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Robert Saxton

Publisher: Chester Music

Songs, Dances and Ellipses
commissioned by the Barbican Centre
Chester Music Ltd
Works for 2-6 Players
30 Minutes

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Programme Note
Robert Saxton Songs, Dances and Ellipses
The title Songs, Dances and Ellipses refers both to the character and the architecture of my quartet. The fundamental nature of the relationship between the extra-human music of the spheres and human musical expression, manifest in song and dance, lies behind much of my music; in the case of Songs, Dances and Ellipses I was absorbed by the idea of the most humanly intimate medium - the string quartet - set in the context of the all-embracing, and very real, elliptical orbits of the planets. The music consists of five linked movements which form three larger sections. Movements one and two form the first part, the central slow movement is the second part, and movements four and five form the third, and final section.

The first movement presents polyphony of a singing character, the overall shape of the argument outlining three increasingly large ellipses, the last of which leads to the more active, and quicker, second movement. This begins with quiet, rapid tremolando playing and, as it progresses, the music becomes more dance-like but with the singing, legato character never far beneath the surface; the whole movement outlines an ellipse and subsides into the third movement. The latter begins with the same harmony as that which initiated the second movement - the music has journeyed round an elliptical path and now re-traces this as a sustained, slow movement of intense ‘inner’-expression and singing character. This resolves into the fourth movement which starts with the A/C minor third with which the quartet began. The music gradually transforms into a true dance, presenting ‘outward’ expression now, and acting as a prelude to the fifth movement, a fast, dancing span of music of increasing energy which culminates in the ‘resolution’ of the original minor third - A/C - onto the major third - D/F# - but with a de-stabilising tritone present. There cannot, I feel, be a truly conclusive resolution to this quartet - the entire process is concerned with perpetual motion and increasing energy, as well as with cyclical paths. Just as the velocity of a planet increases at the focus of its ellipse which is nearest to the sun, so the music of the quartet reaches its true pitch centre and its maximum speed at the focus of its last elliptical orbit.

Songs, Dances and Ellipses was commissioned by the Barbican Centre for the Chilingirian String Quartet on the occasion of their 25th anniversary.

Throughout, Saxton’s fine command of quartet idiom was well displayed, whether in the gentle lines of the opening bars, the forceful tremolandi of the episodes of dance, or the resonant octaves of the conclusion. Yet no less exciting was the unfolding form, conceived of in terms of a vast harmonic cycle, and revealed in stages, like the skull beneath the skin, by strategic cello phrases and long-held notes among the inner voices. If all this reminded you of the primal architecture of planetary motion, you’d no doubt be pleasing the composer; mathematics, astronomy and the interaction of human and celestial spheres were his inspiration. Beethoven was famously inspired by the “starry heavens” but was hopeless at maths. Saxton completes the equation, with a starry vision, and a vision of number working in fruitful harmony as well.
Nicholas Williams, The Independent,01/11/1997
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