• Hugh Wood
  • Serenade and Elegy (1999)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival

  • str
  • String Quartet
  • 20 min

Programme Note

This piece was written in memory of my daughter, and this fact largely determines not only its general character but also its formal structure. It was conceived from the start as a two-movement piece : the character of the movements is clearly expressed by their titles. I have used the music of two other composers : in the first movement to generate its material, in the other as a conclusive emotional reference.

The violin solo which begins the Serenade appears as a motto at the beginning of Kurtág’s four-volume set of piano pieces Játékok (Games) where it bears the words “Virág, virág az ember” for which “Flowers we are, frail flowers” or “Blumen, die Menschen, nur Blumen” are somewhat diffuse renderings of the concise Magyar original : the message is clear enough anyway. Rich in major thirds, this motto-theme presents eight pitches without repetition. The four remaining ones make up a sombre chord which marks the first entrance of the quartet. This is framed by two short two-part passages, the first on orchestral violins, the second on violas and cellos.

The quartet at first sounds an elegiac note, a character to be taken up more fully in the second movement : whereas the orchestra initiates the prevailing serenade character with the presentation of the two serenade themes - the first in falling thirds (directly from the motto), the second more lyrical and treated contrapuntally. The quartet makes a rather concerto-like entrance in rising arpeggios, and then launches into a new bird-like, chirping passage, before taking over more full heartedly the serenade character with both its main themes. A climax is followed by the bird-theme, again on the quartet. The music then quietens towards a last statement (on the quartet this time) of the two-part passages at the beginning. Finally “Virág, virág az ember” is heard again on the first violin of the quartet.

The Elegy falls into three long sections. The first of these takes up, on the orchestral violas at first, the elegiac theme which was heard on the quartet at the beginning of the Serenade. The quartet enters with a series of duets against a succession of held chords on the orchestra. A new throbbing chordal theme on the orchestra then alternates with further lyrical and decorative writing from the quartet. Its insistence increases to a big climax, followed by dissolution.

The pitches E - D survive from the climax on the quartet’s first violin : they form the opening of the main theme of the second section - very much in slow movement character. It is developed in various ways, all of them lyrical. The quartet’s cello gives a solo version : it is heard more broadly on orchestral strings, reprised (orchestral celli taking the tune), and worked up at last to the central climax of the whole work, rhetorical in character, culminating in a final high-pitched note-cluster which dissolves.

The third and final section needs a little more introduction. Some years ago, I heard quite by chance on the radio a lunchtime recital by Brigitte Fassbaender in which she sang a setting by Pfitzner of a poem by Eichendorff : Zum Abschied meiner Tochter. On an autumn evening a father is bidding farewell to his departing daughter. You sense - from the emotion generated by music and words alike - that this may be a longer sort of journey from which she is not to return. I have incorporated some of the song unaltered - virtually as a transcription - into the final section of my piece simply because poem and music expressed what I wanted so very much better than anything I could write.

So it is the rocking accompaniment of the song which is first heard, very quietly and distantly on the quartet. On this I superimposed a single line on orchestral violins which features the falling sixth which has appeared already so many times. Eventually the quartet is left alone with the concluding line of the poem “Lieb Töchterlein, fahre mit Gott!”. In a postlude, the falling sixth figures continue on the four instruments of the quartet over an ever-fainter murmuring accompaniment from the lower orchestral strings.

The work was written between February 1998 and April 1999, and is dedicated to the remaining members of my family : Susan, Chris and Becky.

Hugh Wood

View Score

Preview the score