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ClassicsOnline Home » ARRIAGA: String Quartets (Complete)
By James Carson
Interest in the music of Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga
began to revive in the late nineteenth century. Since
then, his works have earned the admiration of the music
world, confirming the fact that his premature death
meant the loss not only of an individually brilliant
composer, but also perhaps of a significant link in the
development of musical history itself.
Arriaga was born in Bilbao on 27th January 1806
and soon became renowned in the city’s musical circles.
His earliest compositions include the divertimento Nada
y mucho (1817), the Overture for nonet, Op. 1, and the
two-act opera Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves),
which was completed in 1819 and first performed to
great acclaim in Bilbao a year later. That same year
Arriaga wrote the Tema variado en cuarteto, Op. 17,
and La húngara, a theme and variations for violin and
ad libitum bass.
In 1821 he moved to Paris, where he studied the
violin with Pierre Baillot and composition with
François-Joseph Fétis. He put in very long hours,
working both as a performer and as Fétis’s teaching
assistant in his counterpoint and fugue classes. The great
majority of his extant works date from his time in Paris:
three string quartets, a number of stage works such as
Agar and Erminia, the Symphony and the Three Studies
or Caprices for piano. His excessive workload is the
most probable cause of the pulmonary infection that led
to his death in 1826.
Arriaga’s three string quartets were published in
Paris as the Premier Livre de quatuors in 1824 and,
given the composer’s early death, can be seen as works
of relative maturity. These most accomplished pieces
are rich in melody, with enormous technical precision in
the contrapuntal writing of the different parts. Arriaga’s
genius for invention comes through in their innovative
movement layout and structure, which differ somewhat
from traditional models.
The Quartet No. 1 in D minor comprises four
movements. The first, Allegro, develops a mournful
theme to which a second, folk-inspired idea then
responds. The Adagio is based on a long drawn-out
phrase for first violin. In place of a scherzo, the third
movement is a Menuet, whose trio features pizzicato
chords with a guitar-like accompaniment. An adagio
phrase which unexpectedly recurs before the conclusion
acts as an introduction to the Allegretto finale.
Quartet No. 2 in A major is formally the most
traditional of the three. The atmosphere of the Allegro is
one of great vitality, in which the four instruments
converse together, the four parts being remarkably
independent but well balanced. The Andante con
variaciones takes the place of a slow movement, the last
variation created by a pizzicato effect. The Menuetto is
followed by a cadenza-like passage which is repeated in
the final Allegro, after the exposition.
Quartet No. 3 in E flat major is the most technically
developed of the three pieces. The opening unison in the
Allegro is followed by a concertante interchange of
motifs between the instruments, the development being
marked by its expressive nature and shifts in tonality.
The second movement is a Pastorale rather than an
Adagio, whose different episodes feature various
descriptive effects, for example the tremolo to suggest a
storm. Arriaga then lifts his thematic writing to a high
point in the final Presto agitato.
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ARRIAGA: String Quartets (Complete)