Friday, May 27, 2016


No. 222 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week;’s Blog and Podcast is the first in a series of posts that are feeding our ongoing Journey of Musical Discovery, meandering through the repertoire as we build up musical forces from “chamber” to “orchestral” music.

In past posts, we’ve already looked at pairs, groups of three and, more recently, groups of five and seven. This week, we will look at groups of four.

For whatever reason, when we think of quartets, we immediately think of string quartets – that is two violins, a viola and a cello. This configuration has been extremely popular, from the days of Joseph Haydn all the way to contemporary times – quartets by Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovich coming to mind. The first work in this week’s podcast is precisely one of those: the lyrical quartet by Alexander Borodin.

However, as I made an effort to show as well, there are other examples of quartets: there’s the Barber Shop quartet – four male a capella singers who sing at different regusters – typically, two tenors, a baritone and a bass.

This interesting blend of voices, which mirrors the string quartet in its formula, can be applied to other families of instruments – I chose as an example Aldo Forte’s use of a clarinet quartet made up to what we will call “tenor”, “alto” and “bass” clarinets. The same approach could apply to other reed instruments - the saxophone, for example.

Then, there’s the piano quartet, which I see as adding a second violin or a viola to a piano trio. This formula, using Schumann’s piano quartet as an example, has been used by other classical and romantic composers, most notably Johannes Brahms.

Sometimes, quartets are written :making do" with what's available. Dvorak's bagatelles are such an example - these were written for two violins, a cello and a harmonium, a pump organ that could be found in households..

The ultimate look at a quartet as a “loose grouping: of four instruments is probably the most poignant: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, scored for clarinet (in B-flat), violin, cello, and piano - which can be viewed in a way the same as a piano quartet as adding a clarinet to a piano trio. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938. However, there’s more to that story, and that’s what makes this group of four so noteworthy.

As a member of the French Army in World War II, Messiaen was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany. While there, Messiaen befriended clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. After he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano.

The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."

The same guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, helped the performers get released after the performance by forging papers.

I think you will love this music too 

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