The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season | May 24, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


  1. Debussy was a genius and is perhaps one of the most underrated of all composers and most underappreciated.

    I would put him in the top 10 composers of all time in this order: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Handel, R. Wagner, Debussy, Brahms, J. Sibelius and Chopin.


    Comment by fflambeau — May 24, 2018 @ 12:29 am

    • I used to think more highly of Chopin than Debussy but have (in the last few years) revised my opinion. Chopin, who shared with Debussy many years spent in France, wrote almost exclusively for the piano and his few orchestral works (like his piano concertos, are really extended writings for the piano). So his work is far more limited in scope.

      Debussy, on the other hand, wrote beautifully and innovatively for the piano, for orchestras, and for small groups. He also brings to all of his works wonderful insights and new ways of doing things: perhaps as revolutionary in his ways as Richard Wagner was in his operatic works.

      So hats off to Ancora for their well-chosen ending. And let’s hear more Debussy.


      Comment by fflambeau — May 24, 2018 @ 3:14 am

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