My String Quartet No. 3, Cortege, was commissioned by the Dilijan Chamber Music Series for the Lark Musical Society. It is – behind the notes and rhythms – a reflection on emperors and kings, their works, their passions, and the inevitable passage of time. Our particular king is Artashes (Artaxias I) who ruled Armenia about twenty-two hundred years ago (190 – 160 BC), founded the Armenian capital, Artashat, and abducted his beautiful bride Satenik from across the great Kur river. Satenik bore him six sons before eventually, as the story goes, running off with a descendant of a race of dragons. I was struck by a 19th century painting of the funeral of Artashes by Giuseppe Canella (1788-1847) with its grand and seemingly endless cortege, the wailing throng lining the road, the deceased king borne in state on a royal carriage, all led by regal horsemen and a colorful phalanx of musicians.
The music of this fourteen-minute quartet is divided into five short scenes played without pause:
i. Cortege – ii. Theft – iii. Build – iv. Cortege – v. Farewell
‘Cortege’ is processional music, both majestic and noisy, with a recurring sense of the whole scene disappearing, becoming a mirage. ‘Theft’ has ardent singing lines passed through the quartet from the first violin ultimately down to the cello. ‘Build’ is forthright and clangorous (think of building great works) with bravura cadenzas juxtaposed and overlapped in all instruments. Following a return of the cortege music, ‘Farewell’ is elegiac, tinged with sadness as the principals inevitably fade into silence.
The name ARTASHES is deeply embedded as a musical motto in both pitch and rhythm throughout the piece, presented starkly at the very beginning, only fading – and ultimately disappearing completely – at the very end. At the final double bar in score and parts there appears this quote from Shelley’s famous poem:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Donald Crockett