Muses, Party of Four

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The Antwerp Ensemble*, a chamber quartet in Michigan, approached me to compose a piece for them similar to my Trio Sonata for Barbara Steinberg (SMM320), but with more soloistic parts for the viola da gamba and harpsichord. The result is a little suite of movements inspired by the conversational style of Telemann’s “Paris” Quartets and the keyboard antics in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto #5. Muses, Party of Four endeavors to retain old-fashioned Baroque rhetorical sensibilities, but looks forward to the piano quartets of later composers like Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) and Luigi Boccherini (1745–1805). The short Introduction emerges out of eerie nothingness and quickly develops into a grand moment of anticipation. Immediately following the Introduction, the D minor Scherzo (“joke”) begins with a flippantly accompanied melody in the viola da gamba, which the recorders soon commandeer. They enjoy it as a duet in quasi-canon, before the music settles and the harpsichord is revealed as the “true” soloist of the movement. Staccato commentary in the trebles punctuate the harpsichord’s monologue, at which moments the keyboard plays shimmering octave figures with alternating hands. The movement ends with a return of the recorders’ repartee, ending in another unresolved moment of suspended longing that leads to the new key of G minor. The third movement, Alla siciliana, again features the harpsichord, which assumes the soloist position after the recorders set the stage. In a dual role, the viola da gamba alternates between supporting the bass line and mingling with the recorders. Though the recorders lurk in the background during the delicately ornamented harpsichord solo passages, they step forward in the measures between them, such as mm. 29-36; the harpsichord then recedes into the continuo. Finally, the Gigue is almost a chamber concerto in itself, with a slow middle episode framed by fast outer segments. The theme and counter-theme are shared by all four players during the exposition, which comes to a gentle stop as the viola da gamba quietly begins a relaxed interlude of contrapuntal interweaving. Each outer section contains a rapid solo passage for the harpsichord — the first one bright and sparkly, and the second with a hint of blues. The latter ends with the soloist collapsing in a heap, signaling the final recap in a straight gallop to the finish.

  • “Antwerp” comes from the township in Van Buren County, Michigan where the founding members lived when they were a trio in the 1980s. Now mostly in Kalamazoo, today the members are Barbara Hong, harpsichord; Mary Ross, viola da gamba; Chuck Vreeland (succeeding Mary Forrester upon her untimely passing in summer 2010) and Rick Johnson, recorders. Cover painting: Allegory of the Four Seasons by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622)

Score ID
Year of composition
Moderate (Grades 4-6)
9 minutes
Large mixed ensemble
Modern classical music

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