The String Quartets of Krzysztof Meyer : a major achievement of the second half of the 20th century


Krzysztof Meyer (born 11 August 1943) is a Polish composer, pianist and music scholar, formerly Dean of the Department of Music Theory (1972–1975) at the State College of Music (now Academy of Music in Kraków), and president of the Union of Polish Composers (1985–1989). Meyer served as professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1987 to 2008, prior to retirement.

In his own music Meyer has shown a keen awareness of the stylistic paths in music after 1945 and a conviction in using them for his own ends. Serial and sonorist as well as aleatoric means have informed his compositions, yet, as he himself stated in an interview four decades ago.

“Applying various techniques is for me only a means to composition, and it is by no means an exaggeration…to say that I enter some regions of my inner soundscape using any technical means available and I will still arrive at a result that I had aimed at from the start, regardless of the means applied”.

Although his output takes in the broad spectrum of genres, the ongoing series of seven symphonies and thirteen string quartets stand at the center of his achievement—with the latter covering 42 years (thus far) of his composing.

Where does Krzysztof Meyer’s fascination with string quartets come from?

“When I was a little boy, I had a chance to listen to chamber music concerts that were regularly organized at my home. Probably these first impressions fundamentally shaped my interests and principles…My musical homeland is the chamber music of the Viennese Classic, extended by the most splendid of twentieth-century musical worlds—Bartók’s”.

1234-711mam2en4l__sl1430_It was with his First String Quartet (1963) that Meyer made his Warsaw Autumn début. Although its musical idiom is strongly influenced by the sonorist language then being advocated by such as Penderecki, its three-movement design of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis points to an underlying formal evolution which in itself looks forward to his later works. The first movement opens with intensive col legno playing, to which are added harmonics, then sul ponticello and finally pizzicato techniques, before a sudden pause on a cluster which expands across the quartet and brings about a febrile burst of activity that persists until the lower instruments unfold a sequence of glissandos; these latter then persist as the music gradually winds down to a restive close. The brief second movement centres much more on consistency of texture, as the contrasting techniques sounded by each player are channelled towards a laconic close. The third movement attempts an amalgamation of its predecessors, as slowly undulating glissandos are countered by diverse gestures and the music gains in expressive intensity prior to reaching a heightened climax featuring aggressive interplay between the four instruments: this gradually falls away to leave a more tentative dialogue which then disperses until an uneasy chordal truce is attained.

By the time of the Second String Quartet (1969), Lutosławski had written his only work in the genre and its methodical yet never predictable evolution of its salient musical ideas is reflected in Meyer’s piece—though in contrast to the senior composer’s preference for ‘introductory’ and ‘main’ movements, the present work unfolds as a single and unbroken span. The stuttering initial gestures (redolent of the opening of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet) quickly extend to all four instruments as the music’s harmonic density expands accordingly. The texture gradually thins out to reveal a more individuated dialogue with pizzicato and col legno playing to the fore, and which is succeeded in turn by attempts to rekindle the initial impetus until a mingling of strident unison and pizzicato gestures is reached. The music then passes through an intensive burst of free harmonies (akin to ‘tuning-up’), before its continuation of stark chordal gestures leads into a more inward and even reflective passage that only gradually loses its poise as the stuttering gestures at the very opening are recalled. These do not round off the work, however, which instead closes with restive chords as the music heads towards an uneasy calm.

The Third String Quartet (1971) pursues a not dissimilar trajectory to its predecessor, though here the formal design falls into three separate movements—with elements of development and reprise to be detected in the first and third of these. The first movement opens with three detached pizzicato chords, after which the music launches into a headlong outburst which duly subsides into a dense though now more cohesive texture. Intricate pizzicato and searching harmonic writing are now combined, followed by a distant recollection of the earlier outburst and then a more wistful interplay prior to a tensely inward close. The second movement picks up on the later stages of its predecessor, if without a parallel sense of motivation as the music passes through constantly changing textures before it reaches a tentative yet expectant ending. The third movement begins with forceful unison gestures and a densely harmonic interplay between the four instruments that is belatedly silenced by stark repeated gestures. A series of tremolo decrescendos then makes way for pensive unison chords that spread across the texture as the music seems intent on securing some manner of resolution, but any hints at a more decisive close are denied as the activity gradually thins out to leave the fugitive gestures with which the work ends.

The Fourth String Quartet (1974) marks a clear step forward in terms of its three movements contrasting with each other to create a dynamic and goal-directed formal design, though the balance between them is by no means a traditional one. The first movement commences with impassioned chordal gestures that bring with them a sense of meaningful harmonic progression, as underpinned by strident pizzicato writing, until a sudden pause brings a sparser but still cohesive texture which gains in momentum as the music builds towards its powerful culmination. This latter is summarily dispersed to leave fleeting harmonics as the top of the compass, before brief recollections of the opening effect the dramatic close. The second movement begins with repeated gestures, countered by more assaultive chords from the lower instruments as the music gradually takes on greater substance and direction. Over these initial gestures a more agitated motion comes to the fore, with the players drawn into an elaborate dialogue that gives vent to their respective characters and progresses towards a sequence of intensive passage-work which then subsides into elegiac musing that persists through to the close. The third movement starts with strident pizzicato writing, against which the initially spare gestures gradually accrue in prominence without the music gaining in emotional impetus. Instead it heads into a series of plangent monologues for solo instruments over held unison chords, before the impassioned gestures from the very opening re-emerge to guide the work to a conclusion that fades into silence—icy harmonics at the top of the compass gradually receding beyond earshot.  (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

568-71apb1vgjcl__sl1400_String Quartet No. 5 (1977) deserves to be called a chamber sinfonia concertante, with the cello in the foreground. This impression is created by the impetus of this piece, in which the five movements combine into two extended arches, the first and second movements and the fourth and fifth separated by the third movement, an intermezzo.

After that epic work, String Quartet No. 6 (1981) might itself seem restrained, particularly as the music moves away from a clearly outlined beginning. The piece requires perceptiveness and a good memory from the listener, but this concentration is rewarded with a satisfaction that flows from recognizing motives and rhythms that recur in a diversity of shapes, for the composer treats music like a game in which the main idea is to make from a few elements as many various sound shapes as possible. It is no wonder that the finale abounds in quasi-quotations and reminiscences of previous movements.

In String Quartet No. 8 (1985) the instruments are exclusively playing arco and pizzicato. The tonal centre C repeats itself almost obsessively, and is emphatically exposed so that it occasionally suggests tonality, although any relationship with a major-minor system is obviously deceptive in this piece. With its simplicity of rhythm and preponderance of motoric motion, one could have the impression while looking at the score that the quartet is neoclassical in character. The dramatic expression of this “story told with musical elements” is, however, far from the playfulness of neoclassicism. (Naxos release notes by Thomas Weselmann)

folderThe Ninth Quartet (1990) is in five movements which outline a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast format, yet this sequence is anything but predictable in its formal or expressive follow-through, amounting to a cohesive whole in terms of salient motifs and gestures that reappear during its course. A crescendo launches the opening Agitato, which unfolds with angular harmonies and forceful repeated rhythms. Gradually the music opens out texturally, with unison chords endowing a semblance of tonal direction, before thinning out to leave increasingly isolated phrases on violin. The ensuing Calmo stands in direct contrast with its ruminative discourse, the instruments merging from the outset in a meditative dialogue interrupted only by the occasional fugitive gesture on tremolo strings. After the last of these, the music moves steadily on towards its becalmed conclusion. Without pause the Con vigore begins with aggressive pizzicato from the players, other playing techniques being introduced as the music loses something of its initial purposefulness and sustained notes at the relative extremes of the instrumental compass become apparent. From here, a brief though atmospheric Misterioso draws in distinct ideas from each instrument prior to its uncertain close with a flurry of pizzicato. This acts as a springboard for the closing Vivo, which starts with a return to the mood and material of the first movement, now informed by even greater rhythmic impetus. The discourse is thrown into relief by a calmer interlude that cannot prevent an accumulation of energy as the music surges on—capped by another crescendo that this time makes for a decisive ending.

The Eleventh Quartet (2001) is cast in a single movement, a form it shares with several quartets by Shostakovich, while most resembling the latter’s Thirteenth Quartet in a seamless overall trajectory within which diverse contrasts of mood and tempo become absorbed into the greater continuity. A lurching gesture heard on all four instruments is immediately drawn into the sustained texture, from out of which individual entries briefly emerge only to be drawn back into the prevailing inwardness. The music develops an increasingly elegiac demeanour that intensifies as the initial gesture is recalled in passing, threading its way through detached exchanges before suddenly welling up in a passage of greater activity that brings about an impassioned central span with trills and tremolo playing much to the fore. The texture now becomes ever more intricate as the level of activity increases; with the instrumental writing at length coalescing around a chordal complex that, itself a motivic expansion of the work’s initial gesture, becomes rhythmically more streamlined and incisive while the music drives onward to a brusquely conclusive ending.

The Twelfth Quartet (2005) is Meyer’s most recent such work to date, and provides a fair summation of his contribution to the genre. Although there are nine movements, these are dovetailed into each other to form an overall whole (in a not dissimilar manner to Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet) which is greater than the sum of its parts. The opening Lento acts as an inward prelude to what will follow, unfolding in a texture that gradually becomes denser harmonically and more searching emotionally, before returning to its initial stasis. The ensuing Con ira strikes an abrupt contrast with its forceful rhythmic profile and an intensive dialogue that draws several motifs heard earlier into a volatile as well as an increasingly hectic discourse. Without a pause the demonstrative Vivo strides forward, stealthy pizzicato on cello underpinning a complex texture in which the emotional force of the music intensifies before tailing off uncertainly. Eventually only viola and cello remain, with their long-breathed dialogue marking the onset of the Dolente, the work’s ‘centrepiece’ at least in its expressive weight. Gradually the two violins make their presence felt as a finely wrought polyphony evolves, accentuated by a rocking motion that animates the texture before a gradual return to the initial inwardness. From this haunting close the Furioso now emerges in a welter of colliding phrases and exploding pizzicato, growing more excited before relapsing into disconnected phrases. The Largo that follows serves as a meditative transition to the Adagio, with cello continuing the previous introspection as a recitative to which the other instruments respond with terse and often detached gestures. As the cello fades out in its highest register, the Prestissimo commences with angry motoric rhythms and a propulsive energy which features heated exchanges that are cut off at maximum intensity to reveal the Appassionato. Over a trill-saturated texture, this unfolds as a soliloquy for violin that touches on ideas from earlier in the work, before a brief defiant gesture and a gradual fading out on the violin. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

mi0003466634The Seventh Quartet (1985) is cast in a single movement that makes repeated and effective use of the contrasts between solo and ensemble writing, in the process setting up a cumulative musical entity which purposefully alternates stasis and dynamism. The work commences with inward exchanges in the middle register such as gradually rise through the texture, before the cello adds its presence while the music gradually becomes more animated with frequent recourse to tremolo writing. The cello continues its rumination then the expressive range intensifies as the whole ensemble engages in heated contrapuntal discourse which is subsequently curtailed as each of the four instruments seems intent on going its own way. Presently the music opens out onto a complex heterophonic texture which slows down into forceful gestures in rhythmic unison, after which momentum slackens towards fugitive gestures in pizzicatos and harmonics. The briefest of outbursts leads to an introspective monologue for unaccompanied viola which rounds off the piece by gradually fading into silence.

The Tenth Quartet (1994), among the most extended of the cycle, is in four movements such as constitute a work that is ostensibly within the classical tradition of quartet writing—notably that of Beethoven (thus the ‘La Malinconia’ subtitle of the fourth movement’s introduction)—albeit filtered through a lineage which draws upon such notable later exponents as Bartók and Shostakovich in what might be described as a synthesis of Meyer’s experience with the genre. The first movement opens with a searching discourse that alternates between livelier and more rhythmic writing, the latter coming into greater focus as the two types are purposefully superimposed and then elaborated. At length the initial music returns to the fore but the earlier momentum is gradually regained on the way to a powerful culmination that in turn loses its impetus as the initial music re-emerges. The second movement then begins in not dissimilar fashion, though here the underlying eloquence is sustained in music of impressive emotional breadth and finely wrought polyphony. Just over a third of the way through, the texture briefly fragments to admit of greater rhythmic variety as the music heads towards an impassioned climax that recasts the earlier discourse in much more intense terms. From here it winds down to a more restrained dialogue that, in time, is further reduced to sparse exchanges against luminous chords in the violins. The third movement is a scherzo whose vigorous initial discourse elicits a correlating momentum which drives forward to impulsive interplay across the ensemble, replete with grinding rhythmic figures in the lower strings, before a methodical return to its opening gestures. The finale starts out somewhat equivocally, though such uncertainty proves to be no more than a foil to the energetic music which soon takes precedence as a spirited dialogue is pursued. Earlier elements return, however, as a forceful climax is reached—after which, calm is quickly and unexpectedly attained. From here the movement seems to be heading to a conclusion of relative repose, but the energetic music returns to see the work through to its capricious close.

The Thirteenth Quartet (2010), Meyer’s most recent such work to date, is in five movements, although these are all played continuously, the second and fourth of them being lively transitions between odd-numbered movements such as chart a steady progression from relative repose to unequivocal energy, with seamless control over the underlying momentum. The first movement opens with curt pizzicatos that then open out onto wistful exchanges over somnolent held chords. Livelier rustling gestures increase the tension only incrementally, with the cello assuming a degree of prominence as a stern climax is reached. All of the elements previously heard are now brought into play, prior to a peremptory close. Without pause the brief second movement fairly explodes with a controlled decrescendo of energy and emotion, in turn heading into a third movement whose emotional fervency unfolds via a series of accompanied solos gradually coalescing into more sustained textures, and from which brusque pizzicato writing brings about a calmer and increasingly inward conclusion. Such poise is presently countered by the brief fourth movement, its trenchant exchanges in the lower strings spilling over into a finale whose rushing motion brings with it fleeting recollections of ideas heard earlier in the work and where a balance between the eloquent and the sardonic is preserved through to a close in which forceful unison chords have the decisive last word. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)


Jarosław Żołnierczyk, violin I
Mirosław Bocek, violin II
Lech Bałaban, viola
Maciej Mazurek, cello

Since its foundation in 1998 the Wienawski String Quartet has established itself as one of the leading chamber music ensembles in Poland. The members of this Poznań-based ensemble are all players in the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio, conducted by Agnieszka Duczmal: Jarosław Żołnierczyk, leader of the orchestra, Mirosław Bocek, principal of the second violin section, Lech Bałaban, of the viola secion, and Maciej Mazurek, of the cello section. The quartet’s repertoire ranges from the classical to the contemporary. Recordings include String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 by Karol Szymanowski and Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet No. 4.

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