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  • Writer's pictureHeather Wade

Arensky and Antarctica

program notes for our concerts on Feb 10 and 11 2024 Featuring Arensky's String Quartet #2.

It would be totally understandable if one of the first questions that comes to mind when looking at the program for this concert is "wait, WHO is Anton Arensky??"  

For those who have not heard Arensky's music (or traveled to Antarctica), here is a brief rundown of the important bits…

Arensky (comma Anton Stepanovich) was a Russian Romantic composer (and teacher).  His instrument of choice was piano.  After studying with Rimsky-Korsakov, he became a colleague of Tchaikovsky while teaching at the Moscow Conservatory.  Tchaikovsky was an important figure in Arensky's life, being both a friend and also a great influence on Arensky's writing.  (Don't forget this - it is relevant to the Quartet.  More in a bit.)

Arensky's legacy is kept alive by 2 major pieces that remain popular and fairly regularly performed.  The first is hisfirst Piano Tri, the other is the second String Quartet. He is also immortalized in Antarctica, (and I am trusting Wikipedia to be much more accurate than I could be here, so I am quoting)...

the "Arensky Glacier (71°39′S 72°15′W) is an Antarctic glacier, lying 3 miles (5 km) east of Alyabiev Glacier and flows south from Beethoven Peninsula, Alexander Island, into the north end of Boccherini Inlet. The glacier was named by the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1987, after Anton Arensky, the Russian composer."  


How cool is that? (Actually, since it's melting, it is probably not a cool as it used to be). Looking at a map of Alexander Island is a bit like playing "Where's Waldo?"  (but with dead composers instead of a skinny guy with glasses and a striped shirt).  In case you'd like to try, here is a map.  You get 10 points for each composer located...Apparently there are over 80 musical features on Alexander Island.

Anyway, back to business...Arensky's String Quartet #2 is unusual in that it is scored for violin, viola, and 2 cellos (instead of the usual 2 violins, viola and cello).  Given the dedication of the work, it is likely that Arensky was looking for an unusual, dark and brooding sound for this piece, which he totally nails with the inclusion of a 2nd cello.  Booyah! 

The dedication Arensky gives the piece is "To the memory of Tchaikovsky".  His friend had died the previous year (the quartet being written in 1894), and the 2nd movement is a set of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky. 

Interestingly (although probably we shouldn't be surprised), Arensky's publisher was unsure about the marketability of a quartet with such unusual instrumentation, and convinced Arensky to publish a second (less interesting) version scored for traditional string quartet.  While Arensky's original score for 2 cellos was very popular, the traditional quartet version was not really a success.  Arensky also re-scored the 2nd movement for string orchestra, and the entire work for piano 4 hands.  

Stay tuned for the next installment of "weird string quartet ideas", when we will be looking at the Schubert Cello Quintet.  (That's quartet plus one).


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