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First String Quartet - W. A. Mathieu

Listen to 'Movement 2'
from First String Quartet

First String Quartet (2016)

Galax Quartet
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
David Wilson, violin
Roy Whelden, viola da gamba
David Morris, cello


I consider the string quartet to be the apotheosis of Eurocentric composition, perhaps even more so than the symphony or the concerto, and so had been timid to compose my own. But about ten years ago, I serendipitously met viola da gamba master Roy Whelden, along with the other members of The Galax Quartet, violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and David Wilson, and cellist David Morris. The Galax specializes in early and contemporary music played on period instruments, with viola da gamba taking the place of the modern viola. Our first collaboration was a setting, called For All, of six Gary Snyder poems. Subsequently, with the generous support of the musical grant program administered by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, we agreed to embark on a freestanding string quartet.

The piece is formal in the sense that ideas continually reappear in recognizable shapes and combinations; informal in the way it unfolds like a conversation among four deeply listening friends. There are five movements, to be played consecutively without pause.

On of the motifs in the first movement is a musical rendition of the universal signal for aid and succor in Morse code: three dots, three dashes, three dots. This is featured not only because it is rhythmically distinctive but also because the plea for planetary salvation is not far from most people’s minds, an insistent tattoo drumming beneath the social hubbub.

The second movement is a passacaglia made up of eight long tones heard repeatedly within ever-changing musical textures. It is engaging to follow the motif as it travels, sometimes quite hidden, through the moving landscape. A brief interlude between the second and third movements introduces a harmonic progression that has the texture of a calm pond. The interlude gives way to a sprightly third movement, wherein tripping sixteenth-note rhythms give way to elegiac solos by each instrument in turn, modulations among modes that sound strange yet oddly familiar, along with some free-range conversation, only to return once more to the spirited sixteenth notes before finally giving way to…

…the fourth movement, comprising confessional solos by the viola da gamba and cello separated by a recall of the harmonies of the calm pond, which by now has swollen into a restless lake. The movement concludes with what I call My Rachmaninoff Period which, though it lasted only about twenty minutes, demonstrates that verily our adoration of beauty is long enduring. The fifth movement is spirited and fugal, its polyphony interspersed with contrasting textures, including a recall of the sixteenth-note forays of Movement Three, and what could be called a dance of exorcism.

As the composition of the piece evolved, it became a study in the dialectic between beauty and complexity, but more than that it became a proactive impulse to send an SOS to the world in the form of an otherwise entertaining string quartet. Leonard Bernstein’s oft-repeated words do ring in our ears: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The premiere took place in Healdsburg, California, 2012, and the present recording in January of 2015. We hope our adventures and epiphanies in bringing this string quartet to light presage the experiences of many listeners to come.

— W. A. Mathieu, New Year’s Day, 2016




Performers' Bios

Composer and performer on the viola da gamba, Roy Whelden is a key figure in the world of new music. He has been profiled as a composer and gambist on Minnesota Public Radio and other NPR stations. His recordings include the award-winning The Shock of the Old (with the Common Sense Composers’ Collective) and Galax ~ Music for Viola da Gamba (New Albion 059), as well as On Cold Mountain ~ Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder with contralto Karen Clark and the Galax Quartet (Innova 795). He has performed and recorded with many internationally known ensembles, including The Boston Camerata and Sequentia.

First violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock is a frequent soloist, concertmaster, and leader with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists, and is concertmaster of the International Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany.

Cellist David Morris makes his living as a musical hunter/gatherer, playing a variety of historical bowed-bass instruments in the US and abroad. He also brews his own beer (with violinist David Wilson).

An avid chamber musician, violinist David Wilson also enjoys brewing beer and cooking, and has a lifelong addiction to the printed word.


First String Quartet is available from
Cold Mountain Music