ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94

by Walter Simmons

ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94. Ad Hoc String Quartet (Paul Vanderwerf, David Belden, violins; Diedre Buckley, viola; James Fellenbaum, cello); Mark Ottesen, viola. ALBANY TROY210 [DDD]; 66:32. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

The string quartet is a particularly revealing medium through which to examine a composer’s methods. Thus this new release offers a fascinating perspective on the compositional development of Arnold Rosner. As the opus numbers suggest, the works span quite a few years, the earliest dating from 1963, when Rosner was 17 and had yet to undertake formal study in composition, and the latest from 1991, when he was 46. Observing what elements remain constant throughout and what elements have changed provides considerable insight into the fundamental aesthetic intentions and priorities of this remarkable figure, who has amassed one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic bodies of work of any American composer of his generation (see interview in Fanfare 14:5, pp. 414ff).

As those who have already heard and read about his music are aware, Rosner carved out a unique language for himself at a rather young age, vehemently rejecting the serialism that was fashionable when he was a student, along with every other “ism” that has come along since then, as well as much of the sophisticated development through which tonal composition has evolved during the past three hundred years. What he has devised instead is a language oriented chiefly around triadic harmony unencumbered by the obligations of tonal relationships. That is, the hierarchical functions through which chords are linked to each other to support a perception of tonalitv are disregarded. Hence, tonally unrelated chords serve to diminish tonal stability, while the avoidance of dissonance creates an acoustical purity that suggests a corresponding spiritual/emotional purity. Melodies are often modal, with catchy turns of phrase that are instantly recognizable as Rosner’s own; rhythm is generally very simple and straightforward, although patterns may be combined in more subtle, complex ways; counterpoint is used more as a “special effect” than as a natural aspect of melodic development, so that textures are often starkly homophonic.

I have been called to task in some quarters for using the word “primitivistic” in describing Rosner’s music, as if I were criticizing his compositional technique as inadequate. However, I am sure that, with a doctorate in music theory, Rosner was sufficiently exposed to advanced compositional techniques. What I meant to describe was a deliberate repudiation of much of that technical apparatus, not unlike what motivated Alan Hovhaness– whose music Rosner’s often resembles– and the original minimalists– whose music Rosner’s only occasionally resembles. This repudiation is implied rather defiantly in the program notes to this recording when, after enumerating his various composition teachers, he adds, “from whom I learned practically nothing.” The result is a direct, elemental type of expression, through which a wide range of emotions-including some very extreme states of mind– is presented without the dilution or distillation that often emerges from more complex elaboration. It is probably this directness– as well as the catchy melodies– that makes Rosner’s music so accessible to so many general listeners.

What I find most remarkable after listening to this disc is how different in form and expressive content each piece is, despite the rather restricted vocabulary within which Rosner chooses to work. This is not only true when considering Quartets Nos. 2, 3, and 5, but also No. 4, which is available on an Opus One CD (No. 150). The second quartet comprises one multi-sectional movement, largely based on the opening theme, a pregnant, wide-arching melody, essentially diatonic, but with some chromatic touches. In a number of ways, this quartet is “pure Rosner”– a work that displays many of the composer’s favorite effects and devices, often in their most blatant and obvious presentation, without the more sophisticated integration that occurs in later works. These effects and devices, which may be read as mannerisms or as stylistic traits, depending on one’s general sympathy toward the music, include major-minor juxtapositions, sudden shifts between moments of aggressive ferocity and ecstatic rapture, the familiar Shostakovich “galloping” rhythmic pattern, symmetrical phrases repeated in sequence, jolly jig-like tunes, and hymnlike pseudo-Renaissance modal polyphony. Yet despite its immaturity, the Quartet No. 2 is endearing for the authenticity of its conviction, as well as for its moments of incandescent fervor.

The third quartet was composed two years later, but underwent some significant revisions in 1992, in anticipation of its premiere performance by the Ad Hoc Quartet. I gather that the revisions were largely matters of tightening the structure so that, except for one episode, the music itself represents original date of composition. The longest of the composer’s string quartets, it is also the most conventionally structured, with three movements, of which the first is a sonata allegro form. Yet its basic style is essentially the same as that of its predecessor, its Classical aspects quite subsumed within Rosner’s unique and highly personalized rhetoric. This rhetoric does entail filling out forms with a good deal of literal repetition, likely to appall less indulgent listeners. But those who are captivated by Rosner’s infectious tunes and by his strange juxtapositions of emotional and musical content will not be d isappointed by this work (or by any other on this disc).

No. 4 is my favorite of Rosner’s string quartets, and rather than omit it from this discussion, I will draw the following comments from my review, which appeared in Fanfare 14:5 (p. to which I refer interested listeners. “Composed in 1972, this highly personal work carries to powerful extremes Rosner’s distinctive manner of turning ancient forms and devices to contemporary expressive purposes . . . . The Quartet No. 4 is one of Rosner’s most fully realized works — tightly constructed both expressively and motivically. Its virile, full-bodied — at times aggressively violent– use of the quartet medium may bring Shostakovich to mind, while its eerie serenity and sense of timeless spirituality may remind others of Arvo Part. Yet it maintains a stylistic consistency throughout. In fact, its prevailing tone of grim intensity, its resolute, unvarying D-Minor tonality, and its two successive slow movements — each based on a variation form — may be “too much” (in the Allan Pettersson sense for some listeners, while others will find its emotional urgency arresting and compelling.”

Rosner composed his Quartet No. 5 in 1977. In this work (and in No. 4 the elements found in the earlier quartets are integrated with somewhat more assurance, sophistication, and sense of unity. Reminders of Hovhaness and Shostakovich are less apparent, while other elements that have concerned Rosner in more recent works– techniques and sounds suggesting the music of India, busy textural patterns that evoke a trance-like mood, somewhat along the lines of the minimalists —  are more prominent. The quartet reminds me of the two-piano Of Numbers and of Bells(composed six years later), which has proven to be so popular, although I find that both works are stretched out longer than their substance can sustain.

The latest work on the disc is the Duet for Violas, composed in 1991. As I readily though not with pride) admit, music for unaccompanied unilinear instruments rarely appeals to me, and pieces for two such instruments don’t fare much better (although I do love the Bartok violin duos and some similar works by Kodaly and Martinu, come to think of it).  But Rosner’s eight-minute duo is surprisingly effective. Its two sections follow a slow-fast format and display a tightness of focus and concentration of expressive intensity reflective of a greater compositional maturity. I find it a thoroughly consummated work, and other skeptical listeners are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

The Ad Hoc String Quartet, based in Chicago, has devoted a great deal of time and effort to bringing Rosner’s chamber music to a wider audience, and they are to be commended for their courage, dedication, and generally fine results. But those who are the first to bring unusual and neglected works to life face such a challenge in creating an initial coherent statement that their renditions are rarely definitive. Besides, though generally easy to read and play, Rosner’s music requires impeccable intonation, his chromatically related triads requiring an attentiveness to enharmonic distinctions, e.g., the difference between C-sharp and D-flat. Approximations that would be tolerated in more conventionally tonal music — and in more dissonant music — can sound noticeably wrong in Rosner’s peculiar syntax. The performances on this disc are serviceable and valuable in making these works available to the listening public, but readings of greater precision and refinement will represent the music more convincingly.

Rosner enthusiasts will need no encouragement to grab this new release. Those who have yet to discover his music might better begin with the orchestral disc on Laurel (LR-849CD; Fanfare 13:3, pp. 279ff). And when will we hear one of Rosner’s six symphonies?