Bruno Maderna: Quartetto per archi in due tempi

performed by the Cicada Quartet

Maderna’s Quartet is the hardest nut to crack [on the album], with its fragmented phrases and restless rhythms and dynamics. But behind the notes the Cikadas’ deeply committed playing reveals glimpses of a dramatic personality that could only be Italian in its lyrical warmth. Riveting stuff.

Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine

We are nearing the end of our month-long series, an attempt at scratching the surface of the early works of the Darmstadt School, which is a much more nebulous ‘school’ or group of composers tenuously unified by a similar idea, style, or approach, much less so than say, either of the two Viennese schools.

In any case, I’ve enjoyed some of this process much more than I thought I would, especially the Boulez compositions. What I’ve learned is that the more you can learn about music (or really anything, I guess), the more you appreciate it. When I got the score and some reference material on the Boulez pieces, it felt like discovering a new world, new territory, and it was very exciting. Nono was a bit harder, but as for this weekend’s SQS installments, I feel I have failed.

I say that because I feel I don’t really have any insights or much very exciting to share about this work and the one tomorrow, primarily because I was never able to get my hands on the score, and because it seems that there’s very little information around about this work (and tomorrow’s). I get the impression that that might be because they’re overshadowed by other works, or maybe… just not terribly notable; I’m not sure. In either case, I will do my best to share whatever thoughts I have and whatever I’ve found of interest.

The work is dedicated to Luciano Berio and was (first?) performed just over 60 years ago, on June 1, 1955 (I think). Most of my information for this piece comes from Martin Iddon’s New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez (Music since 1900) which can be viewed via Google Books (or at least parts of it, anyway). Hop to page 121, under the section/chapter “The Accidental Serialists.” The piece is described as “Webernian,… well regarded by most.” Iddon says it was “Maderna’s only excursion into a more fully fledged serial world…” and that he “stuck to only two parameters, those of pitch and rhythm.” A table is given of the “magic square” used to define those parameters, and there are some score excerpts given as well. He also mentions, interestingly, that the ‘due tempi’ in Italian is two stages, not the plural of tempo, or speeds. Iddon quotes Berio, the piece’s dedicatee, as describing the first stage as “a rather rigid, sparkling, and largely immobile object,” that is further developed, coming to life in the second.

I should say that I can’t comment very much on this work in relation to anything else Maderna has written, because, frankly, I haven’t really listened to much else. I thought Iddon’s statement about it being one of the composer’s only truly serialized works was interesting, but I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to comment on it either way. We shall remedy that eventually.

While I do feel that this work (and Maderna’s oeuvre) merits further study, of which I am currently incapable, I think it’s also, in a different way, completely approachable on its own. What I mean to say is that while I have very little insight into the work and haven’t unlocked any of its gems or compositional/structural secrets, in a rather ‘brute force’ attempt to come to know it, I have warmed up to it and enjoyed listening to the piece. At some point down the road, maybe, I’ll go order the score, dig through microfilms or encyclopedias to find whatever analyses may exist (I’ve done a bit of that and found very little), but for now, let’s talk a little bit about how it sounds.

The work is, as the title indicates, in two stages, of almost equal performing length, and it seems rather arbitrary to describe an entire piece with such an arbitrary blanket statement as ‘quiet’, but for the most part, there aren’t very many real roaring climaxes, at least of volume, but certainly of intensity. The work is generally sparse, almost secretive sounding, and at times even ominous, dark, rich, crawling (almost literally) with texture, a buzzy, shimmery, living breathing thing, at times (to me) almost grotesque sounding, like some forest monster coming out of hibernation and sloughing off moss and forest things, coming to life. I don’t know. It sounds shimmery and exciting, but also dark and scary at times, in blues and purples and greens so dark they’re almost black.

None of that description was musical at all, but much the richness and texture of the work is afforded by techniques like bowing on the bridge or fingerboard, lots of pizzicato, and even tapping on the bodies of the instruments. This affords a very… earthy, organic atmosphere to much of the work, and I’d be interested to know if any of these techniques (pizzicato, or tapping, or certain bowings) were serialized or not, but from the above, it seems likely no. Aside from the overall mental image I have of a slightly grotesque, alarming, but still rich, sumptuous and very enjoyable fairytale creature, there’s something else interesting I’d like to mention about this work.

Have a look at this. It’s only an abstract, but it presents an interesting idea. As for most people, even folks who like music, they don’t want to have homework in listening to a piece of music, and I can understand why. It doesn’t always have to be about analysis, but that  kind of very simple focused listening can do wonders for appreciating and enjoying a piece. For example, picking out when the second subject of the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony begins. You might not be able to hear a key change, but structurally, it’s a new section. Usually, when people practice that kind of analysis, especially when it’s only by ear, they use a Haydn quartet, a Mozart symphony, etc. But apparently that abstract thought it a good idea to use something as potentially alien and arcane as this quartet of Maderna’s. I’m not sure why this piece in particular was chosen, but the end result is stated in the final sentence of the abstract:

The differences between musicians and non musicians and Italian and Edinburgh groups were not significant.

Fascinating! So even though we haven’t discussed motivic elements, structure, pitch content, or any of the rest of that, and pick out the “the tension/relaxation perceived while listening in real time,” the highs and lows of the work. I feel, after having warmed up to this piece, that it’s quite suitable for that kind of listening, owing to its (I don’t want to say dramatic but) dramatic and expressive nature. So give it a listen. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you can’t say anything intelligent about it. I haven’t. But this is good proof that even though you might have to work for it, and even though you might have very little to go on, if you are inclined to enjoy it, the learning process will be enjoyable, even if that process is only repeated listenings. If for whatever reason, though, today’s quartet was not your cup of tea, then stay tuned for tomorrow’s quartet, a work that I find to be very  similar, about which I know even less!

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