My String Quartet was commissioned by the Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society to celebrate their centenary in 2015. It was given its first performance by the Navarra Quartet,
to whom it is dedicated, in January 2015 at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
It seems a little strange that I waited so long to write my first string quartet, the ultimate challenge for any composer; but the right opportunity never seemed to have presented itself until, that is, the right occasion and musicians came together. In thinking about how to embark upon the compositional process, I decided to return to classical principles: the late quartets of Beethoven and the quartets of Bartok (which I have always thought to be a natural progression from those of Beethoven). Thus, the use of extended sonata, variation and rondo forms (including cyclic form) became the backbone of the architecture of the work, together with a closely argued contrapuntal approach to the instrumental writing.
The first movement opens with a dramatic gesture, a series of terse chords, defined by rhythmic punctuations, an idea which returns at pivotal moments in the movement, as well as the end of the quartet. This is quickly followed by the main allegro of the movement, which develops the previous opening chords contrapuntally, before a more lyrical second subject is announced - here the Schubertian model of dramatic contrast in the musical material seemed to be apposite. The music proceeds in a clearly defined route via a development section that reaches its climax with a return of the opening chordal gestures, but instead of the usual ensuing recapitulation the process of continuous development (in the manner of Bartok) results in presenting earlier material via a rather manic fugue (including a reference to the BACH musical cypher). Eventually, a contracted reference to the lyrical second subject leads to a final gesture of the opening chords, which close the movement, albeit in an unresolved manner.
The second movement is sub-titled 'Fantasia on a Chorale' (after the English 16th and 17th century models) and adopts a rather loose variation form, where fragments of a chorale (never heard in its complete form), gradually unfold with textural embellishment throughout the movement. There are cadenza-like passages for cello and viola, and a menacing march, where violins are prominent, but the movement ends serenely in modal E minor with violins ‘sighing’ a repeated pattern from the chorale, and gradually fading into the distance.
The final movement is a boisterously energetic rondo, with syncopated rhythms and accents prominent. There are two contrasting episodes: the first a broad, sweeping melody announced initially on viola, the second a helter-skelter fugue, the subject of which is derived from the rising four-note cell heard at the opening of the movement. The music heads towards its peroration with a return to the very opening gesture of the quartet, this time 'resolved' through the sunlight of G major tonality. Thus the journey from darkness to light (a major preoccupation in my recent music) is complete.
© Edward Gregson 2015