This Second String Quartet was composed ten years after the first quartet, and was written during the spring and summer of 1950. It is dedicated to the Griller String Quartet, and is a tribute to those players on the twentieth anniversary year of their coming together.
The work is in four movements.
The first movement, marked Allegro con spirito, is forceful in character, and opens with an energetic theme played in unison by the three upper strings [A]. This is heard in different guises throughout the movement, either in legato cantabile form, or in augmented notes, or in an inverted shape. It is most often treated contrapuntally. Two other themes complete the first group of subjects; the first quietly harmonised [B], the second rhythmic and percussive in effect [C]. A contrasting section follows, marked by a gently flowing tune of seventeen bars starting with the first violin over a pedal bass [D]. The cello plays a varied version of this, and there immediately follows a clearly recognisable development of [A]. Much use is made of the upward leap of a major seventh. The music grows in force and dynamic power, and the climax is reached with a powerful statement of [B]. A classical recapitulation of [ABCD] is heard with different scoring, and the movement is brought to a close in a quiet code anchoring itself firmly in F minor.
The second movement is slow and contemplative in character. It starts with a quiet dissonance, the rhythm and spread of which is characteristic of the first theme [E]. All strings are muted, and harmonic clashes add to the veiled effect. A second section, quicker in pace, is announced by the first and second violins playing in thirds, and later in fifths, over a staccato rhythmical figure in the cello [F]. After a return to the mood of [E] the cello without mute has a solo, declamatory in style, accompanied by the other three strings tremolando and still muted. The music quietens to a further variation of [E], and a threefold repetition of the opening dissonance, very softly played, ends this slow movement.
The third movement, marked 'vivo e con brio', has the spirit of a scherzo and is played at top speed. After an upward rush for the four instruments in turn, later to be an important feature [G], a rhythmic pattern is heard [H]. From this fragment most of the movement grows, though a snatch of jagged tune is developed later [J]. A contrasting section is formed by the quartet playing a somewhat harshly harmonised version of the following fragment [K]. A fugato on [G] follows, and there is an extended solo for the viola, found on [J].
Other characteristics of the remaining pages are: (a) [K] heard quietly on the viola above a pizzicato bass and below harmonics on the two violins; (b) a combination of [K] and [G]. After a fortissimo statement of [G] in dissonance the movement ends quietly and unexpectedly.
The last movement is laid out in alternate sections. A section of each main theme is given [LM]. [L] is first heard on the viola; on its second appearance later in the movement both first violin and cello have a chance to play it. It also forms the quiet coda with which the movement ends. In the last few bars the tonality, after hovering between F minor and F major, finally comes to rest in the latter.
© Sir Arthur Bliss
Chronologically his fourth, the first two belonging to c. 1914 (later withdrawn) and c. 1923-4. Bliss started his numbering from the String Quartet in Bb (1941).