Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Inspiration for Brooklyn Rider concert program’s music comes from muses of many stripes

Inspiration for Brooklyn Rider concert program’s music comes from muses of many stripes

Inspiration has been the very lifeblood of our tradition since the days of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets, lovingly dedicated to the progenitor of our medium. The program we perform at Penn State celebrates inspiration as creative catalyst in many different guises, and it is with “Papa” Haydn that our journey begins. Though we are named after Der Blaue Reiter (more on that later), the great Rider Quartet was certainly in our thinking while coining our name. Names themselves are often arbitrary, and Haydn’s quartets are full of them; a shaving accident, for example, resulted in the moniker for the Razor Quartet, Op 55, No 2. But as silly as these names sometimes are, they become handy when grappling with Haydn’s vast output of eighty-plus works for our medium alone!

The Rider, also referred to as The Horseman, is so-named because of the jaunty motives found in the outer movements. But it is the easy inventiveness of Haydn that is ultimately so memorable, and his ingenious democratization of the four voices allows this inventiveness to play itself out conversationally. The first movement is a great example of Haydn’s flattened hierarchy and also demonstrates this work’s overall tendency from tonic minor to major. It is not long after the stern opening unison that a great thawing occurs. The eminent musical thinker Hans Keller has even gone so far as to say this quartet should be thought of as G Major, not g minor. The stunning slow movement is surely the centerpiece of this quartet. Where we see opera played out in the slow movements of Mozart (Haydn’s great admirer), Haydn’s slow movements emphasize the hymn-like possibilities of four string instruments in writing of chordal perfection and beguiling harmonic shifts. The minuet and trio movement lifts off in an idyllic pastoral scene (also cast in G Major) while the central trio, looking back in musical time, suggests an almost austere quality. And it is back on the horse we go for the witty and rousing finale!

From Haydn, at one end of the string quartet’s pendulum, we complete the evening with works from The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, all written within the last couple of years. To preface this project, we need to jump back more than a century to the cross-disciplinary relationship between the German composer Arnold Schoenberg and Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky, a friendship that greatly affected each of their creative psyches. The string quartet played a supporting role in their first encounter, and we look to their symbiotic friendship as a springboard for The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, a commissioning project and the title of our latest album.

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, the composer’s first full dip into the opaque waters of atonality, was a musical lightning rod that sharply divided audiences and critics alike. Following the riotous premiere in Vienna in 1908, the work received its Munich debut some three years later. In the audience for that performance sat Kandinsky. Transformed by Schoenberg’s music, Kandinsky’s style took a further step toward abstraction with his landmark painting, Impression III, a visual synthesis of that very concert. A friendship ensued between these visionaries, and Schoenberg soon became associated with of a group of artists surrounding Kandinsky known as Der Blaue Rieter (our very namesake). In 1912, this group published Der Blaue Rieter Almanach, a highly eclectic collection of artwork, essays, and music that served as an artistic testament to their era while also offering a vision for the future.

The unquenchable drive for artistic exploration and open embrace of the collective spirit displayed by Der Blaue Reiter are similarly hallmarks of today’s artistic zeitgeist, and The Brooklyn Rider Almanac attempts to honor the present. Using music as our project’s touchstone, we asked a select group of composers to create short works inspired by a creative muse from relatively recent memory. Not only did the composers readily accept the challenge, but the varied sources of inspiration—from David Byrne to Keith Haring to William Faulkner—were consistently a surprise and a delight to us.

Additionally, this project afforded us the opportunity to seek fresh perspectives on string quartet writing. On the surface, these composers come mostly from the other side of the classical fence—the worlds of jazz, rock, and folk. But more significantly, they represent some of our favorite musical thinkers, and we were deeply confident they would have much to offer our medium. Our newly assembled cadre is inclusive of old friends and certain “musical crushes”—those we have long wished to approach but lacked proper courage or circumstance. Recalling the eclecticism of Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, we have embraced the varied results and feel that our boundaries have been expanded in the process.

We are reminded at every turn of this project that music is a deeply immersive art form, something that cannot be understood divorced from its broader cultural context. By magnifying the creative force of inspiration, we hope that you will endeavor—as we do—to hear the music as only the tip of an iceberg.

The Center for the Performing Arts is part of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.
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