Stringmusic is a large-scale suite, or serenade, for string orchestra, comprising five movements. There is much antiphonal writing -- sometimes suggesting two separate string orchestras, using such devices as col legno (tapping the strings with the wood part of the bow) and playing without vibrato. Basically, Stringmusic is a lyrical work, reflecting, in a way, a man and musician we have all come to know for the intensity and emotion of his commitment to music and life, Mstislav Rostropovich, known as "Slava" to his friends and for whom this piece was written.
The "Prelude" opens with a declamatory, rhapsodic statement in the cellos, echoed by muted violas; the effect is like a responsory service. Following this is a very brisk, jazz-like episode built around a playful figure, basically a rhythmic pattern with a quiet sort of propulsion. It becomes louder, with fast-moving passages building in intensity and rhythmic pulse, and then fades away rather mysteriously.
The second movement is a "Tango." When Slava conducted my Latin American Symphonette in 1990, he told me he especially liked the second movement, a Tango, because he is "a tango expert." (Slava pronounces the word in the proper Latin way, "TAHN-go.") It begins with an upward sweep, and a formal tango rhythm. There is a sequence of varied and contrasting tango evocations; early on, after a strident Argentine-style episode, with its pronounced rhythm, there is a change to a languorous episode for four solo violins, in the old Mitteleuropa cafe style. The movement alternates between the languorous rhythmic "tango" character.
As centerpiece I've written a "Dirge," which opens with string harmonics evoking bells, followed by a solo for double bass. The bell-evocation recurs, and then all the basses take up the theme introduced by the solo bass. A measured "air," a slow cortege with a long lyrical line, proceeds against a "walking bass." This material grows in intensity and then dies away, followed by a contrapuntal passage, still elegiac but resolutely moving on. This procession is interrupted by little chorales, as if from afar, from another time and place. The final passages present a transformed version of the traditional Dies Irae.
The "Ballad" that follows is lyrical and romantic and song-like -- a love note.
"Strum" is the self-descriptive title of the final movement, a perpetual motion. Here the pizzicati are played not with each note cleanly plucked, but in a strumming way, rapidly across the strings. It starts very fast, with tremolo effects and lots of contrast, and takes off as a virtuoso and jubilant piece. Following a fugato played pianissimo at high speed, the piece accelerates to the end with a loud pizzicato snap.
-- Morton Gould