Naxos Quartet No.8 is very much the ‘intermezzo’ of the set of ten quartets, commissioned by Naxos Records. It is relatively short, this being determined by the hour of music filled by Quartet No.7 – a condition of the commission is that each pair – here Nos. 7 and 8 – should fit snugly on one compact disc. The quartets are rather like a novel in ten chapters – the same rhythmic patterns, themes and harmonic designs are developed like characters throughout, also the same magic square matrices, and architectural structures carry over from one quartet to the next. After the intense and brooding nature of the seven consecutive slow movements of No.7, something brighter and more airy was in order, before the radically demanding structural experiments of No.9.
I decided to make this a tribute to the Elizabethan lutenist and composer John Dowland (whose music for lute and viols has been one of the big influences behind my own string style), and, basing No.8 here on his ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard’, dedicate the work to the Queen for her eightieth birthday.
The Dowland is present in some form throughout – but only emerges plain and anadorned towards the work’s single movement’s close, appearing there in a bright F sharp major, with the melody initially in the cello. In the slow opening of the piece, this melody is present, disguised by octave displacement, in a straight version in the first violin, and inverted in the second. It needs the whole quartet to find its ‘real’ identity: the models were the first and last movements of Beethoven’s Eroica, where the main theme is only joined up consecutively to make its full identity clear at the final climaxes. The tonal centre is A – minor at the opening, and major at the end. The slow introduction defines the harmonic space, and prepares us for the F sharp minor crystallisation. A brief upbeat pause leads to an ‘allegro’ where a sequence of themes brings us gradually closer to the Dowland, fragments of this emerging increasingly from inside the textures. Slow, moderate and fast sections alternate in a way derived from Purcell’s string fantasias – although in the ‘adagios’ it is the ghost of Dowland which hovers closest. The work ends quiet and intense – as if the experience of ‘liberating’ the John Dowland galliard had brought a temporary resolution and pause in the ongoing quest of the ten quartets.