Premiere: 01/03/2014 University of Winconsin-Madison
Benoît Mernier - String Quartet No. 3
My String Quartet No. 3 was composed at the request of the prestigiousPro Arte Quartet, which celebrated theoccasion of its 100th anniversary by commissioning several composers,mainly American, but one Belgian in honor of the quartet’s inaugural members whocame from the Brussels Conservatory.
This work was written justafter the composition of my second opera, LaDispute, after Marivaux, which premiered in March 2013 at the Royal Operaof the Monnaie in Brussels. In the life ofa composer, the writing of an opera is a singular adventure. You live with the work in progress, inhabitedby its spirit, for many months (two years in my case), and each note you writeis related to a specific theatrical dramaturgy, the music is indeliblyconnected to a text, the musical form is connected to the scenic action. Tomove immediately to another compositional project, especially when that is astring quartet, is not simple: there is no narrative, no characters to bringalive, no vocal line . . . it was necessary therefore to find another manner ofconceiving and creating it. In doing soI wanted, in writing a string quartet, a complete break with opera, to assumethe change of genre fully and completely.
My quartet is about 25minutes long, and is composed of nine short movements, ranging in length fromonly 50 seconds to more than 5 minutes (my opera, in contrast, is almost twohours long in a single movement). There is no program that inspires the musicof the quartet, no text, no idea other than the music itself, it is “pure” music as opposed to “programmatic”music.
The musical drama of myquartet is found in its form. I tried to invent a linear and discursive form paradoxicallyorganized out of smaller units (9 sections). These sections maintain a specific but varied relationship betweenthemselves that offers the listener the sense of an overarching form thattranscends the pauses and spaces between movements (in fact, four of themovements are linked without pause: 3-4and 8-9).
It is only when the work concludesthat the listener is finally able to apprehend the overall form. It is as if inlooking at a scene too closely one cannot distinguish the details, but uponstepping back one is able to understand the whole – the relationship among theparts, the play of colors, lines and perspectives all become a part of thelarger scene.
There is a ploy in eachmovement that suggests the sense of a piece complete in itself (the 7thmovement, for example, could be independent of the rest). Sometimes this is ratheropen: the third movement, for example, clearly sets up the ensuing movement, andthe fourth clearly evolves from the preceding movement; the fifth movement, meanwhile,is initiated from the silence between movements.
Certain movements from earlyin the work are not developed until very late, for example, the very shortsecond movement is expanded in the eighth, the last movement returns to anddevelops the third. A section mightfunction as transition, or as parenthetical, or even at other times it can havea more autonomous function, presenting new musical gestures distinctive to itsmovement (for example, the third and fifth).
This interplay between themovements strives to create a form of temporal ambiguity so that the listenerloses sense of real or actual chronological time . . . does the quartet appearlong or short?
The treatment of theinstruments is equally diversified: each one may change roles at any moment. Incertain passages the texture can seem entirely equalized – each instrumentalparticipant contributes equally to the development and elaboration of thetexture (fifth movement); at other moments an instrument functions as asoloist, disassociating itself to sketch or develop a motif eventually taken upthereafter by another instrument (for example, in the second movement the violaplays a solemn solo accompanied by a texture of trills played by the threeothers). At certain times the quartetsounds like it is multiplied into several quartets, while at other times it is treated like asingle voice.
This quartet wascommissioned by the Pro Arte Quartet and the Serge Koussevitzky MusicFoundation in the Library of Congress, and is dedicated to the memory of Sergeand Natalie Koussevitzky.
Benoît Mernier, October 2013
Translation bySarah Schaffer
StringQuartet No. 3 (2013)
V Energico e secco
VII Calmo e flessibile