With funding provided by the Ontario Arts Council, John Burge’s String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned by the Prince Edward County Chamber Music Festival and the New Orford String Quartet for the opening concert of the 2018 edition of this festival located in Picton, Ontario. This concert marked the first performance by the New Orford String Quartet as the festival’s Artistic Directors. Given the long history of festival’s promotion of Canadian music, it seemed fitting to commission a new work for this opening concert from John Burge, a composer well-known to local audiences and who had been the festival’s composer-in-residence in 2007.
While Burge’s first string quartet was organized in a traditional four-movement design, his second string quartet is a much more rhapsodic, single-movement work with the subtitle, “Death of a Lady’s Man.” The impetus for this composition can be traced back to the passing of Leonard Cohen in November 2016, and the composer’s desire to find a way to pay tribute to this Canadian icon of poetry and song. The work’s subtitle is actually borrowed from a book of Cohen’s poetry but those knowledgeable of classical music will likely also capture the allusion to Schubert’s very famous string quartet known as “Death and the Maiden.”
While it is one thing to employ a subtitle to create a tribute, it is quite another matter to imbue a composition with a musical reference that will help create a feeling of appreciative acknowledgement. A solution was found in the realization that a composer can borrow up to seven notes from another composition without infringing modern-day copyright law. With this in mind, this composition unfolds as a series of episodes of increasing activity and density, based on the first six pitches from the chorus of what is probably Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah.” While the resultant, one-movement work is decidedly classical in its approach, even including highly contrapuntal fugal passages, the music often contains popular music references heard in such things as the repetitive grooves that underpin some of the sections and the jazz-like plucked string passages.