STRING QUARTET NO 1 (1985)
String Quartet No.1 is dedicated to the memory of Thurston Dart, my professor at King’s College, London, between 1961 and 1965, in one of my earlier incarnations as would-be Ph.D student and musicologist. Dart gave me, as a 21st birthday present, his Musica Britannica edition of the complete keyboard works of the seventeenth century composer John Bull, including his set of variations on the popular song ‘Walsingham’, from which this Quartet borrows heavily and openly.
Two background ideas influenced the conception of this piece. The first: to make an almost ‘orchestral’ chamber music (influence by an Arditti Quartet performance of the Grosse Fuge which was so theatrical that it gave the impression that Beethoven was attempting to burst open the ‘natural’ confines of the medium) and the second: (perhaps) to exorcise the impressive and oppressive history of the string quartet by making my work a compendium of quotations from the quartet repertoire. The first score I happened to peruse in my search for suitable material was Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; and having discovered a congenial fragment - the ghostly rising and falling note demisemiquaver pattern, spread successively from the bottom to the top of the instrumental range - I decided to look no further. So here was a projected ‘historical’ string quartet based on the one hand on an early twentieth century work which (as luck would have it) broke the constraints of the medium by adding a soprano voice, and on the other hand on a work written for keyboard in the early seventeenth century, more that 150 years before two violins, a viola and a cello were moulded into that unchanging performance unit.
Everything in String Quartet No.1 (apart from the final section) is derived from these two conflicting sources: the Schoenberg fragment is used ‘passively’ to generate chromatic harmonic sequences, while all of Bull’s thirty modal/diatonic variations are used ‘actively’, submitted to a new critical scrutiny. A number of things fascinated me about the Bull work: it is art music based on popular music (with pre-echoes of late twentieth century pop-music); the 8-bar theme on which it is based has an interesting structure (it begins in the minor, ends in the major and is harmonised with the same chord in bars 2, 4, 6 and 8, and thus has an internal repetitiveness) while the structure of the work as a whole can be described as a form of ‘developmental repetition’ to which I am obviously most sympathetic. Sometimes I view the Bull material horizontally, by submitting his variations to a secondary variation process, and sometimes vertically (as in the first and third sections) where the Bull variations are sliced up according to harmonic category, so that in the first section, for instance, all the bars which Bull harmonised with A minor or major are placed side by side in a sequence which (like the rest of the work as a whole) shifts between four interrelated tempi kept in check by the fast repeated notes of the second violin (a part written expressly around the talents of Alexander Balansecu, with whom I had been working fruitfully since the late 70s, and who in 1985 was temporarily occupying the second violin chair of the Arditti Quartet).
This ‘metric modulation/ may partly have been introduced as and ironic homage to the modernist repertoire with which the Arditti Quartet were most comfortable; whereas the expansive closing melody, with its seventeenth century-style decorative ‘divisions’ increasing in pace, pushed them into regions they had hitherto never explored. String Quartet No.1 is cast in a continuous, sectional grid-like form.
The quartets were written with amplification in mind, and it is my preference that they be performed as such.
© Michael Nyman
String Quartet No.1 was commissioned by the Arditti Quartet and fist performed by them on 23rd September 1985 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival