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Quartet for Piano and Strings (1996)

Quartet for Piano and Strings   1996

Program Notes

My Quartet for Piano and Strings (1996) was written for San Francisco’s Dunsmuir Piano Quartet. The first movement is dramatic and emotionally volatile but, to my ear, it contains a haunted, obsessive character that informs the theme and each of the following nine variations. The outline is:


Theme (Delicatamente) Variation. 1: Grave Var. 2: Anguished I Var. 3: Anguished II Var. 4: Brooding, volatile Var. 5: Giocoso Var. 6: With more intensity Var. 7: Angry Var. 8: Lonely, tender Var. 9: Grotesque; Theme


The second movement contains a sense of peace, or calm, that I like to pretend I possess buried deep inside myself. It is that inner island of calm, or stability, that allows us to survive life's storms, hence the title of the third movement. "Facing the Storm," is an intense, energetic fugue. Its subject, or theme, can't quite decide if the beat is defined by the quarter-note or the dotted-eighth, creating a lopsided, unstable rhythmic effect.

The premiere of Martin Rokeach's Quartet for Piano and Strings got the evening off to an enjoyable start. Arranged in three movements, the piece leads from strength. The opening movement is a splendid variation set that moves with delightful ease from one sharply characterized mood to another; the variations include a punchy study in pizzicatos, a deep-toned hymn, a jumpy free-for-all and more. The concluding fugue is equally impressive with a distinctive, lopsided theme that Rokeach rather improbably makes work.

San Francisco Chronicle

Listen to the Dunsmuir Piano Quartet play Quartet for Piano and Strings in a live concert at Reed College:


   I. Haunted (theme and 9 variations)  6:30


  II. Island of Calm  4:00


 III. Chasing the Storm (fugue) 5:00

The program began with the world premiere of Martin Rokeach's "Quartet for Piano and Strings."  The composer had only delivered the central movement on the Thursday before the performance. The successful performance of this original work was a tribute to both performers and composer. The first movement, "Haunted," took an intervallic motive through different colorful transformations. . . . The striking usage of harmonics, coupled with tone clusters in the piano and the obsessive character of the motive itself lent to the "haunted" quality. The second movement, "Island of Calm," again utilized harmonics, plus light airy fragments of the original motive passing from one instrument to another, to create a musical fabric that simulated woven water. The quartet ending, with an energetic "Facing the Storm (fugue)," ran in jumps and starts from one instrument to another, the subject of the fugue creating distinct new fugal subjects from the original statement. This brilliant use of the fugue form created music continually engaging and exciting. Rokeach has a rare talent for knowing exactly how long his music should be -- each of the three movements lasted not one second longer , nor shorter, than necessary. The use of similar thematic material in three texturally contrasting movements create a cohesive work that should become part of the standard piano quartet literature.

20th Century Music

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