At the end of his first string quartet, Henryk Górecki planted a brief reference to sonorous triads strongly reminiscent of Beethoven. For his second quartet, which followed only a few years later, Górecki paid more explicit homage to the master. The title, Quasi una Fantasia, derives from Beethoven, though none of the material does, at least not directly. The model appears more on the level of large-scale design and the predilection for extremes of expression.
The quartet is organized into four movements, lasting close to forty minutes. Each movement breaks out of its primary character or material to include sections that refer to the others, in some fashion or other. The first, a lament, presents a grief-filled melody, built from melodic fragments that tend to fall by half-step, a traditional gesture of "affect." This is heard over a slowly pulsing pedal, placed in dissonant relationship to the melody. There is one point in the middle where the falling motive is inverted, rising to a major third above the pedal, a ray of light in the midst of gloom. At the end, a radiant progression of major chords appears, suddenly transporting the music to another world.
"Deciso-Energico," the second movement resembles a march. The beats are marked with heavy down bows sounding a minor third, and the more active melodic fragments are set at a dissonant relationship to these. The melody unfolds in fragments, or gasps, finally unleashing a flowing line harmonized in thirds in the upper range of the violins. There are various interruptions, though, and eventually, a luminous reappearance of the "Beethoven" chords. The dark dance carries on, gradually faltering, intercut more and more with silences, to lapse into the lament of the first movement. However, Górecki relents and moves into sonorous major chords, leading directly to the lyrical outpouring of the third movement.
The Arioso is much more elevated in tone than the previous movements. The first section alternates between F and C triads, with B flat minor used for expressive coloration. The passionate melody that unfolds above is not set in the same key, but the points of dissonance and resolution are exploited for maximum expressive intent. There is a striking point in the middle where the supporting harmony falls away, leaving only the two violins carrying on, harmonized in minor ninths. This leads to a brief reference to the second movement, then another statement of the Beethoven chords. One more echo of the Arioso theme gives way to chorale-like material to close.
The fourth movement begins as a rather joyous dance. The rhythmic patterns shift unpredictably between duple and triple meters, and the ostinato harmonies shift at key points. These lend a certain off-balance character to the dance. But Górecki trades off the melody between low and high and builds intensity until at last he brings all four instruments together in the middle register. From there, the music begins to hint at a return to the transcendent chorale heard earlier. It eventually arrives, as does an enigmatic reference to the Christmas hymn Silent Night! The piece closes with a combination of the pulsing low E of the opening and a sustained B flat triad derived from the chorale. The transformations and re-combinations of materials throughout this quartet are indeed masterful, worthy of its homage.