A Handful (with a few extra fingers) of Notable String Quartets from Latin America

The were few, if any, string quartets composed in Latin America during the 19th century; rather, the earliest examples of music of this type and from this period were composed by Latin Americans in Europe.

For example, in 1888 Brazilian composer Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920) left his country for Italy, and later moved to Berlin where he studied composition with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Prior to returning to Brazil in 1896 he composed a series of three string quartets, the last of which, subtitled “Brasileiro,” was composed in 1891. Perhaps influenced by the nationalistic implications of the work’s subtitle, musicologist Gerard Béhague seems to find the designation rather incongruous, observing that the quartet reveals “only light nationalistic characteristics.” 1)Gerard Béhague, “Rasgos afrobrasileños en obras nacionalistas escogidas de compositores brasileños del siglo XX,” Revista Musical Chilena XXXVI/158 (1982): 55. Dudeque, on the other hand, argues that Nepomuceno was strongly influenced by Beethoven and Brahms, and in support of this assertion cites numerous sections from the work’s first movement that illustrate its relationship to a classically styled sonata form.2)Norton Dudeque, “Aspectos do academicismo germânico no primeiro movimento do Quarteto n. 3 de Alberto Nepomuceno,” Ictus, periódico do PPGMUS/UFBA 7 (2006): 218-225.

As an international concert artist, Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) displayed such force and passion that she was known as the “lioness of the piano.” However, Carreño was also an accomplished composer, and not only wrote works for piano but also wrote several pieces for chamber ensembles, of which her String Quartet in B minor reveals a style that closely follows many of the common practices of her day.

For example, the chromatic and arpeggiated subject of the quasi-fugal section that brings the fourth movement to an end [example 1] seems to anticipate the fugal subject of the “Von der Wissenschaft” section of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

example-1-carreno-qtet

Begun in 1895 and finished the following year while Carreño was in Switzerland, “in the sensitive hands of the Klingler Quartet it came to life under ideal conditions in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on September 29, 1896.” 3)Marta Milinowski, Teresa Carreño: By the Grace of God, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 250-51. Although her biographer, Marta Milinowski, notes the critics’ condescension toward creative work by a woman, several months later it was reported that the German firm, E. W. Fritsch, had published the four-movement quartet.4)Juan Orrego Salas, “Los cuartetos de cuerdas de Santa Cruz,” Revista Musical Chilena VIII/42 (1952): 64.

Although chronologically separated from Nepomuceno and Carreño by over thirty years, the two quartets (1930-31 and 1946-47) of Chilean Domingo Santa Cruz are similar to the two works mentioned above especially by the way in which they reveal a harmonically dense and contrapuntal texture. Particularly influenced by Beethoven’s op. 127 quartets, Bartók’s six string quartets, and in general, by Hindemith’s “contrapuntal artifice,” the first three notes of Santa Cruz’s first string quartet [example 2, from the composer’s original lithograph] give rise to a nearly unlimited number of elements that are used throughout the entire work.

Example 2, Santa Cruz Quartet 1

One of the earliest examples of a string quartet that could be said to reveal a stylistic aesthetic influenced by Latin American folk material is Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 1915 string quartet, which in the second and third editions of the Villa-Lobos catalog5)Villa-Lobos, sua obra, 3rd edition (Rio de Janeiro: Museu Villa-Lobos, 1989), 108. is listed as his First String Quartet. I use the phrase “could be said” because actually the 1915 composition is a three-movement work that bears the title, Suíte graciosa, but in 1946 it was expanded by Villa-Lobos into six movements and premiered as his First String Quartet by the Iacovino Quartet in Rio de Janeiro.6)Lisa M. Peppercorn, “Villa-Lobos, ‘Ben Trovato,” Tempo 177 (June 1991): 32. Although the original 1915 version has not been published, and therefore cannot be examined, the fact that Villa-Lobos was, in the words of Lisa Peppercorn, an “ingenious plagiarist of his own compositions,” coupled with the folk-like characteristics of the 1946 version, would seem to suggest that the earlier version could be said to be stylistically similar.

Since that time, many Latin American string quartet composers have looked to folkloric or indigenous sound sources for inspiration. These include Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), José Vieira Brandão (1911-2002) and Alberto Ginastera (1916-83), to name but a few. Other composers, such as Cuba’s José Ardévol (1911-81), developed a style in which the relationship to one’s native region is more subtly drawn. In the first measure of the last section of the final movement of his 1958 third string quartet, the cello opens with a typical rhythmic cell known as a cinquillo. Normally, a pattern of this type would mark the beginning of melodic development, or, it would be used as a sort of ostinato in percussion or other voices (Arturo Márquez, in his Danzón No. 2, uses both of these techniques). However, from the second measure of this section the cinquillo rhythm is neither melodic nor ostinato-like; rather, with the entrance of the viola in that same measure not only does Ardévol seem to pit the rhythmic motive against itself, but also the harmonic relationship between the two voices becomes increasingly more dissonant.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of composition for string quartet that reveals styles based on imaginative interpretations of folk music. Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila’s Presto II (1988) is one of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon. At the request of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, del Aguila transformed the last movement of his second string quartet into a longer, independent piece which is a “humorous, ironic, and sometimes mocking Latin dance [that] has fun with the form and protocol of the classical string quartet tradition.”7)Nola Campbell, “Presto II for String Quartet,” American String Teacher LX/1 (February 2010): 73. Indeed, in his prefatory remarks in the score, del Aguila notes that when the piece was premiered in Vienna (where the string quartet form is sacred), the local press found it “not serious.” However, Campbell goes on to say that “it is a superb piece that would greatly enhance a performing quartet’s repertoire.”8)Campbell, “Presto II,” 73.

Other Latin American composers have opted for a more universal style that may not bear any direct relationship to the composer’s country of origin. Three recent works, by Peruvian Antonio Gervasoni (1973-) and Venezuelans Luis Ernesto Gómez (1977-) and Andrés Levell (1983-) provide good examples of this recent trend.

A graduate of the London College of Music, Gervasoni’s catalog includes chamber and symphonic music as well as music for theater and film. Composed in 2003, his Grotesque Quartet was premiered on August 7, 2008 at the Lukas David Festival in Lima, Peru. The work’s title references the gloomy and extravagant character of its four movements. Composed around the same time as the music for a theatrical adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the grotesque plot of Wilde’s novel was also an inspiration for this work. In spite of descriptive titles for each movement (Tenebrous, Ludicrous, Mysterious and Anxious), there is no plot or underlying script; rather, each title simply refers to a concept or idea with which the composer is able to describe the character of each movement.

Composed in 2003, Luis Ernesto Gómez’s first string quartet, subtitled “Picabia’s Machines,” was inspired by artist Francis Picabia’s pre-World War I vision of a contemporary civilization full of machines and of the men and women who, for the sake of their own survival, had become interchangeable with machinery. The first movement is an episode of lyrical ambience that portrays man meditating on his role in life’s growing mechanization. Each of its three sections reveals an increasing intensity and longitude until ending on a terse chord. The quartet, which was premiered in 2003 by the Friedman Quartet in Caracas, Venezuela, was revised and slightly extended by the composer in 2013.

example-3-gomez-qtet-1

Since 2008, Andrés Levell has been a member of an experimental group called “El Sagrado Familión” that musically connects itself with the world through shadows, the unconscious and ritual. In Trance, a single-movement quartet approximately eight and a half minutes long, by passing through a rustic framework of rhythms and textures, Levell explores the process of sublimation and the magical transmutation of reality as if he were trying to see the apparition of a brilliant light through a shaman’s eyes. Composed in 2004, the piece won First Prize in a national composition competition in Venezuela in 2005.

When taken as a whole, the early 20th century represents a tipping point in Latin American composition. Although the line is not clearly drawn, composers such as Nepomuceno and Carreño seem to have unquestionably embraced the late 19th century musical conventions of their day, and reference local or regional elements in a sort of coincidental way. However, as can be seen by the above examples, although 20th century Latin American composers may or may not use elements of identity, their music reveals a more deliberate approach to musical style.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Gerard Béhague, “Rasgos afrobrasileños en obras nacionalistas escogidas de compositores brasileños del siglo XX,” Revista Musical Chilena XXXVI/158 (1982): 55.
2. Norton Dudeque, “Aspectos do academicismo germânico no primeiro movimento do Quarteto n. 3 de Alberto Nepomuceno,” Ictus, periódico do PPGMUS/UFBA 7 (2006): 218-225.
3. Marta Milinowski, Teresa Carreño: By the Grace of God, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 250-51.
4. Juan Orrego Salas, “Los cuartetos de cuerdas de Santa Cruz,” Revista Musical Chilena VIII/42 (1952): 64.
5. Villa-Lobos, sua obra, 3rd edition (Rio de Janeiro: Museu Villa-Lobos, 1989), 108.
6. Lisa M. Peppercorn, “Villa-Lobos, ‘Ben Trovato,” Tempo 177 (June 1991): 32.
7. Nola Campbell, “Presto II for String Quartet,” American String Teacher LX/1 (February 2010): 73.
8. Campbell, “Presto II,” 73.

Comments 3

  • In passing I have to mention that José Lorenzo Montero, a Venezuelan 19th century composer, wrote a string quartet as the slow movement of his 4th symphony, dated 1831. Since no double bass is indicated, I wonder if Montero had the intention of composing an actual string quartet or just a string ensemble without string bass? The Venezuelan orchestras at that time where very small, so it’s possible that he might have wanted to place a quartet in the middle of his symphony. Of course, it’s never been published, but it has been performed a couple of times during the last few years. The transcription and editing of the manuscript was done by Venezuelan musicologist Coralys Arismendi, but she decided not to include the double bass in this movement. I have to say that the outcome was amazing!

    • The larger point here is that there may very well be examples of as-yet-undiscovered string quartets in public or private archives throughout Latin America. Although we can make generalizations about 19th century Latin American instrumental music based on what has become available over the years, until these and other pieces come to light we will be unable to make any conclusive statements about this repertoire. In any event, it is encouraging to see that there are musicologists in Venezuela who are engaged in this effort.

  • Excellent article! Thank you for helping promote the neglected and wonderful music for string quartet by Latin American composers. And there is a lot more to discover!

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