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An Odd String Quartet May Have Been Written by Benjamin Franklin

By Vivien Schweitzer
04 Aug 2006

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin left an impressive legacy of achievements as politician, author, diplomat, scientist and inventor. Now it seems that he may also have been a composer.

It is well established that Franklin played several musical instruments and enjoyed music. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that a Pennsylvania professor of music believes Franklin was also the composer of an unusual quartet whose author has never been ascertained.

The paper says that Kenneth Sarch, director of orchestral activities at Mansfield University in north-central Pennsylvania, believes Franklin composed an unusual five-movement string quartet while living in Paris around 1778. The work calls for three violins and one cello, instead of the usual ensemble of two violins, viola and cello that was standard by the late 18th century. But that's not the strangest aspect: the piece stipulates that all four string instruments retune to different pitches, "creating 16 notes to be played without left-hand fingering, using only the bow," Sarch told the paper.

It's thought unlikely that a serious composer like Haydn composed the work. Bruce Gustafson, a music professor at Franklin and Marshall College, told the Post-Gazette that while Franklin may have written a drinking song in his youth, "there is no evidence he learned to read music."

Yet Franklin's brilliant mind, frequent appearances at Parisian musical salons and enjoyment of simple music hint that he could be the composer. Sarch told the Gazette, "I can imagine him sitting around in the evening with a couple of his friends trying to make music doing this."

Gustafson told the paper, "The only thing in favor of the Franklin attribution is that it was obviously not written by a musician."

However, Dr. J.A. Kawarsky, Professor of Composition and Theory at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, told PlaybillArts that he and many of his colleagues already have a copy of the Franklin piece, which he says has been around for years.

Sarch now plans to unleash the piece on youth orchestras, although it will be a version that is easier to play than the original quartet.




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