English String Orchestra with funds from the Arts Council of Great Britain and Mitsubishi Ltd.
ii. Variation 1: Espièglerie
iii. Variation 2: Elègie
iv. Variation 3: Valse
v. Variation 4: Envoi
As its name implies, this work was inspired by Marcel Proust, whose great sequence of novels, À la recherche du Temps Perdu, was re-issued a quarter of a century ago in a refurbished English translation. At about the time when I received the commission to compose a work for the English String Orchestra, I had just re-read and been greatly moved by the first novel in the sequence – ‘Swann’s Way’ – which deals with the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, and I wondered whether the process of memory could be made to work for music as it had obviously done for literature in the hands of Proust. Not that I wanted to recreate Proust in terms of music; if memory was to provide the theme then it must be my memory, not Proust’s, which became the subject matter of my work. As it happens, I still have in my possession a considerable body of my own juvenilia, among which I found two short pieces – for string orchestra, appropriately enough – composed during my late teens. The second of these, suitably revised and extended, provided the material for what was to become a set of variations, each of which sets out to explore some aspect of the memories evoked by the original.
Worked into the score is a theme from Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata in D minor, identified by Proust’s biographer, George D Painter, as the original of the ‘little phrase’ which in the novel symbolises Swann’s love for Odette. The phrase first appears in its original form in the middle section of ‘Espièglerie’. Thereafter it is quoted by cellos and basses in ‘Valse’, and finally at the beginning of ‘Envoi’ on two solo violins. By a happy accident I had quite unconsciously used it (in inverted form) as part of the new material I added to the theme before I had decided to incorporate it into the variations – indeed the theme itself is related by interval to it – so in one way or another the ‘little phrase’ of Vinteuill (the composer in the novel who is a composite portrait of various contemporaries of both Proust and Saint-Saëns) could be said to haunt and permeate the whole work.
The work is scored for thirteen solo strings, though it can be played by a larger body is each section is doubled proportionately. It was commissioned by the English String Orchestra (with the aid of funds provided by the then Arts Council of Great Britain, and Mitsubishi Ltd.) and received its first performance in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 1 October 1984.
Programme note © 2007 John Joubert