Monday 12 February 2024

Germaine Tailleferre: String Quartet (1917-19)

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) was in her mid-twenties when she composed her String Quartet. It was around the end of the First World War. At this time, Tailleferre was in the same artistic set as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. It was these connections that led to her early successes. She was introduced to the Paris musical establishment during a concert given in the studio of one of her painter friends. Her Sonatine for String Quartet along with the Jeux de Pleine Aire were well received, along with pieces by Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc. After the concert, the Sonatine was revised into the present String Quartet – with the addition of the finale.

Listeners may detect echoes of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major (1902-03). There are specific similarities and dissimilarities from the Ravel’s essay. For a start, Tailleferre’s Quartet is one movement shy of Ravel’s and is a full 10 minutes shorter! However, the opening Modéré is certainly reminiscent of the model. There is an intimate feel about her quartet that epitomises chamber music at its best. Some mild dissonances in this first movement add spice and interest to a well-wrought piece. The Intermède is mysterious rather than dark or depressing. Perhaps enigmatic is the best description? Yet there is cross-referencing to the Modéré in these pages. The Final is by far the lengthiest – being as long as the previous two together. This music is quite aggressive and even dissonant in places. There are some quasi-motor rhythms used although they do not last for long before being cast aside. These are interspersed with moments of repose. A chorale type phrase emerges before the work comes to a quiet but memorable conclusion.

There is considerable variety in this Quartet – one could even argue there is a stylistic disparity between the parts. Yet one way or another it does have unity. Is this created by internal self-referencing? And one final comment - any comparison with Ravel must bear in mind that the world had moved on since 1904 – the First World War was still raging across Europe when Germaine Tailleferre penned this composition. And then there was Schoenberg…

Is this a great work? I do not know but it is certainly beautifully written, intellectually satisfying and quite moving which suggests that this could well be the case.

Listen to Germaine Tailleferre’s String Quartet on YouTube, here. It is played by the Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet and features the score.


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