String Quartet No. 1 'dance of death/dream of love’'
- in four movements: (i) Farewell; (ii) Paradiso; (iii) Animato Nervosa; (iv) Dance of Death/Dream of Love
for string quartet


- Instrumentation: -

2 violins

- Duration: -

Approximately 23 minutes.

- Recordings & Soundclips: -

There is a good quality live recording of this work (enquire via Daniel X Music).

listen to the 2nd Movement - 'Paradiso'
(full-length - 3 minutes 4 seconds - 2.8MB MP3)

- Score: -

Available from composer - please enquire.

- Origins/Commission/Dedications: -

Originally commissioned by The Bochmann Quartet.

- Premieres/Performances: -

‘String Quartet No. 1’ was premiered by The Bochmann Quartet at the The Bridewell Theatre, London, 2002.

- Press: -

Misfit City (music e-zine):

"Initially it seems perverse for the Bochmann Quartet to sandwich Keith Burstein's new composition between two gems of classical string assurance (Mozart's 'Quartet In G, K387' and Beethoven's 'Quartet In F Opus 18 No. 1'). Surely Burstein's work belongs with the moderns... whoever they are in these days of "post"s and "quasi"s. But maybe not. Burstein's "post-atonal" compositions are far from the deconstructed chance/hazard/subjective strategy of the Cage and Stockhausen traditions, from the shocking trills and tangles of Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, or even from the complex, angry clash of Turnage. And his passionate defence of renewed tonality suggests he's spinning back towards the arms of classical music, where the breadth of human emotion can be represented in harmonious, resolvable tone colours; and where every piece contains all the pointers to a final flourish, a final satisfying closure of emotion before the dignified applause.

"Well... not quite. The actual separation is made explicit by the Bochmanns' assured navigation of Mozart's enlightened equations beforehand, and by their stately walkthrough of Beethoven's forest moods afterwards: each eminently satisfying. It's not just the qualities of musicianship from all four players - committed and graceful throughout. It's the way that those familiar pieces, rich in harmony and involvement, leave a pure satisfaction in their wake. Our educated, structured culture still prizes its rationality: and the patterns of classical music run through this, reassuring us that whatever emotions we go through, all will pass to resolution. And of all compositions, string quartets (as Bochmann cellist Peter Adams reminds us) were once considered the pinnacle of composed music: that which implies an ideal for living, for feeling.

"While Burstein's 'String Quartet No. 1' (which sports, with mediaeval directness, a subtitle of 'Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love') does reflect this duty far more than does the dissonance and overt chaos of modernity and post-modernity, Burstein remains too honest to simply copy the balance of classical music's ideals. Marked by different times - when ideals are less easy to envisage, let alone achieve - 'String Quartet No. 1' is rooted in 'The Year's Midnight', Burstein's earlier choral meditation on the Holocaust. It draws on the bitter nourishment of bereavement; and of the splintered confusion when the rudder of faith snaps and incomprehensible chaos seems to have moved in for good. Contained in a shell of formal behaviour and formal tonality, it illustrates disturbance with diffident, insinuating elegance.

"'Farewell' builds out of gently interleaving, swelling tonal planes - each instrument alternating through slow arcs of intensity, circulating restlessly. An elegy, for certain, but one in which decorum and dissension mix like the conflicting undercurrents of grief at a death. Complex emotions hauled up skittering into the open; a disagreeing family protesting mutely and piecemeal at the funeral speeches, their disagreement only in betrayed by the shifting of tense shoulders and the blur of lips. Similar in its morbid beauty to the disturbed vigil-music of Billy Strayhorn's 'Blood Count', 'Farewell' is tolled to silence by Adams' tense cello before Burstein conjures an aspirantly wounded passage with a translucent Taverner frugality. Launched achingly upwards, it's kept airborne by the Bochmann Quartet's gritted bowing, both composition and performance feeling like the heroic efforts of straining birds' wings.

"As a counterweight - a celebration of ongoing lives and commitments in the face of loss - 'Paradiso' is a wedding dedication. Filled with serenity, lofted on a bluesy cello arpeggio, its aspirational qualities are nonetheless shaded by rich, dissenting harmonies. Here, Burstein seems to have captured the discolourations of love: its small perversities, the need for steering, the impossibility of a pure love in a troubled world but the sheer necessity of striving towards it.

"'Animato Nervosa' seems to show the alternative - or what happens if loss and fear are allowed to overshadow life. Distracted and lonely, it suggests a neurotic correctness forever threatened by worry. The vivid spectre of collapse tugs constantly at its order and structure, the disturbance led by Adams' increasingly aggressive cello lines. More brittle than the preceding movements, it's also more obvious in its violence. The title is as much medical as musical - the dissension hovering in 'Farewell' is ingrained here. It's more personal, more destructive in the fierce shying of the melodies; and it's here that the Bochmann Quartet show a darker mettle in the broken, conflicting string lines. As Adams delivers a final growling, twisted stab, there's a tense pause; then Helen Roberts replies - and seals the movement - with a vicious snap of viola strings.

"The final movement 'Totentanz/Liebestraum' sees Burstein draw more sharply on the Jewish music in his background and on the collective bereavement which informed 'The Year's Midnight'. The nervous jazzy energy and cartoonish structures of Kletzmer folk music both energise the piece and seem to set it up for wreckage. In the rush of the dance, Michael Bochmann and Mark Messenger deliver bold violin strokes, which grow gradually more and more frantic, almost leaping backwards onto each other's toes. All is suddenly cut off, leaving all four musicians rocking precariously on the brink of a void. From here, the Quartet seems to be picking up pieces of music and attempting fearfully to rethread them on a sobre spine of cello. At last, love's dream melody arrives - but as comforting as it is, it's also shot through with trauma. Not least by the return of the tolling cello from the first movement.

"Burstein's work is more tuneful and more polite than much of what we're accustomed to from today's abrasive, bullishly challenging concert-hall premieres. But in its mannered English way, it's just as confrontational about the fears that beset us."

- Composer’s comments: -

The String Quartet No. 1 is one of the few moments of autobiography in my output, as my music usually expresses themes or purposes of external origin. Of course, all music is to a degree autobiographical, reflecting the maker’s experience. But this was different - a moment in my life of personal loss, which I can now connect in hindsight with wider events as well. It is not hard to find valedictory themes in my work, and the quartet reads as such - although it records not bereavement, but the end of a particular sort of love relationship.

There are certain different kinds of love. The kind which inspired the Quartet doesn’t visit very often - probably only once in a lifetime, if at all – and was the sort that seemingly connects the soul not just with the beloved, but with the whole cosmos. So, when this had to end, there was tremendous danger. Such disconnection could pass itself off quite easily as a natural exit point from the mortal coil. Disengagement from such a connection can be fatal.

That process of disengagement - or the acceptance of it - is what is described in ‘Farewell’, the first movement of the Quartet. The following movements represent a kind of metaphysical dreaming beyond an impossible experience. The final denouement is one of trying to heal the unhealable, of peering over into what is unknowable.

I found that the quartet form was the only medium that could express such processes. Looking back, perhaps it was natural for me to turn to this most intimate medium in crisis, as it also evoked my parents (both of whom were orchestral violinists). To that extent, the Quartet reflects my origin and my whole world.

The wider perspective within the piece also includes the transit of the millennium and the breaking with the 20th century (for those of us who had grown up in it, our home). As part of this process, I also tried to recall and accept the horrific event of the Holocaust and those who perished in it. This is represented in the kletzmer-style music of the finale, within which I also embraced and celebrated the Jewish band ambience of family evenings in my childhood. My father is of Russian-Jewish ancestry and despite his Anglicisation, maintained a powerful emotional connection with his heritage. I also have strong memories of my uncles and aunts on violins, accordion and piano, playing music with a vivid Jewish mood.

- Keith Burstein, 14th November 2009



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