In this five-movement String Quartet the first, third, and fifth movements are the “main events”, while the shorter second and fourth movements have the character of interludes. These two movements are settings of chorale melodies form the 371 Four-Part Chorales of J.S. Bach. In Bach’s cantatas and large choral works the chorales act as gathering points in the music, and as elevated and sacred communal response to the events of the narrative. They offer a particular tone of stability and focus. The melodies themselves are much older than Bach, having sources that are lost in ancient time. Like all fold melodies, they are the products of generations of singers touching the same melodic shapes and arriving finally at simple tunes that are infused with a powerful life force. Bach wove chorale melodies into his instrumental works as well, The old tunes seemed to offer a springboard for his music imagination.
I have been studying Bach’s arrangements of the Chorales, and writing my own four-part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) setting of the old chorale melodies for many years. These settings have begun appearing regularly in my instrumental compositions. Each chorale is like an unmarked and anonymous door which when opened reveals a rich dream world of musical fantasy. It is fair to say that the chorales which appear in the String Quartet have opened the way to the other movements, and to the structure of the work as a whole.
My background thinking for this quartet music was the idea of “Living Earth”. Ever since moving to western Montana in 1990, I have been pushed by the living force of the land. Something in it asks me to write music. In spite of all the environmental issues we face, not only here but globally, there persists an underlying surge of vibrant life and good health.
I have not chosen to give programmatic titles to the movements of the Quartet, but several nature images guided my writing. For the first movement the image was “Among the Ponderosas”. I have no idea why this music goes with that image! The music is engaging, sometimes sweet, sometimes forceful, but its true nature is finally interior, secret, and elusive. The third movement grew around the idea of “Ravens”. Ravens are the subject of a lot of folklore. They are seen both as the embodiment of wisdom and harbingers of death. This music does not sound like ravens. It is an energetic scherzo, with a middle section which is both sweet and whimsical. The final movement evolved from the phrase “Come, Sweet Mother”. My intuition is that this invocation holds and awareness of death, which goes along with the ravens. Yet the movement is a lively dance-like set of variations on a very gentle and modest theme.
Program Note by David Maslanka