String Quartet No. 1 – III. Off the Rails

links to other movements:
I – On the Rails
II – Tango a la Peachy
III – Off the Rails


With the third movement, I move away from the programmatic ideas of the second and return to the more absolute music of the first (like any good Stravinsky fanatic.)  I considered the title (Off the Rails) as the reflection of the first (On the Rails) filtered by the the chaos of the second.

The opening motif is an echo of the unresolved minor second that closed the second movement.  Like the last moments of that movement, there is a sustained minor second (a D and Eb as opposed to the Db and D of the previous movement), but with the two instruments trading the pitches of the interval in a triplet rhythm, creating a buzzing murmur.  The other instruments enter, adding their own close harmonies and then suddenly crescendo into a fortissimo chord.

The second time this happens I use a neat effect where the violin and viola have to alternate between the same pitch but on different strings.  I did this because I wanted to keep the triplets feel like a phrase on a single bow, but still be articulated as triplets. It’s tricky to pull off, but I think the players did a nice job on the recording.


After another round of increasing tension and sudden release we introduce a new melodic idea in the cello, one that’s connected to the second movement idea of a repeated Db and a plucked low C in the left hand.


While this idea is developed the other voices play around with the idea of half step neighbor tones.  We build in intensity and volume until the introduction of the real theme of the movement.

The main theme is clearly in F (with plenty of borrowing from the minor mode), the first phrase is an derived from the alternating minor seconds in the opening measures of the piece, but now extended into a melody.  There is also a countermelody in the viola that prominently features the raised fourth degree (B natural in the key of F) indicative of the lydian mode.  The second half of this theme is a direct echo of the baroque theme from the first movement and features the same sort of contrapuntal ideas.  The whole idea is ended with a fairly abrupt V-I cadence(!) in G.  It’s a surprising bit of purely classical harmony in the midst of less traditional material.


Now that the main idea has been stated, it’s time to start developing it.  We repeat the first half of the melody (now in G) while accompanying it with the buzzing half step neighbors from the introduction.  The players trade the various components of the theme about until we return to a restatement of the main theme, this time in the lower voices while the high violin plays the lydian theme.  When we arrive at the baroque portion of the theme we start developing it further, the lower voices trading off the baroque rhythm while the upper voices start climbing up chromatically, starting to increase tension.

Eventually we arrive at another section very indebted to Bartok.  The entire ensemble spreads a fortissimo minor second tone cluster (B flat, B and C) over three octaves, eventually introducing neighboring minor seconds and culminating in a smear of a trill reminiscent of the introduction while the cello plays fragments of the baroque motif.


There’s a sudden shift in mood as the violins introduce a new pianissimo musical idea, supported by a sustained note in the viola.  Despite the many dissonant intervals between the two violins, the feeling is peaceful and serene.  The cello interjects with a minor fragment of the baroque theme:


but just as theme winds down and the motion ceases, the harmony shifts from under us, and we’re returned to the flurry of main theme, this time in A, finishing agin with an abrupt V-I cadence.

After a brief transition we’re in another buzzy minor second section, only this time the buzzy minor seconds are accompanying a sped up restatement of the “serene” theme from a few moments ago, although with the buzzy background, much of the serenity has been lost.


This idea is repeated several times as the “theme formerly known as serene” is handed off between the voices, when the spread tone cluster from before starts to interject.  This cluster raises in pitch and intensity and just as it reaches it’s most dissonant and strident point, the tension evaporates into a most improbably joyful waltz.


This is my favorite part of the piece, the reward for the tension we’ve experienced for much of the movement. The lydian flavored countermelody found in the main theme takes center stage here, the buzzing minor seconds transform into lilting apoggiaturas in the violins.

This abrupt change in character was partially inspired by a strange moment in Bartok’s Fifth String quartet. Following a series of ferocious double stops, Bartok restates his main theme in a surreal stately dance, like something out of Haydn. It’s not clear what his intention was. Satire? A joke? Was he making fun of someone (as he skewered Shostakovich in his Concerto for Orchestra)? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer.


But, like the surreal moment in the Bartok, the joyful moment here is short lived.  As the song starts to wind down to a contented murmur we evolve (or devolve) back into the buzzing minor seconds of the introduction, but this time the idea is more fragmented.  Rather than crescendoing towards the same beat as an ensemble, each instrument crescendos to its own double stop at different times as the rest of the players continue.  That creates a swirling foundation of bubbling minor seconds with sparks suddenly flaring up out of the stew.  The sparks start flying more quickly and start expanding into their own minor second phrases, eventually building to a group of furious half step trills.


We’re almost at the end. The music seems to know this and uses a series of half step sixteenth notes, as if winding up for the last pitch.  After a brief pause, perhaps to catch it’s breath, the coda begins.  The main theme of the first and third movements are superimposed over each other while the cello accompanies with a descending scale. The buzzing minor second theme makes an appearance, and


In the last measures, even the lydian countermelody shows up briefly, again in the viola, just before the piece ends with a half step trill suddenly crescendoing into a C major chord, not all that different than the opening gesture of the movement.