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Frank Sinatra and the String Quartet

When Frank Sinatra wanted to listen to music---sit down and really listen--he listened to string quartets. This was a side of Sinatra few suspected--a quiet man of reflection who listened to classical music.

Yes, the string quartet: two violins, viola and cello. It's barebones music, stripped of pretense. 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--all genuses--expressed themselves better with the string quintet. In the 20th Century Bela Bartok assailed the quartet with such fervor that his name is sometimes whispered with that of Beethoven.


In the mid-1940s, when Sinatra was a star of the first magnitude, and could call his own shots, he asked his favorite 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 on the record 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. 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 famed Hollywood String Quartet, led by Sinatra confidant, Felix Slatkin.

Back to the string quarter: which composer did Sinatra listen to? Who else? Beethoven. On occastion, he listened to the less demanding, and more lyrical, Debussy and Ravel, and, when the mood was right, Bartok; but as a rule, Beethoven.

Near the end of Beethoven’s life, when his creative juices had peaked, he composed his "late string quartets": five towering quartets that overshaddowed everything composed by anyone before, and come closest to expressing his true genius. To some, they are “the ravings of a madman.” To others, they are chamber music brought down from Mount Horeb, as uncompromising as the Ten Commandments, as exacting as a mathematical formula, indeed, as the very breath of God upon mortal consciousness.


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