Double String Quartet: J.S.B.

Score title

Double String Quartet: J.S.B.


Libby Larsen

More about the composer


Program note

The piece Double String Quartet: J.S.B. began its life as Evening in the Palace of Reason, which was commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, and rearranged for double string quartet the same year. The following is the program note for Evening in the Palace of Reason.

The title Evening in the Palace of Reason, is taken from the title of a book by James R Gaines (Harper Collins, New York, 2005). The book is centered on the meeting of Frederick the Great and Johann Sebastian Bach. I quote the blurb on the back of the book for you:

“Johann Sebastian Bach created what may be the most celestial and profound body of music in history; Frederick the Great built the colossus we now know as Germany and along with it a template for modern warfare. Their fleeting encounter in 1747 signals a unique moment in history where belief collided with the cold certainty of reason. Set at the tipping point between the ancient and modern world, Evening in the Palace of Reason captures the tumult of the 18th century, the legacy of the Reformation, and the birth of the Enlightenment in this tale of two men.”

My interest lies in the story, a story which lies at the crossroads of the Age of Reason and the Romantic Era or, musically speaking, the crossroads of music that values reason and prefers discipline, order and control and music that values feeling and prefers passion, individuality, and spontaneity.

Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six voice fugue on a theme which “he” composed. Actually, Gaines posits that as Frederick’s court composer, C.P.E. Bach composed the theme perhaps having something to prove to his father. It did indeed trip up his father who, on the spot, could only improvise the theme into three-voice contrapuntal pieces. Bach left the palace to return to Leipzig, where he transformed the theme into his multi-movement masterpiece, The Musical Offering.

Evening in the Palace of Reason is composed for the strings of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, singling out the first chair players to form a string quartet that dialogues with the string orchestra throughout each movement. I’ve woven the famous and dastardly theme into the fabric of the entire piece, sometimes in ways that are evident, sometimes in very subtle ways. I want to pay homage to J.S. Bach while placing both his and Frederick the Great’s musical language preferences in the ever morphing continuum of pitch, harmony, and texture. And so within the context of my own musical ear, I explore counterpoint, fantasy, monophonic and polyphonic texture, and in general, music governed by reason versus music governed by emotion.

— Libby Larsen, December 2007