On playing Michael Finnissy Quartets – a performer’s view

Posted on April 30th, 2018 by

On playing Michael Finnissy Quartets – a performer’s view

Peter Sheppard Skaerved

Day of wonder. Recording Michael Finnissy’s exquisite Clarinet Quintet ‘Liederkreis’ and String Quartet ‘Civilisation’ with the composer, LInda Merrick, Neil Heyde, Clifton Harrison, Mihailo Trandafilovski in HIghgate. Outtakes to follow. So privileged to spend decades working with this extraordinary composer and to have such a team of friends to work with. St Michael’s HIghgate 13 7 17

The Kreutzer Quartet enjoys a long and happy friendship with Michael Finnissy. We have been privileged to premiere a number of his pieces, to study, play, and live with all of his works for our medium. It is, of course, a given, that Michael is one of the great composers, but, perhaps he has never settled into a fixed approach to the string quartet. Instead, every work that he has written, stretches, twists and reconfigures the mechanism and meaning of this most archetypal ensemble. Every piece forces us to reconsider who we are, what we are doing, how we are doing it and why, both as ensemble and individuals.

Michael is sparing with the use of the title of ‘String Quartet’ for his works. To date, he has assigned the moniker to only three pieces (two of which, were written for the Kreutzers). He has given the title to none of the works for string quartet players on twith the title. Naturally, I would not expect his Bach ‘continuation’ to be named ‘String Quartet’, and Man Men in the Sand is a free standing miniature. However, Civilisation’ and Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios engage the medium head on, so it is tempting to suggest that, in part, that these are pieces ‘about’ the string quartet, rather than ‘being’ quartets.


One should not expect Michael Finnissy to use the title Civilisation without a quizzical look, a raised eyebrow. This six-movement work seems to ask us where we stand? – whose civilisation is ‘civilised’? -or are none of them? I enjoy benefits of living in a country which profited from imperialism, on the oppression of those once defined as ‘uncivilised’. How do I look at myself in the mirror?

The first movement is a sort of ‘pastoral’, with the expected lilting, compound bucolic rhythm. It is divided into two sections, the first marked ‘primitivo’, the second ‘colto’, which can mean ‘cultured’, but also ‘literate’ or ‘learned’. The ‘primitive’ sections are played ‘sul ponticello’ (on the bridge), and with equally rough, plucked interjections. Midway through the movement, the sound ‘transforms’(or perhaps is ‘civilised’) to the ‘colto’ section, marked ‘naturale’. Ah, blandishments, the benefits of civilisation. But this ‘cultured’, ‘literate’ material proves unsustainable. It splinters, and ends in spluttering incoherence.

With a certain sense of relief that we turn to movement two  which again begins ‘primitivo’ (and sul ponticello). But what was earlier presented as the crude parody in the first movement, now seems ideal; an elegant, glinting conversation between the violins, accompanied by bell-like pizzicato and harmonics in the viola and cello. It seems as if we might be hearing exactly how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described an ideal string quartet to Carl Friedrich Zelter:

‘Man hört vier vernünftige Leute sich untereinander unterhalten, glaubt ihren Diskursen etwas abzugewinnen und die Eigentümlichkeiten der Instrumente kennen zu lernen ( One listens to four rational people in conversation amongst themselves, and believes that something may be wrung from their discourse)’.’[i]

Again, the ‘civilisation’ (apparently Germanic) is followed; the transformation to ‘colto’ and ‘naturale’ happens within a very short time. The quartet, finds itself playing, or playing with, the Lydian-mode material from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an der Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart from his Op 132 Quartet. This movement might be seen as a possible high point, if you like, of Goethe’s expectations of the string quartet. But this Beethoven-ian dialogue dissipates, to over-complicate itself, and like the previous movement, races to chaos, or perhaps, entropy. The quartet is fractured.

In movement three, the quartet is indeed broken, split.  Cello and viola play a tightly-wrought, buzzing duo, while the violins wrap the whole thing in a halo-like, four-part ‘quasi chorale’. There is no reconciliation between the earthy low instruments, and the high-minded, angelic polyphony suspended overhead.

The fourth movement returns to the ‘primitivo’-‘colto’ structure. But this time, the transitional, ‘shared’ material takes up the core of the movement. Something, maybe, has been learnt. Indeed, instead of babbling incoherence, the movement ends in shared singing, with more than an echo of Wagner.

The fifth movement is another duo for viola and cello, this time more lyrical. This time the two violins contribute four-part tremulous ‘cloudbursts’, which gradually step away from A Major (which may be a reference to the Beethoven quartet referenced earlier).

Come the sixth movement, there is a genuine sense of joy and playfulness, both in mood and structure. Finnissy returns to the sound-world of Haydn often in his quartet writing; at the beginning of this movement, the first violin finds its dancing material (drawn from the earlier ‘primitivo’) is accompanied (in the true sense, that it has company) by the rest of the quartet playing music which might have tumbled from Haydn’s workbench whilst he was writing his ‘Lark’ Quartet Op 64 No 5 – a piece which provided material for Michael’s 2nd and 3rd Quartets (both written for the Kreutzers). Jaunty optimism is in the air, as the quartet finds its way back to ‘sul ponticello’. But this time, the score bears no mention of ‘colto’ or ‘primitivo’. Perhaps, Michael might be saying, we can all learn something. The quartet trots off happily to the distance:

‘…the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.’[ii]

Michael insists that his ‘continuation’ of Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX should not be seen as a ‘completion’. This modesty aside, this is jaw-dropping achievement,-one of the most astonishingly cumulative pieces of four-part counterpoint, I have ever played. My wife, the writer Malene Skærved, long ago pointed out the link between Finnissy’s way of writing and Bach, most particularly the contrapuntal writing which can be heard in the Sonatas & Partitas. Both, she noted, never allow the ear or  imagination of listener or player to rest, to get comfortable; she hears in both composers an indefatigable quest, for riches that lie in the gaps between the music. As Emily Dickinson noted: ‘Split the Lark-and you’ll find the music’. This is what, crudely, can been heard and seen in Finnissy’s completion; by both increment and leap, splits and stretches Bach’s harmony, The result is an ever-increasing outpouring of energy. Each performance has an upward curve which is unique: accordingly the performance is one take – no edits.


Clarinetten-Liederkreis (Clarinet-song cycle) was written for, and inspired by the playing of Linda Merrick. She notes:

‘From the outset of our conversations, the concept Michael had in mind for his new clarinet quintet was a lyrical one that would explore the full range of expressive colour of the five instruments, rather than exploiting technical virtuosity for its own sake.’[iii]

The first thing that struck me, on studying the score, is that it seemed to be in a ‘diverimento/serenade’ form and mood. This is reflected in a lightness of touch in the treatment of the instruments, which might be a reaction to, or even against, the chamber music written for clarinet from Mozart onwards. This has emphasised (or has been played thus) the darker side of the instrument, and by extension, the medium. The title, -Liederkreis, alludes to Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis Op 39. This suggestion of Lieder,  hints, that clarinet will be a vocal soloist. In the first movement, this expectation is met, but then things begin to shift. The Schumann reference also suggests a particular notion of the clarinet, linked to storytelling, enchantment and fantasy. Schumann’s great works for clarinet, Drei Fantasiestücke Op 73, and Märchenzahlungen Op 133, are inevitably, never far from the performers’ minds.

But it is not that simple! Dance is also a constant throughout the work. The first movement, whilst songlike, has the air of a ‘concealed minuet’; near the opening, in a 5/8 section, the two violins play  ¾ in the time of the 5 quavers, whilst cello and viola play waltz-like ‘Wiener-isch’ accompaniment figures (whilst remaining in five!).

In the second movement, the separation of the string players and clarinet is frozen, even rendered chronic. Whilst the quartet explores warm, almost Brahms-ian weavings, the clarinet sings, treacherously high, long notes, which happen to be in the same landscape that her colleagues are singing together, but no more. Linda writes:

‘Michael was keen for the clarinet to interrupt the strings in a persistent manner, emphasising the disjuncture between their roles, the extreme range of the clarinet writing and the almost eerie harmonic tension created.’[iv]

Finnissy speaks of this as a ‘fissure’ in the material.

After the grace and elegance of the relationship between the players in the first movement, there is the feeling that something has been broken, that the ‘-Kreis’ (literally, ‘circle’) of musicians has failed. Sure enough, in the third movement, the quartet falls silent. But, it seems, the clarinet has found a way home. A clue as to how is found in the title ‘Folklorico: quasi parlando’. The ‘way home’, it seems, is in the good earth, the shared simplicity, of the vernacular, the folk, and most importantly, not in singing, but talking, ‘parlando’. The quartet may be silent, but they are still in the room, and the clarinet is talking to them. There’s no question that the folklore to which Michael alludes is that of Eastern Europe, and both in this movement  and the next we are, unquestionably in the world that the clarinet made its own in the 20th Century. These movements usher in the clarinet, and then the string players of Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta , Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale , and Bartok’s Contrasts.

Movement four is a ‘verbunkos’ the ‘recruiting march’ so beloved of Bartok. I have the feelin that we are in the presence of Pieter Breughel, Albrecht Dürer, and T S Eliot’s peasants:

‘Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth

Nourishing the corn. Keeping the time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing. …’[v]

In Movement five for the only time in the work, all five players are reconciled, share exactly the same material, and crescendo to a shard ‘ffff’. But this is done by marking  ‘Each performer independently’, and  ‘a capriccio’. True unity, it seems, can only come from absolute freedom; ‘E pluribus unum’ indeed, but ‘many’, nonetheless.

Mad Men in the Sand is subtitled ‘en rythme Molossique’. It is the closest to a ‘traditional’ work for string quartet on this disc, and has much in common with other ‘scherzos’ for quartet by Charles Ives, Mendessohn and Hugo Wolf. Michael describes it as:

‘…skittish – referencing Alkan (a quartet fragment in the British Library, and his piano prelude evoking a mad woman singing on the seashore, and a classic piece of 70s erotica called Boys in the Sand, so much information for a 2-minute capriccio!).’[vi]

Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios is, perhaps, the most unclassifiable of Michael’s works for string quartet. It is scored for quartet and a free selection of household objects; talking with Michael, he asked:

‘Please include some china, leather and plastic along with the metal…I am sure you already thought of that: thé dansant…’

Our final selection included teacups, a leather covered notebook, chopsticks, metal espresso cups, and a thick miniature score of The Marriage of Figaro. As might be expected, each of the sections teases at the various associations and elements of the classical ‘minuet and trio’. The three ‘trios’ revert to the original form, which was forgotten quite early in the use of Minuets and Trios; that they should be in three parts. The 1st violin plays throughout, which is perhaps the most classical gesture of all, but in each ‘trio’ movement, one colleague is silent. This ‘red line’ of silencing that runs through the piece finds a counterpoint in the move of various players to the ‘household’ percussion and the games with solos and duos played throughout.

The first movement, Piuttosto sostenuo,  is a game with rubato, between a dramatic range of extreme tempi (from crochet=66, to =168). The result is, that whilst the players see and very much feel the three-in-a-bar ‘minuet’ form, the audience will not hear it, after the beginning. The cello plays percussion throughout.

Movement two is audibly a minuet, teetering between allusions to Haydn and Mozart, as if the two of them were playing in the quartet, as they did, with Vanhall and von Dittersdorf. Every so often, the quartet bursts into a peal of harmonics, as it had stumbled upon bits of the John Cage 1950 Quartet.

Movement three is the first ‘trio’ (though it is salutary to note the Finnissy never marks that, or describes these movements thus). The viola is silent (or silenced), and remaining players only play percussion. For a moment, near the beginning, the three play their rhythms together (swinging against an unheard and unseen ‘Taktus’. 2nd violin and cello continue thus, but the 1st violin takes a musical ‘u-turn’ and inserts a repeat, resulting in a split which is never ‘visible’, as this whole piece has no score, and the effects are the results of playfully inserted repeat signs. That’s an important point about much of Finnissy’s music. You can’t hear it by reading it; you have to find out what it sounds like, by doing it. If it isn’t ‘done’, then it isn’t!

Movement four, Allegretto Capriccioso is a virtuoso conversation for viola and cello, whilst the violins play with the cutlery like naughty children, at a Lyons Corner House.

Movement five is marked un poco minaccioso, or, ‘a little threatening’. Of course, slightly threatening can me more menacing than the overt, and the malevolence in this movement is only increased by its extreme quiet, and high tessitura. ‘Minnaccioso’ did not come into wide use in musical notation until the end of the 19th century. Composers who have used it include Medtner, Ligeti and Kurtag; for all of them, the veiled threat is always more effective, musically.

The sixth movement is the second trio (Violin 2 is silent). On paper, it appears to be a concertante for first violin who plays firm, striding ¾,  while viola and cello arrange their (more complex) parts around the violin part (of which they have just the rhythmic cues on their parts). But the listener is not aware of this hierarchy, and cannot hear the simple pulse, just the wrestling heterophony of all three.

Movement seven, in which everyone plays, returns to the classical grace of movement two. There’s very much the sense of a musical joke; it’s full of Haydn-esque silences (which pertain far more to his symphonies than his quartets), plus nods and winks to the audience in the form of cheeky pizzicati and spiccati.

Movement eight is the last trio; cello remains mute, whilst the viola plays percussion. All three parts are independent, but should end roughly at the same time (Bear in mind that there is no score). Adding a layer of danger and complexity, the two violin parts are arranged in Yeats-ian ‘gyre-form’. The first violin begins Adagio and ends Vivace, and the second does the opposite. The challenge of coordination is all the greater, as they both have to repeat their material, whilst the viola does not. This results in an incremental increase in tension as the end approaches in performance, and the question of ending together (you are not allowed to cheat) looms large!

The last movement is miraculous.. Dramatically, it reminds me of the revelation in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town when the past is suddenly revealed, apparently more vivid than the present. It would be easy to say that the aching longing, the tragedy, of this extraordinary movement evokes other composers, and of course, there are echoes of some of the great slow movements of the past 150 years. But the truth is, that this movement is true Finnissy. He is one of the very few artists who can show us the richest grief of our shared humanity, and do it with the lightest touch, with love and care.


[i] Letter November 9th 1929
[ii] P24, East Coker, T S Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber & Faber 1979
[iii] Letter to PSS, April 2018
[iv] Letter to PSS, April 2018
[v] P22, East Coker, T S Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber & Faber 1979
[vi] Letter to PJSS, 16th March 2018