Commissioned by the Naxos Recording Company

  • string quartet
  • 20 min

Programme Note

The fourth Naxos quartet was written in January and February of 2004, with the intention of producing something lighter and much less fierce than its predecessor, an unpremeditated and spontaneous reaction to the illegal invasion of Iraq.

I returned to the well-known Brueghel picture of children's games (1560, now in Vienna), which had been the inspiration for my sixth Strathclyde Concerto, for flute and orchestra. These illustrations liberated my musical imagination, but I feel it would limit the listener's perception to be too specific about which game relates to exactly which section of the work. Suffice it to say that there is vigorous play - leap-frog, bind the devil with a cord, truss, wrestling - alongside quieter pastimes - masks, guess whom I shall choose, courting, odds and evens. The single movement juxtaposes these activities as abruptly and intimately as they occur in Brueghel. Rather as the eye is taken into different perspectives and proportions of scale within the picture, taking liberties which would never be present in, for instance, Brunelleschi architectural drawings, so here, with a constant sequence of transformation processes, I have distorted the neat, precise implications of modal progression, expressed in the unison opening phrase (from F to B through A sharp/B flat), so that the ear is led, en route, into the sound equivalents of strange passageways and closed rooms: sicut exposition ludus.

As work on the quartet progressed I became aware that I was reading into, and behind the games, adult motives and implications, concerning aggression and war, with their consequences. It was impossible to escape into innocent childhood fantasy.

The nature of the F to B progression underlying the whole construction derives from a passage in the development of the first movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, and the opening of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet. However, unlike in these models, here a real - if temporary - sense of resolution occurs at the close of the quartet: as when the curtain falls on the reconciled Count and Countess in 'Figaro' one wonders how long the F/B truce will hold, and "games" break out again.

The quartet is dedicated to Giuseppe Rebecchini, Roman architect, and friend since the nineteen-fifties.


Naxos Quartet No. 3: March
Naxos Quartet No. 3: In Nomine
Naxos Quartet No. 3: Four Inventions and a Hymn
Naxos Quartet No. 3: Fugue
Naxos Quartet No. 4, "Children's Games" (Moderato)


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