Commissioned by the Naxos Recording Company

  • string quartet
  • 40 min

Programme Note

The Ninth Naxos Quartet is dedicated to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, mathematician extraordinary, and sometime Lord Mayor of Manchester – both attributes which have influenced the content of this work. Dame Kathleen dedicated her recent book ‘Constructing pandiagonal magic squares of artbitarily large size’ to me, so this is some kind of reciprocal present.

There are six movements. Numbers 1 & 2 form a unit together, but what is now the first movement was originally going to be two separate movements. The resulting compressed ‘allegro’ is thus underminded by intruding slow elements – the effect is a gradual harmonic contamination – lifted from the discarded independent ‘largo’. The distortion is particularly real where intervals between notes are equally divided into unusual fractions – say, a minor third encompasses a scale of more than the common four chromatic notes, inclusive.

These divisions, on a very personal level, refer back to the popular music of the early nineteen-forties, whose contours and rhythms are echoed, as are also the raw sounds of war-time Manchester that I heard as a small boy, and associated with that music – air-raid sirens, the ‘glissandi’ of falling bombs, the tearing apart of crashing buildings – but all re-interpreted, sublimated and disciplined within terms of the string quartet, almost a lifetime after the events, with, I trust, some order lent by the quite exacting and elaborate magic square workings.

I have also referred back to Naxos Quartet No. 3, where I set Michaelangelo’s lines, voicelessly, in the ‘cello, beginning ‘Caro me il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso’ (sleep is dear to me, and being of stone is dearer) concerning his Roman exile from his home state, Florence, and criticising the ‘injury and shame’ of the government there.

The second movement, like the rejected sketch, is a ‘largo’, and is a slow-motion development of the first part of the first movement, with violent interruptions from the discarded music incorporated and amplified.

The third, fourth and fifth movements are almost an independent miniature quartet within a quartet. I think of them as a short play-within-a-play, remembering Hamlet and the Dream: the grotesquery will be very apparent. They are, respectively, a ‘scherzo’, a ‘lento’ and a ‘military march’.

The sixth movement is very much a Finale, summing up, and clinching the whole harmonic argument.

At the head of the quartet is a line from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom: - ‘Omnis in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti’ – ‘Thou has ordered all things in measure, and number and weight.’

(c) 2006 Peter Maxwell Davies


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