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Simon Holt

Publisher: Chester Music

Two movements for string quartet (2001)
commissioned jointly by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the BBC as part of Radio 3's New Generation Artists Scheme
Work Notes
part 2 of the cycle 'a ribbon of time' Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Chamber-scale Composition 2002
Publisher
Chester Music Ltd
Category
Works for 2-6 Players
Year Composed
2001
Duration
15 Minutes
Orchestration
Availability


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Programme Note
Simon Holt Two movements for string quartet (2001)
View sample pages at ScoresOnDemand
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

- Emily Dickinson


Two movements for string quartet is the second part of my proposed five-part cycle “a ribbon of time”, the first part being Sunrise’ yellow noise for soprano and orchestra. It is a cycle of pieces using the poetry of Emily Dickinson as its starting point.

The two movements take their titles from the above poem: “Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz -” and “The Stillness in the Room” respectively. More or less all the material for the piece is derived from the opening viola solo of the second movement. It is approximately 15’ in duration.

© Simon Holt
April, 2001

Performances
Date
Title
Reviews
Holt’s Two movements for string quartet, inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz when I died”, focuses in turn on two images from the poem: “ Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz”, and “The Stillness in the Room”. Holt describes Dickinson’s work as a mixture of precision and wildness, “chaos in a box”, and in the hushed atmosphere of the Pittville Pump Room, the words of the printed poem came movingly, almost painfully, alive in the final bars, “And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see.” Full of subtle beauties, conveyed with perfectly blended tone by the engaging young Belcea Quartet, the score’s visionary serenity was punctuated by dangers and disturbances (the nervous energy of that intermittently buzzing fly), bringing a sting to a performance that slipped astonishingly effortlessly into the context of Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven.
Lynn Walker, The Independent,7/19/2001
Next morning, in the Pittville Pump Room, the youthful, masterful Belcea Quartet unveiled Holt’s Two movements for string quartet (2001), a Royal Philharmonic Society commission and its first (as its chairman pointed out) to be premiered outside London since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Holt’s may not be a work of such dimensions, but its very modesty – his avowed aim of just finding “as many right notes as possible”, and the bitingly precise part-writing that has resulted – are deeply persuasive. Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buss – when I died” was his starting point, and the buzz is clearly there in the first bar, in a germinal viola solo. There is a certain Bartokian wildness to the writing, but a personal plainness, too, one that astonishingly captures – in the very last bar – that moment when Dickinson’s speaker “could not see to see”. Holt has never written better.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,7/8/2001
This exquisitely crafted work was co-commissioned by the BBC and Royal Philharmonic Society (whose past winning bets include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). Holt’s spare, pellucid score, inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson in which a fly buzzes in a still room, grows out of a gentle rocking viola figure in the second movement, though we only discover it binding powers retrospectively. Blocks of sound alternate: a ricocheting violin rises above a cello drone, sustained harmonics (without vibrato) create a wispy silence out of which clamorous agitation explodes. All ends with a brief tap of wood on string (col legno in the trade). Perfectly controlled and dazzlingly played, it showed Holt at his finest.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer,7/8/2001
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