Blackwood String Quartet no. 3

performed by the Pacifica Quartet

(no video today, but go check out the album for some audio clips)

(cover image by Steven Wang)

Back to Blackwood.

If you know Blackwood’s name from somewhere (and you’re not a contract bridge player; that’s his father), it’s likely for his microtonal etudes. He created multiple equally tempered musical scales, “all equal temperaments from 13 through 24.” But you wouldn’t know it by listening to this work.

The experimental, unconventional stuff was from the middle part of his career. His early work, like his first string quartet, which we discussed almost exactly a year ago, while maybe largely atonal, certainly isn’t microtonal. Of his three string quartets, the first two were written just a few years apart in the late 50s, but the third comes from much later, completed in 1998.

YouTube gives us recordings of his piano concerto, first two symphonies, some of the microtonal compositions, but none of the quartets, and indeed the Pacifica release is a world premiere recording (of all three pieces, I believe). (It also happens to be their own recording debut.)

Speaking of this ensemble, the third quartet was written specifically for Pacifica, who premiered it at Chicago’s “Music in the Loft” series. The very little bit of information I have about this work comes from some notes on the album at Cedille Records, the same place I linked above since there isn’t a YouTube video to include.

The work is in four movements and lasts a little less than a half hour.

And if you listen (if that’s something you decide to do), you might be hard pressed to find a modicum of modernity in the piece. After Carter and Babbitt and some of the more modern installments of this series (even Glass, whose ‘music with repeating structures’, what most people would call minimalism) are identifiably modern. As of this writing, Blackwood is still alive, and this piece was composed during my lifetime.

But what do you hear?

I won’t say it’s Romantic or Classical era. We can hear it’s a Romantic sound influenced by modern awareness, maybe something along the lines of Prokofiev, also in a sort of soft Frenchness in its delicacy and fragrance. There are two clear themes to the first movement, and their clarity is satisfying. I swear I hear echoes and callbacks to Beethoven here, in the work’s cohesion and spirit. It’s really very delightful. To be able to follow your way through a development, in the way Beethoven leads you by the hand through the twists and turns and modulations while still hearing the original material is wonderful. It’s a very enjoyable musical argument.

The second movement, marked vivace, serves I suppose as the scherzo-like movement, but it appears to be in a double meter, not triple. The trio is very nice, again seeming to show us references to Beethoven or Mozart, but with what I hear as a French flair, something like Milhaud. It feels like the actual heart of the movement, before the faster subject returns.

The third movement, marked adagio sostenuto, is the longest of the piece, nearly a third of the entire work’s playing time, and again we have an exquisite, masterful use of the quartet’s four voices, here in a poignant, touching slow movement. I’ll talk more at the end of the article about how Beethoven comes through strong for me in this work, but whether that was the purpose or not, the result is that a movement like this is immediately intelligible, wears its heart on its sleeve, and expresses beauty, sorrow, melancholy so clearly.

It’s not just sorrow here, though. There is a beautiful contrapuntal passage in among what otherwise seemed like it could devolve into a funereal slow movement. Even in this melancholic chapter of the work, there’s still a sense of forward motion that moves the entire work toward the finale.

Marked allegro deciso, my thought about the finale is that it takes something from the opening movement’s material, but that may not be the case. It has a nervous energy, as each of the phrases grows before it reaches the next subject in what appears maybe to be a rondo. The closing movement is fiery, passionate, and still… Beethovenian.

Perhaps the strongest similitude to Beethoven is that the piece strikes me as very unassuming, straightforward, work, something that’s nice but doesn’t knock your socks off at first listen. However, with repeated listens, I’ve come to appreciate the curvature and shape and contours and turns of this entire piece, its detail and suppleness, a feeling that every single detail has been carved out, sanded smooth, and shaped to exactly the desired form, and that takes a little more listening to appreciate but is really refined and extremely tasteful.

In this regard, we come back to the idea of modernness, and the question of whether work like this is relevant today. People like Boulez would say it’s already been done and isn’t accomplishing anything, but from a broader perspective, it feels a little bit like coming home. You know that feeling when you go on vacation and you’ve stayed in nice hotels and gone to foreign restaurants and eaten foreign food and explored and enjoyed, but you’re actually just ready to be home? There’s something so unassumingly, unpretentiously real and genuine about Blackwood’s third quartet.

That’s not to say that music like Babbitt’s or Carter’s is foreign and doesn’t feel like home, or is always a struggle to listen to, but there’s something to be said for someone like Blackwood, who experimented with and explored very modern idioms, to return later in his life to this more familiar style.

Semantics aside, though, whatever you decide to label it, when it’s written this well, it doesn’t matter. It’s a very fine quartet.

And with that, almost like a piece of nostalgia, we finish the American Symphony Series. It’s done, after all that. There’ll be a review article next week, but if you’re reading this and haven’t gone to explore some of the other pieces in this series, please go do so. There’s some fantastic stuff.

Stay tuned for a small break from symphonic work next week, and the beginning of another big series the week after that! Thanks so much for reading.


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