John Corigliano, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony No. 2, (an expansion and rewriting of his String Quartet (1995)), is internationally celebrated as one of the leading composers of his generation. In orchestral, chamber, opera and film work, he has won global acclaim for his highly expressive and compelling compositions as well as his kaleidoscopic, ever-expanding technique. In March 2000, Corigliano won an Oscar for The Red Violin, his third film score.
Architecturally, the 35-minute work is in five movements united by similar motives and thematic content. Specifically, the quartet is based upon a motto composed of even repetitions of a single tone, and a sequence of disjunct minor thirds.
In the Prelude, threads of sound gently appear from and disappear into silence. They have an unfocused and ambient feel because each of the players is playing very slightly out of synchronization with the others.
Slashing evenly-repeated chords begin the Scherzo and are counterpoised against suddenly-faster irreverent “pop”-ish asides. Variants of the repeated-note motive lead to a virtuoso passage in which all four players articulate in rapid 16th notes both the repeated single tones and the disjunct minor thirds. A gentle trio follows: a chaconne based upon the chordal fragments in the prelude is played by a duo, while the other two players provide lyrical counterpoint
The Nocturne recalls my memory of a night at Palais Jamais in Fez. My room overlooked the old city and during the night I was awakened by the calls of the muezzins from the many mosques in the city. First one, then another, and finally dozens of independent calls created a glorious counterpoint, and at one moment all of the calls held on to a single note (pure accident) and the result was a major chord.
Contrary to usual counterpoint the themes of the Fugue are composed of even beats, with absolutely no rhythmic profile, and each voice travels at a different speed.
One cannot simply instruct the players to play at different tempi, therefore, these independent lines must be accurately notated in a common rhythm, even though they are not heard that way.
The movement is marked “severe,” and there is a starkness to this music brought about not only by the dissonant material, but also by the total independence of the voices.
In the final movement, Postlude, the lower three strings are spatially offset by the first violin which enters, muted, on the highest C-sharp.
An impassioned climax leads to a long descending passage, after which the texture of single-line playing returns and with an exact retrograde of the opening music, the quartet fades into silence.