The Fishguard Festival commissioned this quartet with the aid of funds provided by the Welsh Arts Council, and it is dedicated to the Gabrieli Quartet, who gave the first performance at the 1979 Festival. The five movements are grouped as two substantial outer ones, with a central unit of three much shorter, less developmental pieces. These three inner sections might be described as Intermezzi, and again there is a symmetrical structure, with two brief Scherzo flourishes (the instruments being muted throughout both) framing a central Romanza, a lyrical viola tune interrupted by a general outburst. (This overall shape, of two large-scale outer movements framing a shorter central triptych, derives from Schumann’s great piano work Faschingsschwank aus Wien, which for many years was a standard, and beloved, part of my concert repertoire.)
In the first movement, there are six main sections, alternating between slow and fast tempi and developing, transforming or simply cross-referencing material from the opening part of the work. There is also a very brief, slow coda, rippling into the distance. In the final Passacaglia, the main body of the movement is slow and quite elaborate, after which the opening of the movement is recalled quietly (with mutes on) to close the work in tranquillity.
There are a few personal points that should perhaps be made. Several titles would have been adequate for the first movement – I chose Variants simply in tribute to Alun Hoddinott, whose 50th birthday was in 1979 and one of the finest of whose orchestral works bears this title. Influence-spotters, who are ever amongst us, might note the influences of Beethoven (in Scherzo I) and American minimalism (Scherzo II). Finally, the choice of a Passacaglia for the finale stems from my continued fascination with a form I find it inexhaustibly rewarding to explore. This final movement also derives its overall shape and flow from the concept of a Lakeland stream, descending from a quiet mountain tarn through various transformations and an increase in boisterousness as it tumbles down towards the lake, in whose placidity it finds its rest. Specifically, the idea for this came from contemplating the streams running down the valley towards Patterdale and Ullswater.
© 1998 John McCabe