String Quartet No. 4


Year Authored (or revised): 


Duration (min): 



I. Andante
II. Presto vivace
III. Andante con moto
IV. Allegro con brio



First Performance: 

November 18, 2001. Martinu Quartet. Czech Academy of Music, Prague

In his String Quartet No. 4, McKinley achieves a synthesis between a high-modernist aesthetic and jazz influenced rhythms and harmonies. The viola’s subtle beginning of the quartet centers the listener on the pitch G. After the cello quietly introduces a G-Major pentatonic collection, the violins introduce the melody in double octaves.

The melody isn’t exclusively pentatonic, although it remains centered around the initial 5 pitches introduced by the cello. The doubled melody begins with an upward gesture, which permeates the remainder of the movement. The slow and steady cello and viola pairing establish a solid foundation, enabling the violins to soar over top. The violin pairing eventually breaks down, with only one violin playing on the initial melodic gesture. A sudden tutti interruption of blocked chords breaks the opening sentiments of the movement.

These chords alternate with instances of the initial melodic gesture, but there is no longer a serene and light melody shared in the violins. Rather, the full force of the ensemble gives the rhythmic quality more emphasis. Neither the melodic phrases nor blocked chords dominate, but instead work in tandem to create an alternating, cooperative texture.

The piece continues to drive toward a more syncopated feel, building up to a jazz-oriented frenzy. A sedated version of the alternating texture returns, but is now tempered by the rhythmic and jazz outburst from before. The recapitulation of the opening material is nearly exact, except for the end, when the jazz influence breaks through again, ending on a soft ninth chord, re-emphasizing the G-centered tonality, and colored by glissandi.

The remaining movements of the quartet build from the precedents set in the first movement. The second movement begins with a more agitated, dissonant blocked chord as compared to the first movement. Again we hear the alternation of melodic fragment seemingly cut short by the dissonant repeated blocked chords. The harmonies are also no longer based on open fifths and thirds, but now incorporate dissonant tri-tones and 7ths. Eventually, a single instrument incessantly repeats a series of pitches, while the remaining instruments expand the melodic fragments from the opening. For nearly the entire movement, we hear either a single repeated pitch or a tutti repetition of pitches. Halfway through the movement, listen for the construction of a harmonic pyramid, which is built up one instrument at a time.

A cello ostinato coupled with a light, viola melody opens the third movement. The melody here is in stark contrast from the agitated second movement, which is more of a tender and thoughtful consideration of what has come before. Melody is now primary, and no longer do repeated pitches or tutti blocked chords interrupt or endure. The melodic lines become more continuous, and even though they are slow and tender, they leap and sound more jagged than in the previous movement.

In the second half of this movement, listen for a falling repeated figure in the inner voices, again interspersed with blocked chords Reminiscences of the opening rhythmic gesture from the first movement are intermingled here, recalling familiar musical moments from earlier. The third movement ends akin to the first movement, complete with a glissando in the cello. However, the harmony is an inverted dominant-seventh chord, sounding unsettled and demanding some sort of continuation.

The opening of the fourth movement certainly does not provide a satisfying resolution to the end of the third movement. The entire ensemble begins pizzicato, where repeated chords are once again filled with dissonant diminished fifths, and the cello takes the melodic lead on a chromatic and shifting pitch collection. The fluid and sostenuto middle section reminds the listener of the sweeter melodic lines from the previous movements, even though the pizzicato texture returns.

The final sostenuto section attempts to consolidate opposing arco and pizzicato melodies. It may sound like the quick, repeated figures have successfully been tamed to a G-major triad. Although these repeated figures fall briefly back into their dissonant defiance, they quickly become subdued. The piece ends identically to the first movement, thus rectifying the unsettling ending of the third movement, and bringing the entire quartet to a satisfying close.


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