Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for First String Quartet 


The First String Quartet (1978) was commissioned by the Juilliard Quartet and the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, Nebraska, where it received its premiere in 1979. It is dedicated to the memory of Sarah H. Joslyn. I revised it slightly in 2008. It is in one movement lasting approximately 21 minutes. 

This is the first piece in which I employed the formal method of expanding variations. The opening statement is a brief chord, the following variation an elaboration into a few chords, and so forth; soon the chordal motive is elaborated linearly and rhythmically as well. Each succeeding variation is approximately one and a half times the length of the previous one, in a process of expansion that is gradual and audible. Because of the geometric progression of the expansion, the last two variations comprise almost half of the piece (four and six minutes respectively). As the variations become longer and more complex, they differentiate internally into sections of increasingly contrasting character, resembling a growing organism.

The string quartet is for me the most personal and psychological of musical media. Expressively, the First Quartet proceeds from simplicity and repose to their opposites. The work is open-ended in the sense that it ends in a completely different psychological place from where it began. 

The First Quartet is the first installment in a tryptich that includes the Second and Third Quartets, which continue the expanding-variation process. The First Quartet is both an integral piece in itself and the first third of a single work that lasts over an hour.

Fred Lerdahl


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009