Starting this week and continuing through May, Lincoln Center's Great Performers and the David Rubenstein Atrium present a musical exploration of the power of four in a series of free performances by string quartets.
The Navarra String Quartet opens the series this Thursday, February 7, with a program that pairs Ravel's String Quartet in F major—the impressionist composer's only published string quartet—with String Quartet No. 4 by the contemporary Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, giving concert attendees an almost side-by-side comparison of a work composed in the late 1800s to one from the last decade.
On March 7, the New York–based Tesla Quartet performs Respighi's Quartet in D major and Beethoven's Quartet in F Major, and the following month the Castalian String Quartet presents Britten's String Quartet No. 2 and Schubert's "Rosamunde" quartet (April 18). For the May 2 finale in this quartet of quartets, the Germany-based Minguet Quartet invites you to explore Beethoven's famous final string quartet (C-sharp minor) as well as an arrangement of Mahler's "I am Lost to the World."
The performances in this series will be as educational as they are entertaining, as the varied programming presents a great way for audience members to explore the string quartet through many different lenses, and perhaps an inviting way to try something new.
In Western music theory, the importance of the number four is clear, starting with the ubiquitous 4/4 time signature and the individual unit of the quarter note, which tells musicians how long to play a note. Four is an icon of stability and wholeness, so perhaps it's no surprise that one of classical music's most popular types of ensembles consists of four members. The combination that forms a string quartet—which typically comprises two violins, a viola, and a cello—mimics the spectrum of pitches within choral ensembles, in which there are usually soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts.
Beyond music, examples of four as representative of unity and logic appear throughout human history, including the four elements identified by ancient cultures (Earth, Water, Air, Fire), the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter), and even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "four freedoms" (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear). Four is also the number of chambers within the human heart and is the only number in the English language that is spelled with the same number of letters as the value of the number itself. Legend has it that Pythagoras himself developed the system of musical tuning after hearing a blacksmith's four hammers. Oh, and did I mention that compositions for string quartet are also usually created with four movements?
Perhaps the number four's persistent influence in literature, science, and music is evidence of humans' ongoing search for unity and stability. Whether you're able to show up for one or all of these quartet performances, consider this only the beginning of your exploration of the magic of four.
Hillary Bonhomme is a musician, writer, and radio producer living in New York City.