Arriaga, Juan Crisóstomo de 

Complete String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Critically revised Urtext edition by Lucian Beschiu (Score and parts)


Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga

Troi quatuors pour deux violons, alto et violoncelle (1824)

(b. Bilbao, 27 January 1806 – d. Paris, 17 January 1826)


Of all the boy-geniuses who graced the history of music only to be cut down before their great talents could unfold, Juan Crisóstomo (Jacobo Antonio) de Arriaga (y Balzola) is surely one of the most tragic. Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Wolf all left behind enough music that historians can, as they love to do, safely divide it into early, middle, and late periods; Pergolesi and perhaps even Guillaume Lekeu, despite their brief lives (twenty-six and twenty-four years, respectively), left behind works that have never lacked for champions. But Arriaga, after a brilliant boyhood, died ten days before reaching his twentieth birthday, and his many works were dispersed and in many cases irretrievably lost before their value could be fully assessed. What we have left is a slender body of music rich in unfulfilled promise and, in two cases, serious candidates for admission to the standard repertoire: his Symphony in D (1821-26) and the present Three String Quartets (1824).

Arriaga came from a wealthy Basque mercantile family in Bilbao. His father was a trained musician who encouraged his son’s extraordinary talents to the extent that this was possible in the musical backwaters of that provincial capital. By the age of twelve Juan had already composed a number of works, of which two survive: Nada y mucho, an octet for five strings, trumpet, piano, and guitar (Manuel de Falla, when shown its belated publication of 1929, pronounced it a “prodigy in the history of music”), and an Overture (Nonet), proudly called “op. 1,” for four strings, two trumpets, two clarinets, and flute. By far the most impressive work of these childhood years was, however, a two-act opera semi-seria entitled Los esclavos felices, composed at the age of thirteen and performed to much local acclaim in Bilbao one year later (1820). On the strength of these early successes, the young genius was sent to Paris by his family to study at the Conservatoire.

Arriaga arrived in Paris in 1821, armed with his most recent Bilbao composition, a Stabat mater for three voices and small orchestra. He immediately showed it to Luigi Cherubini, Paris’s leading musician and the head of the Conservatoire, who later recorded the auspicious occasion and his response in his memoirs: “Amazing! You are music itself.” (Interestingly, Cherubini’s response three years later to another boy-genius, Mendelssohn, was noticeably more subdued.) At the Conservatoire the boy studied violin with the leading French violinist of his day, Pierre Baillot, with whom he made extraordinarily rapid progress. But more importantly he joined the composition and fugue class of François-Joseph Fétis, the great Belgian theorist and lexicographer who, in later life, could still hardly contain his astonishment: “His progress was nothing short of prodigious. In less than three months he acquired a perfect knowledge of harmony, and in two years mastered the difficulties of counterpoint and fugue. Arriaga received from nature two faculties which are very seldom found in the same artist: the gift of invention, and the most complete aptitude for all the difficulties of his art …. Nature had created him so as to accomplish everything there is in the realm of music” (Biographie universelle, vol. 1, 1877, pp. 119-20). By 1824 Fétis had arranged for him to receive an assistantship at the Conservatoire, making him, at the age of eighteen, the youngest professor in the institution’s history.


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