Some years ago I noted down the opening theme of what I anticipated would be a relatively Classical string quartet – “Classical” in the sense of the forms adopted, plus perhaps a predominantly lyrical tone of voice. The commission for this work, from the Presteigne International Festival of Music and the Arts for their 30th anniversary Festival in 2012, gave me the opportunity of putting into practice this long-held idea. It is dedicated to the Festival and to the Carducci Quartet, whose career, as much-admired friends and colleagues, I have greatly enjoyed.
The only break with “classical” tradition is that there are five movements instead of four, with two Scherzi as the second and third, though both these are very short and contrasting. I found myself listening to Haydn’s string quartets a lot before and during the composition of this work, and I hope the spirit of his delight in writing for this medium is echoed in my own music. The opening movement is in sonata form, unusually for me, and lyricism is, I hope, the basis of it, though there is a good deal of activity at times. The Scherzo, light and marked by frequently-changing rhythms, is followed by an equally short but ferocious Perpetuum mobile, marked Wild und rasch (one of my favourite German tempo markings). The fourth movement is an intense Adagio, in which a single phrase uttered strongly in unison is gradually transformed into gentle diatonic chords before the close, intermingled with cadenzas for cello, for viola, and for the two violins together. The finale (a Rondo) resumes the classical tone of the first movement, but apart from one dance-like episode it builds up a fair head of steam towards a final Presto, which however ascends, slows and quietens, towards a gentle summer sky at dusk.
The score is headed by a quotation from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale;
“The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves”
Programme Note © Copyright 2012 by John McCabe