Both of John Adams’ string quartets were composed with the St. Lawrence String Quartet in mind. But this latest work is actually the third he has composed for them. The original String Quartet (now likely to be known as the First Quartet) was written in 2008 and premiered January of 2009 at the Juilliard School, the work’s principal commissioner. The St. Lawrence Quartet went on to perform that work many times throughout the world and made the first recording of it for Nonesuch Records.
Adams followed several years later with a grander idea: Absolute Jest, a 25-minute work for solo quartet and orchestra based on fragments from Beethoven, primarily from the Opus 131 and 135 string quartets. Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate its centennial season, Absolute Jest was given its first performance in March of that year under that orchestra’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas with the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing the solo parts. The orchestra has twice toured with Absolute Jest and has also recorded it for a forthcoming CD release. Adams and the SLSQ have performed the work together in London, Toronto and with the New World Symphony in Florida.
The Second Quartet is thus the third piece to result from this exceptionally fruitful relationship between a composer and his favorite chamber group. Speaking of their working relationship, Adams says, "String quartet writing is one of the most difficult challenges a composer can take on. Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time—and I don’t know many these days who do—the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating. What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally ‘improvise’ on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want. They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own. It is no surprise then for me to reveal that both the First Quartet and Absolute Jest went through radical revision stages both before and after each piece’s premiere. Quartet writing for me seems to be a matter of very long-term ‘work in progress.’"
Although not a string player himself, Adams admits to a lifelong absorption in the literature, having discovered the Beethoven, Mozart and Bartók quartets as a teenager. While still a teenager he often played clarinet in the great quintets by Mozart and Brahms, and during that formative time he attended what he called "life-changing" performances by both the Juilliard and the Budapest Quartets.
The new quartet uses the same tropes as Absolute Jest in that it too is based on tiny fragments—"fractals," in the composer’s words—from Beethoven. But the economy here is much stricter. The first movement, for example, is entirely based on two short phrases from the scherzo to the late Opus 110 piano sonata in Ab major. The transformations of harmony, cadential patterns and rhythmic profile that occur in this movement go way beyond the types of manipulations favored in Absolute Jest.
Like the First Quartet this new work is organized in two parts. The first movement has scherzo impetus, and moves at the fastest pace possible for the performers to play it. The familiar Beethoven cadences and half cadences reappear throughout the movement like a homing mechanism and each apparition is followed by a departure to an increasingly remote key and textural region.
The second part begins "Andantino" with a gentle melody that is drawn from the opening movement of the same Opus 111 piano sonata. Here the original Beethoven harmonic and melodic ideas go off in unexpected directions, almost as they were suggestions for a kind of compositional "free association."
The Andantino grows in range and complexity until it finally leads into the "Energico" final part of the piece, a treatment of one of the shortest of the Diabelli Variations. This particular variation of Beethoven’s features a sequence of neighbor-key appoggiaturas, each a half step away from each main chord. Adams amplifies this chromatic relationship without intentionally distorting it. Like its original Beethoven model, the movement is characterized by emphatic gestures, frequent uses of "sforzando" and a busy but convivial mood of hyperactivity among the four instruments.