Whim of Destiny: The Dover String Quartet
Age sees, but poetry belongs to the young. Feelings are ardent in youth; vitality is greater,
the music clearer. There is more living, but less investment. So there’s an equality in the
times of life, a mutual striving.
The lights from the control room had turned the backdrop into a surprisingly majestic
white. Randy Grobe, proprietor of The Frog and Swan and TCA floral arranger for twenty
years now, noticed the white dogwood and viburnum he’d collected had not blossomed
as fully as he’d expected. They were spare, and rose loftily from the bookend urns on the tan
stage, which was empty, except for four black chairs and stands.
But there was only one stand like music stands used to be, where you would reach forward
at the appropriate moment to turn the printed paper to the next page—this suggesting a nod to the composer who wrote the music, and to the poetry that bequeathed the name to the
performers now entering, looking neo-Victorian and cosmopolitan, onto the Dover beach between the cliffs and the spraying sea.
Thus began the concert of The Dover String Quartet last Thursday night at the Tryon Fine
Arts Center, the power exhilarating and the vision striking. The artists were violinists Joel Link
and Brian Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. Loyal to the small, prestigious institution that brought them together in 2008, they carry a torch for a famed classmate who arrived some seventy-five years before them, who, of course, they never knew. Samuel Barber, at twenty-one years of age and a student in the Curtis Institute of Music, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, had composed a piece for string quartet and baritone voice, with lyrics and title taken from a poem by a peer of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. The poem’s title is “Dover Beach”. Its author is Matthew Arnold(1822-1888).
In taking the name “Dover”, they inadvertently received the imprimatur and blessing of this also great but less heralded voice, Matthew Arnold’s poems and writings of social and literary criticism prefiguring modernity, the T. S. Eliots and the Ray Bradburys, “The Waste Land”s and the “Fahrenheit 451”s written by ensuing generations. And now, in this post-modern era in which an i-pad is the music stand, the message has not lost its messenger. The structure of human government falls. He finishes “Worldly Place” with “The aids to noble life are all within.” “East London” ends with “Thou mak’st the heaven thou hop’st indeed thy home.” Growing up, he lived in the Lake District near Wordsworth, a family friend. His father was a renown clergyman, but he himself parted ways with religion. He believed its value had been compromised, presaging the decline of the British Empire itself. And he became an agnostic.
The energy of belief had failed, but the poetry remained, the striving, the hope for meaning of which personal significance is a subset, and he believed his work would endure. “Dover Beach” was published in 1867 in a collection called “New Poems”, but was probably written on his honeymoon in Kent in 1851. Its contains the lines, “Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!” in a world “Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
The style is simple, direct. It’s beautiful in the hearing, unembroidered and earthy. These words apply to the quartet, as well. But here, there’s a vibrancy, a rock band energy that only youth could pull off, that could shake the earth in the Shostakovich and stare unbelief in the face in “Ainsi la nuit”.
Matthew Arnold died travelling on a tram to the Liverpool harbor to meet his daughter coming to visit him from America. He didn’t get to see her. And he didn’t know why.