String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations
I. The Book of Hours is Opened
III. Singing Angels
II. Catherine of Cleves Prays to the Virgin and Child
IV. Interlude: Book of Hours
V. Christ Carrying the Cross
VI. Interlude: Book of Hours
VII. Mouth of Hell
VIII. Trinity Enthroned
IX. The Book of Hours is Closed
Illuminations • Cedille Records CDR 90000 156 • Purchase recording
Nicholas Yasillo of the Norton Building Concert Series for his wife Susan
Watch Avalon Quartet perform the entire work: https://youtu.be/URG9KMV5c5c
Theodore Presser Company
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Stacy Garrop’s String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations was inspired by five illuminated pages from a medieval Book referred to as “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.” Books of Hours, the most prolific book of the late Middle Ages, are prayer books for lay people that enable a person to participate privately in the daily round of prayers and devotions that were originally recited only by monks and priests. The main text of a Book of Hours contains a cycle of daily devotions consisting of psalms, lessons from scriptures, hymns, collects and other prayers. Because Books of Hours did not have page numbers or indexes, the illuminations (or illustrations) enabled the owner to quickly find the text needed for reciting the prayers. The quality and number of illuminations, often using silver and gold, depended upon the patron’s ability to pay.
Catherine (1417-1476), duchess of Guelders and countess of Zutphen, commissioned her Book of Hours and received it around 1442. Today her Book of Hours is considered to be the masterpiece of the finest (although anonymous) Dutch illuminator of the late Middle Ages. “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” is one of the finest in the collection of Books of Hours in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
In trying to craft the experience of reading Cleves’ Book of Hours, the composer approached the work similarly to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As in Mussorgsky’s work, the audience follows the reader as he or she opens the Book of Hours, studies and reflects upon five illuminations, and then closes the book at the end of prayer.
Below is a brief description of the five illuminations represented in the quartet:
Plate 1. Catherine of Cleves Prays to the Virgin and Child
The first illumination in Catherine’s book shows her kneeling before the Virgin and Child praying, “O, Mother of God, have mercy on me.” The setting may be the castle chapel in Cleves and the statue at the top center of the panel may be of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the Cleves castle. Musical angels are on the battlements and coats of arms of Catherine’s ancestors surround the illumination. The composer based this movement on the Gregorian Chant “Ave Maria.”
Plate 3. Singing Angels
Three angels start to sing the hymn “Te Deum Laudamus” (although this hymn is not utilized in the quartet). The beginning words are on the banderol, “We praise thee, O God.” It is thought that this illumination refers to the preceding one, now missing, of the Annunciation to St. Anne (Mother to be of the Virgin Mary). The large open pea pods of the boarder are symbols of fertility. For this plate, the composer envisioned a harmonious chorus of angels and achieved this sound using high string harmonics.
Plate 24. Christ Carrying the Cross
This illumination shows Christ carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene, St. John and the Virgin Mary behind him. Hanging from Christ’s waist are two blocks of wood with nails that torture his ankles and feet. St. Veronica appears on the left side margin. The music for this plate invokes the sound of Christ’s feet as he slowly walks to his final destination.
Plate 99. Mouth of Hell
This illumination of Hell begins the Office of the Dead. One prayed often for protection from and to prepare for death, which could be sudden and unexpected due in part to the plague and new strains of influenza. This frightening entrance to hell has one mouth with talons and pointed teeth leading to a second fiery mouth with creatures boiling souls in the depths of hell. Around the picture, souls are being tormented while at the top a third mouth of fire is heating caldrons into which souls are cast. At the bottom is a green creature spewing out scrolls with the names of the seven deadly sins. The music captures both the ghoulish glee of the demons as they carry out their tortures, as well as the wailing souls of the unfortunate inmates of hell.
Plate 35 Trinity Enthroned
The Trinity, similar in posture and dress, sit on a throne with the Father on the left, the Son in the middle and the Holy Ghost on the right. The banderoles address death and salvation. The text on this page begins with the plea, “Oh, God, come to my assistance.” In the middle of the text a prayer begins, ”Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The nine different colored angels around the throne are thought to represent different orders of celestial beings. The composer sought to represent the majesty and benevolence of the Trinity, represented by a string of three-note chords (one note for each member of the Trinity).
String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations was commissioned by Nicholas Yasillo in honor of his wife, Susan, who has a passion for learning about Books of Hours.
- Notes by Susan Yasillo and Stacy Garrop