Four Movements for String Quartet

by Drew Hemenger


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Four Movements for String Quartet: 1. Dimitri

Four Movements for String Quartet: 2. MIchael's Fugue

Four Movements for String Quartet: 3. A Little Waltz

Four Movements for String Quartet: 4. Boxes and Arrows


20 min


April 23, 2005
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, NYC
Serafin String Quartet


Written for the Serafin String Quartet


violin, viola, cello


1. Dmitri
2. Michael's Fugue
3. A Little Waltz
4. boxes and Arrows

Program Notes

Dedication: for the Serafin String Quartet

When the Delaware-based Serafin String Quartet asked me to write new quartet for them in early 2004, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to revisit a genre I had written for only once before and was eager to try again. A string quartet is by nature “loaded” – with vast history and enormous precedent. When one considers the great composers who have written cycles of quartets spanning their lifetimes, and often charting their development, e.g. Beethoven and Shostakovich, to name just two of the greatest, it can seem like a daunting task even before starting. Should the work be long or short? In one movement or many? Using the composers mentioned above as a guide, it can almost seem like anything goes, since both of them used the quartet as a kind of experimental genre, trying out different numbers of movements, different lengths, tempi, structures–you name it. I haven’t lived long enough yet to chart my development with any genre (I try not to think about the fact that if I were Mozart, I would already have been dead for two years) so freed from this overbearing constraint, I decided to write a four-movement structure with the idea that the outer movements would be darker and have slower tempi, while the inner would be faster. The four-movement idea appealed to me because there is a nice symmetry to it and it implies a traditional structure which can then be subverted here and there, e.g. by the non-traditional tempi structure.

I chose the title Four Movements for String Quartet because the piece isn’t “about” anything specifically programmatic and I was loath to force such a title onto it, despite the current fad of doing just that. The movement titles aren’t much more helpful in this sense, but they can guide the listener ever so slightly. “Dmitri” is something of an homage to the great master, Shotakovich, but only in an aesthetic sense as no specific references are made. Just listen for the “Dmitiri moment” near the end. The second movement, inspired perhaps more by Tchaikovsky than Shostakovich (I was thinking about the pizzacato third movement of the fourth symphony), got it’s title when a talented cellist friend commented “Wow man, it’s kind of like a big fugue!” It’s not really a fugue in the Bach sense, but close enough. The concept for the third movement, “A Little Waltz,” came to me, melodic material intact, as I walked to lunch one day at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where much of the work was written last July. The fourth’s title, “Boxes and Arrows” is a somewhat tougue-and-cheek reference to the notation used for an aleatoric (chance) technique used near the end. The music in that movement, however, is not tongue-and-cheek and in fact darkens at the point where the aleatoric idea comes in. The technique is used to create a mysterious ‘out of sync’ background in the first violin, later joined by the second violin, while various themes from other movements are recapitulated. This recapitulation, in the lower three strings, eventually gives way to a drone-like repetition in the viola and cello while the upper strings move back to standard notation in rising leaps that feel like a kind of triumphant arrival. This dies down and the work ends quietly with chords made of harmonics in all instruments.

–Drew Hemenger