The New England Transcendentalists (2003) for string quartet

Thomas Oboe Lee

About this work:

Program note.

I met the Hawthorne String Quartet in 1997 when Jim Christie and the New England Composers Recording Project brought us together to record four of my string quartets for Koch International Classics. Since then Mark Ludwig, violist and founder of the Quartet, has commissioned me to write several works for the Quartet, Musicworks, and the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation.

In the fall of 2002 I decided to return the favor with a gift of a new quartet for Mark and his colleagues, Ronan Lefkowitz, Haldan Martinson and Sato Knudsen.

The name “Hawthorne” immediately brought to mind Charles Ives’ Second Piano Sonata, also known as the “Concord Sonata,“ in which Ives composed a separate movement for each of the four Transcendentalist writers from Concord, Massachusetts: Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and Thoreau. I thought I would do the same for the string quartet.

In 1920, Charles Ives published a book, “Essays before a Sonata,” which is actually a long set of program notes for the Concord Sonata.

In my reading of the Emerson chapter, I came upon the following: “ … a Gospel hymn of simple devotion came to him---“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”---an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes---but the moment is of deeper import---there is no personal exultation---no intimate world vision---no magnified personal hope---and in their place a profound sense of a spiritual truth---a sin within reach of forgiveness. And as the hymn voices die away, there lies at his feet---not the world, but the figure of the Saviour---he sees an unfathomable courage---an immortality for the lowest---the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man’s noblest strength---and he knows that God is nothing---nothing, but love!”

I also came upon an anecdote in Ives’ “114 Songs” of a conversation between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. “The latter said that many of the hymns in use were mere pieces of cabinet work. Then his voice deepened and his eyes shone, as they did in his noblest moments, and he said, “One hymn I think supreme.” Emerson threw back his head and waited while Dr Holmes repeated the text of the following song. ‘Thou hidden love of God, whose height, whose depth, unfathomed, no man knows …’ Emerson responded, “I know that is the supreme hymn. ‘I shall be satisfied when I awake in Thy likeness.’” It took me a while, but eventually I did find Emerson’s hymn with that line; the last line is from Psalm 17. The hymn, composed by Frederic F, Bullard, 1864-1904, with texts by Longfellow, is entitled, “Lord, Hear the Right.”

I. Emerson The first movement begins with the Bullard-Longfellow hymn in a solemn mood. As it develops gradually into a series of transforming variations, Emerson in the guise of the cello takes over. The following passages from Ives’ “Essays” were inspirational. “We see him---standing on a summit at the door of the infinite, where many men do not care to climb, peering into the mysteries of life, contemplating the eternities, hurling back whatever he discovers there---now thunderbolts for us to grasp, if we can, and translate---now placing quietly, even tenderly, in our hands things that we may see without effort; if we won’t see them, so much the worse for us. Etc. ...

II. Hawthorne The second movement is a scherzo in an ABA format, played prestissimo. Once again, the following is a passage from Ives’ “Essays.” “The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical, so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, that one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse that Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet, possibly, than they---but a greater artist. Etc. ...

III. Louisa May Alcott “Concord village itself reminds one of that common virtue lying at the height and root of all the Concord deities. As one walks down the broad-arched street---passing the white house of Emerson, ascetic guard of a former prophetic beauty---he comes presently beneath the old elms overspreading the Alcott house. It seems to stand as a kind of homely but beautiful witness of Concord’s common virtue---it seems to bear a consciousness that its past is living, that the ‘mosses of the Manse’ and the hickories of Walden are not far away. Here is the home of the “Marches”---all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family, and telling, in a simple way, the story of ‘the richness of not having.’ Within the house, on every side, lie remembrances of what imagination can do for the better amusement of fortunate children who have to do for themselves---much-needed lessons in these days of automatic, ready-made, easy entertainment which deaden rather than stimulate the creative faculty. And there sits the little old spinet Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony. Etc. ...

IV. Thoreau “And if there shall be a program for our music, let it follow his thought on an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden---a shadow of a thought at first, colored by the mist and haze over the pond. But this is momentary---the beauty of the day moves him to a certain restlessness---to aspirations more specific---an eagerness for outward action---but through it all he is conscious that it is not in keeping with the mood for this “Day.” As the mists rise, there comes a clearer thought, more traditional than the first---a meditation more calm. Etc. ...

Year composed: 2003
Duration: 00:26:00
Ensemble type: Unspecified Instrument(s):Ensemble
Instrumentation: 2 Violin, 1 Viola, 1 Cello
Instrumentation notes: String quartet

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