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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

String Quartet No. 5 (2011)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Small Ensemble (2-6 players)
Sub Category
String Quartet
Year Composed
22 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Harbison String Quartet No. 5 (2011)

First performance:
April 21, 2012
Pro Arte Quartet
Madison, WI

Composer note:
It is an honor and a privilege to be able to compose a piece for the 100th anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet.

My parents had a Pro Arte recording of Schubert’s A minor quartet which I remember hearing sometime during World War II. I was about eight years old when I first heard the quartet live, at Princeton’s Macarter Theater, led by Rudolf Kolisch, with the Belgian violist Germaine Prevost still a member. On this occasion they played the Schubert D minor quartet. I remember coming home having ‘discovered’ the first inversion of the dominant seventh chord, and playing it for about a day (this very common chord still is a source of delight).

I had noticed the apparition of a left handed violinist, but was especially compelled by the quartet’s concentration and absorption. I remember trying to imitate the Kolisch forward-leaning crouch.

In fact, as I later learned, Kolisch leaned forward in every sense. When he became a mentor to RoseMary Harbison and to me, I took note of his highest form of praise — "progressive, advanced!"

In my own work I have had to learn that these words had to find meaning within my own enterprise, not as calibrated to my immediate environment.

This String Quartet No. 5 contains, for me, many such elements, especially in the realm of proportion, character, and economy. The piece appears to be in many movements, but in the stage of assembly, conception, it was a single large movement.

The present edition of the quartet has maintained and even enhanced the high standard of performance associated with the Pro Arte name, and has continued its long standing commitment to new music.

It has been a pleasure during my time in Madison to observe the remarkable influence, of this quartet-in-residence. It has established an essential community role, making one of our most hermetic and rarified arts present and available. My quartet strives toward all four of those adjectives.

— John Harbison

I. Melodia
II. Scherzino 1
III. Notturno 1
IV. Visi (Faces)
V. Notturno 2
VI. Cuori (Hearts)
VII. Notturno 3
VIII. Scherzino 2
IX. Melodia 2
X. Ripensamento

Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, and the Pro Arte’s performance of it, was completely convincing. Composed of 10 short movements played with minimal pauses, the piece traveled a wide range of territory while feeling structurally cohesive. The piece opened with a violin solo in two parts: a single-note recitative alternating with cadenza-like passages; at times these were true, unaccompanied solos, and at other times the ensemble harmonized them. It was an intense beginning, and something like it returned just at the end of the piece bringing us full circle. As in the Haydn, there were places where fast, furious melodies moved quickly through the group. Elsewhere pulsating notes seemed marked the unfolding of time while a freer melody floated above in a texture reminiscent of Messiaen. Harbison employed ever-shifting textures throughout, and though the harmony was not diatonic, neither was it aggressively atonal; instead, he convincingly used a shifting harmonic palette to do good expressive work. Overall it was an exciting, moving, very fine piece that I hope I have the opportunity to hear again soon.
Jessica Courtier, 77 Square / Wisconsin State Journal,22/04/2012
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