Lebanon is the ancient land of the Phoenicians, a literate Semitic people who distinguished themselves as seafaring traders throughout the Mediterranean and retained their importance even under imperial Roman rule. A land of extraordinary ethnic diversity, Lebanon assimilated Maronite Christians and Arab tribesmen beginning in the seventh century and Muslim Druze beginning in the eleventh. By the sixteenth century it had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, only to become a French Mandate after World War I, a republic in 1926, andafter a period of occupation by French and British forcesan independent state in 1945. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of Armenians were exiled from their homeland and became a small but significant minority in this already highly complex and heterogeneous culture. Since 1967, thousands of Palestinian refugees have flocked to Lebanon. Conflict between Christian and Muslim factions erupted in a long, intensely violent civil war, with eventual military intervention by neighboring Syria in 1976.
This is the background of Setrak Setrakian's String Quartet, a gripping and heartfelt evocation of the strife that has torn his country asunder. There is a long history of music about war, from the medieval and renaissance "battalaglie" (e.g., Janequin's "La guerre"), to vocal, choral, and instrumental works by such diverse composers as Monteverdi, Couperin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Britten. The content of such works may tend towards a more or less literal depiction of battle, may focus on the psychological state of the composer confronting the conflict, or may explore both the physical and mental consequences of human belligerence.
Although Setrakian is one of his nation's most prominent tonal composers, his evocation of the conflict he has known through direct personal experience is appropriately couched in a compellingly dissonant style that communicates the chaotic events and emotional upheaval of war in terms that are at once vividly descriptive and searingly poignant. Indeed, such masterful works as his String Quartet No. 1 do much to redeem the non-tonal (or marginally tonal) idioms that first developed nearly a century ago and came to play such a dominant role in twentieth-century art music. In recent decades there has been a conspicuous decline in the modernist styles of the past, but they clearly remain a viable means of conveying, in varying degrees, the anxiety, tension, turbulence, confusion, and sorrow that have so extensively shaped and defined the contemporary human condition.
Although the obfuscation or elimination of a tonal center is both a rationally defensible and aesthetically effective choice for a composer attempting to express the horrific uncertainty and entropy of war, Setrakian's descriptive skill as a composer is evident on many other fronts: nervously pulsating, often convulsively syncopated rhythms and motives; consecutive and simultaneous affective contrasts, ranging from the lyrical to the explosively paroxysmic; dramatically charged textural changes, some of extraordinary polyphonic complexity; and full exploitation of each instrument's range and technical capabilities, including abundant use of stops to amplify the overall sonority.
Within its relatively short span of approximately ten minutes, Setrakian has distilled in his quartet a lifetime of experiences and proven himself to be an artist of extraordinarily keen perception and genuine substance.