String Quartet No. 2 (1970)
I started on this piece on 1 January 1969. At that time I had finished and recently had, had performed the Cello Concerto: and undergoing one of those periodic feelings that I should be seeking some new means of expression. I was then just making the acquaintance of some of the music of Lutoslawski (Jeux Venitiens) and of Ligeti; and I have already greatly esteemed that of Roberto Gerhard. These new impressions may, perhaps, be more clearly reflected in my next piece, the Chamber Concerto. A perennial interest in the visual arts was particularly strong at that time, and I felt it could be put to creative use. The paintings of William Scott, and looking at sculpture generally were very much in my mind. And there was, and always had been, the formidable challenge to all formal preconceptions in one of my favourite 20th century works, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.
I sought a new style continuity. I started with the idea of a ‘collection’: a sequence of short pieces of material simply laid end to end, objets trouvés shown off in different lights by their constantly changing juxtapositions with each other, the individual quality of each item, rather than its underlying relationship with the rest, determining its inclusion in the whole. But I couldn’t, and can’t, stomach the arbitrary; and soon found myself drawn back to old interests in trying to develop different characters and make transitions between them. So the intentions were compromised: but the method of formal structure that I evolved was absorbed into my former style-not only in sections of the Chamber Concerto (1971) but also in the overall form of the Third String Quartet (1976-78).
This quartet is in 39 continuous sections which together make a simple ternary form. The free-for-all with which the work begins, and which recurs many times, is a sort of ‘cauldron’ out of which many of the thematic elements are to be plucked. It alternates firstly with a narrowly semitonal section, and later also with a more pizzicatos and shuddering tremolando. A more hesitant, wayward group, interrupted by brief scherzando passages, progresses to the work’s ‘still centre’, out of which emerges the fullest statement of the slow material. The recapitulation is again vigorous, but foreshortened: the sections get smaller and smaller - except for a last lyrical one - towards the end.
The piece was mostly composed between January and March 1969, completed in April 1970 and first performed at a BBC Invitation Concert from Cardiff on 6 November 1970 by the Dartington String Quartet, who subsequently recorded it for Argo records in 1973. In June 1971 it was chosen by the British Jury and played at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in London. The work is dedicated to Leo Black.