When I was a young and enthusiastic, if not very skilled, violist, I loved nothing better than to play chamber music, any time, any place, with anybody who would have me. Thus I have carried that repertoire around with me ever since. Forty years later, I still can't live without the two piano quartets by Mozart or the three by Brahms, but lodged almost as near my heart are later examples, too: both Fauré piano quartets (yes, even No. 2), and great 20th-century piano quartets by composers such as Aaron Copland, Robert Palmer, Stephen Hartke, and Judith Weir. Attempting my own first work in this medium at the comparatively late age of 55, therefore, has stirred conflicting emotions: intimidation on the one hand at the idea of "competing" against the masters, but on the other hand a feeling of coming home to familiar, much-loved surroundings.
My Piano Quartet is in one continuous movement, but it falls into several sections easily noted by ear, even on first acquaintance. The raw musical material is the same throughout - think of the piece as a kind of variations set - but stark changes in tempo and character define a series of connected mini-movements. At the outset, a short allegro (marked Risoluto) announces the thematic material and serves notice that bell-like sonorities (first in the piano, later in the strings) will be crucial. The piano continues to imitate bells in the slow movement (Lento, molto cantabile) that follows, against which the strings sing lyrically. A fast interlude (Allegro) reverses the roles: bell sounds in the strings as a backdrop for spiky interjections by the piano. This leads quickly to even faster music, a full-fledged scherzo (Scherzando e molto leggiero) featuring breathless rhythmic hiccups and chordal passage-work that flirt with memories of pop music; the oily trio (Comodo, non affrettato) might allude to pop memories, too, but of a different sort. The Quartet concludes with a second slow movement, with the piano now cast as soloist, and a brisk coda recalling the clangorous bell sounds of the opening. The form of my Piano Quartet, with its several linked sections and alternations between fast and slow, is thus a sort of "remake" of a work I wrote for mixed septet 20 years earlier, Boston Fancies - though the two pieces sound nothing alike. It is their skeletons that are similar, not their skins.
The work was composed between November 2004 and January 2005. It was commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and first performed on March 13, 2005, by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.
- Steven Stucky