‘A remarkable, immensely demanding piece... a whole new range of musical possibilities.' The Guardian
Score and parts on special sale from the Hire Library
I’d been fond of old German Christmas songs for a long time and intending to compose music connected with them when the Arditti String Quartet asked me for a new piece. I consulted several old sources of approximately 300 such Christmas songs from Speyer, Berlin, Cologne, Lübeck and elsewhere, most of them dating from between 1500 and 1750. Amongst them were the Speyer Gesangbuch and the Finnish Piae Cantiones (which despite its provenance is German). I also listened to recordings of church bells dating from the period and the same territories as the songs. My new quartet uses spectra of such bells as a harmonic and modal resource, and also uses the rhythms of bellringing from these regions.
It was not my intention to make the German Christmas songs literally audible on the surface of this piece, but to allow their melodic contours, moods, rhythms, and texts to affect my music. Indeed, most of them are so absorbed into the fabric of the music that they are rarely discernible. The songs remain an elusive presence, mysteriously threading their way through the seven movements. I made long melodic chains from the pitches of these beautiful songs, stringing them together, separating their rhythms from the melodies and applying both pitches and rhythms independently and freely through the music, as well as changing their tuning. Although this renders most of the tunes unrecognisable, the spirit of the melodies, their varying and lively contours, as well as the texts of the songs affected every bar of this piece very strongly. For this reason I gave this quartet the somewhat extravagant but technically accurate subtitle.
From time to time one of the better-known Christmas songs emerges briefly and fleetingly at the surface of the music. I have given each movement a title from one of the Christmas songs as an indication of the mood, textures and pacing of each section - although this is not programme music.
This work explores a tuning system I first deployed in my Symphony (2003), my ensemble piece Book of Hours and my orchestral work Eden (2005). It uses non-tempered intervals outside normal Western tuning. Unlike most such tuning systems, however, this uses only intervals larger than a semitone. For this reason I call the tuning system ‘macrotonality’ – as opposed to microtonality, which exploits intervals smaller than a semitone. The varied harmonic and modal possibilities which arise out of this tuning imbue the whole work with special colours and moods which could not have been obtained otherwise.
Movements 1-4 are played with a break in between, but nos. 5, 6 and 7 are played continuously. The same playing technique is used to conclude each movement – the sound of ‘vertical bowing’, i.e. brushing the strings vertically instead of bowing them horizontally as is normal. This sonority therefore concludes the whole piece as well.
I – vom Himmel [‘from Heaven’]
Bell like pizzicato chords punctuate this movement, contrasting with more sustained melodic ideas. Brief fragments of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern and (on high cello at the end) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen emerge fleetingly and in different tunings through the music.
II – resonet [‘let it resound’]
As indicated by the title much of the harmony of this piece is derived from the resonance of old German church bells. However none of the attacks of these harmonies is particularly bell like (many of them start quietly). The linear melodies are distantly derived from the carol Resonet in Laudibus, amongst others.
III - schön leuchtet [‘brightly shines’]
The bright textures and dancing meter of this movement refer both to its title and to the bright sonorities of the ‘Zimbelsterne’, star-shaped circles of bells rotated on old German organs to give the effect of a carillon whilst music is being played. (These bells are most commonly used at Christmas). Much use is made of bright plucked harmonics and tremolos.
IV – ein Kind geboren [‘a Child is born’]
A largely slow, meditative movement exploring the more sombre colours of the quartet. No vibrato is used; the melodies are slowed down so much that they cannot be heard melodically at all. The loud sound just before the end perhaps represents the birth.
V – O Engel, kommt! [‘O Angels, come hither!]
Sharp attacks in chords of two or more pitches are contrasted with scurrying textures at increasingly faster speeds.
VI – Gaudete! [‘Rejoice!’]
This is the only movement entirely in normal tuning. The bell chord at the opening recurs many times through the movement, each reappearance triggering a progressively longer span of intervening music. So although the tempo does not slow down, the movement is in effect a long retard. The jerky rhythms of this movement are directly inspired by the joyously chaotic rhythms of German bell ringing.
VII – Lieblich, freundlich… [‘Dearly, friendly…’]
A surreal yet serene epilogue. A nearly complete statement (again in altered tuning) of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is shared between the viola and cello, the former with tremolo bowing, the latter playing harmonic pizzicato. The music lulls itself to sleep…
String Quartet No. 2 ‘300 Weihnachtslieder’ is dedicated to the Arditti String Quartet, lieblich, freundlich…