Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 (2012-2013)
Performed by the Pacifica Quartet
Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3
I. That which happened
III. “If I perish – do not let my paintings die.”
IV. Shards, Memory
Program Notes for Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 by Shulamit Ran
My third string quartet was composed at the invitation of the Pacifica Quartet, whose music-making I came to know intimately and admire greatly when they were resident performing artists at the University of Chicago (1999-2016). The piece was commissioned for Pacifica by Music Accord, Inc., Suntory Hall, and Wigmore Hall.
In our early conversations, Pacifica proposed that this quartet might, in some manner, refer to the visual arts as a point of germination. Probing further, I found out that the quartet members had special interest in art created during the earlier part of the 20th century, perhaps between the two world wars.
It was my good fortune to have met, a short while later, while in residence at the American Academy in Rome in the fall of 2011, art conservationist Albert Albano who steered me to the work of Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), a German-Jewish painter who, like so many others, perished in the Holocaust at a young age, and who left some powerful, deeply moving art that spoke to the life that was unraveling around him.
The title of my string quartet takes its inspiration from a major exhibit devoted to art by German artists of the period of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) titled “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” first shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006-2007. Nussbaum would have been a bit too young to be included in this exhibit. His most noteworthy art was created in the last very few years of his short life. The exhibit’s evocative title, however, suggested to me the idea of “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” as a way of framing a possible musical composition that would be an homage to his life and art, and to that of so many others like him during that era. Knowing that their days were numbered, yet intent on leaving a mark, a legacy, a memory, their art is triumph of the human spirit over annihilation.
Parallel to my wish to compose a string quartet that, typically for this genre, would exist as “pure music,” independent of a narrative, was my desire to effect an awareness in my listener of matters which are, to me, of great human concern. To my mind there is no contradiction between the two goals. As in several other words composed since 1969, this is my way of saying “do not forget” – something that, I believe, can be done through music with special power and poignancy.
The individual titles of the quartet’s four movements give an indication of some of the emotional strands this work explores.
- “That which happened” (das was geschah) is how the poet Paul Celan referred to the Shoah – the Holocaust. These simple words served for me, in the first movement, as a metaphor for the way in which an “ordinary” life, with its daily flow and its sense of sweet normalcy, was shockingly, inhumanely, inexplicitly shattered.
- “Menace” is a shorter movement, mimicking a scherzo. It is also machine-like, incessant, with an occasional, recurring, waltz-like little tune – perhaps the chilling grimace we recognize from the executioner’s guillotine mask. Like the death machine it alludes to, it gathers momentum as it goes, and is unstoppable.
- “If I perish – do not let my paintings die.” These words are by Felix Nussbaum who, knowing what lay ahead, nonetheless continued painting until his death in Auschwitz in 1944. If the heart of the first movement is the shuddering interruption of life as we know it, the third movement tries to capture something of what I can only imagine to be the conflicting states of mind that would have made it possible, and essential, to continue to live and practice one’s art: bearing witness to the events. Creating music have been, for Nussbaum and for so many others, a way of maintaining sanity, both a struggle and a catharsis – an act of defiance and salvation all at the same time.
- “Shards, Memory” is a direct reference to my quartet’s title. Only shards are left. And memory. The memory is of things large and small, of unspeakable tragedy, but also of the song and the dance, the smile, the hopes. All things human. As we remember, in the face of death’s silence, we restore dignity to those who are gone.
Shulamit Ran music has been praised as “gloriously human”; “compelling not only for its white-hot emotional content but for its intelligence and compositional clarity”; and “she has written with the same sense of humanity found in Mozart’s most profound opera arias or Mahler’s searching symphonies.”
Shulamit began composing songs to Hebrew poetry at the age of seven in her native Israel. By nine she was studying composition and piano with some of Israel’s most noted musicians, and within several years was having her early works performed by professional musicians, as well as orchestras. She continued her studies in the U.S., on scholarships form the Mannes College of Music and the America Israel Cultural Foundation, and has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S., including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony. Her music has been performed worldwide by leading ensembles including the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Mendelssohn, Brentano, Pacifica, Spektral, and Juilliard Quartets, Chanticleer, and many others. Maestros Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Christoph Von Dohnanyi, Gustavo Dudamel, Zubin Mehta, Yehudi Menhuin, and others, have conducted her works. She was Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1990 and 1997, and with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1994-1997 where her residency culminated in the premiere of her first opera Between Two Worlds (the Dybbuk).
The recipient of five honorary degrees, she is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Shulamit, who is the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the University of Chicago Department of Music, where she has taught since 1973, is currently composing Anne Frank, a full-scale opera on a libretto by Charles Kondek.
Recognized for its virtuosity, exuberant performance style, and often-daring repertory choices, over the past twenty-six years the Pacifica Quartet has achieved international recognition as one of the finest chamber ensembles performing today. Named the quartet-in-residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in March 2012, the Pacifica was previously the quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and received a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. In 2017, the Pacifica Quartet was appointed to lead the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Their most recent CD “Contemporary Voices” features works written for the quartet by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and was nominated for a GRAMMY award this year for Best Chamber Music Album.
Formed in 1994, the Pacifica Quartet quickly won chamber music’s top competitions, including the 1998 Naumburg Chamber Music Award. In 2002 the ensemble was honored with Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award and the appointment to Lincoln Center’s The Bowers Program (formerly CMS Two), and in 2006 was awarded a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. With its powerful energy and captivating, cohesive sound, the Pacifica has established itself as the embodiment of the senior American quartet sound.
The Pacifica Quartet has proven itself the preeminent interpreter of string quartet cycles, harnessing the group’s singular focus and incredible stamina to portray each composer’s evolution, often over the course of just a few days. Having given highly acclaimed performances of the complete Carter cycle in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Houston; the Mendelssohn cycle in Napa, Australia, New York, and Pittsburgh; and the Beethoven cycle in New York, Denver, St. Paul, Chicago, Napa, and Tokyo (in an unprecedented presentation of five concerts in three days at Suntory Hall), the Quartet presented the monumental Shostakovich cycle in Chicago, New York, Montreal and at London’s Wigmore Hall. The Quartet has been widely praised for these cycles, with critics calling the concerts “brilliant,” “astonishing,” “gripping,” and “breathtaking.”
Recent season highlights include defining performances at Shriver Hall with Marc-André Hamelin and for the Montreal International String Quartet Academy, as well as appearances on North America’s major chamber-music series, including concerts in Charlottesville, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, and Vancouver.
An ardent advocate of contemporary music, the Pacifica Quartet commissions and performs many new works including those by Keeril Makan, Julia Wolfe, and Shulamit Ran, the latter in partnership with the Music Accord consortium, London’s Wigmore Hall, and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The work – entitled Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – had its New York debut as part of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center series.
In 2008 the Quartet released its Grammy Award-winning recording of Carter’s quartets Nos. 1 and 5 on the Naxos label; the 2009 release of quartets Nos. 2, 3, and 4 completed the two-CD set. Cedille Records released the group’s four-CD recording of the entire Shostakovich cycle, paired with other contemporary Soviet works, to rave reviews: “The playing is nothing short of phenomenal.” (Daily Telegraph, London) Other recent recording projects include Leo Ornstein’s rarely-heard piano quintet with Marc-André Hamelin with an accompanying tour, the Brahms piano quintet with the legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, and the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets with the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill.
The members of the Pacifica Quartet live in Bloomington, IN, where they serve as quartet-in-residence and full-time faculty members at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Prior to their appointment, the Quartet was on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 2003 to 2012, and also served as resident performing artist at the University of Chicago for seventeen years.