Gang of Four

Christopher Driver

  • The String Quartet: A History by Paul Griffiths
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £12.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 500 01311 X
  • Gyorgy Ligeti by Paul Griffiths
    Robson, 128 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 86051 240 1

The gang of four, discoursing melodically and harmonically within the gamut of some five octaves, was a relatively late response to the acoustic properties of the violin family. Once formed, however, a couple of centuries ago, it acquired within our culture a more-than-musical resonance, comparable with the development potential of the novel, the intimacy of the still-life, the proportionality of Georgian domestic architecture, the numinosity of Cranmer’s collects. People who have discovered or been brought up with the string quartet, as listeners but above all as players, generally regard themselves as blessed in this life, and possibly in the next too. Yet outside newspaper and magazine concert notices, usually starved for space or time or both, and outside concert-programme analyses of works to be played, sustained reflection on the composition and performance of quartets is for the most part confined to studies of individual composers, and there overshadowed by discussion of operas, symphonies and other large-scale works. As far as society at large is concerned, all serious music nowadays obeys its own rules, perpetuates its own traditions and keeps its own counsel, to an extent which other generations would have found surprising. Interesting comments on quartet performance are to be found in the music criticism of George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound, to name two writers whose main preoccupations lay elsewhere. But in our own day almost all composition, and much performance, is virtually invulnerable to non-specialist critique.

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