Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor

My first girlfriend went to a private school a few miles outside of town. I don’t remember much of our two months but I do remember that she played Puck in her eighth-grade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I remember that she was good, or rather that everyone thought she did well. For what it’s worth, I also remember her as the sort that would make a good Puck: a compliment, I think.

My next encounter of note with the play was by way of Felix Mendelssohn’s “incidental music,” intended to accompany the text. It’s lovely and some of it is quite famous. I briefly toured the penninsula with my friend Will as a professional guitar duo but the experience ended after we played the “Wedding March” from the suite at a ceremony in Gloucester. Outside. In mid-November. Only in the frigid yard of that converted plantation, music blowing from stands and flower girl tossing pedals into the gale, did Mendelssohn emerge from the recesses of Taruskin texts.

It turns out that I prefer his string quartets anyway. Or maybe I just prefer string quartets in general. The timbral homogeneity, independence of voices, dynamic range, and expressive poignance are hypnotic. Small music but pure music, free of numerous constraints of technique and challenges of blend and orchestration. I appreciate the straight-forward form, in part, because arranging and orchestration were never strong suits. I wrote nice melodies and creative harmonies, but big band arrangements and horn solis were a series of hulaballoo; one chaos after another. Groups of guitars, two saxophones, rhythm section trios were more my speed.

When I was in college, music education majors were required to take a sociology class: how different groups learn, why schools are the way they are, education policy, philosophical differences in education systems, etc. Professor Heidemann showed a video one day about Gareth Malone, a choirmaster in Britain who took over an unruly class of private school boys and attempted to whip them into shape. Boys lag behind girls in the latter years of elementary school so Malone wanted to see if he could help them catch up. He allowed them to run for part of the day, taught outside, made children race from one class to the next. He explained that his method was based on the idea that boys will engage in all sorts of “laddish behavior” no matter what, so he may as well burn off their energy and teach while it’s happening.

I don’t remember sitting in the back of the dark classroom sketching out Coltrane Changes with Professor Heidemann’s eyes boring holes in the top of my head. He didn’t call me out – ”Mr. Amos? Anything you’d like to share with the class?” – though he certainly could have. I didn’t look up sheepishly as blood filled my cheeks and mumble an apology. Our relationship was cordially adversarial and such an interaction was unlikely. What I do remember is him taking the empty seat next to me and looking over at the staff paper out on the desk.

Really? You’re not even going to pretend to care that I’m right here?

I looked up and turned to him.

Do you want me to?

Such relationships with teachers date back to second grade when my parents returned from teacher conferences and relayed to me that Ms. Foster hadn’t told them I was rude, exactly.

Well is he polite?

She replied curtly.


Some teachers loved it. In English Lit, Ms. Murphy retaliated with her own gleefully wicked sarcasm. We got along great. Tenth grade English and Driver’s Ed, on the other hand, were a little rocky. And so, there I was, writing through Gareth Malone’s antics and musings under the professor’s skeptical side-eye.

That’s all a roundabout way of explaining why the final project in my senior-year arranging independent study was a lop-sided, awkwardly Monkish little blues form entitled “Laddish Behavior.” It was awful. I wrote weird harmonies and clunky horn pads and drew the whole conglomeration out for far too long. When a novice composer suddenly has a Mahlerian orchestra at his behest, he’s compelled to write weak, fragmented, immature impersonations of Mahler. Big begets big. Freshman music majors discover that practice allows them to play fast – so they play faster. When I discovered curry powder, my food was yellow for weeks. Middle school locker rooms reak with the intoxicating freedom of scented sprayable deodorant. I arranged every god-forsaken second to the nines; a small child with permission to dress from mom and dad’s wardrobe. That tune walked out on stage in a fedora with a beret on top, uncle so-and-so’s old tweed blazer, a tutu, bow tie, dress slacks, running shoes, and lipstick.

The challenge of any pursuit is knowing when to refrain from pursuing. Put down the pen. Leave the salt-shaker where it is. Rest pick on string and let sonorities breathe in emptiness. My friend Kendall introduced me to Quincy Jones and his tour de l’espace, The Quintessence, in a parking lot over Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwiches. His old band director had given him a copy of the scores. There’s almost nothing there. The forty-minute masterpiece is run through with silence, restraint, implication, and willingness to let musicians play alone or make decisions. Masterpieces breathe. Masters rest comfortably in the tranquil languor that emerges from racket. The surest sign of insecurity is scarcity of silence.

My college guitar teacher commented on that phenomenon often. He implored us to let one idea end fully before beginning the next – the difference that an actual space makes, as opposed to a rolling stop, is sublimely forceful. He would stop me during runs through recital music, say in his meandering way that he doesn’t understand what makes people tick, then promptly lay out what makes people tick. It’s funny right? The first thing we do when we make a mistake is play faster. That doesn’t make any sense does it? We make mistakes from playing too fast and speed up. It’s almost like we just want it all to end. Yes. It is, indeed, almost like that. We fill space, barrel through silence, patch over pauses, run straight to the finish for fear that pausing in cool air will tighten our muscles. But silence is magic.

I read once about a psychologist who studied what he called “musical chill.” I also read that “if music gives you chills your brain might be special.” Noted. I’ve heard that being annoyed by loud chewing is related to heightened intellect. Good to know: I must be profoundly gifted. Another bit of pop science drivel attributed musical chill to openness with people and experience. It’s all bullshit. The article I found interesting could be as well, but it was focused less on specious correlations among who experiences “musical chill” and more on why and when they get it. Short answer: when a solo instrument emerges from a fuller orchestration that recedes behind it, particularly at slower tempos.

In college I saw the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, on tour performing arrangements of Chick Corea compositions. There was a point in “Crystal Silence” at which an enormous wall of sound evaporated suddenly, leaving a single trumpet hanging in the air for seconds, gauzy and elastic, warping in timelessness. It was a flash freeze; something hot and molten, dropped suddenly into a bucket of dry ice to fossilize, bubbles and all. Listeners gasped audibly. Fast music, active instruments, harmonic labyrinths, bursts of sound, slabs of dissonance appeal on an intellectual level. We appreciate intricacy, difficulty, excitement. But silence is physical.

When I was younger – not young, exactly, but younger – I always had something to contribute and was proud of it. But that which might signify quick wit simultaneously signifies that such wit needs constant reassurance that it’s real. When I got glasses for the first time I fidgeted with them incessantly. When I started wearing a wedding ring I ran my thumb over the sweaty band just to make certain it was still there (one time it wasn’t, but that’s another matter). People talk about the denotative differences between intelligence and wisdom. But both feel immutable. Really the difference might be easier to identify, malleable with shades of gray through which one person may oscillate wildly over the course of a single interaction. The difference may be closer to the difference between confidence in clamor and ease with the open chasms between words.

I realize now that I’ve said almost nothing about Felix Mendelssohn or his String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. I haven’t mentioned the exquisite stillness that bookends the furious sawing of bows. Maybe there isn’t much to say, nothing to mention.

I guess I could try to think of something.

Music, PersonalPeter Amosreview