Commissioned by the Naxos Recording Company

  • string quartet
  • 30 min

Programme Note

Although filtering the extraordinary light, weather and seascape of Orkney through the comparatively restricted medium of the string quartet was of huge interest, it was architectural challenges which preoccupied me in this composition. I am very aware that this is the first in a sequence of ten quartets, which enabled me to think from the outset of an architecture spanning the whole cycle. I feel like a novelist who issues a book chapter by chapter at regular intervals in the pages of a periodical.

This feeling is not entirely new. When I reached Symphony No. 4, in 1989, I realised that I was midway in a sequence of seven symphonies, and could henceforth design the architecture of the remaining three with unusually strong interconnections and through-planning, eventually making the end of Symphony No. 7 loop back into the opening of Symphony No. 1.

The first slow bars of the Quartet recall the mood of the start of Beethoven's F sharp major piano sonata, in that they provide a nostalgic glimpse into a "safe" world of the past. The precise point of that world is the middle, slow section of my third Strathclyde Concerto, also of 1989.

This material was subjected to a process of transformation through a twelve-unit "most perfect pandiogonal magic square". Perhaps this sounds more daunting than it is - it works as a catalyst to musical invention, engendering enough related but varied basic rhythmic and melodic outline for the whole series, with due harmonic accountability.

The methods of application, the degrees of rigour for sections with different architectural functions within the grand design, would be the proper material for a composition seminar - hardly for a programme note. Suffice to say that the discipline involved in the increasing awareness of constituent symmetries, with audible choices to be made at each juncture in each parameter, liberated fantasy and freedom of composition. This square is one I have exploited over many years, and although its workings have become very familiar indeed, I am still astonished at new evolutions. It is like an ever-fruitful vine, copiously bearing new grapes.

The exposition of this first movement is based on classical models: Haydn looms large, with the energetic first subject, and a more contemplative second subject group.

A ghost of the four opening slow measures leads to a "repeat" of this exposition - the harmonic regions traversed are the same, the thematic material is at least similar, and although the individual bar and phrase lengths are often dissimilar, the two expositions in toto are isometric. It amounts to an alternative exposition.

These two expositions will be quoted as necessary and developed in later quartets.

A variation of the opening slow figure leads to a short section of three ascending phrases, with the first violin having the main part, summarising the contents of the double exposition, and it is upon this short section that the ensuing development is based. This has three parts - first a "classical" section, with modulation, various types of counterpoint, the breaking down and rebuilding of material - in a reworking of Germanic developmental style. The second part employs pure thematic transformation, the third is continuous variations-in-reverse - i.e. the gradual stripping down of by now quite complex material, rather than the usual process, in "variations", of adding to a simple outline an ever-increasing decorative overlay. This is the most dramatic section of the movement. At the close, the material has distilled to the near vanishing - there could not be, after this, any recapitulation.

The second movement starts out as a passacaglia - this holds good until the tremolo on solo 'cello. Harmony and rhythm move at a stately pace reminiscent of Jacobean dance music - as if a chest of viols were subtly present. Once the other three instruments have established the framework, the first violin makes a delayed entry, suggesting a "slow air", such as one might hear in a contemplative moment in an Orkney folk fiddle gathering.

This is contrasted absolutely by a section taking to even further extremes the contrasts of the last part of the first movement. There are violent contracts of pace, texture and material very close together. I think of it as a dramatic recitative, where the participants are nowhere close to mutual understanding.

The calm passacaglia returns, in varied guise, but the thematic shapes begin to assume characteristics of those of the previous recitative.

As the second movement progresses, the two moods and the two kinds of material coalesce gradually, so that by the final unisons, the participants have come to an understanding, and the originally contrasting sections have assumed one identity.

The physical sound of the third movement was suggested by a strong breeze through dry heather, as well as referring obliquely to a well-known Chopin piano sonata finale. It is "too short"… it evaporates at the end, disappearing beyond the upper limits of the audible register of the instruments, before very much has happened to the material at all. It is a scherzo, very fast and quiet with its thematic discourse continuing that of the middle movement. I felt it was enough, in these particular circumstances, after the concentrated nature of the previous movements. This scherzo will be brought back from the stratosphere (where I imagine it to continue, inaudibly) and its conversation, started here, taken up again, in the third Quartet.

This Quartet is dedicated to my Manager of twenty-seven years, Judy Arnold.


Naxos Quartet No. 1: I. Adagio - Allegro
Naxos Quartet No. 1: II. Largo
Naxos Quartet No. 1: III. Allegro molto


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