“What are the great French string quartet masterworks from 1880--1920? Everyone mentions the Ravel and the Debussy. But Jean Cras' highly individualistic and quite original String Quartet of 1909 matches them in every way and surpasses them in many."---The Chamber Music Journal
Nearly forgotten now for more than a half century, Jean Cras (1879-1932) stands out in stark contrast to virtually every other French composer of his generation. He was born in the coastal town of Brest into a family with a long naval tradition. Although his affinity for music and his talent showed itself early, he was, nevertheless, enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1896. But, in his spare time, he studied orchestration, counterpoint and composition. Feeling he could go no farther alone, he sought out a respected teacher, Henri Duparc. Duparc was astounded by Cras’ talent and meticulously exposed him to compositional techniques of Bach, Beethoven and his own teacher, César Franck. These were Cras' only lessons in composition.
Although he was, as so many other of his contemporaries, drawn to cyclical composition pioneered by Franck, he employed it with a unique iconoclastic language of his own. It was a meticulous and sophisticated autobiographical synthesis of the things which were paramount in his life: the sea, the Church, his native Brittany. He dedicated his quartet "To My Brittany".
The String Quartet was completed in 1909. It is written on a huge scale and lasts nearly three quarters of an hour. The opening movement, Lento, allegro, begins in a quietly but full of portent. Slowly, like a flower unfolding as in slow motion photography, tension is built and passion lurks not far behind. It bursts forth in short sudden episodes like micro-bursts in a storm. The second movement, Calme, provides a great contrast. As the movement title implies, the music is calm but it is not entirely peaceful for beneath the surface there is unrest which in time surfaces quite dramatically. The striking third movement, Vite et léger is muted. The strumming pizzicati provide the background rhythm against the racing, hectic melodic material. After a long pause comes a wonderfully contrasting trio section has a hazy, dream-like mood to it. The exciting finale, Lent, allegro molto, opens by immediately quoting thematic material from the preceding movements before moving on to a whirling, tornado-like development and new thematic material.
It is truly inexplicable and a tragedy that this superb work fell into oblivion rather than becoming part of the standard repertoire. It goes without saying that professional quartets which bring this work to the concert hall are sure to triumph. But experienced amateur players should not miss the chance to make its acquaintance.