About this Recording
8.559384 - WELCHER, D.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 (Cassatt String Quartet)

Dan Welcher (b. 1948)
String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 and 3


String Quartet No. 1 was commissioned in 1987 by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Cleveland Quartet. As any ambitious young composer with such a prestigious opportunity would do, I aimed very high in this piece: it is a work of symphonic proportions, with a huge emotional range. To control all of this, I devised a tone-row, a numerology system (the entire quartet is written in a 6-5-4-3-4-5 code) which affects rhythmic durations, pitches, and meters, but also melodies, harmonies and colors that are not in any way serialized. I worked the piece out into a four-movement format, and devised a quasi-program of moods and textures to provide contrast and change. The result is a diversified work that is, by turns, abrasive, melancholy, highly tragic, soothing, darkly comic, and victorious.

The first movement is marked Harsh, angry, and pits the solo cello (after a brief introduction) against the other three instruments as a kind of lone fighter against a machine-made enemy. The cello’s song is broad and intense, spanning four octaves, and devoid of meter, while the music of the violins and viola is a tightly controlled repeating pattern. The contrasting elements are played out in the course of the movement, with the overall mood remaining highly charged and unsettled. In the second movement, the denial and combativeness has given way to melancholy resignation. The violins begin a contrapuntal duet, in the high register, which works its way down until the viola and cello join. After a few bars of ensemble, the lower instruments have their duet. The movement climaxes in a chorale marked Serene, which contains four soliloquies between the phrases, and ends with a curious jumpy motive being played out against the questioning sad music of the opening. The third movement is a bona-fide scherzo, briefer in duration (but quite strenuous in the demands placed on the players) than the other three. It is a diabolic, gallows-humor piece for the cello in modified ragtime, with a trio section in the center in pizzicato. The fourth movement is a resolution of the conflicts of the other three, in the Romantic sense. It begins with a kind of “expulsion from Paradise” dirge, expands into an excited ostinato with canonic melodies for the violin and cello, and reaches a midpoint in which the earlier movements are recalled and debated anew. A double fugue ends the discussion, and a new theme emerges: a bold, positive theme to dispel the gloom. It is this theme which prevails, and the coda takes the opening music of the first movement, augments its rhythmic value threefold, and allows the piece to end in a fist-in-the-air gesture of victorious defiance.

Harbor Music, the official name of my second quartet, followed the first work by five years. In terms of style and aesthetic aim, however, it seems light years away. Where the first work took aim at cosmic conflicts and heroic resolutions, the present work is intended as a kind of divertissement. Harbor Music lasts a mere twelve minutes, is cast in a single movement with six sections, and should leave both performers and listeners with a feeling of good humor and affection. The work was commissioned as a present to Richard J. Bogolmolny upon his retirement as CEO of First National Supermarkets, and it should here be mentioned that he was and is a passionate cellist and chamber music advocate.

The title comes from my experience as a guest in the magnificent city of Sydney, Australia. One of its most attractive features is its unique system of ferry boats: the city is laid out around a large, multichanneled harbor, with destinations more easily approached by water than by land. In casting about for a form for the piece, a kind of loose rondo came to mind. Each new “destination” would be approached from the same starting-out point (although there are subtle variations in the repeating theme; it is always in a new key, and the texture is never the same). The result, I hope, is a sense of constant new information presented with introductory “frames” of a more familiar nature. The “embarkation” theme, which begins the piece, is a sort of bi-tonal fanfare in which the violins are in G major and the viola and cello are in B-flat major. (This duality of harmonic language is present throughout the piece.) There are three separate “journeys”, separated by ever-changing versions of the “embarkation” theme, with the slowest of the sections featuring the sound of the ferryboat horns coming through the mists. Following the final embarkation, the nostalgic theme of the first episode makes a final appearance, serving now as a coda. The rocking motion continues, in a lullaby fashion, leaving us drowsy and satisfied on our homeward journey.

My third quartet was written for the quartet that bears the name of Mary Cassatt, a pioneer female American artist who spent most of her working life in France. The piece is laid out in a three-movement structure, with each movement based on an early, middle, and late work of Mary Cassatt. Although the movements are separate, with full-stop endings, the music is connected by a common scale-form, derived from the name MARY CASSATT, and by a recurring theme that introduces all three movements. I see this theme as Mary’s Theme, a personality that stays intact while undergoing gradual change.

I. The Bacchante (1876)

The painting shows a young girl of Italian or Spanish origin, playing a tambourine. Since Cassatt was trying very hard to fit in at the French Academy at the time, she painted a lot of these subjects, which were considered typical and universal. The style of the painting does not yet show Cassatt’s originality, except perhaps for certain details in the face. Accordingly the music for this movement is Spanish/Italian, in a similar period-style but using the musical signature described above. The music begins with Mary’s Theme, ruminative and slow, then abruptly changes to an “alla Spagnola”-type fast 3/4–6/8 meter. It evokes the Spanish-influenced music of Ravel and Falla.

II. At The Opera (1878) (also called ‘In The Loge’)

The painting shows a woman alone in a box at the opera house, completely dressed (including gloves) and looking through opera glasses at someone or something that is NOT on the stage. Across the auditorium from her, but exactly at eye level, is a gentleman with opera glasses intently watching her—though it is not he that has attracted her interest. This movement is far less conventional than the first movement, as the painting is far less conventional. The music begins with a rapid, Shostakovich-type “mini-overture” lasting less than a minute, based on Mary’s Theme. My conjecture is that the woman in the painting has arrived late to the opera. What happens next is a kind of collage, a kind of surrealistic overlaying of two different elements: the foreground music, at first, is a direct quotation of the Soldier’s Chorus from Gounod’s Faust (an opera Cassatt would certainly have heard in the brand-new Paris Opera House at that time), played by second violin, viola, and cello. This music is played sul ponticello in the melody and col legno in the marching accompaniment. On top of this, the first violin hovers at first on a high harmonic, then descends into a slow melody, completely separate from the Gounod. It is as if the woman in the painting is hearing the opera onstage but is not really interested in it. Then the cello joins the first violin in a kind of love-duet (just the two of them, at first). This music is not at all Gounod-derived; it is entirely from the same scale patterns as the first movement and derives from Mary’s Theme and its scale. The music stays in a kind of dichotomy feeling, usually three-against-one, until the end of the movement, when another Gounod melody, Valentin’s aria Avant de quitter ces lieux reappears in a kind of coda for all four players. The overall feeling is a kind of schizophrenic, opera-inspired dream.

III. Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun (1909)

The painting, from Cassatt’s last period, is very simple: just a figure, looking sideways out of the picture. The colors are pastel and yet bold—and the woman is likewise very self-assured and not in the least demure. It is nine minutes long, and is all about melody—three melodies, to be exact (“Young Woman”, “Green”, and “Sunlight”). There is no angst, no choppy rhythms, just ever-unfolding melody and lush harmonies. I quote one other French composer here, too: Debussy’s song Green, from Ariettes Oubliées. 1909 would have been Debussy’s heyday in Paris, and it makes perfect sense musically as well as visually to do this.

The last several years of Mary Cassatt’s life were lived in near-total blindness, and as she lost visual acuity, her work became less sharply defined—something akin to the late water lilies of Monet, who suffered similar vision loss. My idea of making this movement entirely melodic was compounded by having each of the three melodies appear twice, once in a “pure” form, and the second time in a more diffuse setting. This makes an interesting “two ways” form: A-B-C-A1-B1-C1.

String Quartet No. 3 “Cassatt” is dedicated, with great affection and respect, to the Cassatt String Quartet, whose members have dedicated themselves in large measure to the furthering of the contemporary repertoire for quartet.

Dan Welcher

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