String Quartet No.1 in c minor, Op.3
Joseph Jongen (1873-1953), on the strength of an amazing precocity for music, entered the Liege Conservatory (in Belgium) at the extraordinarily young age of seven where he spent the next sixteen years. The admission board was not disappointed. Jongen won a First Prize for Fugue in 1891, an honors diploma in piano the next year and another for organ in 1896 . In 1897, he won the prestigious Grande Prix de Rome which allowed him to travel to Italy, Germany and France. He began composing at the age of 13 and immediately exhibited extraordinary talent. By the time he published his opus one, he already had dozens of works to his credit.
His monumental and massive String Quartet No.1 was composed in 1894 and entered in the annual competition for fine arts held by the Royal Academy of Belgium where it was awarded the top prize by the jury. Its extraordinary power and virtuosity was immediately recognized not only in Belgium but also in France, England and Germany, where it was performed with regularity until after the First World War when highly romantic works went out of fashion.
String Quartet No.1 clearly showcases the outstanding compositional technique which Jongen had at his command. The first movement, Adagio-Allegro risoluto, begins with an incredibly powerful and pregnant slow introduction. The main part of the movement combines an almost frantic, headlong-rushing main theme with a more lyrical second one. It is impossible to give an idea of the massive second movement, Adagio--Allegro agitato--Adagio, without giving a soundbite of both the beautiful slower opening as well as the dance-like second section. Next is an Allegro scherzando--Prestissimo--Tempo di Scherzando, basically a scherzo with a trio section--but here the scherzando is slower and more dance-like while the middle section powerfully blasts forward at incredible speed. The satisfying finale, Allegro molto, is painted on a huge tonal canvas and combines rhythmic force with lyrical melody.
This quartet was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and remains so today. That it is not better known and has not entered the repertoire must in part be explained by the fact that Jongen remained nearly his entire life in tiny Belgium outside of the purview of mainstream musical Europe. Any quartet performing this fine work will be richly rewarded.