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Giacinto Scelsi

String Quartet #1 (1944)

Scelsi's Quartet No. 1 is an extremely powerful and moving work, built on a strict contrapuntal paradigm, incorporating the musical trends of its time. Though it is quite different from his later music, it is a masterpiece on its own merit - one of the greatest quartets ever written, and one of the finest musical examples of its period.

The quartet is in four movements which basically correspond to the classical order. The first movement is a set of linked variations out of which emerges a compressed sonata form. The main idea is the theme of Bach's Chaconne in D minor (pointed out to me by Prof. Angelo Frascarelli) which is stacked vertically into two block chords - this compression of horizontal material into the vertical domain anticipates some of Scelsi's later music (ex. Aitsi) and can be seen as deriving from other composers of the time, such as Webern. The set of variations is divided into three sections of equal length; the first section varies the chaconne idea by a variety of methods including dodecaphony, in a manner recalling Berg; the second section begins with slow, mysterious counterpoint during which the theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is introduced in a highly disguised form as the subsidiary idea and then subjected to variation; the third section recapitulates the primary chaconne theme and continues with variations on the two ideas together, ending in a very brief coda during which the chaconne and fugue are stated simultaneously in the smallest possible space.

The slow second movement is the heart of the entire work, and here Scelsi is his most original. It opens with pizzicato chords which are packed into the low register of the cello and gradually dissolve into slow and sublime polyphony using the two main ideas of the work. The chords re-assert themselves from time to time, and the polyphony takes on fantastic elements; the style is more extended and personal in this movement and the harmonic transitions have something of Scriabin about them. The movement eventually ends in a slow, ethereal, transfigured coda.

The brief third movement is a ternary scherzo, complete with serial trio. This is rhythmic process-music which recalls Stravinsky, and in some ways anticipates Messiaen.

In the fourth movement the form is divided into two sections of which the first is slightly longer. The principal idea of the first section is the Grosse Fuge treated in cancrizan, and then elaborated contrapuntally in such a way as to introduce the chaconne as the underlying harmonic context; this section ends in slow polyphony in the style of the second movement - during which the fugue theme is treated in diminution within the layout of the chaconne. The second section begins with a recapitulation of the chaconne which is then varied harmonically, leading to an extended coda in which the preceding chromatic polyphony is translated into a purely tonal C Major. This coda constitutes the ending of the entire piece and shows Scelsi's dedication to tonality even within this complex idiom - it also ends on a chord in fourths which anticipates the open cadential motion prevalent in his later output, a style which has something in common with the vocal polyphony of the early renaissance.

Edited from materials originally posted to the Internet in 1992 by Todd McComb
Copyright © 1992-2000, Todd Michel McComb.