“…eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood...."
Thomas De Quincey (1821)
The title of my string quartet piece is drawn from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). Confessions is an autobiographical account of De Quincey’s struggles with opium addiction. He took the drug in the form of laudanum, a popular opium tincture. De Quincey meditates first on the pleasures of opium, describing its effectiveness in aiding sleep, fostering a sense of wellbeing and assuaging psychological disquiet. He goes on to chart the decline of such pleasures into nightmarish visions, hallucinations and physical frailty. In the early 1800s little was known about the effects of narcotics: Confessions was one of the first publications to offer a systematic study of their regular use.
I was intrigued by the fact that Beethoven’s late quartets were published in the same decade as De Quincey’s famous work. In The Opium-Eaters I respond to these two outputs, quietly exploring the idea of the epiphanic moment. The performers are asked to face inwards, a position that string quartets would have adopted when playing from the table music stands of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Opium-Eaters was premiered by the Escher String Quartet in Taplin Auditorium, Princeton, March 2016. This recording is shared with their kind permission.