• John McCabe
  • String Quartet No 5 (1989)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Fishguard Festival with funds from the Welsh Arts Council

  • 2vn.va.vc
  • 19 min

Programme Note

Lento, flessibile - Allegro leggiero - Allegro vivo - Andante -
Allegretto deciso e marcato - Allegro deciso - Allegro nervoso -
Lento pesante - Allegro vivace

This work was commissioned by the 1989 Fishguard Festival with funds provided by the Welsh Arts Council, and first performed by the Gabrieli Quartet. It stems from an earlier visit to the Festival during which I visited Picton Castle and saw the Graham Sutherland exhibit there. His series of aquatints The Bees made a strong impression, and the resolve to write a string quartet derived from this influence was an immediate response. There are fourteen aquatints in the series, and the quartet divides into fourteen sections. However, in several cases these sections run into one another without a break and form larger units approximating to the movements of a conventional quartet structure. Thus, the work has roughly the overall shape of a substantial slow movement, followed by a double scherzo, interlude (a slow movement acting as a kind of trio), another scherzo, and a fast finale.
The music all derives from the opening, in which vague gropings towards the light contain two melodic ideas (in the viola and second violin respectively) and a further, fragmentary motif heard in the cello, all these heard within the first nine bars. The order of movements, with the headings of the Sutherland aquatints, is as follows:

Lento, flessibile: Metamorphosis: Egg, Larvae, Pupae (concluding with a kind of free cadenza)
Hatching I (marked by rising, flowing violin scales)
Hatching II
Nuptial flight (contrasting forceful chords and decoration)
The Court
Allegro leggiero: Figure of Eight Dance: Orientation to Sources of Nectar and Pollen (a light, dance-like Scherzo)
Allegro vivo: Round Dance: Orientation to Sources of Nectar and Pollen (another, slightly faster Scherzo)
Andante: Bee and Flower (a lyrical interlude or trio)
Allegretto deciso e marcato: Wild Nest
Primitive Hive I (Skep) [a domed beehive]
Primitive Hive II (these three sections are marked by shared material and strong rhythmic content)
Allegro deciso: Bee Keeper (an obsessive, slightly faster movement), linking to
Allegro nervoso: Expulsion and Killing of an Enemy (marked by irregular rhythms and a growth from piano to forte)
Fight between Workers and Drones a vigorous, virtuosic final movement, ending with two references to the climactic chords from The Court and a final flourish.

Inevitably, the decision to respond to the series of fourteen aquatints with a work in the same number of sections relates the music closely to the visual work, and there are a few obvious relationships between the content of both (e.g. at the very opening). But this is first and foremost an abstract work, influenced by a work of visual art and prompted by it, an attempt to rise to the challenge of an unusual formal shape as well as the expression of a personal musical response to an external stimulus.

© 1998 John McCabe


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