Frederick Converse: String Quartet no. 2 in Am, op. 18

performed by Steve’s Bedroom Band

(cover image by Francisco Aceldo)

Frederick Shepherd Converse was born on January 5, 1871 in Newton, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard with John Knowles Paine, and his op. 1 violin sonata from 1893 got ‘highest honors’ as a graduation piece. He studied composition with Chadwick, and yes, again, like Chadwick, with Rheinberger in Munich.

(FYI: like the Gustav Helsted quartet I wrote about almost a year ago, this work is performed by ‘Steve’s Bedroom Band, which is actually one guy named Steve, who plays all the parts… Kudos to him for working to give us a glimpse of these rarely performed works.)

From 1899-1902 he taught harmony at the New England Conservatory. He joined Harvard as an assistant professor in 1905, but resigned two years later to dedicate himself to composition. His students included Alan Hovhaness and Florence Price, one of whom we will unfortunately not be discussing in this series.

Wikipedia says that:

Even though he was firmly committed to composing in the late Romantic idiom of his European contemporaries, his works often dealt with American subjects.

His opera The Pipe of Desire was the first American work ever to be performed at the Met in New York City. That aside, he composed three other operas, a violin concerto, five symphonies (four of which don’t carry opus numbers) and two string quartets.

The second of those came around in 1905. It’s a few decades back in our timeline, but I needed to get Converse in here, and last week was full. Also, I didn’t know what to put for this week, so he got moved forward, even though we’re talking about pieces as modern as the ’30s midweek. That’s okay.

The work is in three movements and plays for less than 20 minutes. I can’t say I’m extremely enthusiastic about this work. It seems like Converse, who was already in his 30s by this time, knows how to write effectively for the quartet, and this would surely be more clearly felt in a professionally played/recorded performance, but the movement of material throughout the quartet (if that makes sense) gives a strong sense of unity. The first subject is bouncy, perhaps even a bit angular, and the second subject is cooler, smoother, and these work with or against each other for the first movement in a cohesive, logical way.

The second movement might be more compelling in its delicacy and slight melancholy, but it also edges a bit close to torpidity. Again, maybe in a thrilling live performance, with studio sound quality and stuff, we’d hear it sing more, and it certainly has its moments of beauty, but after many, many listens, I still don’t feel compelled that this is a work that I’m itching to see on a concert program.

The opening of the finale, then, is a welcome change of pace. It’s (by a small margin) the shortest movement of the three, and perhaps the most memorable. It has a sense of jollity to it, but overall it just doesn’t thrill me much. It’s certainly nice, quartet-like, but there are very few moments of frisson or ‘wow’ to it. The finale is the brightest, most enjoyable of the three.

I won’t chalk it up to performance issues, because I quite came to enjoy Steve’s reading of the Helsted quartet, actually more than a professionally made recording I later got my hands on. But anyway…

I also don’t really hear any of the ‘American’ or ‘folk’ elements in this work. As a turn-of-the-century piece, it clearly does NOT have any kind of French or Debussy-esque voice, but I don’t listen to it and think ‘Merica either.

So that’s that. And maybe this isn’t his best effort, but it’s one I could get my hands on, and to be honest, he’s mostly here because one of his students will appear at the end of this coming week with an absolutely outstanding symphony.

Again, this work dates from 1904, so we backtracked a little bit, but tomorrow we jump back up to the period between the World Wars, so please do stay tuned, and thank you very much for reading.

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