PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Emerson String Quartet: Journeys

Joining together string sextets by Tchaikovsky and Schönberg, the Emerson String Quartet excellently highlights the journey from Romanticism to Modernism, and their own journey to a new chapter in their career.

Emerson String Quartet


Label: Sony Classical
US Release Date: 2013-05-20
UK Release Date: 2013-05-20
Label website
Artist Website

In their almost forty years together, the Emerson String Quartet has released over 30 albums, earned nine Grammy awards, and toured the world countless times. This year, the quartet experienced its first change in personnel since 1979, as cellist David Finckel leaves the group and is replaced by Paul Watkins. But for their last recording together before the shift, the Emerson String Quartet has released one of its boldest albums to date. Branching out from their more mainstream repertoire, the quartet has programmed two out-of-the-box pieces for Journeys (out-of-the-box for their standards, at least; most people would hardly find anything shocking in these two well-known and oft-performed pieces). Augmented by violist Paul Newbauer and cellist Colin Carr, the album juxtaposes two late-Romantic string sextets, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence and Arnold Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht.

The two pieces, both written in the last decade of the nineteenth century, represent a turbulent time in musical history, particularly in regards to musical form and tonality. Seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum, the Tchaikovsky sextet is a more traditionally structured piece with a more coherent sense of tonality and the Schönberg is a freer composition in both senses. But this pairing by the Emerson String Quartet does well to illuminate the similarities these works share. The sense of anxiety, of searching, of overwhelming melodic beauty and lush, warm chords. Both pieces feel like, well...a journey.

Despite its title, Souvenir de Florence was actually only partially composed while Tchaikovsky was in Italy. Its Italian influence can be heard in the lyrical melodies of the slow movement, but a strong Germanic structure and a Russian spirit also permeate the work. In this sense, the piece embodies a physical journey throughout the musical landscape of Europe, which, as technology and industry increased, began to feel smaller and smaller. The piece seems to be trying to negotiate the colliding musical worlds and the changing views on structure and harmony of the time.

Verklärte Nacht, or "Transfigured Night", was Schönberg's first major work, and is widely considered one of the masterpieces of late-Romanticism. Based on a poem by German author Richard Dehmel, the piece acts as a symphonic poem scored for string sextet, using its extended single movement to move through contrasting material and follow the emotional arc of the poem's narrative. The poem tells the story of a man and woman walking through moonlit woods. She has become pregnant out of a longing for motherhood, but does not love the father. Now that she has found a man she loves, she feels regret and sadness for her actions. But the man forgives her, and tells her that their love and the magic of the woods will transform the child to be his and that everything will be alright. Schönberg's programmatic musical representation captures the intense emotional climate of the poem. His harmony and orchestration point towards his later developments and are uniquely colorful and exciting. Whereas the Tchaikovsky represents a physical journey this piece embodies a psychological and spiritual one.

Another "journey" can be found between the two pieces. Both works are centered in D minor, and the musical and emotional arc over the whole disc is impressively coherent. Despite their differences in musical approach and style, these two masterworks are connected spiritually. Aside from the obvious fact that both pieces are composed for the same instrumentation, they are both concerned with the changing musical landscape, the exciting shift from Romantic expression to Abstract expression and Modernism. Tchaikovsky, who was at the end of his career, composed a piece filled with anxiety and tension about this shift, while Schönberg, who was only beginning his career, seems joyous about the possibilities of uncharted musical ideas. Going from one view right to the other creates a powerful narrative for the album.

The playing, as to be expected from the Emerson String Quartet, is highly detailed, passionate, and technically flawless. Their playing emphasizes the similarity between these pieces, leaning on the more dissonant passages of Souvenir de Florence and bringing out the warm sonorities of Verklärte Nacht in an attempt to have them meet closer to the middle. As a final statement before the group itself "transfigures", Journeys eloquently expresses anxieties about leaving the past behind and excitement in what the future brings.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.