String Quartet No. 2: Alive in a Moment

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Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 10.07.52 AM.png

String Quartet No. 2: Alive in a Moment


for baritone voice, 2 violins, viola, & cello (2003)

  • Premiere: 8 October 2003  / Greaves Concert Hall, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky  / Paul Kreider, baritone / The Amernet String Quartet
  • Instrumentation: voice and string quartet 
  • Duration: 22'
  • Text: W.H. Auden 
  • Dedication: "Commissioned by Northern Kentucky University and the Amernet Society for Paul Kreider and the Amernet String Quartet, 2003."
  • All orders are digital downloads. To order paper scores please visit our partner distributor, Theodore Front.

I. Rondo: O What is That Sound
II. Variations: Orpheus
III. Song: Epitaph on a Tyrant
IV. Interlude: A Moment
V. Song: The Composer
VI. Scherzo: In Moments of Joy
VII. Closing Hymn: Alive in a Moment

Composed at Yaddo during July of 2003, Hagen's song cycle for baritone and string quartet Alive in a Moment functions both as an instrumental string quartet and as a traditional song cycle. In seven movements, based on the poetry of W.H. Auden, the entire work develops three musical ideas given at the outset: a rhythmic tattoo in the violin, what the composer calls a 'smudged melody,' created by adding trills to each successive note of the melody, and heavy glissandi. Formally, the central movement is an instrumental interlude flanked parenthetically by the outer movements. 

The first movement (Rondo) is filled with text painting: the tattoo serves as the sounds of the troops' drums as they march, the glissandi recall the sounds of air-raid sirens, dogs' yelps, or screams. Hagen's form closely mirrors Auden's strophic text, slinging the husband's words (which constitue the A sections of the rondo) in the lower register of the voice, while lofting the wife's lines (the B sections) above the staff. The second movement consists of four cadenza-like solos (developing the melody from the first movement) for the instrumentalists, answered enigmatically by the voice. Structurally, the second movement (Variations) serves as a kind of recitative introduction to the third movement, which is developmental: here, the three musical ideas are overlapped, thrown together, and dissected beneath the vocal part, which is essentially parlando. The movement ends with the introduction of what Hagen calls the 'smoothed out version of the smudged tune,' marked untuoso, or 'unctuously.' 

The central instrumental interlude follows. Hagen writes, "There is a still point at which words give out for me. This instumental movement therefore responds to the first three movements, and closes an emotional door on them while opening one on the more domestic concerns of the final three."

The Composer (Song) follows. Marked "brisk, clean, unsentimental & strictly in tempo," it is the cozy opposite of the music of the first half of the piece. The augmented second-laced artificial scale of the first movement is smoothed out into a diatonic scale, the trills are decorative, the rhythmic tattoo has been transformed into a lilting motor-rhythm, and the melody is couched in comfortable solos for each player. The sumptuously tonal treatment of the text (modulations underline key words of the poem, for example) express, as Hagen writes, "the joys of being a composer, the delight of well-wrought music." 

Robert Frankenberry and the Voxare Quartet.

Robert Frankenberry and the Voxare Quartet.


A two part movement (Scherzo) follows, based on Auden's brief epigram, which reads, "In moments of joy / All of us wished we possessed / A tail we could wag." Hagen responds to this text by transforming the tattoo and the trills into what he descibes as, "the sound of the dog's tail thumping on the floor" (a sort of off-center walt rhythm). The glissandi from the first three movements are transformed into "a cat's meow." The cycle ends with a strophic setting (Closing Hymn) of the text which makes a final transformation of the work's opening theme. 

Commissioned by the Amernet Society and Northern Kentucky University for Paul Kreider and the Amernet String Quartet, the cycle was first performed on 8 October 2003 at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky.

(Banner photo: Robert Frankenberry and the Voxare Quartet performing.)