The Quartet

(This story is fairly autobiographical–except for the part about a successful career in composition.  So far I’ve only had one piece published and one piece recorded.)

It yet haunted him, from across the Rockies, the Salt Flats, the familiar Sierras, all the way to that Polk Street, San Francisco warehouse entryway a generation lived and gone ago.  They had parked blocks away, parking spaces being the rarest of commodities in San Francisco—ten college friends out to celebrate Don’s night before his wedding with espressos at Ghiradelli Square (back then one had to drive fifty miles to find an espresso).  Flitting eagerly through deserted streets toward caffeine fueled ecstasy, they turned down Polk Street and there they most improbably were—four musicians crowded into that warehouse entry—cello, viola, violin, violin, chairs, bodies, stands, scores—and out of the throats of their instruments pure Beethoven danced joyously round the empty street.

He paused, sound struck into timeless listening.  “Hurry, hurry,” his friends called, finally laying hands on him, dragging him unwillingly away to demitasses of bitter elixir and regret.  But now, half a continent away and half a lifetime past, they forever played in his heart—hauntingly—and he forever listening.

He had gone on an after-the-wedding search, scouring record stores, buying up stringed quartets by the sackful, racing home to drop needle on vinyl, filling the room with Hi-Fi tributes to that night.  He had read, no, studied, no, consumed The Art of Stringed Quartet Performance, mining the text for nuggets.  He had stopped in at the Clef House—best music store he ever found in a life time—found the stringed quartet section, and stood there pouring over Samuel Barber’s score until he had to buy a Rachmaninoff prelude or a Schubert Impromptu to make up for the concern he had caused the store clerks.

And now his own composings—largely sketches for future sonatas and symphonies—were pushed aside while sketches for a stringed quartet began to dominate his piano rack.  Possessed, that was the only word he had to explain his obsession.

Yet at his senior composition recital it was a movement for his first piano concerto he played.  When the crowds had thinned, he was approached by a stranger.

“Michael Roark is my name, assistant conductor for the San Jose Symphony Orchestra.  Your concerto, I know I can get a premier for you when you finish the other movements.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“I know the music directors of over 50 orchestras.  I’m no composer, but when I find one of worth, I can serve as an agent, obtaining premiers of new works, promoting, that sort of thing.  All with a legal contract spelling how I will obtain for you grants and fellowships.  Here’s my card.  Call me.  I find you worthy.”

He put it off for a week, had a long talk with his parents, sat up one night listening to Schubert’s quartets while talking it out with Doug, his best friend, and gave countless sleepless nights to contemplation.  In the end, he called.  The contract was amazingly simple, understandable, and the terms reasonable.  He signed.

Orchestras want symphonies, concertos, and suites—brass, percussion, woodwinds, and strings—and with Michael’s steady garnering of commissions, he found himself writing large format works, and the stringed quartet sketches were soon buried under the growing mound of scores.  As his fame grew, so did his commissions—a cantata, another concerto, a movie score, yet another symphony—and the years passed over the stringed quartet sketches now yellowing.

His fifty-second birthday—now living in Aspen—his wife, children with spouses, and one grand baby gathered.  After cake and presents and all were in bed except the honoree, he placed a CD in his player and the glorious Beethoven C# minor Quartet lifted him out of tempus into karios.  When the last echoes of sound passed beyond hearing, he found he was weeping.  “For beauty, yes,” he thought, “but also for lose, for the stringed quartet I know lies within me under the avalanche of symphonies.”  Moving to the piano, he took up his pen and began a new sketch.

Michael called full of birthday wishes, always a day late, not wishing to intrude on family.  “Good news,” he relayed.  “Dallas wants your next concerto to open next season.  I’m sending you the contract for your approval.”

“I’ll look it over.  But, Michael, I have a birthday request for you.  All my life, I have wanted to write a stringed quartet.  I want you to find me a stringed quartet willing to premier—Julliard, Kronos—I don’t care who.  Just find me one.”

There was a long pause, Michael absorbing this request.  At last he broke silence.  “You know, stringed quartets don’t pay.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Again, silence.  Then, “I could obtain ten years of commissions within a month you know, even demanding higher commissions.  But a stringed quartet?”

“Michael, can you find me a more soulful piece than Tchaikovsky’s second movement of his first quartet?  A more delightful than Dvorak’s American?  A more stirring than Barber’s adagio?  A more joyous than the last movement of Beethoven’s 16th?  Or a more haunting than Smetana’s last movement From My Life?  Think of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, or Mozart’s, or Haydn’s.  There’s a whole world of glorious music wrongfully neglected.”

“And if you add to that body of music, will it be any less neglected?”

“Most likely, yet maybe my fame will help draw attention to what so many have missed, maybe bring new awareness to the genre.”

“You really want to do this?”

“All my life.”

“You know, it will be far more demanding—sort of like writing a sonnet in poetry.  It will tax your abilities—and your performers will be far more critical than any critic you’ve run into so far.  Are you sure you are up for this?”

“I am.”

“OK.  I’ll see what I can do.  But let me remind you—there’s no money in this.  Recordings are rare for new works and sales are so small, there will hardly be any residuals.”

“I’ve enough residuals to never write another piece and live happily pottering about my house the rest of my life, thanks to you.  Just humor me, OK?”

Michael did.  So he wrote the new concerto—and yet his heart wasn’t in it as in the past.  Most of his time was giving to the stringed quartet, writing, revising, rewriting, sometimes tearing up whole pages to start over.  Every Thursday, four friends from the Denver Symphony came up for dinner and a night of playing and criticizing the work in progress.

Michael was right.  His trial group was critical, but he was even more critical, always finding fault, always feeling how short his reality fell below his ideals.  He wanted San Francisco walk-down-the-street-into-glory.  Instead, he had nothing like.

Michael called.  The San Francisco conservatory Stringed Quartet would play the premier.

By his fifty-third birthday, he had completed only two commissions—both critical disappointments.  The quartet was still in flux.  Michael called the next day.

“S.F. wants the score for fall’s season.  Can you get it to them in time?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the matter?”

“You know how easy composition is for me—never second guessing, always confident.  But this, it torments me.  It’s in me, but no matter how hard I listen, it just isn’t in the notes I jot down.”

“Now I’ve talked to your Denver friends.  Peter absolutely loves what you have done.  He wishes you would stop revising.  Sasha thinks it surpasses Sibelius’s, rivals Shostakovich’s.  Calvin thinks two weeks max of finalizing the movements and you have a winner.  You don’t want to know what Brenda thinks.”

“What does Brenda think?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“But I do.”

“She thinks you are reaching too far, not content to write your great quartet, but trying to write The Great Quartet.

“She’s right.”

“No one will ever do that.”

“Tell that to Beethoven.”

“So what do I tell S.F.?”

“I’ll send it as soon as it is done.”

“Soon, make it soon.”

He took the two weeks Calvin suggested, tightened up some of the looser ends, smoothed out a rough spot or two, shook his head over the first movement’s exposition, re-wrote the second movement’s coda, added an extensive pizzicato section for the viola in the Presto movement, rewrote measures 33-68 of the finale, yet when he set the supposedly finished work before his friends, and when they had played through it, he felt nothing but despair.  This was not the stringed quartet he longed to place before the world.

“Stringed quartets around the world will be clamoring to play this,” argued Sasha.

“This is beyond my expectations,” exclaimed Calvin.

He just shook his head.

“You send this in,” argued Peter.  “Consider it a learning process.  You will receive numerous requests for your second quartet.  This one won’t be seen as a failure, but as one of the greatest quartets since Brahms.  Your second will be even greater.  And each one after that one as well.”

But the next morning, he tossed the manuscript in his fireplace.  He carefully stoked the fire until nothing was left but ash.  Then he began afresh.

“Dukas burned nearly everything he wrote,” protested Michael.  “Those who had played his music considered him a master and mourned the works of genius he forever destroyed.  Even what little survived are treasured as masterworks.  Are you to be another Dukas, depriving the world of you masterpiece?”

“It’s not the same.”

“I disagree.  So now I have to tell S.F. there’s no chance of the promised quartet.  No.  That’s unacceptable.  Set down like Handel and give me something I can send them by May.  May.  This Year.  Not a year from now.”

“I’ll try.”

“Do it.”

He wondered if being in San Francisco would help.  He wrote the Montalvo Arts Foundation and was granted one of the residences for two months.  He flew out, arriving at the Villa mid-day.  He quickly unpacked, checked out the piano reserved for his use, then he took a walk about the grounds—down through the formal gardens, around behind the villa to the amphitheater, climbing up one of the stone stairs, then up one of the trails through the chaparral into the redwoods.  That night he wrote out eighty measures—the new adagio theme.

That weekend, he drove up to San Francisco.  Parking was even a rarer commodity than he had remembered.  After fruitless blocks of taken spaces, he found a place near the yacht harbor.  It was a bit of a walk—far longer than that far gone night—but at last he found himself on Polk Street.  Yet that also was not the Polk Street of his youth.

The warehouse was gone—whether torn down or sporting a new façade, he could not tell.  The entryway no longer existed and he could not be sure even which building it had been.  He walked on down to Ghiradelli Square, a last attempt at remembrance, but even the espresso shop was gone, replaced by a tourist trap.

He took the long way back—down the coast highway—pulling off in Montero to stop at the Village Green for tea and scones.  Here he blundered about forgotten lanes, finally found the green, but the delightful English tea shop was gone.  With that, he abandoned his plan to drive down to Santa Cruz, taking the highway at Half Moon Bay across the peninsula, then south to the villa.

It was two days afterward before he could return to work on the quartet.  He primarily composed from memory, regaining much of the music he had burnt.  Even yet he revised, yet within a month, he completed the score and flew home to Colorado.

The following Thursday, his friends played through the work.  As before, they approved, congratulated him, predicted the work’s success.

But he knew he hadn’t accomplished what he wanted, hadn’t written the quartet he knew was in him.  In the two days he had sat in the Montalvo studio not writing, he had realized he would never write that quartet.  Like the warehouse, the Village Green, the espresso shop, that quartet lay hidden in his past, no longer available.  His best was but a pale image, a fading echo.

He mailed the quartet to Michael.  Then he put the CD of Schuman’s Third Symphony in his player and lost himself in its beauty for a brief while, ignoring what he had learned about himself.  Yet before the symphony concluded, he turned it off.  Already he was planning his next concerto.

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