Music & Isolation Program Promo Photo.jpg

Hildegard von Bingen: Columba aspexit
Carlo Gesualdo: O tenebroso giorno
Carlo Gesualdo: “Io Parto” e non più dissi
Joseph Haydn: String Quartet Op. 64, No. 2
Conlon Nancarrow: String Quartet No. 3 (1987)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet Op. 131 

There are times when we find ourselves isolated from the world around us, as did all of the composers featured on this program. It may be because of vocation or employment (Hildegard, Haydn), psychological trauma (Gesualdo), physical impairment (Beethoven), or persecution due to political beliefs (Nancarrow).

For these five composers, isolation provided opportunities to funnel undivided energy into their craft, resulting in experimentation and uncompromising musical vision. We are lucky that they gifted the world with these astonishing works, which leave an indelible stamp with their intensity, imagination, and highly intricate and expressive writing. 

We open with vocal works from the medieval and Renaissance periods arranged for string quartet by our dear friend Alex Fortes. Columba aspexit transcends plainchant with colorful text and ecstatic soaring lines, revealing Hildegard von Bingen the visionary. By comparison Carlo Gesualdo’s text painting reflects his tortured psyche: darkly expressive with startling juxtapositions of harmony.

The rest of our program offers a perspective on how Haydn, Beethoven, and Nancarrow took advantage of their isolation to experiment musically. Haydn wrote his six Op. 64 string quartets during his last year working in seclusion at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Within these masterpieces, Haydn continues to elevate the art of string quartet writing, using his unmistakable tongue-in-cheek wit. 

American-born Conlon Nancarrow moved to Mexico in 1940 to avoid the persecution that many people with similar leftist leanings faced during this time, and lived there until his death in 1997. He is best known for his player piano studies, written with the idea that automated components could produce complicated rhythmic patterns more quickly than live performers. His Third Quartet is at once zany and confounding: each part is written in a different meter. Playing in four self-contained temporal states, the quartet has a wild balance to maintain: interaction vs. putting blinders on! 

We will close with Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet Op. 131, which we feel encapsulates elements of all the other works on the program. Both Beethoven and Nancarrow took the concept of a fugue (traditionally an “orderly” or “academic” endeavor) and made it his own. Beethoven begins his Op. 131 with a slow fugue, featuring a frustrated theme that attempts to ascend, but is constantly pulled back down to earth. He, like Haydn, also imbues moments of his writing with humor and comic relief -- most notably in his fifth movement, a scherzo. This quartet explores the physical and sonic limits that four players can reach, and yet also finds the sublime and generous nature of humanity. 

Program Notes by Emma Frucht & Miho Saegusa

A Note About the Hildegard von Bingen and Carlo Gesualdo Arrangements

By Alex Fortes

Heard among the music of their contemporaries, the compositions of both Hildegard von Bingen and Carlo Gesualdo stand out as extraordinary departures from the aesthetics of their times. Hildegard, a 12th century mystic whose chants differed from contemporary practice in their extended range, unusually large leaps, and extended melismata on unstressed syllables and seemingly unimportant words, depicts a sonic world much like her famous vision of an egg-shaped, fiery cosmos. Gesualdo (who died less than twenty years after Palestrina, the father of strict counterpoint), also tends unusually towards the irrational and idiosyncratic in his densely chromatic madrigals. The arrangements performed tonight attempt to recreate the drones, antiphons, and contrapuntal textures that might exist in vocal performances of these works.