Two measures of simple, hymn-like chords on the piano and the most resonant register of the cello open the quartet. The violin enters with the first melody, a lyrical, soulful line of spacious intervals that wander down the scale only to arch upward again in a plaintive query, searching for a place to rest. The theme is passed to the cello and the piano provides support; the violin joins in again. The mood is one of loss and longing, but as the cello holds one beautiful high A, the clarinet brings forth the second melody, like sunlight breaking through clouds after a storm: a quote from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, which in turn is a quote from a Shaker melody called Simple Gifts. This more contained, classically ordered sequence of notes at first wafts upward like a tentative yet hopeful question. But then it asserts itself a second time, with more confidence; by the third declaration, it has conviction ("Yes, we can.") The piano and cello then launch a section of bustling, intertwining lines and rhythms: there’s work to be done to bring to fruition the aspiration just expressed. The instruments join together in a new key, building complex harmonies and variations on the main theme, entering a brief, determined march-like stretch as one passes the melody to another. The final section is signaled by the return of stately, chorale-like chords. The mood sobers again as the instruments thoughtfully explore gentle dissonances; the first melody briefly reappears, then a reprise of the first two hymn-like measures closes the piece like an Amen. The symmetry contains the chaos and resolves it.
It's remarkable: in just five minutes, John Williams manages to express American yearning, doubt, and the rebirth of hope, determination, and reconciliation. In this, he is truly an heir to Copland. The musical quotation of the Quaker melody via Copland’s Appalachian Spring is brilliant: Martha Graham commissioned Copland to write this music for her new ballet (of the same title), whose story she set in Pennsylvania before and during the Civil War. Composed in 1944, Appalachian Spring offers an idealized image of America as emerging from an era of internecine strife full of earnest, simple piety. I can’t think of a more appropriate musical reference to mark the inauguration of America’s first African-American president. That the quartet captures the tenor of his leadership as well—reflective, sober, hopeful, and humble—makes it even more apt. Thank you, Mr. Williams.
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Best video clip of the performance on YouTube: Quartet: Air and Simple Gifts, composed and arranged for this occasion by John Williams. Performed by Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gabriela Montera (piano), and Anthony McGill (Clarinet).