Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet

performed by the Goldner String Quartet, or below by the Alban Berg Quartet

(cover image by David von Diemar)

One of Stravinsky’s few efforts in the string quartet form, the Three Pieces dates from 1914, right after Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. At the time, Stravinsky was living in Switzerland, but apparently not settled there, as it was his home for the winter. He would apparently return to Russia for summers, but as Chris Darwin says, that was “a pattern that was about to be broken by the outbreak of war.”

These three little pieces together play for only about seven minutes, and are unconnected, truly pieces and not movements:

They didn’t even have names or titles upon release. These were later adapted in a piece for orchestra and the corresponding orchestra adaptations were then given the titles Dance, Eccentric, and Canticle, respectively.

The first and shortest, at only a minute, is maybe the most memorable, and an excellent example of how a little bit of critical listening can reveal quite a lot of detail about the conscious choices made by a composer.

This first ‘dance’ immediately sounds rustic, like busking street performers, not only in the violin’s more fiddle-like sound, but in the drone from the viola, the raspy downward figure from second violin, and the plucked cello. There are other analyses you can find online about this piece, but in a number of ways, the four instruments are treated almost wholly independently. They’re each doing their own thing, and it never really falls into place until the end. The cello forms the backbone of the little dance, outlining the constantly-shifting meter. The viola drones at both ends of the dance; Darwin says that it is “like a bagpipe with toothache.” First violin presents the melody and second interjects here and there, as if to protest. There’s a lot of repetition, but none of these repetitions are in any kind of synchronicity. It all still works, though, doesn’t it?

The second piece, the ‘eccentric’ one, is related to a guy (shown in Darwin’s program notes) named Little Tich, a performer (some say “clown”) who Stravinsky encountered somewhere: some sources say Paris (where Little Tich was apparently famous), or London (whence he apparently hailed), but regardless, Stravinsky saw him and was… inspired? Impressed? Darwin says that this second piece is “the piece is an exploration of pathos and the grotesque.” It, too, is repetitive, but more sparse, and may strike you as more akin to something from Webern. To me, it has the spirit of that lone performer wordlessly doing his tricks, the parts of his act, with no commentary, nothing but pauses or a preparatory action before each unrelated trick.

The final piece, more than half the length of the entire set, is described by Darwin as “a wordless chant, in glowing harmonies generated within a tightly controlled atonal system.” Boosey & Hawkes’ page for this composition says that “Stravinsky considered the last 20 measures of “Canticle” “some of the best music of that time.”” I bet you can hear that last section when it comes. In contrast with the heavier, more… muffled, almost musty sound, if that makes sense, there’s a more crystalline texture to those final 20 bars. There’s also tons to notice here, like the very slow tempo marking (half note = 40), the direction that everything be played, by all players, on the fingerboard (‘tutti sul tasto’), the use of triplet figures and harmonics, and the overall static nature of the piece.

If the ‘dance’ first piece had that much detail given to the piece, this longest of the three must certainly have plenty to discover, but alas, that usually isn’t my kind of analysis. 5/4 is used throughout most of the final piece, alternating with bars of 2/2, 3/2 or 6/4, but it’s so static that it’s not very noticeable.

That’ll be it for now, after this week having more than doubled the number of Stravinsky works featured on the blog. There’s clearly much more to him than the three famous ballet pieces for which he is most known, and we’ll definitely get around to more of his work at some point, but for now, we move on to other Russians, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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