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Vive la Différence
String Quartets by 5 Women from 3 Continents

Lucie Vellere's Quartet for Strings, No. 3, composed in 1951, displays a mastery of the French classical/impressionist idiom, with its finely spun modal melodies; succulent, elusive harmonies; subtle rhythmic interplays; and clearly delineated though remotely traditional forms. A certain playfulness is always evident, with many sudden and delightful changes of mood and texture that impart a fresh and original vitality to the work.

Sarah Aderholdt's String Quartet, an early work written in 1978, was awarded first prize in the International League of Women Composers' first "Search for New Music" competition that same year. Minimalistic in character, the piece is actually a chance composition, since the duration and frequency of occurrence of the various melodic repetitions are left up the the performer. Firmly anchored on an E tonality, the quartet builds slowly by the accretion of subtly changing ostinatos whose delicate traceries create a static, hypnotic, eerie atmosphere, yielding an exotic, almost Oriental flavor.

Ruth Schonthal's String Quartet consists of many brief, contrasting, connected movements. Often the ending phrase of one movement serves as the inspiration of the next one in a 'stream of consciousness' fashion. Towards the end there are some allusions to 'Tristan' and Schubert, meant to be understood as 'tongue-in-cheek' homage.

Amy Beach's String Quartet in One Movement, Op. 89 was sketched out in 1921 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Inspired by the three "meagre" (Beach's word) Eskimo or Inuit tunes she used as themes, Beach created a work that is at once dissonant and chromatic yet lyrical, tonally grounded in G minor but with extended sections where the music never settles on any key. While wintering in Rome in 1929 Beach completed the String Quartet with minor revisions and had a local quartet play it for her. Back in the States there were a number of performances during the 1930s, beginning with an invitational program given in New York in January, 1931 by the Society of American Women Composers, of which Beach was a founder and the first president. Its final performance during her lifetime was at a festival of Beach's music at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. in November, 1942 to celebrate her 75th birthday. Reviewers found it a work of "unusual beauty."

The one movement quartet is in modified arch form, and framed by a slow, dissonant introduction that is free-composed. The body of the quartet is based on three Inuit melodies, out of which Beach fashioned not only the themes but also the work's entire texture. Following the introduction the unaccompanied viola presents the first Inuit melody, quoting it almost verbatim. The other three strings immediately join the viola in the second, lyrical theme, also based on an Inuit melody. A more martial note is soon sounded, but the lyrical first theme returns to close the slow section. The Allegro molto section is based on a third Inuit melody which undergoes extensive development, as does the martial theme. The centerpiece of the Allegro molto is a fugue with its subject, countersubject, and total texture developed out of the third Inuit theme. Throughout the work, double-stopped chords punctuate the various sections, their dissonances resolved only in the final bars of the work. In the quartet Beach produced one of her finest works: a successful integration of art and folk music, and a truly "American" composition.

Priaulx Rainier's Quartet for Strings, her first major work, was written between 1936 and 1939. It's first public performance in 1944 brought Rainier immediate recognition. The work was subsequently played by a number of quartets and was recorded on 78's by the Amadeus Quartet in 1951. That same year Doris Humphrey choreographed the work for José Limon's dance company, entitling it "Night Spell." Rainier's musical language is generally athematic and primitivistic, with insistent ostinatos, asymmetrical rhythms, and highly imaginative use of instrumental color. Much of the harmony and mood of the Quartet for Strings is Romantic, but the forms of the work's four movements are not at all standard. The Quartet's forms grow organically, depending more upon textural variation than upon melody and harmony to articulate the structure. Although the key of C can be discerned briefly at the beginnings and endings of most movements, the work is freely tonal, any sense of key being purposely weakened through the frequent use of augmented fourths and through the constant shifting of chromatic and modal tonal centers.

-Alan Hershowitz
-Adrienne Fried Block (Amy Beach)



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