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String Quartet no.10 David Matthews, op.84
My Tenth String Quartet began on a trip to Australia in September 2000. While staying with friends near Canberra, I wrote down the song of their resident magpie, which they had named Munro. Australian magpies, unlike their British counterparts, have melodious songs, and Munro's was outstanding. Magpies are one of several Australian bird species which sing diatonically. When a few weeks later I was staying with some other friends in northern New South Wales, I noted three more songs, two of them distinctively melodic. The koel, an Australian cuckoo, sings a major third like the European cuckoo, but rising instead of falling - in other words upside down, as one might expect from an Australian bird! Koels usually begin with a minor third, rising to the major, then a fourth and sometimes higher. The pied butcherbird sings three notes, typically a falling major second followed, most unusually, by a rising augmented fourth. Lastly, the Eastern whipbird has a crescendoing high note followed by a whip-crack - an extraordinary sound. I included these four bird songs in the first movement of the string quartet, which I imagined as a kind of dawn chorus. The first eight notes of the initial long violin melody are Munro's actual song, the remainder a development of it. Then come the three other bird songs, followed by a more elaborate reprise of the violin melody on the viola. The cello's C string is tuned down to B for this movement. The second movement is a dance for the morning, initiated by the koel's song. Its central episode refers to the other songs. The dance subsides into a section marked 'Con moto tranquillo', based on the violin melody, which reaches an expressive climax. The coda returns to the tempo of the opening, and after a partial repeat of Munro's song there is a final quiet dance in triple time, which ends with the familiar falling third of our cuckoo call, as if to acknowledge that the music has now moved back to this side of the world. String Quartet no.10 was commissioned by Frank Ward and first performed by the Kreutzer Quartet at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 27 March 2001. It lasts about eleven minutes.
© David Matthews