Five Bagatelles

Duration: ca. 10′

Instrumentation: string quartet

Score: View score

Performance note: Of my three pieces for string quartet, Five Bagatelles is, expressively, the most spasmodic. Parts of it are goofy (or are intended to be); sometimes it’s wistful; at other points it’s serious, relaxed, playful, or fierce: of course, one often comes across these dichotomies of mood and expression in many pieces, even single movements (think of Mahler, for instance) – yet the Bagatelles seem, to me at least, to be especially disjunct. Yet they also, somehow, hold together: if nothing else, all five movements share a love of extended techniques, wildly varied textures, and the occasional good tune. I wrote the piece in response to hearing a series of great, late 20th and early 21st-century chamber pieces for strings by composers like Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan, Thomas Adés, Andrew Norman, and John Adams. An overview of each bagatelle follows below. The score is dedicated to my nieces, Chloe and Marika Blumhofer.

  1. November Turkey: Fragments from a pair of Thanksgiving hymns (“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” and “Now Thank We All Our God”) are framed by stark E naturals, played mostly in artificial harmonics, that expand and contract, but – like the season’s great bird – don’t quite manage to break free.
  2. Valse de l’ombre: Various extended fingering techniques introduce a shadowy, triadic waltz that bursts out of character on more than one occasion. In between, a tune perhaps lifted from La Valse sits in the driver’s seat for a spell.
  3. Barcarolle: Reynaldo Hahn’s beautiful song, “Sopra l’aqua indormenzada” (from Venezia), forms the basis of this barcarolle, which imagines the tune heard from the perspective of a gondolier. Seagulls call, waves rock, and Hahn’s melody emerges out of the salty ether, reaches its lusty climax, and vanishes again into the dark.
  4. Alla danza tedesca: I spent several weeks while I was writing these Bagatelles rediscovering Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to find the Liebeserlösung motive popping up (however irreverently) in the midst of this “German dance.” Choppy motives and metric confusion aren’t foreign to Wagner; neither are they overly common. But they’re more than present here.
  5. under the stars, in the shadow of San Clemente: The violins and cello play a series of boxed figures while the viola spins out a melody in natural harmonics below and among them.