Flute Quartet


flute and string trio
Mixed Chamber Ensemble

Commissioned by the Nash Ensemble with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain

First Performance
7.5.1981, St John's Smith Square, London, UK: Judith Pearce/Nash Ensemble

Study score 0571506704 and parts 057155590X (fp) on sale

Programme Notes

This quartet was commissioned by The Nash Ensemble and was given its first performance in May 1981, with Judith Pearce, flute. In writing the work I could not help being struck by how little repertoire there is for what is, after all, a very attractive combination of instruments. There are no equivalents for the flute of the great work for clarinet and strings – with the possible exception of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp of Debussy – such works as do exist, delightful though they may be, being of a rather lightweight nature, such as the Quartets of Mozart, or the Serenades of Beethoven and Reger. The flute seems to have gained the reputation of not being able to sustain serious musical argument, and has consequently been relegated to a rather secondary position in the instrumental hierarchy, which in my view certainly does not do justice to its qualities. Those qualities are certainly Apollonian rather than Dionysian. This was expressed rather well by Carl Nielson (speaking of his own Flute Concerto) when he said: ‘The flute cannot deny its own nature, it belongs to Arcadia and prefers a pastoral mood; the composer is therefore obliged to respect its gentle spirit if he doesn’t want to be stamped a barbarian.’ The only thing I would add to that is that none of these qualities necessarily preclude musical substance; nymphs and shepherds are not the only people to go out of doors. More recently the flute has become very popular among composers; its combination of suppleness and natural virtuosity suit a certain kind of mid-twentieth century music language, and it can make almost anything written for it sound at least superficially attractive. But it seems to me much of his recent output concentrates too much on the virtuoso aspect and denies the essential nature of the instrument, which is its ability to articulate and sustain a melodic line. In this work, although I have not presumed to aim at Arcadia – or even tried for the ‘pastoral’ – I have attempted to write music that respects the essential nature of the instrument, even if I have indulged in a few histrionics of my own from time to time. These mainly occur in the last movement, which I think of as a modest homage to the spirit of Haydn, and where I have addressed myself to a problem that has long preoccupied me, the writing of really fast music.

Nicholas Maw

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News & Reviews

'Flute Quartet' reviews

'It has a lucidity and balance, a subtle refinement of substance and texture … it is a work that will no doubt quickly establish, or certainly ought to establish, a regular place in what is a surprisingly limited repertory.' Daily Telegraph (Robert Henderson), 9 May 1983 Read more

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