Around 1788, while he was ambassador to France from the new United States, Benjamin Franklin wrote a string quartet. Music was among Franklin’s many talents; a number of his compositions survive. The quartet, though, was and remains a curiosity, because all its parts are for open strings – the pitches of the strings are not altered by the players’ left hands. That, Franklin thought, would make it easier for unschooled musicians to play.
For pros, the piece is challenging for its peculiarities. So that the four instruments can produce enough notes, each is tuned differently; none is tuned in the usual manner. The score is for three violins and cello, omitting the usual viola. And, as left hands never touch strings, notes cannot be played with vibrato.
The traditional division of labor in the string quartet, in which the first violin usually takes the melodic lead with other strings weaving between supporting roles and cameos in the spotlight, doesn’t apply here. Melodies take shape with the participation of all four fiddles, which may contribute just a few notes at a time to the tune.
It’s more like singing a catch, glee or one of the other varieties of part-song sung by the 18th-century English (the most popular example is “To Anacreon in Heaven,” whose tune was borrowed for “The Star Spangled Banner”), not much like the string quartet as it was known then and since.
Molly Sharp, principal violist of the Richmond Symphony and a charter member of the Oberon Quartet, resident ensemble at St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s schools, got hold of a facsimile score of the Franklin quartet a few years ago. After playing the piece, she recalls, “we wondered what a 21st-century take on this would sound like.”
So, with support from St. Catherine’s, the Oberon launched an international competion, offering a $500 prize. The only conditions composers had to meet was to use only open strings in their submissions and to keep them short – five minutes or less in length.
“We got a number of pieces that were folkish in quality, as Franklin’s quartet is, only with references to folk musics from all sorts of places” from Bulgaria to Brazil, says William Comita, the Oberon’s cellist. “A number of submissions were kind of minimalist in style. There was even one with a narration from one of Franklin’s letters, along with singing and a pennywhistle.”
In its spring concert this week, the Oberon will play the five finalist works in the competition, along with a movement from the Franklin quartet. The program also will feature “Don’t Tread on Me or My String Quartet” (1986) by Russell Peck.
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UPDATE (Feb. 27): “To the New World” by the Dutch composer Paul Gelsing won in balloting of the musicians and audience in the finals concert of the Oberon Quartet Composition Competition. Gelsing’s piece is a succession of fragmented tunes and figures that frequently give way to silences, giving the impression of accompaniment of and pauses in an unheard tune.
Second place went to “Autumn Dreams,” a miniature nature tonescape by the Spanish composer Rafael Gutierrez Gandia. In third place was a Gavotte by the Texas composer Brian DeLaney, who attended the concert. DeLaney’s little dance movement was the finalist work that most resembled Franklin’s quartet in its dance-derived “antique” style.
Other finalists were “Franklin’s Whistle,” a piece with narration of a Franklin letter counseling thrift and with two penny whistles joining the strings in climactic moments, by Alisher Latif-Zade, a composer from Tajikistan now based in New York; and “Dancing Icicles,” an abstracted nature evocation by the Bulgarian composer Emelina Gorcheva.