String Quartet No. 1 in d minor
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was born in New York City and studied music at Harvard and the Eastman Conservatory. After graduating, he studied with Gian Francesco Malipiero in Italy before return to the States to take up a number of teaching positions at Harvard, Virginia and the Curtis Institute. Among his many students was Leonard Bernstein. He wrote in most genres but was best known for his choral works.
Thompson's First String Quartet dates from 1941 and was the result of a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, perhaps the most important sponsor of chamber music compositions in the first half of the 20th century. Thompson commented that Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets served as his model, though not, of course, tonally. The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins with an urgent, driving rhythmic theme. One can hear a bit of American fiddle tunes. A more lyrical second theme provides fine contrast. The broad second movement, Lento e tristo, begins with the cello present a heart-felt melody. Then comes a scherzo, Vivace ma non troppo, in which Thompson employs several meters, changes of dynamics and articulation to achieve a 20th century, very American sounding, version of what Beethoven managed in his Op.59 No.1 scherzo. A meno mosso section interrupts the scherzo twice. The finale, Allegro appassionato, begins with a downward moving, organ-like introduction, before the lyrical main subject makes its appearance. (our soundbite starts here) passionate theme, full of pathos but the quartet finds its way to a peaceful resolution as it ends.
This is a very fine work which American performing groups would do well to program and certainly to take with them on tours abroad as well as at home. As it presents no technical hurdles, it can also be heartily recommended to amateur quartet groups.