Leonard Bernstein composed his Music for String Quartet in 1936 while he was a student at Harvard University. His impetus to compose the piece is unknown; perhaps it was a school assignment, or something he composed on impulse. It is one of several juvenilia works of Bernstein’s; others include his Piano Trio (1937) and Piano Sonata (1938).
The piece was first performed publicly at Tanglewood’s Linde Center for Music and Learning on November 6, 2021 by violinists Lucia Lin and Natalie Rose Kress, violist Danny Kim, and cellist Ronald Feldman. These same musicians came together again to make this first commercial recording with PARMA Recordings.
I first heard about the piece from my friend Lisa Benson Pickett, daughter of former Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Stanley Benson, who told me about its fascinating backstory. According to Lisa and her brother, Peter W. Benson:
Our father, Stanley Benson, was a member of the New England String Quartet in the 1930s. The group was looking for a pianist to join their group to play quintets, and invited a young Leonard Bernstein to play with them for a series of concerts. During a rehearsal, Bernstein asked the group to play through his new string quartet. He eventually gifted the original handwritten manuscript to our father, and it remained in our family for decades. Our mother, Clara Stagliano Benson, was also a violinist and occasionally played it at home with her quartet. Our parents and Bernstein remained friends throughout their lives and would see each other in Boston, New York, and at Tanglewood.
Our mother kept the manuscript in the family music cabinet for decades, and after she told us about its existence we wanted the world to know about it as well. With the help of John Perkel, the Bernstein family, and The Leonard Bernstein Office, we are so pleased Music for String Quartet is having its moment to shine.
Several months before this recording, Garth Edwin Sunderland, Vice President for Creative Projects at The Leonard Bernstein Office, who edited the edition of the work used for this recording, identified a second movement of the quartet at the Library of Congress. This was a great discovery, though somewhat anticipated: Bernstein had inserted a roman numeral one on the first page of all four parts. That led me to wonder if there might be additional movements. Until the discovery of the second movement, I pondered if Bernstein did not finish the quartet, or were there any subsequent movements lost.
The first movement opens with a driving rhythmic force from all four musicians. The mood then changes into a jazzy motif and, at times, becomes rather mysterious before returning to a repeated section reminiscent of the beginning. The music captures styles of other composers, yet foreshadows what Bernstein would compose years later. The second movement, though darker, introspective, and more serious, nevertheless incorporates thematic material from the first.
Music for String Quartet may soon be available for purchase as a printed publication. As one of Leonard Bernstein’s earliest musical compositions, I am delighted to have worked with the Bensons, the quartet, the Bernstein family, the Leonard Bernstein Office, and PARMA Recordings to present this first commercial recording.
— John Perkel, former Boston Symphony Orchestra Librarian