Richard Nisley


Frank Sinatra and the String Quartet
Music - Classical Released - Jan 08, 2013

When Frank Sinatra wanted to listen to music---to really listen--he listened to string quartets. This was a side of Sinatra few expected--a quiet man of reflection who listened to classical music, who put on his reading glasses and read Dostoevsky.

The string quartet: two violins, viola and cello. It makes for poor background music because it demands your complete attention. Haydn perfected the form, but Beethoven took it to a level yet to be rivaled by anyone. Mozart, Schubert and Brahms expressed themselves better with the quintet. In the 20th Century Bartok assailed the quartet with such fervor that is name is sometimes whispered with that of Beethoven. Sometimes.

In the mid-1940s, when Sinatra was a star of the first magnitude and could call his own shots, he asked his arranger Axel Stordhal to arrange eight songs for his next album, eight songs of similar content and emotional depth, to be recorded in one or two sessions. This was something new. Up to this time, the industry practice was to release an album of generally unrelated, previously recorded songs, usually pop songs that never quite made it up the charts.

What Sinatra was proposing was the first “theme” album. As usual with Frank, he wanted the arrangements yesterday. Most unusual, he wanted the arrangements written for string quartet plus some added instrument to flesh out the sound--one or two horns, sax, flute, guitar for rhythm. Released in 1946, “The Voice” went number one and changed the music industry. After Sinatra, the album began to be recognized as an artistic expression.

Ten years later, Sinatra repeated the feat with “Close to You.” This time Nelson Riddle was the arranger, and the quartet was the Hollywood String Quartet, led by Sinatra’s friend Felix Slatkin.

Back to the string quarter: which composer did Sinatra listen to? Beethoven. And Debussy and Ravel, Haydn and Mozart, Borodin, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and when the mood was right, Bartok; but as a rule, Beethoven.

Near the end of Beethoven’s life, when his creative juices peaked, and he composed the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and the late piano sonatas, it’s the late string quartets that come closest to expressing his true genius. To some they are “the ravings of a madman.” To others they are music brought down from Mount Horeb, as uncompromising as the Ten Commandments, as exacting as a mathematical formula, indeed, as the breath of God upon mortal consciousness.

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