John Corigliano is the composer who has described classical music as an art form that’s dying in front of our eyes as it is increasingly inaccessible to the general public. He himself won huge success with his opera Ghost of Versailles and has harvested a whole series of Grammy's for recordings of his music; he won the Pulitzer for his Second Symphony – based on music from tonight’s Quartet - and the Grawemeyer for his First as well as Academy Awards for his music for the film Red Violin. He is passionate about the need for composers to get an audience for their music and he had the courage to set some iconic Bob Dylan poems to music – as we shall hear later in the Festival. He also has harsh words for venues without built-in facilities for state-of-the-art lighting and amplification, which puts us beyond the Pale in more ways than one.
As with the Ligeti Metamorphoses Nocturnes, the composer acknowledges a specific debt to Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, whose arch-form created a direct relationship between the first and last and the second and fourth movements with a central night music. The quartet was written for the Cleveland Quartet’s final tour before they disbanded, which accounts for a certain valedictory quality in the music.
The Prelude opens with an extraordinary effect achieved by using practice mutes, which are what string players use when needing to practice in hotel rooms with paper thin internal walls – in other words you can barely hear them. In the central section they switch to ordinary mutes which sound almost indecently loud in comparison. Threads of sound appear out of the silence and vanish again. As the four instruments are out of synchronisation with each other, the effect is unfocused until the texture clears and the basic elements of the Quartet are introduced including a serene chordal fragment.
The Scherzo goes for the brutal approach, repeated slashing chords creating an atmosphere of crude, repetitive violence that transforms itself into a virtuoso passage in sixteenths. The gruesome opening is recapitulated before the trio section – a gentle chaconne based on the chordal fragments from the Prelude, the first appearance in the work of genuinely lyrical music. To conclude, the scherzo returns, more frenetic than ever.
Corigliano describes the genesis of his Nocturne as one night in Morocco, when, just before dawn, he was awakened by the calls of the muezzins from the city’s many mosques – first one then another, and finally dozens of independent calls created a glorious counterpoint. At one moment, all the calls held on to a single note and the result was a major chord. The calls died away, a cock crowed, and a dog barked to announce the sun. He describes the Nocturne as recalling that memory – the serenity of the Moroccan night, the muezzin calls and the descent to silence and the dawn.
The fourth movement is a powerful fugue, a contemporary contrast to the Bach fugue we heard earlier showing that the old forms can still inspire composers and audiences several centuries later. Corigliano marks the movement ‘severe’ and there is a starkness to this music brought about not only by the dissonant material but also by the total independence of the voices, who seem to travel alone, unrelated to each other, yet identical to each other. There are however two sections in the fugue where the four instruments unite in common rhythm as a result of one instrument catching up with the others.
The final Postlude follows without a break, returning us to the music and the inward musings of the Prelude. The three lower strings act as a foil to the first violin, which enters muted on the highest C-sharp and the distance between the solo violin and the others remains vast for this opening section. An ornamental recitative in the lower strings is eventually joined by the first violin and the music develops into an impassioned climax, leading to a long descending passage, which then returns us to the texture of the opening. This almost inevitably brings us back to the Prelude itself, the practice mutes re-appear and we return backwards into silence.