by Ricardo Odriozola




In the final year of the artistic research project RO wished to examine string quartets written by major composers of the Twentieth Century in order to ascertain whether Sæverud really was as unique as he always claimed to be. RO thus listened to and, where possible, examined the scores of string quartets by (in chronological order according to the composer's date of birth) Janáček, Foulds, Bartók, Szymanowski, Vermeulen, Martin, Martinu, Prokofieff, Hindemith, Revueltas, Hartmann, Shostakovich, Britten and Ginastera. NB. John Foulds, Frank Martin and Matthijs Vermeulen only wrote (or completed) one string quartet each.


Sæverud's string quartets are notable for the leanness of their texture. The third string quartet, for instance, has 619 measures. Of these, 221 have all four players participating within the bar lines. Out of those, however, only 55 measures have the group making continuous sound together. That makes approximately for 11% of the music where all the instruments are playing, without pause, at the same time.


It seems that the opposite is generally true for the vast majority of string quartets written by Twentieth Century masters: having all four instruments playing simultaneously is the rule rather than the exception. This is not a criticism of the outstanding works by those composers; it is merely the observation of a fact.


Leanness of texture is a common feature in the quartets of Benjamin Britten, (particularly in his Quartet No. 3 Op. 94 and also in the concluding Chacony from the Second Quartet, Op. 36) and the late Shostakovich quartets. These also include relatively frequent passages for solo (i.e. unaccompanied) instruments.


With regards to articulation, the aforementioned Chacony from Britten's second string quartet features a characteristic dotted motif with an accent on the small note. This is a mode of articulation very dear to Sæverud.


At the beginning of the slow movement (Sehr Langsam) of his String Quartet No. 3 Op. 16 Paul Hindemith uses the <> marking. Frank Martin uses the same marking throughout his only string quartet. 


An interesting aspect to explore in the string quartet writing of Sæverud and his contemporaries is the balance between organic development and spontaneous invention. RO came to the conclusion that Sæverud's "eruptive" style (as Trond Sæverud once described it to him), is only comparable to the styles of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) and Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). Sæverud, however is much more rigorous (at least in appearance) in his treatment of the material. This is well in keeping with the way he viewed himself as a classical (not neo-classical!) composer. 


A further point of contact between Revueltas and Sæverud (who almost certainly were unaware of each other's existence): they both wrote their own folk tunes rather than using pre-existing folk material. The following video is recommended viewing for an excellent introduction to Revueltas' work (and a corroboration of the claim in the previous sentence).

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Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås