ensemble string quartet and piano
written fall 2012
commissioned by San Francisco Performances, Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall, and het Concertgebouw Amsterdam
premièred March 29, 2013, San Francisco, CA
published by ↪︎︎ Project Schott New York
Schumann’s piano quintet is one of my long-time favorites, and in planning my own quintet to pair with it, I devised a sort of thought-experiment. What if, instead of writing his piece in monumental, Beethoven-like forms, Schumann had written in the mode of his piano sets (like Kreisleriana or Carnaval)—as a single, large-scale form constructed out of several simpler ones?
The seed of the piece is a four-note figure stolen from some canonic passagework in his Op. 12 Fantasiestücke (no. 6, “Fabel”) which I stretch out into a melody and set in a prolation canon (individual voices playing that melody at different speeds). After getting stuck on a particularly unresolvable chord, “Boulder Pushing” reworks that sequence into a churning mass of tremolos that descend inexorably, gathering speed all the while.
The piano drops out for the center of the piece (marked “Teneramente” or tenderly), a repeated chorale revolving around a B major pole, pushing gradually outward in volume and complexity with each iteration.
“Lenticular Postcard” treats the opening canon playfully, the instruments overlapping in groups of three, four, five, and seven, resulting in a slippery texture which seems to shift depending on one’s focus. The music of “Pyramid Scheme” looks like actual peaks and valleys on the page, a visual and sonic map interspersed with gentle recollections of previous movements.
So the relationship between my piece and Schumann is mostly structural—it’s five continuous movements, each of which are based on one or two characteristic ideas.
performers Jonathan Biss, piano; Elias String Quartet