I waited a very long time to write this—my first string quartet. After years of composing orchestral music with many voices, elaborate textures and complex layerings, I found writing music for only four strings a release—a joy—a holiday.
The quartet, about 30 minutes long, has the traditional three movements, but their proportions are anything but classical: The final movement, Grosse Tarantella, is by itself almost 20 minutes long. These asymmetrical proportions, however, were inspired by a classical composer (Beethoven) in his least classical work (the Op. 130 string quartet with the Grosse Fuge as its finale). Beethoven's huge fugue, following (as it does) five shorter movements, seems almost to obliterate them, as lovely and varied though they be. The finale then becomes the unquestioned emotional peak of the work as well as the longest, loudest, most developed movement by far.
So it is, in the structure of my own quartet: The 20-minute Grosse Tarantella dwarfs its two preceding shorter movements, Experience (Prelude and Fugue) and Innocence (Intermezzo).
A somber prelude that turns tender, then chastely joyful, yields to a fugue built on a descending modal scale in a moderate tempo. The fugue, though relaxed, eventually turns passionate, culminating in two dramatic unison notes, B and then C. A transition section follows, where the Intermezzo theme-to-be is suggested and then coupled with a (by now) familiar scalar fugue theme.
In a moderate tempo, Innocence is an intensely romantic, though delicate, movement. Rubato is everywhere in evidence. At the end, the music seems to flower in a cascade of arpeggios and harmonics both above and below a viola solo.
The movement begins vivace, as a perpetuum mobile of triplet repeated notes and arpeggios, growing increasingly frantic. (According to popular Italian legend, the dance was believed to be the only cure for the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider—so quick stepping was a must!)
The motion breaks a bit, with a more chordal second theme (though the agitation lingers in the background). Eventually, the motion slackens. A "lazy" version of the first theme precipitates a full recapitulation, …a development of the two themes together, …and at length a huge cadence slowing motion to a virtual standstill.
A ghostly, muted third theme appears in three-part canon—the fourth voice continuing, as if from afar, the triplet tarantella idée fixe. When this disappears, what begins as another recapitulation turns into a dramatic, extended coda, bringing earlier material to its most frenzied pitch before it disintegrates little by little into silence…
…whence emerges the tranquil, celestial Epilogue.
Has our spider-bitten dancer ascended to the pearly gates? —or is it simply exhaustion? Only at the very end (sul ponticello) does an apparition of the opening theme appear.
— David Del Tredici
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.