Alexis de Castillon
String Quartet in a minor, Op.3 No.1
How to describe Alexis de Castillon's String Quartet in a minor---Extraordinary, ahead of its time, unique, deep, powerful, intricate, thorny, magnificent--all of these are applicable. The quartet dates from 1867 and was the only one he completed, although he did start a second. No one dared to publish it--it was too modern, too difficult to understand--until 1900 when Vincent d'Indy, then one of France's most famous composers, pressured the French publisher Durand to print. And even then it was considered ultra modern. Some called it the French counterpart to Beethoven's Late Quartets and indeed, one is struck by the structural similarities of Castillon's quartet and that of Beethoven's Opus 130, 131 and 132. It is in three movements, although the middle movement is in reality two in one. The work begins with an Allegro that is filled with unexpected tempo changes and sudden silences. Two themes, one con fuoco and powerful, the other calmer and more melodic, are juxtaposed throughout the substantial movement. The massive second movement begins with a short Adagio which leads to an Allegro scherzando and then concludes with an expressive Adagio molto lento. The opening mood of the finale, Molto grave, is mysterious with very modern modulations and is followed by a recitative in the first violin and more silences before a spirited fugue breaks forth.
d'Indy called Alexis de Castillon (1838-1873) the most talented instrumental French composer of the last half of the 19th century. Castillon was born in the French city of Chartres. As a member of the nobility his parents initially expected him to have a military career, which for a time he pursued, joining the imperial cavalry. However, his love of music, which came from the piano lessons he had received as a boy, led him to enter the Paris Conservatoire where he ultimately studied with CÚsar Franck. His health, always of a fragile nature, was not helped by his military service in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. His health deteriorated and he never really recovered. He composed several chamber works which his contemporaries considered to be first rate.
Out of print for nearly a century, we are pleased to reintroduce a work, which in our opinion, is the equal and as important as Beethoven's Late Quartets. To be sure, like those works, it does not yield all of its treasures on first hearing, but richly rewards those who plumb its depths. It goes without saying that this is a work which belongs in the repertoire.