Commissioning for String Quartet

David Stone  SQFS.jpg

Mary Cohen often goes where others fear to tread. Here she demonstrates how she secured funding for some new chamber music.

The last two weeks of the summer holidays often find me ‘spring cleaning’ shelves of chamber music. A daunting prospect, but once begun the task is rewarding. It’s great reuniting scattered piles of orphaned parts - finding they do make complete sets after all - and finding old favourites that look ‘just right’ for a particular group.

This year, tucked between boxes, I came across an old document that made me smile: the original list of aims and objectives when setting up my chamber music group ‘String Quartets From Scratch’. The very last item was: ‘SQFS aims to commission new works for string quartet’. Back in 1995 when we added that line, our committee thought it extremely unlikely that we would ever find ways of funding anything, but in fact, over the last twelve years, SQFS has raised funds to commission regularly, and all of these pieces/works have achieved publication.

There are two commissions of which we are particularly proud. A few years ago, I began a correspondence with David Stone. This was a source of delight to my pupils, who adore David's (intermediate) Miniature String Quartets One and Two, and regard him as ‘up there with the greats'. It is not unusual for the older ones, having battled their way through Beethoven or Shostakovich, to look at the clock and say, 'Ten minutes left - just time for a David Stone!' And Stone quartets are always top favourites for GCSE recordings too. Spurred on by the disappointment of one tough, streetwise 17-year-old, when he discovered that there were only two Stone Miniature String Quartets, I had set myself the task of commissioning another.

Although from the first mention. David was very enthusiastic about the idea of writing a 'Third’, it took us a couple of years to find a source of funding. The biggest problem was that David was not an ‘up and coming composer under thirty’. Out of politeness, I didn't enquire his exact age, but the original two quartets were published in the 1950s, and I know people  who played them as teenagers, who are now retired! Eventually I went to the Golsoncott Trust, who take a  great interest in the work of SQFS. They don't usually fund commissions, but agreed to give me a contribution towards the cost, and the rest came from an anonymous donation. David was fired with enthusiasm, and produced the score in a few weeks. The work was an instant success with SQFS pupils. Looking for a publisher, I approached Alan Lumsden, whose Musicland catalogue (available through Edition Peters) contains two sets of David's String Trios. Happily Alan was keen to have this new quartet for Musicland.

Keith Stubbs, who runs the CBSO Education department, and has a chamber music background, had been following this commission with interest. Together we raised funds for a 'David Stone Day' at the CBSO Centre, to begin with four CBSO  players performing all three quartets chronologically. Young players from SQFS and Birmingham Music Services were then coached by the CBSO quartet, and prepared individual movements, for an informal concert at the end of the day. David joined us for this event.

The Novello Miniature String Quartets series of the 1950s included one by John Joubert. I often bump into John at choral concerts, and we began to discuss the idea of raising funds to commission from him another work for intermediate/advanced string quartet. John's eightieth birthday year (2007) was going to be celebrated with concerts all over the country, so I approached the Ida Carroll Trust in Manchester - involved in this 'Joubertiade' - for funding. Happily they agreed to give a grant, but wanted a `Manchester element' to the project, requesting that the first performance should be given by young players at the official Joubert eightieth birthday concert in May 2007, in the Bridgewater Hall complex. Initially this looked a great idea, until the SQFS players who should have been performing realised this date was right in the middle of major exams. Nicholas Jones at Chetham's came to the rescue, providing a young quartet for a very successful first public performance.

A few weeks earlier, SQFS gave the `first private performance' in February 2007 at Edgbaston Old Church, with John as guest of honour. For this occasion the work was performed as a string ensemble - SQFS players joining forces with Swedish pupils, staying with us for an exchange visit (The Swedes arrived in a snow storm, so it was a memorable weekend!)

The new Joubert work, In Retrospect, lasts about 12 minutes, is in the form of a theme and variations, and is very evocative of the mid-20th century. The theme is adapted from the first piece of John's to be performed on radio, when he was a teenager in the 1940s. Each variation is dedicated to one of his grandchildren. In Retrospect is available from Roberton Publications.

A lovely postscript to this SQFS commissioning story is provided by a recent series of emails from David, ‘wondering', in his quietly unassuming way, if SQFS might like to know that he had written a Fourth quartet, commissioned by Charterhouse School, where he once taught. He sent the photograph above, taken at the first performance: SQFS players took to this new Stone work immediately, and liked the ‘dark’ quality, which reminded them of the post-war mood of parts of In Retrospect. We thought it would make a good partner piece for the Joubert, and were pleased to hear that it too is being published by Roberton Publications.