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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) completed his Three Pieces for String Quartet in the summer of 1914 while living in the Alpine town of Salvan south of Lake Geneva. The score has been described as “a complete revolt not only against the string quartet as traditionally conceived, but against the very nature of the stringed instruments themselves.” Stravinsky loved to experiment with new sounds and styles. Throughout the work, he revels in thumbing his nose at tradition by ignoring the sustained singing quality usually associated with string writing.

The set of quartet miniatures is actually an offshoot of Stravinsky’s working with the non-classical rhythms and melodic contours of Russian peasant music, the basis of Les noces, which was also being written the same year. With its small rhythmic and melodic cells repeated with slight changes, Stravinsky seems to have stumbled onto a minimalist vocabulary more than a half century ahead of time. The first piece offers a splendid example.

In “Dance,” Stravinsky layers four elements in phrases of different lengths. The first violin theme remains in the narrow range of a fourth; the viola provides a pedal point reminiscent of a folksy drone; the second violin specializes in a phrase played “very dryly,” which it inserts from time to time; and the cello repeats a single phrase in a drumming pizzicato.

The fragmented, offbeat patterns of the nearly atonal “Eccentric” were inspired by a performance of the English music-hall clown, Little Tich, which the composer had seen in London a few weeks before. Stravinsky remarked that “the jerky, spastic movement, the ups and downs, the rhythm – even the mood or the joke of the music – was suggested by the art of the great clown.”

In place of a rousing finale, Stravinsky offers a dirge-like essay in the liturgical-inspired “Canticle,” where dark, dissonant chants are answered by brief, brighter responses. Stravinsky was fond of this movement and considered the last 20 measures “some of the best music of that time.”

Originally conceived as abstract music, the work made its debut on November 8, 1915 in Chicago. Stravinsky later added the titles when he arranged the Three Pieces as the first three of his Four Etudes for Orchestra in 1928.

— Kathy Henkel