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About this Piece

Amy Beach’s String Quartet in One Movement, Op. 89 was sketched out in 1921 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Inspired by the three “meagre” (Beach’s word) Eskimo or Inuit tunes she used as themes, Beach created a work that is at once dissonant and chromatic yet lyrical, tonally grounded in G minor but with extended sections where the music never settles on any key. While wintering in Rome in 1929, Beach completed the String Quartet with minor revisions and had a local quartet play it for her. Back in the States, there were a number of performances during the 1930s, beginning with an invitational program given in New York in January, 1931 by the Society of American Women Composers, of which Beach was a founder and the first president. Its final performance during her lifetime was at a festival of Beach’s music at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, DC, in November 1942 to celebrate her 75th birthday. Reviewers found it a work of “unusual beauty.”

The one-movement quartet is in modified arch form and framed by a slow, dissonant introduction that is free-composed. The body of the quartet is based on three Inuit melodies, out of which Beach fashioned not only the themes but also the work’s entire texture. Following the introduction, the unaccompanied viola presents the first Inuit melody, quoting it almost verbatim. The other three strings immediately join the viola in the second, lyrical theme, also based on an Inuit melody. A more martial note is soon sounded, but the lyrical first theme returns to close the slow section. The Allegro molto section is based on a third Inuit melody which undergoes extensive development, as does the martial theme. The centerpiece of the Allegro molto is a fugue with its subject, countersubject, and total texture developed out of the third Inuit theme. Throughout the work, double-stopped chords punctuate the various sections, their dissonances resolved only in the final bars of the work. In the quartet, Beach produced one of her finest works: a successful integration of art and folk music, and a truly “American” composition. —Adrienne Fried Block,