Jean Martinon: String Quartet no. 1, op. 43

performed by the Quatuor Ravel

(cover image by Jose Tebar)


Jean Francique-Étienne Martinon was born on January 10, 1910 in Lyon. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Albert Roussel for composition, Charles Munch for conducting, and harmony under d’Indy. He served in the army in World War II, even being taken prisoner in 1940. He was music director of the Chicago symphony from 1963 to 1968. He was also associated with the French National Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, and others. Wikipedia tells us that:

Martinon was diagnosed with bone cancer, not long after he guest conducted the San Francisco Symphony in their first complete performances of Deryck Cooke’s completion of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony.

He died in Paris in 1976.

In total, he wrote four symphonies, two string quartets, in addition to much else, a large amount unpublished, including, apparently, the score for this quartet, which dates from 1946 and is in four movements with a duration of slightly over a half hour:

  1. Allegro appassionata
  2. Scherzo
  3. Adagio ma non troppo lento
  4. Allegro giusto

The first movement reminds me quite a bit of Alban Berg’s quartet. It begins with this sonorous, curvy gesture, which is echoed instantly. The harmony, also, is unmistakably 20th century, fragrant, like bitter orange. It’s delectable, alluring, nervous, and so rich. This suits the ‘passionate’ marking of the first movement. While this harmonic palette might seem harsh or grating to some more conservative listeners, it’s really very sensual to my ear, an absolutely engrossing richness of language that at turns calls to mind not only Berg, but Debussy, or the Dvorak of the ‘American’ quartet in quainter places. At a few points, there’s even what sounds like the beginning of Bizet’s habanera.

This first movement is the longest, only approached in length by the nine-minute third movement. For a piece written for only four performers, there’s an astounding amount of layering and texture to digest, with background and foreground elements under a soloist, and these roles are always changing, and the interaction in the group is fascinating. I can’t help but be extremely impressed by this first movement. Have you ever heard anything like this? I know I said he sounds like about four or five different people, but really… nothing I’ve ever heard sounds just like this. Brilliant. What kind of resolve does the close of this first movement give us? Is it final?

The scherzo is the shortest movement of the work, at about six and a half minutes, and we continue to see Martinon’s impressive touch  in a movement like this that undulates and dances. The meter is very interesting, and it ends up being one of those movements that sticks in your head, kind of just jams itself right in there and won’t come out. It’s slightly agitated, even acrid, but with breathtaking textures and nervous energy. There are some sul ponticello passages that still manage to be eerie nestled into the busy tapestry here. After all the excitement, this movement finishes with what sounds literally like nothing more than a wink that no one else but you sees, thrown at you from across the room.

A long solo begins the third movement adagio, and the rest of the quartet enters in an especially poignant way, cutting right to the heart in this pained-sounding slow movement. There’s a texture that I can’t identify as either sul ponticello bowing or harmonics, but it adds a characteristic glassy texture to the vulnerable, fragile sound of this movement. I don’t know that I could be any more impressed by Martinon’s handling of the four voices of a string quartet, especially in this movement that seems in one moment to be writhing with pain, and another to be flirting with you. For this to be the first piece I’ve ever heard from a composer, it is astoundingly captivating and powerful. This movement, like the two before it, also closes quietly.

The finale’s ‘allegro giusto’ gives some promise of resolve, of some tearing away of the ambiguity and melancholy, and the music dances and flutters. It’s certainly more lively. As much as ‘giusto’ looks like ‘gusto’ don’t be mistaken. It dictates that the music is to be played with exactness, ‘in strict tempo.’ There are memorable passages that appear throughout this really not-so-long finale that feel like they get inked right onto your brain; they stay with you after the piece is over. There are a few false closes, where it seems like this movement, too, might close quietly, even unceremoniously, but it’s finally the only one that gives us a commanding final gesture.

What an outstanding sound this is! This quartet’s texture and presentation is remarkable, and must certainly require an intense level of virtuosity and cohesion from the players. I am surprised and pleased at how magnificent this work really is, but also a bit disappointed that something with such panache and grace has obviously been so heinously ignored in the repertoire. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this could easily be a success on a chamber music program. Put it with a bit of Haydn and like, the Schoenberg D major quartet…

Anyway, we’re finally going into our last week of French composers (even if in the series we’re doing next we will still see a few French names, but no one from this series), so stay tuned for a few absolutely remarkable pieces of music, and thanks so much for reading.


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