance images, something like a composite portrait: I’m grateful to involve the Lark, Ariel, and Telegraph quartets, and the young players at Tanglewood.

The quartet is about 25 minutes long, and not much like the previous five.

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