A grainy, faraway voice emanated from a dim stage: “Ariel was glad he had written his poems, / They were of a remembered time / Or of something seen that he liked.” The voice belonged to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens as he read his poem “The Planet on the Table” in 1954 to preface a concert centered around his poetic ideas.
On Tuesday, the Brentano Quartet — the faculty string quartet-in-residence at the Yale School of Music — performed Martin Bresnick’s “The Planet on the Table” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 in Sprague Hall. The concert marked the opening of the Oneppo Chamber Music Series in the School of Music’s 125th anniversary year.
The two composers featured are from drastically different time periods: Bresnick is currently a professor of composition and coordinator of the composition department at the Yale School of Music, while Beethoven was a prominent composer working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Stevens’ work bridges the two five-movement compositions. Each movement of Bresnick’s “The Planet on the Table” derives its title from one of Stevens’s poems. The connection between Beethoven and Stevens is more implicit. The final movement is based on the title poem which tells a story about Ariel from “The Tempest.”
“Beethoven was very important to Stevens,” said Brentano Quartet violist Misha Amory ’89. “For both Stevens and Beethoven, you get the feeling that in their creation, you also see that it’s art about art.”
The quartet began the first piece on the program — the Bresnick composition — by repeating a single note. Each member periodically rearticulated their entry, creating cyclic tension in the music that marked the beginning of the work’s first movement: “Mrs. Anderson’s Swedish Baby.”
The movements that followed, “She Measured the Hour,” “Scene 10 Becomes 11,” “Someone Has Walked Across the Snow,” and “His Self and the Sun” work together to tell the “story about the idea of how life and art dovetail and how the creative process doubles back and has an impact on experience and life,” said Amory. “It’s a circular and spiral-like process.”
The work is one of Bresnick’s newest. The Brentano Quartet commissioned Bresnick to write “The Planet on the Table,” which they premiered at the 92nd Street Y in New York in April 2019.
According to Amory, the project was commissioned to reframe Beethoven’s music in honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
“Every group is trying to find a different way to frame [Beethoven’s] music which matters so much to all of us,” said Amory. “We want to put it in a larger interesting context and change people’s point of view.”
Bresnick already knew and appreciated Steven’s writing when he was approached to write a piece reflecting on Stevens’s poetry — Bresnick composed the music for a 1988 PBS documentary on Stevens’ writing.
“The Planet on the Table” was inspired by the idea that the “planet is made of the music and sounds of a remembered time or of something heard that I liked,” according to Bresnick.
The musical work cycles between a wide range of emotions, juxtaposing moments where the listener is “struck by how powerful that moment is” and moments that are “extremely touching,” according to Bresnick.
Between the two-musical works, Yale Divinity School professor Christian Wiman read four of Stevens’ poems: “Domination of Black,” “A Postcard from the Volcano,” excerpts from “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.”
“I wanted [Stevens] to be represented fully, in the same way Bresnick and Beethoven were,” said Mark Steinberg, a violinist in the Brentano Quartet.
According to Steinberg, connecting “The Planet on the Table” to the second piece on the program, Beethoven’s 15th string quartet, was a logical choice.
“I realized how similar [his poetry] was to how Beethoven operates with having the feeling of thinking through the work of art as you’re going through it instead of having it all laid out for you as kind of an inevitable trajectory,” he said.
In Beethoven’s 15th quartet, the music “is about the creative process rather than something gleaming and finished and where you can’t see any of the seams for construction,” Amory said.
Bresnick added that “the Beethoven Op. 132 quartet is the greatest of the late Beethoven quartets.”
As the quartet played, lines of poetry faded in and out of focus on a deep blue screen behind the musicians, unconventionally presenting the canonical piece. Steinberg simultaneously played the violin and controlled the flow of the text on the screen with an electronic foot pedal.
“Hopefully, the words and music reflect back on each other,” said Amory.
Although the Brentano Quartet has championed contemporary music since its founding, this concert program marks the first time they have projected poems during a performance.
According to the program notes written by Steinberg, Bresnick’s quartet “finds inspiration in the idea that the impulse to model apprehending, feeling, understanding or cognition has inherent value, even in the face of inescapable impermanence.”
This idea of impermanence resonates when listening in succession to Bresnick’s new quartet, the longevity of which remains undetermined, and the Beethoven Quartet that has persisted through centuries.
“I hope people can hear and see a performance like this and respond to it in a dynamic way,” said Bresnick.
The Brentano Quartet has served as the faculty quartet-in-residence since 2014.
Phoebe Liu | email@example.com