Charles Koechlin: String Quartet no. 2, op. 57

performed by the Ardeo Quartet

(cover image by Daniil Kuzelev)

Charles-Louis-Eugène Koechlin was born on November 27, 1867 in Paris, the youngest of a large family. His father died when he was 14. His family hoped he would be an engineer, so like a good son, Koechlin entered the École Polytechnique in 1887. His studies were interrupted a year later with a bout of tuberculosis that had him laid up in Algeria for six months. He ultimately ended up having to repeat that first year and got only “mediocre” grades.

In 1890, after probably still not getting his family’s approval, he began his music studies in earnest (he’d always had an interest in music) at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied composition with Massenet in 1892, André Gedalge for fugue and counterpoint, and one Louis Bourgault-Ducoudray for music history. We will see none of these men in this series. Koechlin’s fellow students included Enescu and Florent Schmitt, who we will be seeing this weekend.

Koechlin produced two numbered symphonies, the first of which is just an orchestrated version of this quartet. One symphony was abandoned, another built from apparently unrelated, previously-composed movements, so it seems he didn’t have much interest in or luck with the symphony, but he wrote lots of chamber music.

While Koechlin “began assisting Fauré in teaching fugue and counterpoint while he was still a student in the 1890s” and “taught privately and was an external examiner for the Paris Conservatoire throughout his career,” he never actually had an official position as professor. Among his students, however, were composers such as Tailleferre, Poulenc, and Henri Sauguet, all three of whom will get mentions beyond this only in a list of apologies at the end of this series.

I’m just going to quote word for word a passage from Koechlin’s Wikipedia article describing his character:

Despite his lack of worldly success, Koechlin was apparently a loved and venerated figure in French music, with his long flowing beard contributing to his patriarchal image. Following his 1888 illness, the need to build up his strength led him to become an enthusiastic mountaineer, swimmer and tennis player. He was also an amateur astronomer and an accomplished photographer. He was one of the great nature-mystics among French composers…

Doesn’t that paint a lovely picture?

It’s a decision with which I grapple in series like this, whether to feature a symphony or chamber work of one composer or other, but in this case, the decision was quite straightforward. As mentioned above, his first symphony was just a reworking of this quartet, completed in 1926, so we can kill two birds with one stone. Work on this composition began early, some sources citing sketches for the scherzo as early as 1902, others 1909, but the work was completed in 1915. This means it actually overlaps with composition of the first quartet.

Of both of these works, Blair Sanderson says at AllMusic:

…both works therefore partake of musical styles developed between fin de siècle Impressionism and the later innovations of Erik Satie and Les Six, but these works reveal a stronger emphasis on the former.

When you see the date 1915, you may rightly think of the turbulent times in humanity, the First World War, the breakdown of tonality in music with Schoenberg and others, and on and on, but really… that’s not terribly apparent here, or else Koechlin expresses his turmoil in a very different way. Sanderson says that the work is “largely undisturbed by the encroachments of modernism,” and what we get instead is a consistent hush throughout the work that is in its own right almost surprising.

Koechlin himself says in an autobiographical work:

In general, one can see in the works of this period either a constant light … or a gradual illumination….  This liberation towards joy…fits in very well with the nature of Charles Koechlin.

Speaking of himself in the third person…

The work is in four movements, as below, and has a playing time of a little over 40 minutes:

  1. Adagio
  2. Scherzo: allegro con fuoco
  3. Quasi adagio
  4. Finale- allegro moderato

Adrian Corleonis says that ” Koechlin very quietly turned his back on the excesses of the fin de siècle,” so while this work is by no means grandiose, the finale is a seventeen-minute thing.

The first movement begins quietly, effectively setting the tone for what is in essence the entire piece. It’s a stepwise sighing, a sort of groan that makes for the rather long introduction. The problem in saying that is that I’m not entirely sure where the introduction ends and the exposition proper begins. There’s no sense of walking through the doorway, of a clean seam. The music is largely static for periods, and while it’s the exact opposite of exciting, it almost forces you to sit still and think. It’s languid, by and large. That’s not really a criticism, but I’d rather let both of my readers experience it rather than try to convey it.

The scherzo, in contrast with the first movement, while not as lively as most, seems positively raucous. The trio also is quite subdued; I’d use the word ‘lethargic’ but it’s not that lazy. The rhythms, while not readily apparent in their hushed sort of whispered voices, are quite interesting and varied, and this may be the most compelling movement of the entire work.

The third movement is by far the shortest, at a bit shy of five minutes, and with first and final movements like this piece presents, it does call into question the efficacy or necessity of a slow movement in the traditional sense. It’s dwarfed by everything around it, and lord knows we have plenty of quiet in this work.

The finale, thankfully, brightens a bit, and there’s a quaintness to the music, as we heard some of in the scherzo, but it is very long, and still generally melancholy. We get glimpses of clear air and sunshine, and there’s a certain sort of unspoken strength in the extreme restraint and delicacy presented here. There is conspicuous use of texture and techniques like sul ponticello and pizzicato, but this finale is indeed a long ride.

The impression of the work, as subtly thought-provoking as it is, is that it’s a collection of slow movements with a scherzo included for contrast. This makes for a unique experience, one that forces you to sit and dedicate your faculties to appreciating it. It certainly does not bowl us over with impressive melodies and firework shows, but apparently the writing and textures are very demanding on the performers. It’s admirable, restrained, subtle… at the very least an intriguing listen if you want to be compelled by something that is really quite different from anything else I’ve heard.

Koechlin was one of the earliest to make the list for this series, and I am indeed glad he was included, even if this work is a little bit… obscure, in more ways than one. We have a busy week starting tomorrow, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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