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St. Lawrence String puts on a winning performance

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This most recent Friday, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, primarily known at Stanford for its quarterly “Sundays with the St. Lawrence” concerts and whose members teach in the Music Department, performed Joseph Haydn’s composition “The Seven Last Words of Christ” in Memorial Church.

Haydn is known as the “father of the string quartet,” as he wrote a total of 68 such pieces in his lifetime. His mastery of the interplay of four stringed voices is so evident in this piece that it’s hard to believe that historically, scholars have doubted the authenticity of this quartet reduction (mostly due to the loss of some crucial passages and voices rather than any lack of virtuosity). Nevertheless, it holds up very well on its own, particularly the chord progressions and resolutions in its especially beautiful third and sixth movements. If you haven’t listened to these, you don’t know what you’ve missed.

More than half its movements are in minor keys, which is to be expected in a piece about death, but, conforming with the tradition in Haydn’s day of ending with the chord known as a “Picardy Third,” nearly every minor movement (and all the major ones) ends on a major key. (If you’re not familiar with the sound, think of the endings of Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talkin'” and The Killers’ “Sam’s Town.”) Minor chords sound less finite, less stable and less suitable to end a movement; also, it likely would have seemed to Haydn rather pessimistic to end on a minor chord, so ending on a major one reminded the audience of the good and happiness in the world in spite of Christ’s death.

Whether audience members were there for the words spoken between movements by the dean of religious life at Stanford or for the pretty music, all audience members were left hungering for more Haydn by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. It’s difficult, both for the composer and the performer, to sustain a listener’s attention for 70 minutes given the piece’s slow introduction, equally slow movements and surprisingly fast epilogue (Haydn remarked: “It was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting 10 minutes each to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners”), but the performers tackled this task admirably and skillfully. Had there been 70 more minutes, fast or slow, I’m sure not one audience member would have chosen dinner over staying to listen.