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The Power of the String Quartet

Written on March 13, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Borodin_sq_2If ever something is more than the sum of its parts, it is the string quartet. The simple combination of two violins, a viola and a cello has given rise to a vast and varied body of music and few are those
composers who have not tried their hand at this form. From the moment Joseph Haydn invented it halfway through the eighteenth century, the string quartet  has proven enduring for its balance, versatility and range. Indeed, surveying the vast amount that has been written for string quartet, one is tempted to ask is there anything the string quartet cannot do? Ok, well yes there are. It can’t take you out for a beer (desgraciadamente, Miguel), buy you shoes or make you taller. But a good string quartet relaxes the soul, makes you feel better about things; heck it can make you smarter. They are good for what ails you and with the litany of woe that surrounds us, as Arantza has eloquently reminded us this week, we need the succour and cerebration of the string quartet more than ever. So here, for what it’s worth, are four string quartets that I think demonstrate the mental medicinal value of the string quartet.

#1. The Nostalgic

The memory of a long-ago stolen kiss? Or of a pleasant dinner at Maxim’s back when the food was still good? It must be the opening notes of Alexander Borodin’s famous String Quartet No. 2.

This piece is so much better than everything else Borodin wrote, one almost suspects he cribbed it from somebody else. From its opening notes of nostalgic yearning, the piece keeps its wistful strains and delicate melodies throughout all four movements. The Nocturne is sublime. The accompaniment creates a harmonic cradle of rhythm and harmony that rocks gently as a languorous melody is slowly woven, first by the cello, then by the violin. As he brings the melody back, Borodin actually adds to its quality of longing by playing it as a canon (the melody is repeated in imitation).

This is music that makes you wistful. But in a good way.

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