String Quartet No.12


string quartet
String Quartet
First Performance
24.2.2011, Wilton's Music Hall, London, UK: Kreutzer Quartet

score and parts on special sale

Programme Notes

In 2004, I was one of a number of composers commissioned to write a short piece to commemorate Michael Berkeley’s tenth and final year as Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Festival. I wrote A Little Serenade for string quartet. While composing it I thought that eventually it might form part of a larger work, but I did not realize this idea until, in February 2009, I heard the Kreutzer Quartet play Beethoven’s op. 130 String Quartet with the Grosse Fuge as finale, and conceived the idea of a large-scale quartet somewhat modelled on Beethoven’s formal plan, with two big movements at either end and a number of divertimento-like movements in the middle. As well as the Little Serenade, I decided to include a tango that I had recently written as part of a concerto for piano and strings, and a rewrite of a minuet for piano based on the second movement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C, Hob.XVI: 50, which I had composed as a contribution to a series of Haydn-inspired pieces to celebrate John McCabe’s 70th birthday. Later I also included a short minuet for string quartet I had written for Peter Sculthorpe’s 80th birthday, which forms a preface to the Finale. In March 2009 I wrote an extensive slow movement, whose melodic material was derived from the tango, noticing at the same time that the material of all four divertimento movements was fortuitously related by their use of short rising and falling scale motifs. So when I came to write the first movement and the finale in 2010 I also used this scalic material. The first movement has an introduction based entirely on rising and falling scales, followed by a fugal exposition. This prelude recurs twice, between developments of the fugue, which begins to incorporate the prelude’s rising scales. At its third appearance, the prelude is extended, leading to a quiet conclusion. The tango second movement is brief and hectic. It leads straight into the first of three cadenzas that link the four middle movements. The first is for violin I; the second, after the Menuetto Scherzando, which employs a number of Haydnesque jokes, is for the cello; the third, linking the Serenade to the slow movement, for violin II and viola. The slow movement is in B flat minor and is probably my most ambitious attempt to revive classical tonality, with extensive use of modulation. There is a contrasting section in a slower tempo that occurs twice. The Finale, prefaced by the Menuetto Grazioso (which includes a reference to Peter Sculthorpe’s 11th Quartet), is a sonata movement with an introduction based on the first movement’s. The development contains fugal elements. Almost all this movement was written in Fremantle, Western Australia, and its mood is mostly joyful. Peter Sculthorpe writes in the note to his 11th Quartet that “Australia is one of the few places on earth where one may write straightforward, happy music”, and I would agree that it is easier than in England, though here it isn’t, I think, impossible. Towards the end there is a carefree melody in D major which was written on the ferry to Rottnest Island, setting off into the blue Indian Ocean. It is followed by an episode of Australian birdsong (based on the Australian Magpie and the Red Wattlebird), the last of three birdsong episodes in the Quartet. The other two are based on European birds: Song Thrush, Cuckoo and Blackbird in the first movement; Song Thrush, Nightingale and Quail in the Serenade (so deliberately including all three of Beethoven’s birds in his Pastoral Symphony). The 12th Quartet is dedicated to the members of the Kreutzer Quartet, Peter Sheppard Skærved, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Morgan Goff and Neil Heyde, in gratitude for the many superb performances of my music they have given over the past decade. They gave the premiere of the Quartet at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, on 24 February 2011.

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