Utopias Unveiled


Writer Alison Wormell takes us on an exploration of the music of our Utopias program which tours Australia this May.

It is often said that to master composing for string quartet is to master the art of composition. When composers reach these heights, it’s a utopia of their own making; using four individual yet homogenous voices to produce music on a symphonic scale. Instead of thinking of string quartets as their own genre, it can be helpful to imagine them as a distillation of the composer’s voice into a small ensemble. Through string quartets, we can connect more deeply with the composer as a person, just as we can closely observe the players as individuals and as a collective.

The first work on this program is by British composer Thomas Adés. Arcadiana (1994) studies seven ideas of paradise. Adés refuses to focus solely on a simplistic idea of paradise as perfection, instead exploring the complexity of pleasure, unresolved nostalgia and oblivion in movements that range from countryside idylls to deadly tangos.

The complexities of Adés’s idylls are evoked by his use of extended techniques and rhythmic complexity. The players use ethereal harmonics, violent Bartok pizzicato, extreme dynamics and sliding glissandos to take us into extraordinary sound worlds. The listener can choose to delve into the technical intricacies of this work or stand back and allow the music’s narrative and emotional impact to carry them through each of the seven utopias.

Mozart’s String Quartet No.15 in D minor (1783) explores a different utopia – that of perfecting the string quartet. Never fear! This is not a dry compositional exercise. In fact, it has a lovely story of friendship behind it. Mozart’s fifteenth quartet is the second of six quartets named the ‘Haydn Quartets’. These were dedicated to his friend Haydn, the creator of the modern string quartet.

It’s an unusual dedication, and an even more unusual friendship as Haydn was 24 years Mozart’s senior. Despite this, they used the informal German pronoun ‘du’ instead of the more formal ‘Sie’ for each other. In his lengthy dedication, Mozart pleads for Haydn to take the quartets under his wing, as ‘Father, Guide and Friend.’ Thankfully Haydn was absolutely enthused by Mozart’s work.

Mozart’s fifteenth quartet is bittersweet, oscillating between heart-wrenching sorrow and teasing exuberance. The first movement sounds like a conversation. Mozart’s counterpoint here is reminiscent of Haydn or even Bach. Though at times full of longing, the music grows in agitation. We are led ever-onwards as Mozart resists using predictable phrase lengths, adding to the searching feeling that pervades this movement.

Conversely, the middle movements are more personal in emotion and style. The second reportedly alludes to Mozart’s wife’s cries during the birth of their first child with upwards melodic lines. Written in the relative major (F major), it feels warm and secure compared to the turbulent first movement.

This is followed by a Minuet and Trio. The trio is particularly light and hiccupping which intensifies the proud minuet upon its return. The last movement is a melancholic theme and variations, coming to rest on an exuberant major resolution.

In the second half we turn to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major (1964). At this time he had polio in his right hand and had been blackmailed into joining the Communist Party four years earlier. Shostakovich doesn’t seem to be experiencing any form of utopia in his life. This piece is full of darkness, tension and suppressed anger. So why does it have a place on this program?

Instead of directly depicting a utopia, this quartet expresses Shostakovich’s dissidence and his dreams of a utopian world. Living in the USSR, Shostakovich composed in a time when being an artist was incredibly dangerous. He was subjected to censorship and walked a fine line, balancing his personal beliefs with the contrary requirements of the Soviet government. Shostakovich would have been tormented by the volatile political environment that restricted his self-expression.

In this light, Shostakovich’s tortured ninth quartet is distinctly anti-Soviet and pro-utopia. The dedication to his wife Irina Supinskaya who led Shostakovich to ‘finally know domestic peace’ further suggests that this quartet expresses an intimate knowledge of his internal world.

The five movements of this quartet flow together into one. Full of jazzy moments and surprising twists, this quartet has it all. The first movement is intense and determined with almost-continuous running quavers throughout.

The second movement is slower, more settled and spacious. The quartet leans into raw chords that evolve towards simple and ethereal resolutions. In contrast, the Allegretto that follows is a sarcastic polka, full of Klezma elements. A discerning ear might hear part of the Gallop from Rossini’s William Tell, familiar from the theme of TV show The Lone Ranger.

The dark and unsettled fourth movement is interrupted by explosive pizzicatos, before we segue to the fifth and final movement. You will be swept along in this animated, exhilarating finale to an explosive and satisfying finish.

© Alison Wormell 2023

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Utopias is touring to Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide between 10—22 May.