Before Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Debussy was the first major composer to radically break from the continuous evolution of 19th century Romantic music from Beethoven to Wagner. Reacting against the dominant influence of Germanic music with its logical rigors of form and development, he sought a new music of color, sensation, fleeting mood and relaxed form that would be distinctively French. Ironically, in this early work, Debussy still relies heavily on the cyclical thematic form that had been a staple of Germanic music for almost a century.
Szymanowski’s music also explores post-Wagnerian, French Lyricism. Before this composition, he refused to write a string quartet because he felt there was “not enough timbre” in the instrumentation. However, inspired by Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, he decided to face the challenge, and the result is in “harmonic experiment.” Of particular originality is the polytonal finale, in which each instrument plays in a different key.
Respighi understood the string quartet form very clearly, as he himself was a member of a professional string quartet for a long time. His String Quartet in D was written fairly early on in his career, but he did not fail to demonstrate a rich command of harmony with the intimate and warm romantic sonority built on cyclical form.
These three pieces by French, Polish, Italian composers bring the string quartet genre to a new level by experimenting with post-Wagnerian harmonic structure and beautifully lyrical melodies.
Works on the “Breaking With Tradition” program include:
Szymanowski, String Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 37
Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Respighi, String Quartet in D major