|About this Recording
8.502021 - BRITISH STRING QUARTETS (Maggini Quartet) (20-CD Box Set)
BRITISH STRING QUARTETS
Amongst Alwyn’s considerable oeuvre—which includes works for orchestra, voice, opera, film, piano, and chamber music—music for the string quartet figures quite predominately, beginning with his earliest attempts at composition through to his final years as an active composer. Alwyn began writing for the medium in 1920, when he produced his String Quartet in G minor at just 15 years old. The years 1923 to 1936 produced a further twelve string quartets, so fascinated was the composer with this ‘most intimate of mediums’, as he called it, and he hoped to rise to the challenge of balancing the four instruments with equally interesting material to produce a satisfying whole. With each successive quartet he became more confident, also producing an Irish Suite (1939–40) and a few shorter descriptive pieces which include the atmospherically charged Three Winter Poems composed in 1948, that he dedicated to his former teacher, John B. McEwen. McEwen himself was also active as a composer, producing 16 quartets in addition to many other works for a variety of mediums.
It was not until November 1953, however, at the age of 48, when he completed his String Quartet in D minor that Alwyn felt fully satisfied with his work for the medium, and counted it as his first real Quartet No. 1, labelling it as such, and disowning all his previous attempts. This seems somewhat harsh, as in particular the four string quartets he produced between 1932 and 1936 contain some truly memorable ideas, which are worthy of a revival and deserve to be heard again after receiving enthusiastic reviews at their respective premieres. In all three quartets presented here one can hear the influence of Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček, which Alwyn readily admitted to in a fascinating essay entitled My Debt to Czech Music. In particular, there are traces of Dvořák and Smetana in the Quartet in D minor, while in the second and third quartets one can hear shades of Janáček. These influences, however, are subconscious, and are absorbed into Alwyn’s individual compositional technique. The D minor Quartet is cast in four movements. The first, a Moderato e grazioso, opens with a motto idea that later appears more fully in the cello and is then answered by the violin, which develops into a very rhythmic fortissimo section giving way to a more languid mood culminating in a passionate climax before reaching a pulsating rhythmic figure leading to a sudden and mysterious pianissimo conclusion. The will-o’-thewisp Allegro molto, a scherzo in all but name, is followed by the emotional heart of the quartet, a sublime Adagio. The movement begins darkly, conveying a somewhat brooding atmosphere, before leading to the contrasting central section in which, muted, the second violin, viola, and cello provide a throbbing chordal accompaniment over which the first violin steals in with an ethereal melody of soaring transcendental beauty, quite unlike anything else in Alwyn’s entire output. The melody is then passed to the cello before the opening idea returns to close the movement in quiet stillness. The rhythmically driven finale, Allegro vivace, molto ritmico, provides a dramatic conclusion to the piece with only brief respite provided by a more tranquil middle section culminating in an fff climax in which the cello and first violin reprise the melody heard in the first movement before leading to a fiery vigorous coda. The D minor Quartet received its premiere on 1 May 1954, given by the New London Quartet comprised Erich Gruenberg, Lionel Bentley, violins, Keith Cummings, viola, and Douglas Cameron, cello.
The String Quartet No. 2 ‘Spring Waters’ was completed on 11 September 1975, almost 22 years after the D minor Quartet, and inhabits quite a different sound world from the first, being less romantic and with a more abrasive and austere quality. Alwyn heads the score with the four lines that preface Turgenev’s novel Spring Waters, which are as follows:
The composer clearly states, however, that the work is essentially an abstract composition, with the words just providing an initial spark for the beginnings of the piece that happen to reflect his own feelings at reaching the age of 70. The first movement Moderato (‘the “spring waters” of high hopes and romantic illusions’) begins pianissimo with a murmuring figure in the cello that is then taken up by the viola and second violin over which the first violin enters with a melody answered by rhythmic phrases in the cello that forms the seeds from which the whole work germinates. These initial ideas go through a number of permutations, culminating in a passionate statement of the cello’s rhythmic figure stated fortissimo by all four instruments in unison. The movement ends calmly sempre lento with a theme that the composer says is intended to convey a sense of ‘resignation and disillusionment’. The second movement, Allegro scherzando, contrasts an energetic idea stated at the outset with a more lyrical graceful theme, and in the words of the composer ‘recalls the lost turbulence of youth and young love, but seen “as through a glass darkly”’. The desolate final movement, Adagio, (not, however, without its dramatic outbursts), is, in the apt words of the composer, ‘the daunting prospect of old age, “all passion spent” is emotionally stated in a bleak fugue, only to be brushed aside in an upsurge of passionate resentment; but the fugue returns, though not for long, and the work ends on a triumphant note—death is not defeat’. The String Quartet No. 2 ‘Spring Waters’ was commissioned for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Norwich Music Club and first performed at Blackfriars Hall, Norwich on 29 May 1976 by the Gabrieli String Quartet comprised Kenneth Sillito, Brendan O’Reilly, violins, Ian Jewel, viola, and Keith Harvey, cello, followed by a performance with the same artists at Snape Maltings, Suffolk as part of the Aldeburgh Festival on 5 June 1976.
The String Quartet No. 3 was completed in the spring of 1984 and turned out to be Alwyn’s last major work. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Sir Cecil Parrott, diplomat, author, translator, and good friend of the composer. The idea for another string quartet germinated in Alwyn’s mind after he had attended recording sessions for the first two string quartets by the Quartet of London at Snape Maltings, in 1982. The composer remarks, ‘…again I was filled with the desire to compose yet one more work for this most perfect of mediums’. The first of the Quartet’s two movements, an Allegro molto, begins with twelve rhythmically biting percussive chords announced fortissimo by all four instruments after which a restless motif in the viola and second violin provides the accompaniment to a forceful theme on the cello, which is then echoed by the first violin. This mood is contrasted with a more lyrical second subject first announced by the viola. These motifs are further developed leading to a passionate outburst of the second subject in which the theme is stated in the upper regions of the violin and cello in unison accompanied by a tremolando figure in the second violin and viola. A brief scherzando section follows before a return to those percussive chords announced at the outset (although this time comprised of different notes), the restless motif on viola and second violin accompanies the opening theme this time (in reverse roles) on first violin and then echoed by the cello. A further development of these ideas leads once again to a passionate reprise of the melodic second subject announced fortissimo by the first violin and cello accompanied by the tremolando figure in the second violin and viola. A brief mood of calm follows before a few measures of the scherzando section return, leading the movement to a sudden and unexpected conclusion. The second and final movement, Adagio, provides an elegiac conclusion to the Quartet. The peaceful opening gradually gains momentum leading to an Allegro waltz section that incorporates a soaring pianissimo melody announced in the first violin accompanied by a pizzicato figure in the viola and cello. The waltz theme returns leading to a passionate restatement of the first violin’s soaring melody announced this time fortissimo. A gradual decrease in dynamics and tempo returns us to the mood of the opening, and the work ends in a peaceful serenity, providing a moving and fitting swansong to Alwyn’s composing career. The Third Quartet received its premiere in Blythburgh Parish Church, Suffolk on 13 June 1985 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival given by the Quartet of London, featuring Carmel Kane, John Trussler, violins, Simon Rowland-Jones, viola, and Peter Willison, cello.
Alwyn’s delightful Novelette was composed during 1938–39 especially for the Oxford String Quartet Series published by Oxford University Press. The idea of the series was to present a number of short, easy pieces lasting two to three minutes by living English composers of the day, which in addition to Alwyn included Thomas Pitfield and Felix Swinstead. The term ‘easy’, however, should not be taken too literally, as some of the pieces are more serious and ambitious and go beyond the mere elementary level. The Novelette comprises a rhythmically driven opening with the main theme announced fortissimo by the second violin and cello in unison, which is then passed to the first violin and viola also in unison. This leads to quieter, gentler melodic middle section before a return to the opening theme fortissimo, this time presented on the first violin accompanied by second violin and viola and bagpipe drone in the cello. After a brief reprise of part of the secondary theme mezzo piano the piece ends with a conclusive accented fortissimo chord.
Although his output centres on nine symphonies and two dozen concertos, chamber music was not neglected by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Numerous of these chamber works are compact pieces with a divertimento character, but the two string quartets are emphatically of a serious nature. Both, moreover, came at crucial junctures in his career, which may well account for their intensity of expression: Arnold confronting his experiences head-on so that they can be transcended by his music.
The publication and recording of Arnold’s early music has made numerous works of interest available. Not least his Phantasy for String Quartet, completed in June 1941 and entered for the Cobbett Prize—a chamber music competition founded by the philanthropist W.W. Cobbett, whose advocacy had been of benefit to numerous British composers. Although the piece was awarded only second prize (the first going to Ruth Gipps), and appears not to have been performed publicly, Arnold reworked a part in his Wind Quintet of 1942, and clearly retained affection for it. The subtitle ‘Vita Abundans’ (‘Abundant Life’), may refer to the generative potential of musical motifs, a concept amply demonstrated by this piece.
Over syncopated pizzicati unfolds a moody, blues-inflected theme that gradually gains in impetus. Discussed intently by the quartet, between whom melody and accompaniment are resourcefully shared, it leads into the central section, a melancholic idea presented in richly expressive harmony and undercut by brusque interjections that presage a more animated third section. Heard initially against a tremolando accompaniment, an incisive rhythmic idea quickly takes hold of the instruments in different ways, the momentum building accordingly so a purposeful motion is gradually attained. At length, the theme from the central section is recalled, only for fragments from the rhythmic idea to interrupt with increasing frequency, before rounding off the work with a tersely conclusive gesture.
It was the award of the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1948 that led Arnold to terminate his career as a trumpeter (in which capacity he had served with distinction in both the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras), and concentrate on composition. His works of this period explore a number of stylistic possibilities that, while not typical of the mature composer, are employed with a conviction that makes them nothing if not idiomatic. Such is true of the First String Quartet, composed in 1949 and given its premiere by the London Quartet in a BBC Third Programme concert in November the following year. Like the First Symphony (Naxos 8.553406) which immediately preceded it, the quartet is a tough and uncompromising work; the presence of unexpected but potent influences (notably Bartók and early Hindemith) giving it its individuality, as well as a motivic compression that brings the work in at under 20 minutes.
An icily-descending motif prefaces the opening movement’s restlessly chromatic first theme, which gravitates around the ensemble before a second theme, more lyrical but not more relaxed, emerges. A hammered repeatednote gesture dominates the brief central section, after which the first theme returns in what is less a formal reprise than its gradual dismantling towards the teasingly inconclusive close. The scherzo sets off at a hectic pace, its unceasing chain of repeated notes giving it a moto perpetuo character. The central section plays off shrieking violins against trenchant pizzicati, before the initial idea briefly returns with renewed intensity to drive the movement through to a sudden end.
Twice as long but equally fragmentary, the slow movement is pervaded by a pensive theme discussed by the quartet in poignant harmony. This dialogue proceeds, over a halting accompaniment, to a climax that presently dissolves into a heightened restatement of the theme against an uneasy tremolo backdrop. This gravitates to the bass, after which the music all but disintegrates into starkly frozen harmonics, before the main theme returns for a conclusion of musing uncertainty. The finale is launched by an angular theme that generates intensity without real stability. A second, closely-related theme sounds a note of greater lyricism, before the first theme returns in what seems to be a climactic fugato. Petering out almost as soon as it started, it heads into a coda that does not so much end the work as bring it to a provisional but intriguing pause.
By the time that Arnold completed his Second String Quartet in 1975, his ‘glory days’ as one of the most successful British composers of his generation had passed. This, and an increasingly unsettled domestic life, gives his music of this period its tragic and often bitter resonance, above all, in the Seventh Symphony of 1973 (Naxos 8.552001), that compels as surely as it disturbs. On a more extended scale than its predecessor, the Second Quartet is even more quixotic in its juxtaposition of ideas and moods: the whole piece outlining a musical narrative that is no less powerful for its abstraction. Written for the Allegri Quartet, and dedicated to its leader Hugh Maguire, who gave the premiere in Dublin during June 1976 with a repeat performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, the work has only latterly come into its own, and today ranks as a high point in what was undoubtedly a fecund period for string quartet writing in Britain.
The first movement erupts in a passionate melodic outpouring that is powerfully sustained across all four instruments. The second theme is sparser and more inward, coming to a halt from where the music takes off in a development marked by lunging repeated chords and impulsive changes of mood and texture. At length, the opening theme returns, but its rhetoric is soon undone by the gentler second theme that sees the movement through to its calm but regretful end. Even more unpredictable, the second movement opens with a lengthy violin solo that abounds in grating harmonies and sinister glissandi. It finally alights on an energetic theme akin to a Celtic dance, drawing the other instruments into the fray as both elements are superimposed on the way to a headlong close.
The slow movement is the work’s undoubted focal point, initially unfolding in desolate polyphony that yet offers a more considered perspective on what went before. Inflecting the main theme into new but evidently related shapes, not least a hushed chorale-like idea that is quintessential Arnold, it builds up to a nobly-wrought climax that lays bare the naked emotion at the heart of the quartet. Formally the most complex movement, the finale opens with a searching violin theme over rustling accompaniment, the theme being taken up by other instruments as the music unfolds with new purpose. This thins out into largely solo exchanges, before the theme returns, only to be curtailed by a scherzo-like music which, with its often manic glissandi, channels the momentum into new and unexpected territory. Equally as suddenly, this section plunges into a surging coda, derived from the opening theme, which quickly coalesces into a series of resolute and conclusive chords.
Two early string quartets survive from Bax’s student years at the Royal Academy of Music, followed soon after by a piano trio, though with viola replacing the usual cello, and then an extended string quintet. All these early chamber works he repudiated, although they remain worthy of revival. His first major work in the medium was his large-scale Piano Quintet, completed early in 1915, followed in 1916 by his Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp.
When Bax came to write his first mature string quartet the war was in its last year, though curiously the quartet is a serene work and bears few overt influences of the times in which it was written. It is dated 1918, and was first performed by the Philharmonic Quartet at London’s Aeolian Hall on 7 June 1918. The published score is dedicated to Sir Edward Elgar who, in response to Bax’s letter of 3 March 1921 offering the dedication, replied that he ‘liked the look of it’. Bax had visited Elgar at Birchwood at the age of 17 and he wrote, ‘I should be very pleased if you will accept this simple work in memory of an unforgettable day and all the pleasure your own music has given me.’
The opening of the cheerful serenade-like first movement at first recalls the textures of Dvořák’s late chamber music, and Bax certainly shows a remarkable command of the varied textures of the medium. The first theme soon moves on to a second containing elements of the first and then a slower, wistful idea. This middle section moves through a succession of spectral moods before the opening theme returns fortissimo. In the slow movement Bax writes a sorrowing threnody, perhaps connected with the war or remembering lost friends in Ireland, or regretting the passing of the years, the cause of severe depression in later years. A hint that it might be the last of these comes with a brief allusion to Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Performance markings include molto expressivo (sic) and very delicate and expressive. In a spectral middle section all are muted, as they are for the hushed ending. That Bax’s thoughts are in Ireland is confirmed by the last movement, with its opening wild, jig-like dance, starting in 2/4 but with a second idea in 6/8, as the music becomes wilder. The fast music gives way to a gorgeously memorable ‘Irish’ tune, which Bax claimed was original, but Irish audiences were convinced was adapted from the folk song Bán Cnuic Éireann Óg (‘The Fair Hills of Ireland’). Bax was a friend of Herbert Hughes, the arranger of Irish folk songs, and Hughes’s version of this tune called The Lament of Fanaid Grove was played by their mutual friend the cellist Beatrice Harrison, and later recorded by her. Although differing metrically and in decoration from Bax’s version, it seems likely this may have been his source. The music ends with the return of the dance and Bax in high spirits, concluding a work that was probably the best-known British chamber work between the wars, twice recorded on 78s, but subsequently largely forgotten.
Bax wrote his Second String Quartet in the winter of 1924–25. The three movements are dated 18 December 1924, 13 January 1925 and 5 February 1925. It was first performed by the New Philharmonic Quartet at the Grotrian Hall, later the Steinway Hall, in London, in a concert of Bax’s chamber music on 15 March 1927. It was published soon after, but, unlike the First Quartet, was not widely performed.
Written between the sketches and the orchestration of the despairing Second Symphony, the Quartet seems to share its mood. It opens with the solo cello in an extended recitative, eventually joined by the viola, but it is 39 bars before we hear a full quartet texture. In the introduction the cello has four different motifs which are elaborated in what follows. Eventually we reach a lyrical idea given to the viola, marked molto cantabile. At one point there is a ghostly reminiscence of this idea, but the return of this song is long-delayed, the assurance of the First Quartet now a distant memory, although echoes of its mood can be heard from time to time, notably distorted fragments of what once might have been an Irish dance. The richly textured slow movement opens with an expressive theme, the source of most of what follows. It generates a contrasted second subject with an octave displacement near the beginning and returns finally at serene length. In midmovement Bax includes a two bar quotation from the theme of his piano piece A Romance, written in 1918 for the pianist Harriet Cohen soon after he left his wife and children for her. He returned to it again in the slow movement of his Fourth Symphony. The opening cello recitative from the first movement is now transformed into the dancing, vigorous first subject of the finale. The infectious panache of this sustained passage is eventually followed by contrastedly more lyrical music. The sonorous muted middle section is one of those chordal quasi-liturgical themes familiar from the symphonies. Atypically, in this movement Bax writes two fugatos and eventually takes the end motif of the first theme of the finale, reuniting the opening music with its transformation in a brilliant coda.
The last of Bax’s string quartets, his last extended chamber work, dates from the summer of 1936 when he was 52, and it is fascinating to place it beside works for the same medium written when he was a student. Bax produced two student string quartets, and a movement from the second of these is included here, while in a movement from another early chamber work, the String Quintet in G, we can hear his stepping stones to his mature style.
Bax’s two early string quartets were written while he was at the Royal Academy of Music, the first in 1902 and the second probably in the following year. The manuscript of the String Quartet in E is undated but the slow movement was orchestrated in 1905 as Cathaleen-ni- Hoolihan. As the orchestral score is dated December 1903/July 1905, it seems reasonable to assume that the first date is that of the composition of the quartet. Bax writes a verse from W.B. Yeats’ early poem To Ireland in the Coming Times at the head of the movement:
He clearly wrote this from memory as it is slightly misquoted. This manuscript has occasional pencillings in the hand of Bax’s composition teacher, Frederick Corder, and it seems probable that it was discussed during his lessons. Another work by Bax with the title Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, for two violins and piano, was performed in November 1904 but does not survive. It seems likely it was an interim version of this same movement.
By 1908 Bax had been out of the Academy for three years, and was becoming known for his songs, but very little of his music had then been played and he was almost unknown as a composer. He produced an extended and complex String Quintet in G, with two cellos, which was performed by the Wessely Quartet at London’s Aeolian Hall in July 1908. This is a work where Bax’s early Irish accent is much in evidence but contrasting with other styles of the period; Bax is fully abreast of the techniques not only of impressionism but also of Vienna at that time. In 1914 the manuscript was sent to Germany in the hope of a performance there, and on the outbreak of war Bax assumed it had been lost, but after the Armistice, in 1919 it was returned to the composer who clearly felt he had moved on and did not put it forward again. Rather, he re-scored the second slow movement for a quintet with two violas (as the present Lyrical Interlude) and dedicated it to R. Vaughan Williams, publishing it as a separate work in 1923.
By the mid-1930s the majority of Bax’s most celebrated works had been written, and at this time he produced a succession of chamber works for larger forces. First came the Octet for horn, piano and string sextet in 1934, and then in 1936 the Threnody and Scherzo for bassoon, harp and string sextet and the so-called Concerto for Seven Instruments, a septet for flute, oboe, harp and string quartet. Almost immediately he went on to write a Third String Quartet. His earlier numbered quartets dated from 1918 and 1925, and while the first of these was popular in the 1930s, the tougher Second Quartet remained unknown.
Now over ten years on we come to his last quartet. Written for the Griller Quartet in the summer of 1936, the four movements of the Third String Quartet are dated respectively 5 July, 6 September, 21 August and 23 September. Started and finished in London, the Scherzo and Trio was written at Cashla Bay, County Galway. The work was first performed on the BBC National Programme in May 1937, soon after the Coronation, when the Radio Times quoted Bax in its billing, writing that the first movement ‘was probably influenced by the coming of spring in beautiful Kenmare’. He went on:
‘…The third movement consists of two strongly opposed elements—a rather sinister and malicious Scherzo, and a dreamy, remotely romantic Trio. This contest is finally won by the Scherzo, when it converts the subject of the Trio to its own way of thinking. The texture of the finale is rougher and more robust than that of the rest of the work, though there is a softening of mood towards the abrupt and impetuous closing bars.’
In the Trio of the third movement Bax makes a fleeting but unmistakeable reference to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, possibly his acknowledgement of the Coronation mood in London that year before the abdication was announced.
In the mid-1930s Bax was in the habit of staying in Ireland with his friend the composer E.J. Moeran, at Kenmare, County Kerry. Bax and Moeran would stay at the Landsdowne Arms Hotel in Kenmare, where Moeran lived for part of the year (Bax would later similarly take up residence in a pub, in his case at Storrington in Sussex). Bax was there in May 1936, when he must have been thinking of the Third String Quartet. He wrote on 9 May that there were ‘more bluebells and primroses than ever’ and went on to describe how he ‘walked along by the sea last night and it did not seem earthly at all ... It might have been the western fairyland of which the old Irish legends tell. It seems almost unnecessary for them to have invented such a place—Ireland being what it is.’ Bax originally intended the two middle movements to be in the reverse order to that in which they were published, but changed his mind before the first performance.
The First Quartet, Op. 6, was written in 1935, the year that saw the start of his friendship with Britten and the premiere of his oratorio Jonah at the Leeds Festival. Both these works evince an astringent, Stravinskian neo-Classicism that recalls Berkeley’s years in Paris, while the Quartet also suggests the presence of Bartók, whose Fifth Quartet had had its premiere two years earlier.
The opening movement starts with an incisive theme that features all four players in vigorous counterpoint, complemented by a suaver, though no less animated, second theme. The development begins with forceful chords, then passes through an arresting passage where solo gestures sound over a rocking accompaniment, before the modified reprise. This allows more room for the second theme, and leads to a coda of relative calm but, as the swelling final chords and ghostly harmonics confirm, hardly repose. Over a walking accompaniment, the second movement unfolds in expressive polyphony, but takes on greater ambiguity as it proceeds. There is a brief climax, but otherwise the music moves thoughtfully between diatonic and chromatic harmony as it winds down to its close. Only a half-close, however, as the Scherzo launches with barely a pause, athletic exchanges between players underlined by rhythmic syncopation and unexpected harmonies. The Trio section is no less impulsive, then the modified return of the initial music is concluded with a tapering off into silence. Out of this the finale emerges: six variations on the ruminative theme heard at the outset. The first variation transforms it into a driving toccata, and the reflective second is informed by an appealing lilt. The third proceeds with purposeful intent and much imitative writing, then the fourth inhabits a ghostly nocturnal landscape. With its coursing rhythms, the fifth is an outburst of energy, while the sixth is an elegiac variation that sees the work to its subdued but intense close.
The Second Quartet, Op. 15 followed in 1941, in a period that gave rise to orchestral works such as the First Symphony, Serenade and Divertimento, and vocal works such as Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila and a setting of the Stabat Mater. The influences evident in its predecessor have now been thoroughly absorbed, while the balance between formal clarity and expressive depth has been effortlessly achieved.
The first movement opens passively but assumes greater dynamism with its first main theme. The second theme is lighter and more quizzical in intent, without undermining momentum as the exposition reaches an impassioned climax. The development sets off with similar resolve, but initially vague references to the second theme gradually extend its emotional range. There is a shortened reprise, after which the movement winds down to a questioning close. The Lento is one of Berkeley’s deepest slow movements, its initial theme yielding a number of motifs that are resourcefully discussed over its course. The theme itself is reassembled on the way to a poignant climax, after which the movement closes with its various motifs gently mused upon by the players. Opening with brusquely rhythmic gestures interspersed with expectant solo phrases, the finale settles upon an uneasy theme that finds productive contrast with the more inward episode that intervenes. The main theme returns with renewed force, driving the music to a heightened reappearance of those initial rhythmic gestures, followed by a coda that funnels the accumulated energy into a decisive final cadence.
The Third Quartet, Op. 76 did not appear until 1970, at the end of a decade that saw his final opera Castaway, the Third Symphony and the Magnificat. The period is also notable for Berkeley’s recourse to elements of the serial technique that he had previously eschewed, but his approach is anything but dogmatic and, indeed, accords well with the stylistic ambit mined over the previous quarter-century.
The opening movement begins with a forceful theme in wide-ranging harmonies, complemented by a more relaxed theme that evinces greater passion as it unfolds. The development pointedly integrates these themes, bringing about a free reprise (almost a continuation of the development) before the movement ends with a haunting transformation of the second theme. The Scherzo unfolds in driving counterpoint that moves through a number of distinctive gestures without settling on a theme as such. Nor is there a contrasting Trio section; rather the movement reiterates its salient motifs through to the teasing close. Beginning with ghostly harmonics, the Lento is the emotional heart of the work: its initial introspection gradually builds to a climax of no mean intensity, followed by a plaintive discourse whose sureness of motion ensures a sense of purpose as the movement returns to the inwardness with which it began. The finale seems intent on dispelling any resulting uncertainty with its engaging initial theme, one that finds ready contrast with a more passive idea. The development at first elides between these moods with ease, but the emergence of a ghostly recollection of the slow movement sees an emphatic change of course. At length the main theme returns and the movement heads into its final stage with an accumulating energy that brings the decisive if peremptory close.
Bliss wrote his String Quartet in A major in 1915, during the First World War, and subsequently withdrew it, as he did other early works. The quartet was dedicated to Edward Dent, and was performed in London in November of the year of its composition. Bliss had always admired the music of Edward Elgar and received encouragement from him. On this occasion Lady Elgar wrote to Bliss, then serving in France, to tell him of the favourable reception of his work and her own appreciation of music she found ‘full of eager life and exhilarating energy and hope’. The first movement seems at once to reflect current English musical trends, while suggesting in texture Bliss’s early admiration for the music of Ravel. The second movement opens with a melody in the mode of an English pastoral folk song in which instrument after instrument joins, in imitation. This is followed by a final Allegro vivace con grazia that broadly continues the same mood and textures, with melodies of modal contour, moments of contrapuntal interest, and the energetic spirit that Lady Elgar had observed and praised. The Quartet was heard with relative frequency in the recitals of the Philharmonic String Quartet, in which Eugene Goossens, its co-founder, played second violin.
Conversations, scored for flute/bass flute, oboe/cor anglais, violin, viola, and cello, represents a new phase in Bliss’s career. In Paris after the war he had met the group of young composers loosely banded together as Les Six, and Conversations was later played at the Aeolian Hall in London in a programme that included works by Germaine Tailleferre, Poulenc and Milhaud, to be greeted by the severe strictures of the critic of the Daily Mail. The work was originally intended as a jeu d’esprit, given in a private performance by five musicians of some distinction, including the flautist Gordon Walker and the oboist Leon Goossens. The first movement, The Committee Meeting, finds the chairman, the violin, in a monotonous mezzoforte, struggling to make his point, against the often irrelevant interruptions of others, in obvious dissent. In the Wood is gently nostalgic in character, with its intermittent birdsong, a contrast to the following In the Ballroom, with its jaunty violin melody first heard over the plucked notes of viola and cello, before the entry of the bass flute. At the heart of the movement, in which the oboe is silent, is a more sinister passage, introduced by the bass flute. The fourth movement Soliloquy is for cor anglais alone, the first section, which is repeated, framing a livelier central section. Conversations ends with In the Tube at Oxford Circus, a playful evocation of the turmoil and varying scene, the whole work a contemporary reaction to the preceding decade, but no longer as shocking as it seemed to some contemporaries.
Bliss wrote relatively little during his stay in America in the early months of the war. The work later published as String Quartet No.1 in B flat major, however, was written at the invitation of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and first performed in April 1941 at Berkeley by the Pro Arte Quartet, led by Antonio Brosa, shortly before the composer’s return to England. The first performance in London was given in the National Gallery by the Griller Quartet in March 1942. The work shows the composer’s command of the medium in idiomatic string writing and an equitable distribution of musical interest between the instruments. The first movement opens with a chordal Andante maestoso, moving on to a syncopated figure and a more urgent passage, before the Allegro con brio, with its characteristically wide-spaced melodic contours. There is more lyrical material, all developed before the varied return of the first Allegro theme in recapitulation, and a closing section that recalls the Maestoso opening. There is gentle lilt to the Allegretto grazioso, contrasted with the more overt rhythmical asymmetry of secondary thematic material, to be heard again more emphatically after the return of the opening theme from the viola. There is a similarly clear structure in the slow movement, with its continuing shifts of key centre. Its final tranquillity is broken by the opening dissonance of the last movement, with an energetic first theme that has something of the angularity of Russian music of the time, and more lyrical contrasting material. A closing presto brings to an end a work that has all the eager life and exhilarating energy that Lady Elgar had detected in the quartet of 1915.
This recording was generously supported by the Bliss Trust.
After composing works with programmatic or dramatic subjects, Bliss frequently felt the need to write a purely abstract work. Hence the Second String Quartet came in the wake of the opera The Olympians: as he wrote in As I Remember, ‘I retreated into the intimate and private world of chamber music.’ He composed the Quartet in 1950 dedicating it to the members of the Griller Quartet in honour of their 20th anniversary, and they gave the premiere at the Edinburgh Festival that year. Bliss felt that ‘it grew into the most substantial chamber work that I had attempted’, and it is indeed a powerful and rigorous essay in compositional skill.
The first movement explodes into life with a dramatic theme on the three upper strings marked by trills. This theme informs much of the musical argument that follows. A spacious chordal idea, and one percussive in character, complete the first group of themes. By contrast a new section commences with a relaxed, flowing theme heard initially on the first violin. The development reaches its climax with a forceful statement of the chordal idea and in the recapitulation the principal ideas are heard in a different scoring. Soft dissonances, with the strings muted, open the Sostenuto, which is contemplative in character. A short, faster section leads to a brooding climax and on to an impassioned cello solo, unmuted, against the other instruments playing tremolando still with their mutes on. As if the music is suspended, a still threefold repetition of the opening dissonance played pianissimo concludes the movement.
Bliss described the third movement as having ‘the spirit of a scherzo’, and to be played ‘at top speed’. It opens with a bounding rising arpeggio that dominates this rhythmically energetic music. The brief Trio-like section is characterised by a dogged, insistent figure played by the quartet in rhythmic unison. A fugato on the arpeggio idea and a swinging viola solo follows, before a second appearance of the Trio where the viola again takes centre stage set against the harmonics of the violins and the cello’s pizzicato, providing a magical and inspired transformation of its first appearance. The finale is shaped from ideas heard in alternate tempos at the outset. A series of descending chords usher in the Larghetto and are followed by an elegiac viola solo. By contrast the Allegro is marked by a purposeful theme introduced by the first violin. Later in the movement the Larghetto melody is played by both the first violin and cello and it is this theme which ends the quartet as a whole, as in the very final bars the music comes to rest serenely in the major rather than minor key.
As in many of Bliss’s works, the inspiration of a great artist was a powerful stimulus in the composition of the Clarinet Quintet. In this instance it was Frederick Thurston who, together with the Kutcher Quartet, gave the first performance at the composer’s home in December 1932. It was dedicated to Bliss’s friend, the composer Bernard van Dieren. Clearly Bliss loved the clarinet, and significantly it was the instrument of his brother Kennard, who had been killed in the First World War. As the Quintet was the next work to be composed after Morning Heroes, Bliss’s overtly public requiem for his beloved brother, it is possible to view it as a further expression of his loss. Undoubtedly the work is one of his finest achievements.
Like Mozart and Brahms in their clarinet quintets, Bliss chose the A clarinet because of its silkier tones. In a lecture of 1932 he described the instrument’s qualities: ‘The clarinet has a curiously varied manner of expression, being capable of sounding like three different instruments. In its highest register it is brilliant and piercing, with an almost pinched trumpet sound; in its middle octave it is beautifully pure and expressive, with a clear even tone; in its lowest register it is reedy in sound, with a dark, mournful and rather hollow quality. It is an immensely agile instrument, capable of extreme dynamic range, extending to a powerful forte to the softest pianissimo.’
The clarinet is heard to expressive effect at the beginning of the first movement with an extended solo cantilena. Gradually, in a manner that Bliss likened to a conversation, the other instruments steal in tenderly, echoing the clarinet’s melody to produce a web of luminous counterpoint. Surely for sheer beauty this opening must rank among the most memorable in 20th-century chamber music? But, as often with Bliss, the serenity which marks the first movement is contrasted with altogether ominous moods in the stabbing rhythms, martial-like fanfares and dissonances of the succeeding dramatic scherzo. Contrast is provided by a solo violin melody of aching poignancy, which is followed by a pizzicato passage before the drama returns. At the heart of the work is the pensive slow movement which grows from the simple syncopated violin phrase at the start. The full expressive range of the clarinet is exploited in long florid lines and decorated arabesques as the music quickens to a climax in the movement’s centre. After this central point a stately sarabande-like melody leads to a return of the principal idea. In the predominantly carefree and effervescent finale the brilliance of the clarinet’s upper range is exploited. Shadows intrude intermittently in more introspective sections, only to be banished once and for all in the sparkling coda.
Frank Bridge studied the violin and composition at the Royal College of Music in London, where he was a pupil of Charles Villiers Stanford from 1899 to 1903. Apart from composition, his career embraced performance as the viola player in several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet, conducting, in which he frequently deputised for Sir Henry Wood, and teaching, with Benjamin Britten his best-known pupil. Perhaps no other British composer of the first half of the 20th century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works, such as the First String Quartet (1906), the Phantasy Piano Trio (1907) and the orchestral suite The Sea (1910–11), follow in the late-Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Fauré; subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer (1914), for instance, Bridge comes close to the orbit of Delius. After the First World War, however, his music became intense and chromatic as in the Scriabinesque Piano Sonata (1921–24). The radical language of the sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, so that in the String Quartet No. 3 (1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with the early works of the Second Viennese School. Also to this decade belong two orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) and Oration (1930). Finding little favour with public or critics, his late work, for example the Fourth String Quartet (1934–38), languished and despite Britten’s advocacy, it was not until the 1970s that Bridge’s remarkable legacy received the attention it deserved.
At the outset of his career Bridge established his name through a series of chamber works in which he demonstrated impeccable craftsmanship, and a wholly idiomatic understanding of string instruments, with the viola, his own main instrument frequently having prominence. A further influence on the form of these works lay in the prizes instituted by Walter Wilson Cobbett, an amateur musician whose interests were chamber music and the period of the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. In particular he was interested in the instrumental ‘fantasy’ or ‘phantasy’ form of that time, in which several unrelated but varied sections formed the basis for an extended work. In 1905 Cobbett established a prize for chamber compositions in one movement and Bridge submitted several works for his competitions, winning First Prize in 1907 and 1915. What was significant, though, was that Bridge adapted aspects of the phantasy form within subsequent compositions, so that thematic unity within a work of one or several movements became a hallmark of his compositions.
This is apparent in Bridge’s First String Quartet, which was written in haste in the space of a month during 1906, in response to a competition organised by the Accademia Filarmonica, Bologna, hence the quartet’s sobriquet. Of the 67 quartets submitted only Bridge’s received a ‘mention d’honneur’. He had had to work at such speed that there was no time to copy a second set of parts, and it took the Accademia two-and-a-half years to return the originals; consequently, the work was not given its first performance until 1909 when the English String Quartet performed it in London.
The first movement begins with a characteristic structural feature of Bridge’s works that is clearly linked to the experience of writing his Cobbett compositions: a short, slow introduction in which key thematic ideas are introduced. Here it is a two bar, sad, falling chromatic cello phrase. Two pianissimo chords follow, pregnant with anticipation, before the music plunges direct into the drama of the Allegro appassionato with the first violin taking over the motif. Overall the mood is turbulent, although respite is supplied by the movement’s other main thematic idea, a tender melody introduced by the viola. Cast in an arch shape, the Adagio molto opens with mysterious chords, alternating with a plaintive first violin phrase. An extended theme on viola follows, whose initial reticence is transformed into a passionate burst of emotion. The middle of the movement is more animated, then the opening ideas return with the cello taking up the viola’s melody, in dialogue with the first violin. The scherzo is all dancing airiness and light, while the Trio is graced by a melody shared between first violin and viola whose rhythm is frequently at odds with the underlying pizzicato accompaniment. Later in the Trio Bridge clearly alludes to the main motif of the opening movement. Both the main melodic ideas of the finale are heard initially from the first violin, and both are flowing in character, the first one accompanied by sonorous texture and the second incorporating triplets. In a masterly stroke of thematic unity, Bridge reintroduces the main motif of the first movement at the end of the work. The music fades, all comes full circle as the cello intones the motif for the last time and the Quartet ends in a mood of sombre tragedy.
The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the American patroness of music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and dedicated to her. It was composed in 1925–26 and first performed by the Kolisch Quartet in Vienna in 1927. In it Bridge’s advanced mature voice is fully revealed for the first time. The Quartet’s language shows kinship with Berg and Bartók; the twelve semitones are constantly in play, octave doublings are avoided, and the music is driven by a relentless momentum through the rigorous development of its ideas. These are generally short motifs from which the web is spun and throughout the music is interrelated.
In the slow introduction and opening bars of the Allegro, the thematic motifs and harmonic elements of the first movement, indeed the whole work, are laid bare, ideas that are ripe for infinite change and transformation in the highly charged sonata structure that follows. Of particular importance is a four-note semiquaver group that turns in on itself and is pervasive through the Quartet, while the main first subject begins on the first violin with a wide leap upwards, and an angular falling back. A rising, eerie sequence in rhythmic unison leads to the second group of ideas with the viola leading the way. These rise to a glorious climax when a magical change of harmony is like a ray of sunlight breaking through clouds. The movement ends with an exciting coda and a terse concluding note. The ternary form Andante con moto is utterly different, a shrouded, crepuscular world of shadows and half-lights, evocative of the Sussex downland where Bridge settled and which he loved, at dawn or dusk. It inhabits a mood of melancholy established by the wistful, muted dialogue between the violins, heard against pizzicato viola and single notes on the cello. Throughout, links, either veiled or obvious, can be heard to the musical material exposed in the first movement. In the finale, a sonata rondo, the energetic contrapuntal dialectic of the first movement, is enjoined again and much of the musical material resurfaces in new guises. An athletic long-limbed theme heard on the first violin, accompanied by dissonant chords forms the main idea, whilst the second is an agitated theme played by the cello high in its range. In the development section the main themes of the first movement are considered again, while in the recapitulation the second subject, now on viola, precedes the first. After a last climax, the work ends with an extended epilogue section in which the strands are brought together with references to all three movements. In his dedicatory letter to his patron, Bridge wrote ‘That this score contains the best of me I do not doubt.’ Undoubtedly he was correct, for in its evident mastery of the medium the Third Quartet is one of his highest achievements.
The Second String Quartet was composed in 1914–15 in response to Cobbett’s fourth competition for the best string quartet in either sonata form, suite or phantasy form. Entries were finally divided into those who wrote sonatas and those who wrote phantasies, with Bridge’s Quartet winning the former. The London String Quartet gave the premiere in 1915, and the Quartet may be heard as a transitional work between Bridge’s early and later styles; there is a clear advance in its harmonic language with an increased use of chromaticism and motivic elements within the textures to bind the work together. It is undoubtedly Bridge’s first chamber masterwork.
Without any preamble the first violin launches into the main theme of the opening movement which dips and rises in a lyrical contour and features triplets. Bursts of rhythmic energy follow, but these give way to a nostalgic expansive second principal theme given initially to the viola to reveal its expressive range over oscillating triplets. A slow coda of pensive beauty based on both main themes concludes the movement. The degree to which phantasy form affected Bridge’s structural thinking is apparent in the scherzo where an extended slow middle section is incorporated rather than a conventional trio. Thematic integration is also evident with triplets once again dominating the landscape of the breezy, airy scherzo and spawning new ideas which in turn become the main melody of the Andante con moto. This theme is also related to material from Bridge’s tone poem Summer which he interrupted composing in order to write the Quartet. The finale is an arch structure, opening with a slow section in which the first movement’s second theme is transformed. Similarly the main themes of the Allegro vivace can both be related to previous ideas. The pattering figure, like dappled light, also bears similarity to the opening of Summer and overall the music becomes more optimistic until in a master stroke Bridge weaves in both themes from the first movement.
The Phantasy Piano Quartet was Bridge’s third work cast in phantasy form, and was one of eleven works for differing chamber forces commissioned by Cobbett. Composed during 1909–10, it was dedicated to Cobbett and given its premiere by the Henkel Piano Quartet in 1911. In terms of Bridge’s career it comes towards the end the early period when he was not venturing out of a late 19th-century harmonic language. It is also one of the finest works that arose out of Cobbett’s initiative, partly because its symmetrical arch structure brings a strong cohensive logic to its sequence of introduction and slow movement; scherzo, trio, scherzo; slow movement and coda.
The Quartet opens with a passionate introductory gesture for the whole ensemble before the piano plays a lyrical, undulating theme shot through with sadness which forms the main idea of the opening section. It is taken up by the cello and leads to a warmer second theme that is constantly aspiring upwards and culminates in a quasi-Brahmsian harmonic sequence. A puckish scherzo follows. It scampers impishly along to reach with the trio the middle of the overall arch form of the Quartet. Here the introductory ideas of the quartet return. The journey back begins with a recapitulation of the scherzo, then the introduction itself is now truncated and for cello alone. Second time around the slow music is developed and rises to an ardent climax as the ideas are reviewed, before a tranquil coda brings the work to an end in the calm of the major key.
The Fourth String Quartet was dedicated to Bridge’s American friend and patroness, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was composed in 1937 with the premiere taking place in 1938, performed by the Gordon String Quartet, at Mrs Coolidge’s Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music in Massachusetts. The work follows the developments Bridge had made in his Third Quartet in its use of chromatic dissonance; however, as the Bridge scholar Anthony Payne has observed, its formal structure has a more classical approach with a clear-cut sonataform first movement, followed by a minuet and a rondo finale.
The opening movement embraces several swiftly changing moods and directions, contrasting energy and tenderness. After a brief call to attention by the viola, the athletic principal theme is introduced on the first violin. Instructions to the players that pepper the score such as ‘agitato’, ‘frenetico’ and ‘impetuoso’ give the clue to the character of the fast music. By contrast, the second main idea is an outburst of singing lyricism for the viola. Bridge follows this opening drama not with a slow movement but one with an intermezzo-like quality. It is not, however, in the relaxed vein as the term might suggest; instead it is a sinister minuet built from the obsessive rhythm of the opening bar. Here is a world of twilight shadows with the omnipresent rhythm offset by outpourings of haunted melody frequently exploiting the dark hues of the viola. In the concluding rondo Bridge blows away the mood of the preceding movement with music which proceeds by leaps and bounds and increasingly takes on a confident character. Such is the integrated thematic quality of the whole work that allusions are made to the minuet’s rhythm, and just before the final appearance of the rondo theme both subjects of the first movement are worked into the music in a masterly fashion. A swift, bracing and affirmative coda brings to an end the apogee of Bridge’s contribution to the genre of the string quartet.
Since Frank Bridge’s death in 1941 his music has been unduly neglected, although his name is at least recalled in the homage paid him by his pupil Benjamin Britten in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, using a theme from the second of the Three Idylls. Bridge was born in Brighton in 1879 and studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London, continuing the latter study under Stanford. As a performer he established a place for himself as a violist, in particular in the English String Quartet, and as a conductor with the New Symphony Orchestra, at Covent Garden and in other important engagements with major orchestras in the English capital.
As a composer Bridge developed a voice of some originality. A series of chamber works and songs won a ready public in the early years of the 20th century, with larger scale orchestral compositions, symphonic poems and suites. His style developed in a radical way after the 1914–18 war, the change marked by his Piano Sonata, written between 1921 and 1924. The influence of Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg becomes apparent, reminding us that Britten had once hoped to be allowed to study with Berg. Bridge, however, retains an English element in his harmony and musical language, although the new form that his music had taken isolated him from the insular traditions of many of his established contemporaries.
The Phantasie Quartet, in F minor, was written in 1905 in response to Walter Wilson Cobbett, compiler of the useful Encyclopaedia of Chamber Music and an enthusiastic amateur violinist, owner of a Guadagnini instrument and other valuable violins. In 1905 he established a prize for a phantasy string quartet, analogous to the Elizabethan fancy or fantasy, a single-movement sectional work, then for consort of viols. The first quartet prize was won by W.Y. Hurlstone and Bridge won a prize in 1907 for his Phantasy Trio, while other winners included Armstrong Gibbs, Herbert Howells and John Ireland. Bridge entered his Phantasy Piano Quartet of 1910 for the same award. The essential element in the traditional form that Cobbett was seeking to encourage was the use of a single movement with related but contrasting sections.
The first section of the F minor Quartet is marked Allegro moderato and opens emphatically before the march-like tread of the first theme, leading to idyllic music that must recall the contemporary idiom of Ravel in texture, contour and feeling, in particular the latter’s Introduction and Allegro in its octave doublings of melody. The Andante moderato has stronger suggestions of English idiom in its opening, while the final section, Allegro ma non troppo, allows an element of romanticism that is remote from the world of Elizabethan consort music. Cobbett’s chosen antiquarian title by now had other connotations, although the general language remains English.
Novelletten, a title that must recall Schumann, were written in 1904, but foreshadow something of the path Bridge’s harmonic idiom was to take. The first has particular interest in its string writing and in its shifts of tonality, moving in its gentle opening and conclusion. Plucked notes start the second piece, a Presto, with its chromaticism and tender relaxation of tension at its heart. The third of the Novelletten opens firmly, an Allegro vivo that finds time to recall the material of the other two movements before ending as it began.
The Three Idylls were written in 1906, the year after the Phantasie String Quartet. The initial Adagio molto espressivo offers an intense C sharp minor, dark-hued and melancholy, moving into a serene E major, before exploring the tonic major in a mood of gentler lyricism. As always Bridge handles the textures of the string quartet with the mastery to be expected of a musician familiar also as a player with the medium and its repertoire. The first Idyll ends as it began, in a mood of sombre nostalgia.
This is only partially lightened by the second Idyll, marked Allegretto poco lento, although the music moves forward now into gentle lyricism. The final Allegro con moto is cheerful in feeling, once again suggesting the idiom of Ravel, to whom Bridge may be seen as a contemporary and independent counterpart at this stage in his career.
The Irish Melody, popularly known in England as the Londonderry Air, is treated imaginatively in the string quartet version composed by Bridge in 1908. Here, the well-known melody only gradually emerges, appearing towards the end of the work, although it has been foreshadowed in the intricate interplay that has gone before. Sir Roger de Coverley, written in 1922 and also existing in a version for string orchestra, makes use of a similar technique, in a lighter vein, the fiddle tune answered by the lower strings in an interwoven texture. Sir Roger does not have it entirely his own way, since Auld Lang Syne appears eventually as a countermelody, in witty and skilful counterpoint. 1916 had brought two other compositions based on traditional tunes, Sally in Our Alley and Cherry Ripe. The first of these allows the melody initial prominence, with harmonies of increasing intensity, while Cherry Ripe offers a cheerful contrast of mood, its melody initially suggested and fragmentarily interwoven before it is finally heard.
The Three Pieces, here recorded for the first time, start with the briefest Allegretto, followed by the third of the set, marked Moderato, almost as short and gently evocative in Bridge’s earlier style. These are followed by the second of the group, now placed third, an Allegro marcato, in the manner of a syncopated light music introduction to a seaside entertainment, an elegant touch of Brighton Pier.
Benjamin Britten’s compositions for string quartet include some of the most important examples of the genre in the 20th century. They include four quartets and three movements from an unfinished suite and reflect his understanding of a medium of which he had experience as a performer.
Born in Lowestoft in 1913, Britten quickly outgrew local resources for guidance in composition and was sent for instruction in 1927 to Frank Bridge who became both teacher and friend. In common with Bridge, Britten played the viola, and his works for string instruments are from the earliest attempts, entirely idiomatic, with a thorough understanding of all aspects of performing techniques. His brother Robert was a violinist, and Britten’s first compositions reflected these family abilities.
Frank Bridge was a fortunate choice of mentor—his harmonic leanings found sympathy with more contemporary European ideals, especially Berg, and this cosmopolitan outlook, almost unique amongst British composers of the time, was quickly recognised by Britten’s precocious talent. In contrast, when Britten later attended the Royal College of Music (RCM), he found that his compositional style did not always find favour with the establishment. He studied with John Ireland, but kept in close contact with Bridge, and frequently asked his advice. He said of these years ‘They don’t seem very happy in retrospect. I feel I didn’t learn very much’.
The Three Divertimenti were composed in 1933, towards the end of his student life at the RCM. The three movements originally belonged to an unfinished suite for quartet entitled Alla quartetto serioso ‘Go play, boy, play’, and were intended as a series of portraits of school friends; the first of the athletic David Layton from Gresham’s, Holt, his public school, and the third of Francis Barton, a friend from South Lodge, his earlier private school. The movements bore the titles PT, At the Party and Ragging but were withdrawn, revised and re-born in 1936 as Three Divertimenti. The March is one of the earliest examples of Britten’s use of this form—a recurring feature of his later works. The charming Waltz has an air of calm relaxation before the almost mota perpetua energy of the Burlesque. They were first performed in this version by the Stratton Quartet (later to become the Aeolian Quartet) at the Wigmore Hall on 25 February 1936.
Britten first met the tenor Peter Pears in 1934, but it was in 1937, after the death of the latter’s close friend Peter Burra, that a relationship began that was to continue until Britten’s death in 1976. As the uneasy decade of the 1930s drew to a close, Britten and Pears made the decision to move to America, largely under the influence of the poet W.H. Auden and the writer Christopher Isherwood, who had despaired of the old world with its conventions and apparent sterility. When Frank Bridge saw Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears set sail on the SS Ausonia on 29 April 1939 bound for Canada, it was to be the last meeting of pupil and teacher. Bridge died in 1941, the year of the String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25. An earlier string quartet in the same key written in 1931, was revised in 1974 and first performed in this revision at Snape. Both the first two numbered string quartets date from the years of the Second World War. After his collaboration with W.H. Anden on the folk opera Paul Bunyan, which received indifferent reviews, Britten and Pears passed the summer of 1941 in California as guests of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. It was here that he was commissioned to write the String Quartet in D major by the wealthy American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The Quartet was first performed by the Coolidge Quartet in Los Angeles on 21 September 1941. During this Californian summer, Britten also discovered the work of the poet George Crabbe (1755–1832). After reading a transcript of E.M. Forster’s broadcast on Crabbe, Pears found a copy of his work in an antiquarian bookshop and, particularly impressed by The Borough, with its characters from the life of his own native East Anglia, Britten resolved to write an opera about the tormented fisherman, Peter Grimes. Although the composition of the Second Quartet is more nearly contemporary with Peter Grimes, there are distinct similarities with the sound world of the Quartet in D. The opening Andante sostenuto with its high tessitura and directed to be played molto vibrato has much of the feeling found in the Dawn Interlude from Grimes and similarly the third movement Andante calmo in 5/4 looks forward to the Moonlight Interlude. These two movements are separated by the scherzo, Allegretto con slancio, which, somewhat like that of the Violin Concerto of 1939, is reminiscent of Shostakovitch. A frothy and humorous finale, Molto vivace, concludes the work.
In July 1945, and at his own request, Britten made a tour of Germany as accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin, who had undertaken to play to the survivors of German concentration camps, including Belsen. Britten must have been affected by this and it was on his return that he completed the String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36. This astonishing work was given its first performance by the Zorian Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 21 November 1945. Together with the settings of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, it was written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. The two large-scale outer movements flank the malevolent scherzo Vivace. Played with mutes, the trio offers no respite, being thematically linked to the movement’s primary theme. The first movement, Allegro calmo senza rigore, is in sonata form, but stretches the exposition out to such a length as to dwarf the development, while the recapitulation is still shorter. The main three themes that constitute the first subject are characterised by a rising tenth. The final Chacony is a ground followed by 21 variations, interspersed with cadenzas for the cello, viola and first violin—the second violin accompanies the viola cadenza by sustaining a C throughout. It was in a filler for the recording of the quartet by the Zorian Quartet that Britten himself played second viola in Purcell’s Fantasy upon One Note, the entire work being constructed around a sustained C. The Chacony, in the very spelling of its title and in its form, is an overt tribute to Purcell. The first six variations are harmonic and the cello cadenza separates these from a further set of six which are basically rhythmic. Then follows the viola cadenza and six contrapuntal variations. The cadenza for first violin heralds the final three variations and the movement ends with an almost Beethoven-like reaffirmation of the tonic tonality.
All quotations from the writings and broadcasts of Benjamin Britten are
What’s in a name? Is it just piquant coincidence that one of Britain’s greatest composers was called Britten? Benjamin Britten’s beloved mother certainly saw significance in her married surname: extolling the ‘three Bs’—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—she was ‘determined’ the fourth would be Britten. Benjamin was her fourth child, born, auspiciously, on November 22: St Cecilia’s Day, feast day of the patron saint of music.
The future composer’s childhood home faced the North Sea in Lowestoft, the most easterly town in Britain. Britten loved his native Suffolk, feeling ‘firmly rooted in this glorious county’; he could have added the words of fisherman Peter Grimes in his most famous opera ‘…by familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind’. What drew Britten and his lover and muse, the tenor Peter Pears, back from their new life in America in the early 1940s? Britten’s rediscovery of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, whose The Borough inspired Peter Grimes. Where did Britten and Pears settle? That very ‘Borough’, Aldeburgh, another Suffolk coastal town which, thanks to Britten, has been home since 1948 to one of Britain’s finest music festivals. He found ‘working becomes more and more difficult away from that home’.
A quintessentially English, provincial composer, then? Far from it. After Britten’s death The Times acclaimed him ‘the first British composer to capture and hold the attention of musicians and their audiences the world over’. Britten’s technical brilliance and openness to continental trends distinguished him from the start. In the 1920s the precocious 13-year-old—pianist, viola-player and already prolific composer (shades of Mozart)—was fortunate to find a composition teacher in Frank Bridge, virtually the only British composer with a sympathy for the central European avant-garde of Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók, or neo-Classical Stravinsky. To those models Britten added Mahler and Shostakovich. No wonder the conservative Royal College of Music, which he attended from 1930, suffered culture shock, especially when Britten proposed to use a travel grant to study with Berg. (He didn’t.)
The mainstay of Britten’s international appeal is the stream of operatic masterpieces initiated by Peter Grimes in 1945; but they, and his other Pears-inspired vocal music, mask further important creative strands: pieces for young people and instrumental music. True, for a decade in mid-career Britten wrote practically nothing substantial without voices; but before Grimes his chamber and orchestral compositions outnumbered vocal works two to one (the string quartet playing a central role), and after 1960 musical friendships—above all with the cellist Rostropovich—revitalised that interest.
Indeed, these string quartets span 50 years. The Third Quartet (1975) was Britten’s last major work, premiered after his death, while the Simple Symphony includes tunes he wrote in 1923—aged nine! As he turned 20, Britten filched themes from his earliest pieces to develop into this buoyant Symphony for string quartet or string orchestra. Its orchestral version (recorded on Naxos 8.550979) is more often heard, but a quartet adds brio in Boisterous Bourrée, sheer fun in Playful Pizzicato and Frolicsome Finale, and surprising depth of feeling in Sentimental Saraband—suggesting a less-acknowledged influence: Elgar.
If the Symphony’s simplicity lies in its youthful musical language, by his last year at school Britten was following Bridge in daring new directions. The Quartettino of 1930 is an astonishing achievement for a 16 year old. The restless, chromatic lines of its three movements, all evolving from a five-note rising-falling shape which prefaces the score, are as radical as anything in British music at the time—Britten at ease among his central European examples.
Alla Marcia (1933, though unpublished, like the Quartettino, until the 1980s) brings another stylistic leap, but sounds eerily familiar: accompanying the voice in the wild penultimate Parade of Britten’s 1939 songcycle Les Illuminations (recorded on Naxos 8.553834) is an expanded version of Alla Marcia. This sinister Mahlerian march was originally intended for a quartet which became the Three Divertimenti, recorded by the Maggini Quartet on their companion release, Naxos 8.553883.
The very mastery of his Second Quartet (1945, following Peter Grimes, and also on that companion release) may have contributed to Britten’s subsequent 30-year silence in the medium. Increasingly gnawed as he was by self-doubt, the string quartet—by reputation the pinnacle of abstract music—must have seemed daunting. Ironically, the sheer physical difficulty of composing, after a heart operation in 1973 caused partial paralysis of his right hand, apparently influenced Britten’s final return to the quartet: only four parts to write! But the Third Quartet’s spare textures—reflected in its titles, Duets (exploring all six possible pairings of the four instruments) and Solo (spotlighting the first violin)—are characteristic, indeed a summation, of Britten’s late style. The arch-like five-movement form recalls Bartók, Shostakovich, even Beethoven; Britten invokes his friend Shostakovich, who had just died, in Ostinato (built on four notes spanning almost three octaves), Solo and especially the weird Burlesque—a title from two other valedictory works, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Bartók’s Sixth Quartet, as well as Britten’s own 40-year-old Divertimenti. La serenissima (taken from Britten’s last opera Death in Venice) was written there; Recitative quotes Death in Venice, while his last Passacaglia (a favourite form, unfolding over a repeated bass) ends, he said, ‘with a question’, consonance undermined and outlived by an enigmatic cello note: suggesting, to Britten’s chosen biographer Donald Mitchell, ‘I’m not dead yet!’
The String Quartet and Piano Quintet belong to the late autumn of Elgar’s compositional life. Wearied and depressed by the war years, his retreat to the Sussex cottage, Brinkwells, revived his spirits, and this renewed but temporary sense of well-being produced the three great chamber works and the Cello Concerto. Nothing further of significance was penned before his death in 1934 and efforts to write a third symphony remained as sketches.
Elgar’s diary records him writing ‘E minor stuff’ in April 1918, and it is significant that of the four works dating from this period, three are in that key. Many earlier attempts at a quartet never materialised. A D minor exposition appeared in his 1878 sketch books and in 1907 there is reference in Lady Elgar’s diary to a quartet, but it was put aside in favour of work for the First Symphony. In a similar way, after the completion of the first movement of the E minor Quartet, the Violin Sonata took precedence and the work was therefore completed in tandem with the Piano Quintet.
The first movement of the String Quartet is in 12/8 and the first subject is presented as an ascending, questioning motif, followed by a typical sequential descending passage in fourths. The second subject finds a more settled mood, but the general feeling is of unrest and uncertainty, ending enigmatically with the first half of the first subject seemingly hanging in the air. The slow movement, marked Piacevole, has a simple song-like melody as its first theme, A complete contrast to the first movement, Alice Elgar described it as ‘captured sunshine’. Completed on Christmas Eve 1918, the last movement is passionate and forceful. Elgar fulfilled a promise from the early years of the century by dedicating the quartet to the Brodsky Quartet, although the premiere was given by the British String Quartet.
The ‘reminiscence of sinister trees’ (Alice Elgar) refers to the partly programmatic element that pervades the Piano Quintet. The ‘sinister trees’ were once struck by lightning on ground above Brinkwells, around which had arisen the story (most likely invented by Elgar’s friend Algernon Blackwell) that they represented the dead forms of a settlement of Spanish monks, duly punished for their ‘impious rites’. The Moderato introduction of the first movement contrasts the almost plainsong-like piano line with the ghostly interjections from the strings. The following Allegro relentlessly pursues a 6/8 motif until, after a pause, the ‘Spanish’ second subject is heard on the violins, accompanied by pizzicato chords in the manner of a guitar. Both the plainsong first statement and the second subject have the minor second of the Phrygian mode which further emphasises a Moorish influence. The radiant beauty of the Adagio begins with a seamless melody for the viola, redolent with longing. It is significant that this movement meant a great deal to Elgar. The cyclical nature of the work continues through the last movement, beginning as it does with the direct reference to the first movement introduction. A purposeful Allegro is heard on unison strings and the A major conclusion banishes the occult inspired ‘ghostly-stuff’ of the first movement.
Both works received their first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919.
John Ireland studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) where his teachers included Frederick Cliffe (piano), Walter Parratt (organ) and Charles Villiers Stanford (composition). During the first decade of the 20th century he worked as an organist, choirmaster and pianist, and established his name as a composer with works like the Phantasie Trio (1906). The impact of the Second Violin Sonata (1915–17) at its premiere in 1917 made Ireland a national figure overnight, and within 24 hours of its publication all copies had been sold. From 1923 to 1939 he taught at the RCM where his pupils included Britten. He embarked on a disastrous marriage in 1926, which was quickly annulled, and a subsequent deep friendship with his pupil Helen Perkin also ended painfully.
Many aspects of Ireland the man are mirrored in his music. His lonely, shy personality had its roots in an unhappy childhood and perhaps accounts for the melancholy strain in his music. Primary inspirations were landscapes such as the Channel Islands, Dorset and Sussex, and in particular those sites of antiquity whose association with man stretches back aeons, for instance, Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs. To this can be linked the influence of pagan mysticism in the writings of Arthur Machen. Works reflecting these characteristics are the orchestral The Forgotten Rite (1913), Mai-Dun (1920–21) and Legend for piano and orchestra (1933). The piano was an important medium for Ireland apparent in the fine Piano Concerto (1930), and solo works like Decorations (1912–13), Amberley Wild Brooks (1921) and Sarnia (1940–41), as well as in major chamber works, for example, the three piano trios. His last major composition was a significant film score for The Overlanders (1946– 47). Finally his profound knowledge of English poetry is reflected in the diversity of poets he set, including Housman in The Land of Lost Content (1920–21) and Sylvia Townsend Warner in Songs Sacred and Profane (1929–31).
The two string quartets date from Ireland’s student years at the RCM, which he had entered at not quite the age of 14 in 1893. Although his first and second subjects were piano and organ, Ireland harboured ambitions as a composer, and particularly wanted to study with his idol, Stanford. According to reminiscences he told to his housekeeper and friend Norah Kirby (and although her chronology is incorrect), the First String Quartet was intended as a work which would so impress Stanford that he would take on Ireland as one of his pupils. The work was completed in March 1897 and was supposedly rejected by Stanford as ‘Dull as ditchwater, m’ bhoy’. Stanford, however, subsequently arranged for a group of students to perform it and Ireland was encouraged by the praise given by Hubert Parry (the director of the RCM). Ireland referred to both the First Quartet and the Second Quartet, completed the following September, as RCM scholarship pieces, and in the event the result was successful since in the same year Ireland was awarded a four year scholarship to study with his hero.
For all their assured writing for the medium, Ireland’s Quartets show not a trace of the mature composer’s personal voice; their models are Beethoven and Brahms (who, although close to the end of his life—he died the month after Ireland completed the Quartet – was viewed by the young composer as a giant amongst contemporary figures and whose music was also especially admired by Stanford).
The principal ideas for the first movement of the Quartet No. 1 in D minor, which is cast in traditional sonata form, are laid out in an expansive exposition that is repeated. They comprise a gently lilting, pastoral melody; a fanfare-like flourish; a Brahmsian second subject aspiring upwards and an animated, jerky rhythmic figure. Particularly effective in the development section is the passage where, with the viola to the forefront, the music takes on the character of a dreamy waltz. A fleet Beethovenian scherzo follows marked by rhythmic drive and a flowing theme in the contrasting trio section. The slow movement grows out of a noble expansive melody played by the first violin, which is repeated an octave higher. There is a short contrasting section, offset by the steady pulse of the cello, before the main theme returns on both violins rising to an eloquent climax. Once again the first violin leads the way in the Finale with a purposeful, busy main theme, which is contrasted by a warmly romantic Brahmsian second subject. In the centre the main theme is subjected to various fugal techniques, before the main ideas are repeated and the Quartet concludes with a vivacious coda.
Given Ireland’s idiomatic writing for string quartet in his two student works, it is a shame that he never returned to the medium in his maturity. He maintained, however, that he found the prospect daunting, writing to the composer Elisabeth Lutyens, ‘I have never had the temerity to complete another’. Consequently the only work for string quartet from his main career is an arrangement, made in 1941, of the third of his Four Preludes for piano, The Holy Boy, originally composed on Christmas Day 1913. With its wistful melody and subtle shifts of harmony it is quintessential Ireland, and ostensibly this ‘Carol of the Nativity’, as Ireland later embellished the title, is a lullaby for the Christ child. There was, however, a subtext, for the primary inspiration was Bobby Glassby, one of the choristers at St Luke’s, Chelsea, when Ireland was the organist and choirmaster, who became one of the composer’s protégés. It seems likely too that the title also refers to a poem by Harold Munro, Children of Love, which has the opening line, ‘The holy boy / Went with his mother out in the cool of the day’. The Holy Boy became one of Ireland’s most popular works and over the years he made several versions for different instruments and forces.
What is evident in the Quartet No. 2 in C minor is how Ireland’s writing for the medium has gained assurance in the six months since the composition of the first. The melodies, albeit still derivative, have more character in themselves as in the brooding opening theme of the first movement played by the second violin which plunges the music straight into the drama and reveals the influence of another contemporary master—Dvořák. But it is still the fingerprint of Brahms that imbues the elegant second subject with its grace notes and descending sequences, heard initially on first violin and then viola. The slow movement, labelled Nocturne, demonstrates Ireland’s ear for colour as he exploits the use of mutes. Initially only the first violin is unmuted as it plays a meditative, sentimental theme. It dons its mute too for an agitated, contrasting section and for the repeat of the main theme, before, after a bar’s rest, all the instruments play without mutes producing a most effective change of timbre. Once more Ireland turns to the model of Beethoven in the fast third movement, which also bears a designated title, Scherzo. The main idea pounds along vigorously, in contrast to the mellifluous trio section. Ireland casts the finale as a theme and variations, creating a variety of moods and opportunities for the instruments along the way, for instance the animated third variation, the graceful fourth, the fifth in which first the cello, then viola, take pride of place, and a final burst of energy in the concluding Vivace variation.
Ernest John Moeran belongs to the generation of British composers that flourished in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in 1894 into a family of Anglo-Irish origin and was sent to school at Uppingham, where Joachim was an occasional visitor. His studies at the Royal College of Music (RCM) were interrupted by the war, in which he was seriously wounded, and his health and later stability seem to have been seriously affected by his injuries, when a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain. He resumed his studies at the RCM under John Ireland after a brief period of work as a schoolmaster at Uppingham. Ireland remained a strong influence on his composition, as was Delius and, it might be supposed, his friend Peter Warlock. Other influences may be found in the landscape and folk song of his native Norfolk and in those of the country of his forebears, Ireland, where he died in 1950. His earlier work included songs and chamber music that earned him favourable attention, while the 1930s brought a change of direction, notably in his First Symphony, a work suggesting the influence of Sibelius that given its first performance in January 1938, after a prolonged period of gestation. In 1945 he married the cellist Peers Coetmore, for whom he wrote his Cello Concerto, followed by other works for the instrument.
Moeran’s String Quartet in E flat major is apparently an early work, its manuscript found among the composer’s papers by his widow after his death. It opens with a first violin theme of pastoral suggestion, then a transitional passage of greater range and excitement, followed by the gentle second subject. The central development of this sonata-form movement brings shifts of tonality, cross-rhythms and elaboration of texture, as the second violin and cello offer an arpeggio accompaniment, before the viola leads into a quieter mood. The original key returns with the first subject in recapitulation, duly followed by the second, which leads to a rapid coda of repeated notes, gradually dying away to a softly sustained tonic chord. The opening phrase of the viola, in the second movement, is at first answered strongly by the other instruments, then in softer tones and for a third time by a very soft D major chord. There follows the introduction to a folk song-like theme in that key from the first violin, succeeded by a passage of greater vigour that leads to the final Vivace. This is opened by the rhythmic repetition of a single note by the muted second violin. A thematic fragment is heard from the muted first violin, imitated by the viola before the unmuted cello proposes a theme, echoed by viola and second violin in turn, in the compound rhythm of the first movement. This is followed by the first violin with its own thematic material. There is a change of key from E minor to E major and a change of pace and rhythm, marked Allegretto, moving, with other changes of tonality, to a muted Andante and a final duple metre Allegro vivace.
Moeran’s String Quartet in A minor was written in 1921 and dedicated to the Belgian violinist Desiré Defauw, founder and leader, as a refugee in London, of the Allied Quartet, a wartime creation, with Charles Woodhouse, Lionel Tertis and Emile Doehaerd. The work is dominated by the characteristic features of English music of the period, drawing heavily on material that suggests or openly re-states, in its modal implications, native folk music. The first movement allows the cello the first statement of the principal theme, echoed by the viola, before the first violin continues, going its own way. There is a modal secondary theme, proposed by the first violin and subsequent changes of tonality and texture, as the material is explored and expanded, before strident chords re-establish the key and the viola leads to a hushed conclusion. The viola has the principal theme of the E major slow movement, before the first violin takes it over. There is a brief outburst of excitement in the central section, before peace is restored with the full return of the main theme. The quartet ends with a Rondo, its principal theme, repeated to provide a framework for intervening episodes, again suggesting English folk song in its pentatonic contours and alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 metres. It is the second theme that is allowed to move into F sharp minor, and thence, more easily, into the tonic A major for a triumphant and very emphatic conclusion.
Moeran completed his String Trio in G major in 1931. Dedicated to the Pasquier Trio, it has been regarded as marking the height of his achievement at this period.
The first movement, in the unusual metre of 7/8, which brings an inevitable and here irregular variation between triple and duple rhythms, again allows the violin to propose a folk-like theme of pentatonic suggestion. A passage over a murmured rapid cello accompaniment, marked misterioso, leads to a secondary theme, providing the material from which the movement develops. The A minor Adagio, marked ben sostenuto, unwinds gently enough until the cello introduces a moment of stridency leading to a fragment of violin melody against a viola accompaniment that provides occasional clashes of gentle dissonance. The opening material returns, now in a remoter key, before the modal final cadence. The viola starts the modal third movement, in a tonality of E minor, with an insistent rhythm that continues as a dominant element, taken up by the violin and then by the cello. The viola provides the final bars, as the music slows to allow a sotto voce and slow foretaste of the final Andante grazioso, in which related material is developed until the folk song of the Presto, with its rapid accompanying figuration and final even faster jubilant ending.
Alan Rawsthorne was born at Haslingden in Lancashire in 1905 and entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1925 to study piano, cello and composition. After graduation in 1929 he continued his piano studies with Egon Petri in Poland and Germany. He subsequently decided to make composition his life career. Prior to being conscripted into the army in 1941 he had begun to make his mark with the Theme and Variations for Two Violins and Symphonic Studies, each receiving a performance at the International Society for Contemporary Music festivals, in 1938 and 1939 respectively, the former in London and the latter in Warsaw. On demobilisation he returned to composition until his death in 1971. He composed in all the established forms, except opera, and made a distinguished contribution to 20th-century British chamber music.
The medium of the string quartet provides a set of distinctive stylistic milestones, which mark the progression of style and language, at salient points along the developmental route travelled by a number of composers—Beethoven, Bartók and Britten are notable examples. This same characteristic applies to Alan Rawsthorne. His first, unpublished, essays in the medium date from 1932 and 1935. The later of the two reveals an emerging individual identity and assurance in writing for the medium; it can thus be regarded as the earliest stylistic marker and be ranked alongside the three published quartets.
The language of the First Quartet (Theme and Variations) follows on from that found in two seminal pieces, Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937) and Bagatelles for piano (1938). It is an early example of the composer’s partiality for variation form, which was to be further employed in the string quartets of 1954 and 1965. The Second Quartet marks a transition in his musical language, echoing works which predate it while adopting more succinct expression and concise construction. The Third Quartet is characteristic of the final period of Rawsthorne’s creative output. This work has unremitting intensity, is many-layered, breaks with the established form and evinces the austerity which is to be found in many of the compositions of his last decade.
The Theme and Variations for Two Violins of 1937 was Rawsthorne’s first published work to receive public recognition and critical acclaim. Its performance at the Festival of International Society for Contemporary Music in London on 18 June 1938 was, as at its premiere on 7 January 1937, given by the dedicatees Kathleen Washbourne and Rawsthorne’s wife, Jessie Hinchliffe. Decca issued a recording of their performance in June 1938—the first commercial recording of his music.
The Theme is a succinct and energetic two part invention. Rawsthorne wrote that throughout the piece he was ‘convinced that the theme appears in each variation’. What is unmistakeably present in the following inventions is the astringency of the harmony which arises from clashes of major and minor. The first variation, Capriccietto, is based on the widely-spaced intervals of the second half of the theme, providing a brilliant work-out for the instrumentalists. The Siciliano, a dance form favoured by the composer, is a close relative of the second of the piano Bagatelles. The jagged statement of the opening of the theme in common time is now transformed into a serene and flowing 6/8 metre. In Cancrizzante, a canon, the theme is given out backwards. It is an invention in strict counterpoint, a discipline which Rawsthorne had already explored with assurance in the previous year in his Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio. Rhapsodia offers a pause in this contemplative variation. The harmonic potential of the theme is exposed in the opening accumulation of seconds, reductions of the fourths of the theme’s opening bars. Richness of texture and harmonic variety derive from the imaginative use of double stopping. The impassioned, lyrical expression of Notturno finds a fitting place at the expressive heart of the work. The first violin takes material from the second part of the theme and declaims it over a tremolando accompaniment. The instruments are muted for the Scherzetto variation, adding buoyancy to the quicksilver writing. It is a study in fleet-of-foot 6/8 triplets, a Rawsthorne fingerprint which was to appear in many works which followed, including the First and Third String Quartets. The energetic writing of Ostinato has the first violin playing the repetitive ostinato figuration fixed on and around D, while the second adds decorative interjections and from time to time joins in the ostinato. The persistent D, spent of energy, fades to provide a link to the penultimate variation. In Canone Rawsthorne undertakes a further contrapuntal exploration in strict canon founded upon the original statement of the theme. With the tenth variation, Fantasia, the composer creates a worthy summation to the work by reflecting upon what has gone before. Fugal writing forms the framework of the variation into which quotations from the Siciliano, Rhapsodia and Notturno are interleaved. Finally the Ostinato returns to close the piece with a dramatic flourish.
String Quartet No. 1 (Theme and Variations) was commissioned for the 1939 Vienna Festival, but the outbreak of war precluded its performance and led to the loss of the manuscript. The original work was in two movements, the Theme and Variations being the second. Rawsthorne reconstructed the present work from sketches. When the other movement of the Quartet surfaced after the war he commented that he ‘had come to regard the Variations as a piece in its own right’.
The musical language is an extension rather than a development of that employed in the earlier Theme and Variations for Two Violins. The theme gives rise to six variations which lead seamlessly into each other, each variation having its own distinct character or mood, contrasted in a manner similar to those in the earlier work. It was first performed on 26 April 1940 by the Blech Quartet.
The distinctive harmonic, rhythmic and melodic elements of the theme are established within the first four of the 19 bars of this section, which goes beyond a mere statement of the Theme since the primary material is subjected to a degree of development. In the first variation the composer employs his ubiquitous 6/8 triplet, tarantella-like figuration in a decoration of the opening bars of the theme. The second variation has a pulsating accompaniment, played by the second violin, viola and cello, providing the harmonic background for the first violin’s solo cantilena, which explores the second part of the opening bars of the theme. The movement rises to an assertive climax before settling back to the contemplative mood of the opening section.
In the third the contours of the theme are developed in fleet, energetic writing which clearly comes from the hand of the composer of the Symphonic Studies. At the outset of the fourth variation the violins and viola accumulate and overlap double-stopped intervals to create a background halo of uncertain tonality. With explicit contrast the cello states literal fragments from the theme, providing direction for the ear, like a traveller finding a hesitant way, directed by familiar landmarks, through mist. Within the work’s expressive tapestry of sound this variation draws attention to the imaginative range of writing for the ensemble. The two-part counterpoint of the opening of the fifth variation brings a direct reminder of similar writing in the earlier Theme and Variations for Two Violins. Here the melody of the opening bars of the theme is played in augmentation, which adds a lyrical dimension to the original. In the rapid final variation Rawsthorne employs his 6/8 triplets once again, though in a different vein from their use in the first variation. There they had lightness; here we find earnest intensity, heightened by the fortissimo unison interjections of the theme and from contrasting pianissimo episodes. The triplets return to make an assertive conclusion.
John M. Belcher
Rawsthorne on his String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3
String Quartet No. 2 was first performed by the Griller Quartet at the Cheltenham Festival on 12 July 1954 in the Town Hall. The four movements differ somewhat from the usual plan of such compositions. The first movement is in sonata form, but it is followed by a rhapsodic piece which varies considerably in tempo from time to time. Next comes a more gently moving Allegretto, and finally, a slow movement.
The opening theme of the first movement is stated, after two bars of slow, heavy chords, by the first violin. It is in 7/4 time, as is most of the movement, although other time signatures occur quite frequently. Its plan is quite conventional: the second subject is lighter in character, accompanied by a pizzicato bass, and leads to the development section. This is rather more dramatic, with impassioned statements of the inversion of the first theme by cello. The recapitulation is much abbreviated, and the second subject is heard in combination with a new phrase which presently forms the opening theme of the second movement. This movement opens in a fervent fashion, but soon dissolves into a slower, more meditative tune played by the viola. This tune combines with the first theme to form a paragraph which builds up into another treatment of the first theme, Allegro appassionato. After a climax, the slow second theme is heard again in combination with a new little phrase which accompanies it. The movement finishes very quietly. The third movement is muted and has a rather dance-like theme. It is very simple in construction and consists of a statement and two varied repetitions of this theme, separated by episodes based upon it. The last movement is a theme with three variations and a coda. The variations are cumulative but the coda is very quiet and the composition finally dies away in silence.
My third String Quartet is not cast in the traditional mould of four separate movements; it is two main sections, each of these being divided into several subsections. It opens with a short subject, or group of notes, which provides the basis for much of the subsequent music. By this proceeding one hopes, of course, to furnish the listener with a sense of coherence and plausibility, either consciously by direct references to this subject and its derivatives, or perhaps unconsciously, by more oblique allusions. Obviously this method is more suitable to a composition which is to unfold itself in a continuous stretch, than to one which consists of several distinct movements. Not all material is suitable for such treatment, but whether the formal conception gives rise to the material or the other way round it is hard to decide. I myself feel that the composition of the form of a piece of music is as much a creative act as the invention of the material; the two things clearly go in hand.
The Quartet opens with an energetic statement (Allegro deciso) of this basic material, and this is followed by a more flowing, leisurely section (Allegretto) with elliptical allusions to the theme. This ends the first main unit of the piece. The second starts with a Chaconne (Andante [Alla ciacona]), in which the main theme is soon heard in combination with the ground. This gives way to a quick and lively finale (Molto vivace), which after some rather capricious behaviour brings the piece to a close by an unequivocal statement of the main theme.
The quartet was commissioned by the Harlow Arts Festival of 1965, and was first performed there by the Alberni Quartet on 18 July.
String Quartet No. 1 in F minor, Op. 35 was begun in the year of Holst’s death, at a time when Rubbra was only beginning to branch out successfully into larger forms and a year before he started work on his epic First Symphony. It was given its first performance in November 1934 by the Stratton Quartet. Rubbra felt dissatisfied with the piece, however, and might well have abandoned it altogether had not Vaughan Williams encouraged him to revise it after the war and write an entirely new finale, hence the dedication: ‘To R.V.W. whose persistent interest in the original material of this work has led me to the present revisions and additions.’
In Rubbra’s own words: ‘My later substitution for this last movement was altogether lighter and more airy in texture and, what is more to the point, its main material consisted of a transformation of the ending of the preceding slow movement. The resulting unity of thought was strengthened by going back to the tonal centre of the first movement, F minor.’ The two main subjects of the first movement are lyrical in feeling, but the climaxes are highly rhythmic, the tension being produced by mixing time signatures. As so often with Rubbra, the emotional core of the work lies in the slow movement, a deeply felt elegy which must be among the most beautiful movements in any English string quartet written before the Second World War. I firmly believe that this movement was written in response to Holst’s death, so personal and immediate are the emotions portrayed here.
The new (1946) finale follows seamlessly from this, and a listener without knowledge of the revision would not realise that the whole work was not composed in one stretch. The movement, however, is more highly contrapuntal than the previous two and looks forward to the sound world of the Second Quartet and beyond. The first performance of the revised version was given by the Blech Quartet on 13 November 1946 at the Wigmore Hall, London.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 112 was completed in 1963 and commissioned by the Allegri Quartet who gave the first performance at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival. The piece was written at a time of immense personal change for Rubbra and this can perhaps be detected in the nervous energy of some of the music, especially in the third movement.
Many have commented on the vocal nature of the writing, and in an article by Rubbra, written at the time of the first performance, he states that the quartet is prefixed by a quotation from St Thomas Aquinas: ‘Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking-out into sound’. Strangely, this does not appear on the printed score, but Rubbra goes on in the article to reinforce the point: ‘Song, lyrical song, is indeed the motivating force of this work.’ Rubbra had in fact only recently completed Lauda Sion, a virtuoso choral setting of an Aquinas text (A BBC/William Glock commission of 1960) so the theologian was much on his mind when he approached the new quartet.
The work begins with a noble Largo which, to quote Rubbra again ‘contains in the first eight bars three melodic intervals and two keys which vitalise the whole work. The former are the semitone, the fourth and the fifth, and the latter the keys of D flat major and C major.’ As Stephen Johnson has commented, in many ways the music can be understood as searching for a home key and much of the drama of the piece arises from this quest. All three movements are interlinked, with no actual break in the music and the writing has the effortless assurance of a master of his art.
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 150 was completed in 1977 and first performed in that year by the Amici Quartet. It was one of Rubbra’s last larger scale pieces and, in its compression and concentration, has very much the feeling of a ‘late work’. The Quartet is unusually cast in only two movements, although the first movement is in two distinct sections, the second, Allegretto scherzando, providing a contrast to the meditative Adagio which follows.
Although dedicated to the composer Robert Simpson, the Quartet was written in response to and bears the inscription In memoriam Bennett Tarshish 1940–1972, a young American music critic and friend who died tragically young of acute diabetes. In many ways, therefore, it is an elegiac work, but the final pages, marked Con dignatà e calmo, have a quietly optimistic and spiritual radiance so characteristic of the composer.
It is perhaps because Rubbra’s music is so quietly optimistic—counter perhaps to the prevailing artistic mood of the century in which it was written—that, so far, it has not achieved the recognition, especially in Britain, that it so richly deserves. In a typically direct letter to his widow written soon after Rubbra’s death in 1986, Robert Simpson wrote: ‘Of course I will try to do what I can for his music. Too late for him, those fools will suddenly tumble to the fact that he was one of the greatest English composers of any period.’¹
The eleven symphonies of Edmund Rubbra place him among the masterminds of 20th-century English music, with something Schoenberg credited to Sibelius and Shostakovich, ‘the breath of a symphonist’. His chamber music included three violin sonatas, two piano trios and four string quartets; the latter form Rubbra called ‘the purest and most lucid texture available to a composer’. The quartets were composed at intervals of between 13 and 14 years, and Rubbra regarded each as a musical ‘summing up’ of a compositional period.
The Second Quartet (1951) was commissioned by a leading British ensemble, the Griller String Quartet, and first performed in May 1952. After a First Quartet dedicated to Vaughan Williams, he here looked much further back, to the master of them all: Beethoven.
Rubbra’s only four-movement quartet has a home key of E flat major. The first and last movements are built along similar lines; reflective openings lead to vigorous dance-like music. Given the scherzo’s driving energy, a surprising proportion of this work is ‘vigorous and dance-like’, perhaps as Rubbra’s debt to his teacher Holst. For him, musical form sprang from the nature of the themes, so it was vital to get those right. For example, would they invert? That went back to a crucial childhood experience, the reversal of light and dark in his bedroom after overnight snow. There is inversion at the start, with two ideas appearing in ever-new ways: a semitone, up and then down, and a falling fourth that immediately turns upward. Each of the middle movements is far more of a piece. Rubbra’s title for the second, Scherzo polimetrico sounds intimidating, so too his description—‘an essay in the unification of metrically diverse parts, developing a procedure strongly in evidence in the Elizabethan madrigal and the instrumental Fantasy’. And the score looks strange—different instruments playing patterns of three, four or five beats barred differently from each other, like the wildest interwar Hindemith—but it does not sound like that. ‘Madrigals and fantasies’ notwithstanding, Rubbra’s music is never pastiche, it never harks back. Two things stand out—a quite four-square opening melody, returning just a couple of times, and a tendency towards sevenin- a bar, no harder to absorb than the five-time ‘waltz’ in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony. The music’s unflagging energy becomes ever more demonic towards the end. A comparable Beethovenian vigour and ‘sprung rhythm’ are found in music by Michael Tippett, Rubbra’s near contemporary. Rubbra subtitled his slow third movement Cavatina.
In a string quartet that could allude only to Beethoven’s late B flat Quartet, Op. 130, expectation is aroused, nor is it disappointed. A profound air of meditation hints at the rarefied, perhaps mystical music in the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony written a couple of years later. An important idea from the slow movement of the Fifth reappears, a rising line built of the basic pillars within the octave (tonic to dominant up to tonic, i.e. fifth followed by fourth). This beautiful use of what Rubbra called the ‘most positive and yet mysterious intervals’ anticipates by 30 years a ‘culmination’ of his thinking in the Eleventh Symphony, the only one really obsessed with a single interval, his ‘mystical’ fifth. Such fifths, accompanying Rubbra throughout his life, were ‘his’ intervals, like the major sevenths and minor ninths that gave Schoenberg’s mature music its special ‘distorting-mirror’ quality.
The finale is another rapidly-changing tapestry of ideas, not a theme and variations though that could be a good pattern to bear in mind hearing its many short sections. The closing one is dominated by a new melody or ‘chorale’, another rousing four-square tune that migrates from one part to another accompanied by a quieter version of the dance rhythms. It should make for a riotous conclusion, but this is Rubbra, so do not rule out one more surprise.
Rubbra, like Vaughan Williams, was a ‘late developer’. Not for him was the early assurance of Britten, and it was not until his early 30s that he began to feel confident to write in largescale forms. Before this, song was the medium through which he could most successfully express himself.
The earliest song here, O my deir Hert, Op. 5, the first of the diptych Ave Maria Gratia Plena, dates from 1922. In this song, Rubbra sets the same text as set earlier by Peter Warlock as a choral piece, Balulalow, and by Herbert Howells, for voice and piano, both coincidentally in 1919. It is doubtful, however, whether Rubbra was aware of either of these settings as neither was published until 1923 and he was certainly not part of the Warlock circle. A liking for medieval or early Renaissance texts was in the air. The song, in fact, is one of a number Rubbra set with string accompaniment in this period, a contrapuntal medium to which he felt naturally drawn. Only this one, however, he thought good enough to polish up and publish over 30 years later, in 1953.
Its companion, O excellent Virgin Princess, Op. 77, was composed only just after the Second Quartet (1951) and shows not only a mature mastery of the quartet medium but a wonderful freedom in the vocal line, not present in the earlier setting. The two songs were published together in 1953 and dedicated to Wilfrid and Peggy Mellers. Mellers (1914–2008) was a Rubbra pupil and went on to have a distinguished career both as a composer and innovative academic.
Rubbra’s appreciation and knowledge of the music of the Renaissance is well known and both these songs and the Amoretti set of 1935 have more to do with the character of the English Renaissance consort song than with the more ‘romantic’ approach of, for example, Butterworth’s Love blows as the Wind blows (1911–12). For settings of Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) this is especially apt. The Amoretti are in fact the second set of Spenser settings: the first, for tenor and string orchestra, were published as Five Spenser Sonnets. It is thought that the second set were also originally written with string orchestra in mind, and it was only when Rubbra began to revise the cycle for publication in 1942 that he realised the sparer textures of a quartet would be more appropriate for words of such private and passionate love.
The piece was probably written as an expression of Rubbra’s love towards his second wife, Antoinette, whose portrait as a teenager by her sister Elizabeth adorns the front cover of this recording. Antoinette Chaplin was an able violinist whom Rubbra met in 1930. They soon toured together as a duo and fell passionately in love. Rubbra’s Second Violin Sonata of 1931, his first totally successful large scale work, was written for her. There are many beautiful things in this cycle, most notably the third song which is a searching statement of unrequited love and the final setting which hints at both the sensual and spiritual side of Rubbra’s musical personality. Both are important to appreciate for a fuller understanding of his music.
Three years earlier, in 1950, Rubbra completed one of his most remarkable chamber pieces, the Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 68. This was written for his own piano trio, the Rubbra, Gruenberg, Pleeth Trio, who gave its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival in July, 1950. A second trio did not follow until 1970.
Although in one movement, like Rubbra’s last two symphonies, it is divided into three distinct sections, the last being a set of variations or meditations as Rubbra preferred to call them. In writing the work Rubbra aimed to make ‘both instrumental texture and form as unified as possible’, so no instrument, especially the piano (Rubbra’s own instrument, of course), is ever used for virtuoso display.
Written soon after his first Latin Mass setting, the Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici, which marked his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1948, this piece shares that work’s spiritual intensity and sense of timelessness, especially in the still heart of the trio, the three slow meditations. These follow from a delightful Episodio scherzando which in mood and rhythmic complexity is strongly linked to the Scherzo polimetrico of the Second Quartet. As the last meditation dies away, a solo cello quietly restates the opening theme, leading to a triumphant coda with downward scalic bell-like passages bringing the work to a deeply satisfying and exultant conclusion. From early childhood, the sound of bells meant much to Rubbra. They emerge in many works but none more prominently than here.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother’s father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin, and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen’s Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history, but took composition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both history and music, he returned to the RCM, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more significant, became a friend of a fellow student, Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on one another’s compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In England he turned his attention to the collection of folk music in various regions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France. There he was also able to make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the RCM, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The war of 1939 brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of the seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian.
The Phantasy Quintet, scored for string quartet and a second viola, was written in 1912 and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London in March 1914 by the London Quartet, led by Albert Sammons, with James Lockyer as second viola. It was dedicated to the quartet and to William Wilson Cobbett, the music patron who had established awards to encourage the composition of ‘phantasies’, a word that suggested the traditional viola consort fantasies of an earlier period of English music, and had invited the composition. The Quintet consists of four short movements. The first viola starts the opening Prelude with thematic material of pentatonic outline, to be answered by the first violin. The viola ends the movement, immediately followed by the Scherzo, with its asymmetrical rhythm and ostinato in textures that seem at times reminiscent of Ravel. The cello, which had started the movement, completes it, before the AlIa Sarabanda, scored for muted instruments without the cello, which returns to begin the final Burlesca, with its echoes of folk song and reminiscences of the first movement, before a final ascent to the ethereal heights.
Vaughan Williams completed his String Quartet in G minor in 1908, after his short period of lessons with Ravel. It was performed in London in the same year by the quartet led by Isidore Schwiller, and revised in 1921. It is natural that there should be echoes of Ravel and Debussy in the textures and melodic contours of the work, which opens with the viola statement of the theme, leading to a secondary section, marked Tranquillo. The material is subtly developed, eventually returning in a transformed recapitulation. The second movement is a Minuet and Trio, with modal traces of folk song influence. The tonal centre shifts from E to C for the Trio, with a melody of descending contour. The ternary form Romance, tender in mood, gently unfolds, with a central section of greater intensity. This is followed by a lively and varied Rondo Capriccioso, driven forward by its compelling rhythmic patterns, relaxing only briefly before a 5/4 fugato.
The String Quartet in A minor (For Jean on Her Birthday) was written in 1942 and 1943, and dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist of the Menges Quartet, which gave the first performance at a wartime National Gallery concert in October 1944. It is the viola, generally prominent throughout, that provides an emphatic opening to the first movement, proposing material that provides the basis of much that follows. The viola starts the second movement Romance, each instrumental line marked senza vibrato in music of absolute tranquility, leading to a chorale-like passage and eventually to a dynamic climax. The viola ends the movement and opens the Scherzo with a theme from the music from the film The 49th Parallel, against the muted tremolo figuration of the other instruments. The Epilogue, with the subtitle Greetings from Joan to Jean and again opened by the viola, uses material intended originally for a proposed film on Joan of Arc, hence the addition to the title. It is a movement of characteristically beautiful serenity.
William Walton occupies his own position in English music of the 20th century, chronologically between the generation of Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams and that of Benjamin Britten. Born in Oldham in 1902, the son of a local singing teacher and choirmaster, he became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, and followed this with admission to the university at the early age of 16, with support from the college. His Oxford career brought success in music but failure in the necessary academic tests to allow him a degree. At the same time his friendship with Sacheverell Sitwell led to his adoption by the three Sitwell children, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, as an honorary brother. The practical help of the Sitwells and the musical and cultural influences of their circle allowed him to devote his attention to composition in the years after he left Oxford, followed by increasing independence, as he won a wider reputation for himself and a satisfactory income from music for the cinema and from a generous bequest by Mrs Samuel Courtauld.
In the years after 1945 he was to some extent eclipsed by Britten, whose facility he lacked and whose contemporary achievement now seemed to go beyond Walton’s successes of the 1930s. His marriage in 1948 to Susana Gil Passo, whom he had met in Buenos Aires at a conference of the Performing Rights Society, was followed by a move to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, continuing an association with Italy that had started in the early days of his friendship with the Sitwells and had continued in subsequent years. He died there in March 1983.
In the years between the wars Walton won a succès de scandale with Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell that amused the cognoscenti and shocked wider audiences, before winning an assured if minor position in 20th century repertoire in its final form, whether as a ballet or in the concert hall. His dramatic oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, with a text derived by Osbert Sitwell from the Bible, first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931, was a significant addition to choral repertoire, while the Viola Concerto of 1929 marks a height of lyrical achievement and holds a central place in the viola concerto repertoire. The first of his two symphonies was eventually completed in 1935 and his Violin Concerto four years later. The popular film music of the war years was followed after the war by the operas Troilus and Cressida and the oneact Chekhov extravaganza, The Bear, as well as the Hindemith Variations, Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten and the Cello Concerto and Second Symphony.
Walton’s first String Quartet, written at Oxford principally in 1919 but later revised, had proved disappointing and was not well received at the 1923 meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg. By 1939 he was considering another quartet, but it was only after the war and distracting work on film scores that he returned to the idea. The String Quartet in A minor, transcribed in 1971, with the help of Malcolm Arnold, as Sonata for Strings, was written between 1945 and 1947 and first performed and broadcast in May 1947 by the Blech Quartet. The work was dedicated to the conductor Ernest Irving.
The first movement of the Quartet is in sonata form, with a first theme heard initially from the viola before being taken up by the second violin. A harsher transition leads to a secondary theme, before a development that includes a fugue, initiated by the viola, followed by the second violin, cello and first violin. The material of the exposition returns, duly modified, in recapitulation. The second movement, a thematically related scherzo of angular character, is impelled forward by a repeated rhythm, to be followed by a moving Lento, in which the muted viola offers a strongly felt meditation, leading to a second viola theme, accompanied by the plucked notes of the cello, a melody then taken up by the first violin. The mood changes with the brusque opening of the last movement, a rondo that, in one contrasting episode, again allows the viola a moving moment of lyricism, in writing from which the Viola Concerto is never far away.
Walton wrote his Piano Quartet in 1918 and 1919, revising it in 1921 before its first publication in 1924. He revised the work again some 50 years later. The quartet was dedicated to the Right Reverend Thomas Banks Strong, Bishop of Ripon, who had been Dean of Christ Church while Walton was in the choir school there and had done much to encourage him, admitting him to the college as an undergraduate and providing from the funds available to him the necessary financial support. The first public performance seems to have been given in London in 1929.
Over sustained cello notes the first violin announces the modal principal theme of the first movement, an element that is to recur, in one form or another, before the entry of the viola and then of the piano. The movement is broadly in sonata form, with secondary material introduced by the viola. There are echoes of Ravel in the texture of what follows and of distinguished English contemporaries, notably Vaughan Williams or even Elgar in what follows. The spiky rhythms of the scherzo lead to fugal treatments of a derivative of the principal theme of the first movement and a triumphant secondary theme. The Andante tranquillo unwinds with muted strings. The moving principal theme emerges, with its echoes of Ravel, to be taken over by the cello accompanied by rippling arpeggiated piano chords. The viola introduces further material, taken up by the other strings, as the movement slowly proceeds towards a whispered close. Harsh rhythms break the mood with the start of the final Allegro molto, with its ever clearer thematic echoes of the first movement. There is a lyrical secondary theme announced first by the cello and entrusted to the viola in recapitulation, while the central development allows the strings to embark on a fugue with an extended subject. The Quartet ends with an emphatic coda.
Close the window