Farewell Variations (2015)

Instrumentation: string quartet.

First performed at Amherst College, Amherst, MA on 8 May 2015.

Performers: The Buckley Boys, 2014-15
Matthew Chow, violin 1
Elliot Kuan, violin 2
Brian Min, viola
Daniel Ang, cello

Program Notes

I composed Farewell Variations quickly in May 2015, for the purpose of commemorating the last time I would be playing with the Buckley Boys string quartet. The piece opens like a fugue, with the instruments entering one by one playing a theme both fluid and melancholic. This theme undergoes extensive motivic development in this first “variations” section. This occurs until the viola intervenes with an impassioned solo, leading to the “farewell” section. Inspired in part by the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132, the farewell section, too, features the instruments in staggered entrances, now playing in a chorale style. At the climax of the chorale, the cello intones two rousing cries, expressing its refusal to say goodbye. We transition into another brief “variations” section, with the fugal theme played in a cantabile style over pulsing pizzicatos in the lower strings. Finally, the “farewell” impulse takes over again, and the cello says its final goodbye, a soulful utterance sung under a torrent of powerful accompaniment of the other instruments, building up to the piece’s chaotic emotional climax. that breaks away into the cello barely making a coherent pitch at the highest register possible. After this, too, fades away, a series of soft, soothing open chords occurs. There is a little bit more questioning and answering between the cello and the second violin. At the very end, however, the three upper strings play a series of long chords, and the cello reluctantly joins them, initially with a nervous tremolo, but eventually letting go with a sigh of resignation. The farewell is complete.

To me, Farewell Variations is a fitting end to my chamber music career at Amherst College. My involvement with the Buckley Boys dates back to my freshman year, where we played the Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4 in one of Biddy Martin’s inauguration festivities. Back then, the quartet consisted of 3 sophomores besides me (Shanghui Li, Ben Boatwright, Matthew van Pelt). We studied and performed the entire quartet in that fall of 2011. In my sophomore year, Shanghui was studying abroad, so we were joined by Rachel Szymanski, studying and performing the Debussy quartet. The quartet was dormant during my junior year. It was only in my senior year that three new freshmen were recruited, and we played the Notturno of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and the last three movements of Beethoven’s Op. 132. Beng one of the last pieces I ever performed in Amherst College, Farewell Variations is a goodbye to both my beloved quartet and Amherst College in general. My hope is that the quartet will continue to thrive in my absence and in the years to come.