Thomas Oboe Lee's Third String Quartet is one of the most successful works of recent years in its genre. Already in the repertoire of several nationally established quartets, including the Kronos and American, the work won the coveted Kennedy Center/Friedheim Award in 1983 for the best new chamber music work by an American composer. The work was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (premiered by them on October 22, 1982, in San Francisco), and plays on the quartet's given name in that Kronos is the Greek name for Saturn. Hence the Quartet's subtitle, "...child of Uranus, father of Zeus." The work has no program as such, but it was, according to the composer, "conceived and written with regard to the many myths associated with the god Saturn."
Its opening, marked "Barbarous, wild - almost chaotic," deals with Saturn's war-like character, but it is quickly juxtaposed with more lyrical episodes, resulting in a kind of sonata-form use of contrasting themes. Indeed, the "second subject" is based on one of Lee's original jazz tunes. A long (very long) trill in the second violin subtly, almost imperceptibly, inserts itself into the discourse, but soon takes on prominence as a stabilizing, consonant factor. It becomes the fulcrum around which the rest of the music rotates. Eventually the semitone trill opens up into a minor third, and is ultimately re-absorbed into the full quartet texture as the opening "chaotic" material rises up around it, bringing the single movement work to its climax. This high point, bringing back the idea of conflict and juxtaposition, is at the same time a recapitulation of the opening material of the Quartet, inverted, transposed, subtly altered. A quiet coda - reflective peroration - brings the Quartet to a moving and beautiful close.
- Gunther Schuller