John Harbison, String Quartet No. 2

John Harbison (1938)

String Quartet No. 2, 1987

John HarbisonJohn Harbison is one of the finest living American composers. Currently in his late seventies, his ample catalog is celebrated across nearly every genre including symphonies, operas, choral works and art songs, and a particularly impressive collection of chamber music. A wind quintet and a piano quintet feature prominently as well as a set of 5 string quartets displaying an astonishing range of style, expression and design. David St George writes a captivating summary, “Harbison has defined his artistic credo as an attempt ‘to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh, large designs, to reinvent traditions’. His work is eclectic, ever open to fresh sources of development in the music of any style or period, and always rigorously self-disciplined. Reveling in ambiguities of all kinds, it reveals further levels of meaning upon repeated listening.” Harbison candidly identifies his key musical influences and inspirations dating from an early and indelible exposure: jazz, Bach Cantatas and Stravinsky. He is also one of the most eloquent and reflective composers and teachers highlighting his equally important love and study of literature, particularly poetry.

Harbison composed the second string quartet for the Emerson Quartet on a commission from the Harvard Musical Association in 1987. He points out that, unlike many, he did not grow up with the string quartets of Beethoven and Haydn, but rather an older canon from Bach as well as Purcell’s even earlier Baroque fantasias. The quartet, in five movements, begins and ends with “large-scale fantasias”, the first a contrapuntal tour-de-force (that approaches Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in complexity, intensity and style, Harbison’s comment notwithstanding), and the finale a spirited and intricate “chorale fantasia” based on a tune fundamental to his early years as a conductor. Harbison describes the second and forth movements as fully developed intermezzi with tantalizing ambiguities flanking a central movement, the longest, most lyrical movement (despite the delicious fourth movement “sonata”), a blend of “song, declamation and cadenza” that rises into great peaks of emotional intensity while occasionally evoking the peculiar “night music” of Bartók, likewise the keystone of a kind of five-movement arch. The five movements are played without pause – attacca – almost like a grand fantasia on a higher level, the only notable silence occurring in the central movement.

While the quartet’s impetus seems historically retrospective, particularly with movement titles suggesting traditional forms and types, Harbison is keen to emphasize that this is music of modern times referencing traditional touch points within a contemporary continuity of “rejuvenation and transformation”. The quartet is characterized throughout by ingeniously rich counterpoint, a coherence of underlying motives, imaginative textures, attractive lyricism and a tremendous rhythmic vitality. A masterful and expressive quartet, it offers “surface” appeal as well as intricacies and intrigues to uncover over time.

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