Internationally renowned Danish String Quartet to play works classic and contemporary

Monday, November 2, 2015 - 10:53am

The string quartet is one of the most iconic and enduring genres in classical music. Its history stretches back to the Classical Period in the 18th century, and the quartet has been ubiquitous ever since. Musicians’ mythos attribute the quartet’s invention to the composer Joseph Haydn, but this is not entirely true — he certainly did more for it than any of his predecessors, but he wasn’t the first to write for an ensemble of two violins, a viola and a cello. Over the course of his life, however, Haydn wrote a mystifying quantity of quartets — around 69 — and when his younger friend Wolfgang Mozart took up the pen to emulate the elder composer, the genre was permanently affixed to the tradition of Western Classical music.

In the centuries following, nearly every major composer (and innumerable minor ones) wrote quartets. Wherever one looks, a string quartet can be found, often central in the works of any given composer; the late quartets of Beethoven are sometimes ranked as masterworks on par with the 9th Symphony — the only surviving chamber composition of Giuseppe Verdi, the great maestro of Italian opera, is his String Quartet in E minor — when Schoenberg first revealed his radical theory of free atonality to the world, he chose to do it through the medium of his String Quartet No. 2.

With so many masterworks, it’s hardly surprising that some of the best ensembles performing today are string quartets. For much the same reason, however, many ensembles today neglect those quartets written by contemporary composers. The quartet that will be performing in Rackham Auditorium on Friday is not one such negligent ensemble.

The Danish String Quartet is internationally renowned. Only 75 percent Dane, despite their name — their cellist is Norwegian — the four Scandinavians are known for their superb technical and musical ability. On Friday, they’ll be presenting a program containing old favorites of the genre (Haydn and Beethoven), but also a relatively new work by respected contemporary British composer Thomas Adès. While one might expect that string quartets have been written for so long now that any new venture into the genre is bound to be anachronistic and unoriginal, Adès’s Arcadiana dispels any such notion with its enchanting music.

“I had this idea to write this particular piece about these sort of imaginary idylls from various points in art and culture,” Adès said of Arcadiana in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I was 23 or something like that when I wrote it … It was a period when I had my first job as composer-in-residence at the Hallé Orchestra, in Manchester.”

Adès spent the early part of his life in London. When he started his job in Manchester, it was the furthest he had ever lived from his home, an experience which worked its way into Arcadiana.

“I was actually living in the countryside — again, which was a first for me, a very remote place — writing this string quartet,” Adès said. “I don’t know why I wasn’t writing orchestral pieces, I think I just was preferring to write this.”

Conventionally, string quartets have four movements. However, for much of the 20th century this tradition has been regarded by composers as being more of a suggestion than a rule, and Adès’s view is no exception.

“There are seven movements (in Arcadiana), and the second movement is like a kind of electronic mashup of The Magic Flute (by Mozart),” Adès said. “The fourth movement is very much a tango — I was listening to Piazzolla at the time, as we all were, and I was enjoying the kind of odd things he was doing with tango … the sixth movement has a kind of Elgar ‘ancestry’, I suppose you would say, to use a very pompous word.”

When talking about the final movement of the piece, Adès referenced his personal experiences in Manchester as being a great influence on it.

“It was a very cold winter … I remember one morning waking up and looking out the window, and it (the cabin where Adès lived) was surrounded by fields, and it had snowed during the night — and of course I had never had that experience, living in London you don’t wake up and see a whole white field of snow. And the last movement was definitely sort of born that morning.”

In addition to the memory of that morning, Adès was inspired by mythology and literature when he composed the final movement.

“It (the last movement) is called ‘Lethe’ — the river of forgetfulness in Greek Mythology, where the departed souls trail their hands in the water and they forget their whole life,” Adès said. “And it was a little from the end of a story by (James) Joyce, called ‘The Dead,’ which is the last story of ‘Dubliners’, and ends with this beautiful passage about the snow falling over all the living and the dead.”

“All the movements have things like (Adès’s experience with the snow) associated with them. In that way … it’s a very personal piece,” Adès said of Arcadiana.

The piece is also notable for its technical challenges, employing several methods of playing not frequently found in older repertoire.

“The quartet who commissioned it and played the first performance … the Endellion Quartet … we had an interesting time in the first rehearsals,” Adès said. “Because it’s demanding instrumentally.”

Despite the difficulty of the piece, it continues to be performed with some frequency.

“Actually, oddly enough, this piece is almost one of my most played pieces,” the composer remarked. “Many quartets now do it — like the Danish String Quartet, who are coming (to the University of Michigan), and who I just heard play it in Copenhagen and actually play it stunningly. And you’ll see, they make it look easy — and believe me, it’s not.”