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String Quartet in D major

October 27, 2019: Quartetto di Cremona

Respighi received his earliest musical training on the violin. At age twelve he enrolled at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, where he studied violin with Federico Sarti, eminent teacher of a whole string of violin prodigies. Judging by contemporary reports of his playing, Respighi could have made a career solely as a violinist had not his interests turned toward composition and, partly as a composition tool, toward the piano. While in Russia in 1900 he played principal viola in the Imperial Opera orchestra, continuing to study violin between rehearsals and performances. While in St. Petersburg he also met and studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, who had a profound influence on his development as a composer.

Even after Respighi’s return to Bologna in 1902, when his compositions began receiving wider recognition, he continued to perform as a violinist and violist. In 1903 he also became the violist of the Mugellini Piano Quintet, with which he performed until 1908. Thus, though Respighi is known principally for his large orchestral pieces that celebrate the glories of Rome, it makes complete sense that he also wrote smaller scale chamber music all his life. Most of his chamber works, however, date from his early period, 1895 to 1910, and many of the early works remain unpublished.

Respighi composed the D major Quartet, actually his third quartet, in 1904 (not 1907 as often stated), and it was first performed in 1906 in Bologna, but it remained unpublished until 1921. The first movement’s lush, Romantic, harmonically ranging first theme immediately proclaims Respighi’s confidence. Some consider it a precursor to his Trevi Fountain music in The Fountains of Rome. The more playful second theme provides contrast with its leaps and silences. Both themes frequently incorporate triplet motion. The movement ends in ethereal high harmonics over a poignant rising cello solo, followed by a more earthbound closing gesture.

The highly chromatic slow movement unfolds as a moody theme and variations. Seamlessly, the first admits faster note values, the second becomes almost eerie in its winding chromaticism, and the third features an active cello melody with persistent “chatter” in the other parts. There follows a slow waltz over a drone, a slow smooth contrapuntal variation led off by the cello, a sprightly dancelike variation, and a sorrowful final variation whose lush lines for the three upper instruments are intensified by insistent drone-like repeated notes in the cello.

A tender introductory gesture launches Respighi’s lightly scampering scherzo, which he calls Intermezzo. After an impassioned central section, he repeats the scherzo literally and appends a sweetly pensive coda.

The finale takes off like a galloping tarantella over persistent, fast repeated-note chords. The second theme provides lovely lyrical contrast. After recapping his themes, Respighi inserts a shimmering passage of harmonics and builds over another drone to polish off his tarantella grandly in the major mode.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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