String Quartet No. 3, “Homage to Beethoven” (2004) Op. 71

Opus number: 71

Title: String Quartet no. 3 (Homage to Beethoven)

Commissioned: by Fay Chandler for the Borromeo String Quartet

Dedication: Borromeo String Quartet

Instrumentation: String quartet

Date written: October, 2004

Length: ca. 33 minutes

Premiere performance: December 11, 2005, 4:00 P.M. Forsyth Chapel, Forest Hills, Jamaica Plain, MA

Important subsequent performances:

Program notes: Over the past few years first violinist Nicholas Kitchen and I have had informal discussions about my writing a new piece for the Borromeo String Quartet. Always in agreement about we did not want in a new work, we shared a fanatical obsession with the quartets of Beethoven. After hearing the Borromeo Quartet perform three late Beethoven quartets in the fall of 2004 at the Gardner Museum, I began this new work with a fresh sense of purpose. 

           As the subtitle Homage to Beethoven suggests, my quartet owes a great debt to Beethoven’s last five quartets, in particular Opp. 131 and 132. My seven-movement, arch-like structure, with its opening fugue and central variations flanked by two scherzi, mirrors the structure of Beethoven’s Op. 131. The use of double variations and two brief cadenzas, first for ‘cello and later for violin, resembles the Lydian-mode movement (III) and the virtuosic solo violin writing in Op. 132. Unlike Beethoven’s characteristic confrontation with fate, however, a sense of lightness and humor pervades this work. There is no attempt here at quotation. Instead, I wished to pay tribute, in my own way, to the music that has continually sustained me as a listener and that has always inspired me to a higher level of compositional achievement.

           The character of the music represents my own particular synthesis of tonality, lyricism, and polyphony that grew out of a love for both string instruments and the human voice. Writing a string quartet (or a symphony) brings enormouschallenges because of inevitable comparisons between works of the present and the great string quartet repertoire of the past. Unlike some composers of the post-World War II generation, however, I have never sought to break with the past and its compositional and performance traditions. In fact, it became both relatively easy and a joy to write this work once I realized that I could, in effect, write music outside recent avant-garde traditions.

           I wrote String Quartet No. 3 in October of 2004. The artist Fay Chandler commissioned the work written specifically for the Borromeo String Quartet. Over twenty years had elapsed since the composition of my String Quartet No. 2 (premiered by the Columbia Quartet in New York in 1982) and thirty years since my String Quartet No. 1 (premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1976). By the fall of 2004 a unique convergence of time, people, and place made the composition of a new quartet feel inevitable.

            To have performers such as the Borromeo String Quartet, who play with such verve, passion, commitment, and attention to detail, would inspire any composer. They certainly inspired me. In performance, their seriousness of intent–in this most serious of all chamber music genres–was an impetus to compose a work that for over a generation I had imagined writing.

–Notes by Larry Bell


            I. Fugue

            II. Scherzo-Fugue reprise-Scherzo

            III. Cello Cadenza

            IV. Double Variation (short pause)

            V. Scherzo

            VI. Violin Cadenza

            VII. Rondo

Reviews: (performances) (recordings)

Excerpt: String Quartet no. 3 (Coming soon!)