String quartet no. 3

for string quartet
21 mins.

Commissioned by Lord Harewood for the Music at Harewood concerts, and first performed by the Skampa Quartet at Harewood House on December 10th 1993.

Programme notes

String Quartet no. 3 was written in 1993, when I was living in Ghana. It was commissioned by the Earl and Countess of Harewood for the Music at Harewood concerts, and first performed at Harewood House on December 10th 1993 by the Skampa Quartet. It is dedicated to the memory of Patricia Harewood’s mother, Betty Tuckwell, who died in December 1991.

There are two things which it may be helpful to know about the piece. The first relates to its structure, the second to one specific detail:

Many of the pieces I wrote between 1979 and 1993 were planned in advance like suspension-bridges, and used a complex harmonic language. But I was also writing pieces which followed no preconceived plan and used a far simpler language. This quartet steers a middle course between those two extremes. There is no predetermined plan: the long-term organisation was left flexible, so that it could develop in an organic way. After working out the basic ideas, I wrote one page a day without looking over my shoulder. I wanted to write the quartet as one might write a letter – in this case, a letter to my friend, Betty Tuckwell.

As for the specific detail: I have always loved the lilt of Waltzing Matilda, and I think Betty would have appreciated my working it into the score. It is tucked away in all sorts of places, and is most obvious at the end, where it appears as a simple four-part canon in the manner of a lullaby. As this fades away, we hear Betty’s last fluttering heartbeats, bringing her long life gently to a close.

Giles Swayne 2008