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8.571374 - FRICKER, P.R.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Adagio and Scherzo (Villiers Quartet)

Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990): The String Quartets


Born on 5th September 1920 to parents who met during their service in the Mediterranean theatre of World War I, Peter Racine Fricker’s interest in music took root while he was a student at St Paul’s School. He was especially interested in organ performance, studying with Henry Wilson and Ralph Downes; he also formed an enduring friendship with fellow student Dennis Brain. Fricker entered the Royal College in 1937, continuing his study with Wilson and with Ernest Bullock. This training was thoroughly conservative in outlook, with reverent and obsessive attention paid to counterpoint that would forever remain a hallmark of Fricker’s musicianship, however much he may have strayed into new directions. At this time his interest in composition vied with his interest in organ performance; he continued to consider a career as a concert organist until the late 1940s.

He entered military service in 1941, maintaining his musical interests as best he could through the remainder of the war, most frequently composing piano music. An Adagio and Scherzo for string quartet remains the most thoroughly developed work from this time. They were written in the summer of 1943, and were probably intended as the central movements of a formal quartet.

With the end of his military service, Fricker set about resuming his career in music straight away. Determined now to be a composer, he sought out the fervent environment at Morley College, whose music programmes had an enviable reputation for research and experiment. It was here that he met his mentor, Matyas Seiber, whom he later called “the greatest teacher of the 20th century”.

Among so many stimulating influences, the string quartet was very much in the air at Morley in the 1940s. Michael Tippett had spent the war years at Morley closely at work with the medium—his Second and Third Quartets were separated by a substantial revision of his First; he was actively contemplating a Fourth when Fricker arrived at the school. In 1945 Seiber published a well-known analytical guide to the six Bartók Quartets, and began the long gestation of his own third essay in the medium, the widely-admired Quartetto Lirico, in 1948. These alone would pose example enough to any young composer; that the quartet was a traditional medium for speculation, experiment, and demonstration of skill could only have made it more attractive.

After just a year at Morley, Fricker began producing publishable work. His first important success was the Wind Quintet, Op. 5, which took the Clements Prize of 1947; his luck was doubled when Dennis Brain—by then a well-known horn player—took the work into his repertoire with great, and lasting, enthusiasm. Fricker arrived quite readily at the string quartet in the summer of 1948 as he sought to build a solid base for his catalogue, and successes accumulated at a breathtaking pace. It was his Op. 8—started on 14th July and finished on 5th November. He submitted it for the Edwin Evans Prize: though he lost to Elizabeth Maconchy, the committee made honourable mention of him. Meanwhile, he had turned immediately from his quartet to his First Symphony, Op. 9, completing it on 19th February 1949. In late July it was awarded the 1949 Koussevitzky Prize, and was scheduled for a première performance at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival. It was a career-defining win for him, setting into motion many, many opportunities to further develop his catalogue and his acumen. The timing could hardly have been more fortuitous, coming just as the mammoth Festival of Britain events were being planned.

Clearly benefiting from the Symphony’s brilliant afterglow, his Quartet received its première performance on 6th September 1949—one day after his 29th birthday—at the Salle Erard on Great Marlborough Street, followed by the Amadeus Quartet’s performance on 11th October at the RBA Galleries. Programmed with two other works mentioned by the Evans Prize committee, it was singled out by a reviewer in the Musical Times as “at once the more original and the more striking. Here is a composer who neither needs nor wishes to compose ‘like’ anyone else. He has technical fluency, plenty to say, and an inherent conviction in his ideas that allows him to present them at once effectively and in highly individual terms. The quartet is cast in one movement, but within this casing an unusual organization of three-movement form may be felt (such as Bartók employed in his Fourth and Fifth Quartets). The music is never quite atonal; there is always a feeling of key-solidarity even if common chords are not exactly the order of the day.” The following summer brought the work to even greater notice when the Amadeus featured it in their European tour, with a well-received performance at the ISCM Festival in Brussels on 24th June. Alan Frank, in reviewing the Festival, felt that “It must... have been a heartening experience for P. Racine Fricker, whose name was new to the majority of the audience, to find musicians of many different countries and of widely differing tastes greeting his string quartet with understanding and enthusiasm. Among the chamber works this was one of the serious successes; it showed purpose, consistency of style, and skill in exposing its ideas.”

A veritable avalanche of commissions befell Fricker in the five years following the Koussevitzky Prize, and his industrious energies were at the ready to make the most of them. Most were for concerti: one for violinist Maria Lidka (Op. 11); a Concertante for oboist Leonard Brain (Op. 13); one for violist William Primrose (Op. 18); and one for pianist Harriet Cohen (Op. 19). There was also a Second Symphony (Op. 14) and a ballet, Canterbury Prologue (Op. 16); both were occasioned by the Festival of Britain, as was the Violin Concerto. By the time the Festival had finished, Tippett had left Morley: Fricker succeeded him as Director of Music, and held that post for twelve years. The Attlee years, trying for Britain as they were, had seen Fricker’s career mature in spectacular fashion.

By the summer of 1952 Fricker was writing another quartet at the Amadeus’s behest. He definitely had his work cut out for him: he began sketching the new quartet while he sketched the concerto for Harriet Cohen through the summer; he continued when, in September, he set Cohen’s commission aside so he could reconceive the concerto for Primrose, working at the latter until he finished it in February 1953; he then carried the quartet to completion on 23rd April. Organised in three movements, it remains within friendly distance of tonal reference, with an agenda that pits E flat against F sharp. An extended sonata movement opens the work; a self-contained fugue on two themes serves as its central development. A scherzo movement follows, extended into a rondo-like AB- A-B-A form; the final movement, an ornate adagio, features an extended counterpoint at its centre that recalls material from the fugal climax of the first movement.

Despite the warm reception the Second Quartet received, Fricker would not revisit the medium for twenty years. When asked about this in the late 1960s, he admitted that no one had asked for one; he was further discouraged by publishers who didn’t want them, and that there was a strong current of opinion that the string quartet was “dead”. Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet changed this view: Fricker dedicated his own Third Quartet to Carter “in admiration”, writing without a commission. The compositional process was protracted, with several extended interruptions. The most concentrated period of work began immediately after he finished his Trio Sonata for Organ, Op. 72, on 28th November 1974, and evolved steadily until the commission for his Symphony No. 5 for Organ and Orchestra took precedent in late March. The first complete draft was finished on 26th November 1976, with a fair copy following a month later on 23rd December. Admiration in no way involved emulation: the Third Quartet is finely crafted in the serial strategies common to Fricker’s later music. It follows a symmetrical plan of five movements, with a central slow movement flanked by fast ones, which are, in turn, flanked by substantial movements—the last one a set of nine intricate variations with an extended and impetuous coda.

Sadly enough, the Quartet went unplayed until he suggested it for the 1984 Cheltenham Festival. Fricker was delighted with the very successful performance by the Chilingirian Quartet on 19th July. Sadly, the Quartet languished while he developed new publishing relationships, and moved on to new commissions. Though he began thinking about a Fourth Quartet in the summer of 1989, he was, by then, stricken with terminal cancer and struggling to finish the commissions he had at work. He died in Santa Barbara on 1st February 1990, leaving behind extensive sketches for an occasional overture—With Joyance—that would have been his Op. 100.

Christopher Husted

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