String Quartet No.1op. 97 (2003)
Boosey & Hawkes
Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
Endellion String Quartet
(I) allegro con moto
(II) maestoso alla marcia: trio: marcia-return: sarabande
(III) allegro con moto: piú moso: presto: prestissimo
The idea to write a quartet for the Endellion was first mooted (I seem to remember) in the late 90s. I was very eager to fulfil what seemed a natural and attractive offshoot of their long and happy Cambridge University residency. But unable! This most hallowed of the classic media, with its incomparably rich literature, proved totally daunting. I tried with ardent desperation, first in the summer of 2000, again the next. The damage caused by successive bouts of banging the head against the wall inhibited a third attempt in 2002; but this year I felt brave enough to have another go. If this didn't work, I'd abandon the project altogether.
So I tried again early this year. Something seemed to yield, but when looked at again after the inevitable gap caused by the annual climax of teaching, examining, slumping, it had gone all faint and distant. Early this August I again played over the baffling pages; and this time a piece seemed ready to focus. The first section was drafted 4-8 August and written up in full 13-16 August. Other commitments kept me busy till nearly the end of the month (meanwhile Xeroxes of the first bit had gone off to the players for comment and information, and to the publishers to begin on indispensable performing material). Returning, the slow section was sketched out by 30 August and finished in full two days later; and the fast closing section was done 2-3 September. For both these I was helped by the fact that much of the slow material was retrievable from the sterile years, and much of the fast is derived from the new first stretch.
Of course none of these dates is intrinsic to the piece; but at the time of writing this note (5 September) I'm still rather breathless with it all, and put them in as a reminder that what was impossible for so long can be resolved so briefly. Throughout the long part, the patience and kindness of the players, and others involved, was treasurable. Only I felt guilty!
There are three main sections, playing continuously. I is quite fast, lithe, energetic, and falls into many contrasted paragraphs almost completely without returns (the only two are deceptive). It winds down, via a bar of silence, into II, a grinding march, gradually rising through the four instruments from the bass to the heights. The trio is played with mutes. The march returns intensified, building to a climax in Sarabande-rhythm.
III sets out to recapitulate the first section; but the paragraphs are drastically elided, and the tonal orientation re-angled to focus ever again on the home key. The speeds grow faster and faster, to end on a whirlwind prestissimo (into which elements from the march and trio are also worked).
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer