My Piano Quartet (2000) is part of an extended series of works for piano and strings which I have written over the last twenty years - although I didn¹t know it was going to be a series when I wrote the first of these works, Music for 247 Strings, in 1980. During this period, it has been far more usual for composers to write for mixed wind and string ensembles. But I continued (and still continue) to be fascinated by the potential of strings and piano; particularly the chance to write for the instruments as soloists or as a group, and often to use both these options simultaneously.
The present Piano Quartet has a duration of about 17 minutes, and is in two movements. The first movement is based around a duet melody first heard near the beginning, played by viola and cello. As the movement progresses, many different groupings of instruments are explored, playing together and against each other. On the whole, the piano plays at the extremes of its register, whereas the strings mostly play in their rich inner ranges.
The second movement is a variation set based on a folk tune. Quite a few of the chamber music movements I have written share this pattern; the possibilities of the form seem to me as inexhaustible as folk music itself. The folk tune here is "Blanche comme la neige" a fragmentary French-language ballad (but heard in Louisiana, USA) about a girl who falls dead to the ground after the slightest threat to her honour and thereafter appears as a ghost. The story of the ballad influenced me to emphasize the delicate, plaintive and spectral atmosphere of the melody, which is heard at the beginning absolutely alone, very high on the violin. Thereafter, this tune (and the bass line I imagined for it) is heard in three other guises, ending in a very ornamented version for violin and viola.
The Piano Quartet was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble and the Cheltenham International Festival of Music, with funds from The Schubert Ensemble Trust, the Steel Charitable Trust and South West Arts. It was first performed by the Schubert Ensemble on 16 July 2000 at the Pittville Pump Room, as part of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music.
© Judith Weir