Commissioned by the Phaidon Press for the 60th birthday of EH Gombrich

  • String Quartet
  • 17 min

Programme Note

This quartet was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to the famous art historian, Sir Ernst Gombrich, commissioned by his publishers, the Phaidon Press. The premiere was given by the Amadeus Quartet at a concert in the Victoria and Albert Museum on 1 June 1969.

The emotional content of the music was deeply influenced by the fact that the commissioners, the dedicatee, three of the performers and I, the composer, were all Viennese refugees. We had made our home in England in 1938 after the surface Gem├╝tlichkeit of Vienna cracked overnight from the pressure of the festering growth below. I was eleven then and this experience had not consciously influenced my music during the intervening thirty-one years. I believe that the long interval provided an essential perspective for a musical work to encompass extra-musical ideas; without such a digestive process, it might well become limited to mere reportage.

In this one-movement quartet the opening thematic material reflects my admiration for the dedicatee. However, this material is soon overtaken by the decadent chromatic gestures prevalent in early twentieth century Viennese music. Healthier diatonic discords tear into these conflicting elements during a long development section and, in a way, finally cleanse them. The melodies of the first section (statements) are entirely based on the intervals of the Third and Sixth, but with garish appendages of extra chromaticism (produced by means of bi-tonality between upper and lower instruments). After the inevitable conflict these intervals emerge in their true and elemental role as essential pillars of a major key.
c 2008 Joseph Horovitz