• Giles Swayne
  • String Quartet No 3 (1993)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Lord Harewood

  • String Quartet
  • 21 min

Programme Note

My third string quartet was written between February and June 1993, when I was living in Ghana. It was commissioned by Lord Harewood for the Music at Harewood concerts, and first performed at Harewood House on December 10th 1993 by the Skampa Quartet. It is dedicated to the memory of Patricia Harewood’s mother, Betty Tuckwell, who died in December 1991.

The textbooks tell us that the string quartet is the most demanding of all forms. I am not sure this is quite true, though late Beethoven casts a long shadow; and it is harder to bluff your way through than when writing for more colourful line-ups. But in fact the string quartet offers a huge range of colours and textures. They are pared down, and less splashy than those available in a mixed ensemble or large orchestra; but they are, none the less.

There are two things about this piece which it may be helpful to know. The first relates to its structure, the second to a specific detail.

The structural thing is this: about half the pieces I wrote between 1979 and 1993 were minutely planned in advance, like suspension-bridges, and used a complex harmonic language. Simultaneously, however, I was writing pieces which followed no predetermined plan and used a much simpler - sometimes purely modal - language. This piece steers an empirical course between these two extremes - a course new to me at that time. There is no predetermined plan; the long-term organisation of the music is kept flexible, so that it can develop in an organic way. But there is plenty of short-term planning - canonic, rhythmic, serial, or whatever. In other words, the form emerges from the material, not the other way round. Horse before cart. After working out the basic material, I wrote one page a day, without looking over my shoulder. I wanted to write it as one might write a letter. In this case, a letter to Betty Tuckwell, who was my friend.

Which brings me to the detail. I have always loved the lilt of Waltzing Matilda, and I thought Betty (who, it hardly needs to be said, was an Aussie) would have appreciated my working it into the score. It is tucked away in all sorts of places, but is most obvious at the end, where it appears as a simple four-part canon in the manner of a lullaby. As this fades away, we hear Betty’s last fluttering heartbeats, bringing her long life gently to a close.

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