The Brentano String Quartet has always been dedicated to pursuing illuminating interpretations of even the most well-known works in the quartet literature. Their modern revisiting of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ is a collaboration with the celebrated poet Mark Strand : a former US poet laureate honored with a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship : and receives its New York premiere at Zankel Hall on March 6. Anastasia Tsioulcas catches up with Strand and Mark Steinberg, Brentano's first violinist.
Anastasia Tsioulcas: What was your inspiration in reframing such an iconic piece of music?
Steinberg: This has always been one of my favorite pieces in the repertoire. Haydn's original commission was for the Cathedral of Cšdiz in Spain as an orchestral piece with speaker; Haydn later published a version for string quartet. But in the original presentation, each movement was interspersed with a spoken section. A priest got up and offered his commentary on the texts: which are full sentences taken from the gospels' narratives: and then the priest laid down in full prostration on the altar while the next movement of music was being played. That intersection of words and music must have given such a heightened sense of drama.
AT (to Mark Steinberg): How did the Brentano String Quartet come to work with Mark Strand in the first place?
Steinberg: Honestly, just out of sheer chutzpah. I knew that I wanted to work with a contemporary poet, so I started to pull down books off the shelf. I was inspired by his writing in particular. I just wrote him a letter, and we were lucky enough that he replied positively.
AT (to Mark Strand): Were you familiar with the Quartet's work before they approached you?
Strand: Honestly, no. But they are magnificent artists. I consider meeting them one of the luckiest opportunities I've had.
AT: So is this piece the only collaboration you've done with each other?
Strand: Previous to the Haydn project, which we premiered in 2002, I wrote short quatrains for a performance of three Webern works for string quartet; for that collaboration, we also inserted poems between the pieces. But that was a very different experience: I had nothing like a narrative. I just jotted notes in response to what I was hearing in the music. Those quatrains were quite romantic, abstract, and autumnal. I've read the poems that I've written for these collaborations with the Brentano String Quartet at my own readings quite often, and many people call them among my most successful works.
Steinberg: That's really gratifying to know.
AT: What did you want to achieve in this revisiting of The Seven Last Words of Christ?
Strand: What I wanted to achieve was a more modern, more secular version of this drama that could engage on both artistic levels of poetry and music. I started to read the canonical gospel texts of Jesus' last utterances, and, speaking frankly, as someone who is not religious myself, I wasn't thrilled with them. So I turned to the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which I found to be a wholly more human vision of Jesus. The person about whom I'm writing seems far more like a poet than Christ. The canonical texts are there to sell Christianity. Thomas doesn't do that at all.
AT: When you perform together live, do you find yourselves directly influenced in any way by each other? I'm curious to know how the energy of one artistic medium can color the other in performance.
Steinberg: Not directly, no. But I think the interplay of music and speech is so fascinating. Haydn's aesthetic was very much rooted in rhetoric and patterns of speech, and the music lends itself to our approach. As I play this piece, certain words and phrases fire up my imagination. There's not a direct or precise correlation, but the spirit
of the words is there.
Strand: I wouldn't say there's any direct correlation either, but I like performing with the Brentano Quartet; they play the music with such vigor and passion, I feel rather like a potato chip up there with them.
Steinberg: Wait, what? Like a potato chip? What do you mean by that?
Strand: I mean brittle and small. When I'm on stage and very close to the Quartet, I feel the physicality of your playing: I stand there and deliver lines rather placidly while you play with such passion and physicality: arms moving, heads moving ...
Steinberg: Well, that's not my impression at all!
For tickets and information, visit Carnegie Hall.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is the North America section editor for Gramophone.