I Allegro energico
II Nocturne – Scherzo I
IV Nocturne – Scherzo II
V Con gran’energia
The classical quartet repertoire has been a passion of mine for fifty years, and the early wish to write quartets sprang from that. This present quartet is really my sixth. While studying with the late Iain Hamilton I wrote in 1956-7 a three-movement quartet in B flat, a quite serviceable student work in which new-found enthusiasm for the music of Tippett, of Bartók and Alan Bush contends with some dim proto-Schoenbergian aspirations.
I’ve always interpreted working in a tradition very cautiously, often adhering to the four movement archetypes – as in Quartet nos. 1 and 4. In both the centre of gravity is to be found in the last movement (but this is, after all, initiated by Beethoven, a 19th century tendency too). I’ve always been interested in writing scherzos: they come second in both these quartets. The slow movement is miniature in the 1st Quartet, but at full length in the Fourth. Both pieces begin with introductory movements in which the material to be used throughout is presented.
The intervening quartets – nos. 2 and 3 – have broken away from any kind of sonata-like procedures. The Second Quartet (1970) is in 39 sections: ‘slow movement’ elements are closely juxtaposed with ‘scherzo’ ones towards a ‘still centre’. The third Quartet (1978) is in 24 longer sections, progressing from the gloomy chorale-variations of the beginning, through passages of stylised birdsong towards warmth and fulfilment at the close.
The Third Quartet was first performed by the Lindsay Quartet at Bath in 1978. In 2000 they were kind enough to ask me for a new quartet as part of the celebrations of the opening of the new arts studio in Sheffield called Persistence Works: the premiere was on 5 October 2001. In the new quartet I’ve returned to my staider formal habits of writing discrete movements, but now there are five of them. Two differentiated scherzos flank a central slow movement. The obvious model of this planning is Bartók’s Fourth Quartet – and its second scherzo also has all-pervasive pizzicato writing. In mine, however, this alternates with the use of harmonics and there is a brief passage col legno at the end. Both these movements are called Nocturne-Scherzo: I’ve intended to create a spectral, fugitive, obscure and dark atmosphere in them. The slow movement is called Romanza to indicate that it is for once no deep adagio, but rather a brief, light and lyrical movement.
Two larger-scale movements, both marked energico but differing in character, come first and last. The first fires off a fusillade of both brusque and cantabile motifs which, after they have gone through some development, including a fugato give way to more lyrical material, treated polyphonically, before a compressed return of the opening. The finale is a sort of rondo, in march-like character. Its recurring main theme is always preceded by scale passages rushing upwards. The first subsiduary theme can cleary be heard to be a lyrical treatment of the motif from the introduction and the main theme: but the second is more independently lyrical. A wholesale recapitulation of primary material is interrupted by a brief andante statement of the main theme on the cello, before the scales rush upwards for a final time.