In my first three string quartets (written between 1985 and 1989 and released on Argo) I put myself through bizarre compositional hoops. The first quartet attempted (in honour of my professor, Thurston Dart) to synthesise John Bull and Arnold Schoenberg; the second was based on baratha natyam dance rhythms provided by the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh for her dancework Miniatures, while the third translated a choral piece, Out of the Ruins, which I wrote for a BBC TV documentary on the Armenian earthquake of 1989, via Romanian folk song and dance (which I had collected in 1965/66 while I was a student of Dart) into a string quartet in honour of the Romanian revolution of 1990.
String Quartet No.4 composed in the winter of 1994/5 unwittingly follows this pattern. In 1993, I was commissioned by Yohji Yamamoto to write a solo violin work for his autumn fashion show in Paris. Yamamoto Perpetuo is a substantial, virtuosic concert piece in its own right (it was recorded by Alexander Balansecu on Consipio Records), yet I decided to turn it into a string quartet not by ‘arranging’ its component parts for four instruments but by taking it over lock, double stop and bariolage as the first violin part of the new quartet. In the case of String Quartet No.4 such an immutable ‘given’ (very different in nature from the starting points of the first three quartets) self-evidently forces a composer to make textual and textural choices which may not have presented themselves if this self-contained structure had not been thus (self-)imposed.
The theme of Yohji’s show was Cinderella, and he expressed a wish for ‘some European folk music element’ in the score. While I was writing Yamamoto Perpetuo I had no access to any folk music apart from some Scottish popular tunes that I had noted down for The Piano but had not used. Three of these appear in modified form in String Quartet No.4, and curiously enough all are in A minor aeolian modes: the first is heard (for the first time) in the second half of I: the second at the beginning of III and the third throughout VII.
String Quartet No.4 is a narrative made up of a chain of twelve complete but often cross-related movements, each quite simple in design. For instance, the Scottish melody first heard in the second half of I is hinted at in the 2nd violin/viola in the second fast section of II and is directly quoted again during III and XII. The theme of the fast section of IV is taken up again in VIII; IX reverts to the mood of the opening of I, while the rising scale/syncopated themes of II, IX and the bass of X and XII are related. X also reintroduces the slow harmonics theme from VII. XII is (apparently) cast in the form of a baroque French rondeau. The main theme of VI was plucked out of the Quartet and used in my score for Christopher Hampton’s film Carrington.
String Quartet No.4 was written for the Camilli Quartet who gave the first performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 21 April 1995. It is dedicated to the memory of my composition teacher, Alan Bush, who had a powerful influence on my life and who died on 31st October 1995.
© Michael Nyman