Turmoil echoed by Saygun’s string quartet

No darkness without light. © Charles Thibo

Haunting melodies – perhaps this describes the essence of Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35. Franz Schubert catapulted into the second half of the 20th century. 1958: Europe  caught up in the Cold War, France struggling with decolonization, a Fascist regime in Spain and a young Muslim nation guarding NATO’s southern flank – Turkey. A world in turmoil. 1958: Riots between Turks and Greeks shake the Anatolian peninsula, the economy is in deep trouble, a military coup is in the air. Turkey in turmoil.

When you listen to a work in which Schubert expresses despair, misery, humiliation you will always find at least some consoling element, some delicate, fragile melody. The picture will never be black only, their will always be a spark of light symbolising hope. Dmitry Shostakovich has worked this silver thread into the fabric of many of his quartets and Saygun has followed suit in his String Quartet No. 2. It had been commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in Washington and was performed for the first time by the Julliard Ensemble in 1958, the year of its completion. The recording by the Quatuor Danel recreates this contrast between optimism and despair.

Motivic cells and ever-changing dynamics

The first movement opens on a gentle, somewhat melancholic melody for the viola. After 10 bars this theme is reduced to pieces by intermittent string figures, then the melody comes back and again destruction – a permanent struggle with ever-changing dynamics. Emotional, disturbing, fascinating! I love this movement, aptly named “cupo” (dark, sombre) by Saygun. The next movement starts with a drawn out single note for the first violin, tension builds up right from the beginning. The second violin breaks the moment with a few rapid bow strokes. The first violin starts anew with a melody – and gets interrupted again. A delicate col legno* fir the viola introduces a menacing element and adds to the weirdness, but the violin does not give up, it sketches its gentle melody anew… and leaves me startled by the fact that these motivic cells add up to a harmonic whole.

The third movement start on a nervous note, introduced by the cello, picked up by the 2nd, followed by a long, tense part where pizzicato* alternate with rapidly played three-note-figures for all four instruments, again sketching a melody. It sounds light-hearted and jaunty, but you anticipate already that this mood is not going to last. Strident tones break the illusion and a reflective melody sets, again troubled by abrupt changes of tempo and disjunct chords. Each time I listen to it, I discover some new sound, some new sub-theme that I haven’t heard the previous time. The finale takes off again on a calm, gentle melody and is marked by a fugue subject.

A strong and compelling work

The Turkish conductor Emre Araci quotes in his PhD thesis on Saygun’s life and works an American critic who called String Quartet No. 2 “a wonderfully strong, compelling and original composition […] It has the blood of Bartok in it, and the finale, a fugue with the most electrifying counter subject you have heard for years…” Bela Bartok and Saygun closely cooperated for some time and the chamber music written by the Turkish composer is stylistically very close to Bartok. Both composers were keen to use elements of folks songs and traditional dances and marry them to the classical music tradition centered on Vienna and Paris.

Haunting melodies, skillfully arranged contrasts and maximal expressiveness – Saygun’s works merit to be known and appreciated by a larger audience.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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