String quartet no. 4

for 2 violins, viola, cello
30 mins.
August 2009

1. Winter
2. Spring
3. Summer
4. Autumn and winter

Programme notes

My fourth string quartet was written between June and August, 2009, and is dedicated to the Solstice Quartet, whom I have known since their formation at Cambridge.

The string quartet is a medium bulging with echoes from the past: from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to Bartok, Shostakovich and Ligeti – with all sorts of extraordinary things in between. For British composers there are also Purcell’s string fantasias and the quartets of Tippett and Britten; for me there are family echoes, too: my cousin Elizabeth Maconchy (an inspiring example when I started to compose as a boy) wrote a series of thirteen quartets which are one of the great achievements of twentieth century British music.

So the string quartet has a special resonance for me. My first was performed in 1971, the second in 1976, and the third in 1993. In 2007 one of my oldest friends, violinist Christopher Rowland who for many years led the Fitzwilliam Quartet and recorded the Shostakovich quartets in cooperation with the composer, died at the age of 60. I wrote a piece called Threnody in his memory; it was premiered by the Endellion Quartet in November 2007, and performed by the Solstice Quartet in the Park Lane Group Young Artists Series in 2009.

This new quartet is a journey through the cycle of the year, and is cast in four movements which correspond to the four seasons. There is nothing descriptive about the music: my intention was to create a musical analogy for the ebb and flow of growth and life, in the form of a piece which starts from almost the lowest point in the year – in December, just before the winter solstice – goes through the complete annual cycle of growth and decay, and ends where it began.

Each movement consists of three sections which correspond to the months. Each month has its own eight-note mode and keynote. Since there are (conveniently) twelve months in the year and twelve semitones in an octave, I raised the keynote of each section by a semitone so that the return to the music of the opening at the end of the last movement is also a return to the tonic. So the first movement opens on D, and the last movement ends on D.

This progression is paralleled in the tempi: there is a gradual acceleration from winter to summer solstice. This has no link with the name of the quartet for whom it was written; but it’s a nice accident. So the slowest point is the middle section (January) of the first movement, which is bleak, cold, and played without vibrato; and the quickest is the middle section (July) of the third movement, in which I wanted to create the impression of dazzling sunlight, too bright to distinguish detail.

The first movement, Winter, opens with December – a cello solo, unaccompanied at first, but settling into a long melody which is accompanied very simply by low, throbbing chords. When the cello melody comes to an end (on a high E flat) we move into January and the bleakest, slowest section of the piece – a four-part canon which morphs into a funeral-march over a repeated two-part phrase on viola and cello. The last section of Winter (February) is slightly faster, and introduces stirrings of life in the form of trills, repeated notes and pizzicato phrases. These grow in frequency and energy, coming to a brief climax with a series of six high chords which end the movement.

The second movement, Spring, opens with a solo for the first violin marked “rhapsodic, rubato & testeronissimo” which I think is self-explanatory. The cello joins in (in the same vein) towards the end; and then all four instruments play a dance-like passage marked “Mad as a March hare” which is (for those interested) an isorhythmic canon using all the permutations of an eight-note phrase. This is mainly pizzicato at first, interrupted by mad bowed glissandi; but as it proceeds it flowers into trills and ornaments, as if cells were busily multiplying and all nature putting out leaf. Once this has reached its height, the viola and cello introduce a naïve little riff (I imagined an amorous serenade) which travels gradually upwards, counterpointed by frilly offbeat decorations on the violins, until the climax of this section is reached: a series of very simple chordal phrases which bear some resemblance to Giordano’s “Caro mio ben”. This gradually subsides, and is followed by a transition in which viola and cello play long, chorale-like lines, while the two violins create a light web of short, trilled phrases.

The second movement ends with April, in which, after a short section consisting of overlapping descending pizzicato scales, the reference to spring is made plain in a series of stomping chords which allude openly to the famous chords in The rite of spring. This subsides to a quiet, high chord, beneath which the trilling reappears, and gradually develops (after a couple of interruptions) into a wild fugue. This reaches a climax with a thunderous statement of the subject by the quartet in unison – after which the music breaks up into fragments and subsides into the last section of this movement, May, which is very simple – a calm melodic line accompanied by rustling sounds. It then appears in the form of a four-part canon, the melody decorated by the trills and triplets which have provided most of the material. The movement ends with fragmented pizzicato phrases and a short closing phrase on low viola.

The opening of the third movement, Summer, puts the second violin in the foreground, with the other three instruments supplying resonances, chiefly with open harmonics. The melodic idea uses the four open strings of the fiddle (the notes of which all appear in the mode used for this section) but gradually moves away from this as the first violin joins the second, and the two climb gently upwards. My intention was to create a gentle, out-of-doors atmosphere – almost an old-fashioned pastoral scene. Beneath the violins, the viola and cello (playing sul ponticello and staccato) rap out the outlines of Sumer is icumen in, and a pair of cuckoos is briefly heard before we are swept suddenly into the dazzle of July, in which the two violins career up and down in overlapping arpeggios, while the viola and cello play a series of two-note bell-like phrases. These fade to quiet, high chords, punctuated by a repeated pizzicato note on the cello (A sharp, which is the keynote of August). This movement is short: I had in mind Shakespeare’s “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”. It ends with a duet for the violins over a pizzicato background, coming to a chordal climax which is intended to sound like a squeeze-box.

The fourth movement, Autumn and winter, opens with a solo for the viola which is free in tempo and feeling, like a cadenza. It leads into a passage in which the violins play staccato semiquavers in close canon, with the viola and cello in long, smooth lines beneath. The music moves gradually upwards until all four instruments are quietly suspended at the top of their ranges; it is followed by the section representing October, in which the tempo slows again, and the two violins play overlapping melodic lines over quiet punctuating chords on viola and cello (I had the calm, busy movements of bees in mind when writing these sections). When the violins have vanished into the stratosphere, two alternating high chords introduce November, which is very short and consists mainly of a melody for the first violin – over a pizzicato C sharp, emphasising the fact that we are nearly back to D and the month of December from which the piece began. The cello reintroduces its melody, and the piece ends with a short coda for the cello, derived from the opening.

Giles Swayne 2009


This quirky, intricately-wrought and highly individual contribution to the string quartet genre made a very strong impression in its first performance. The various programmatic elements and allusions to other works and styles, though inventive and highly effective, never detracted from a taut and compelling argument whose wise and skilful balance of emotional intensity and intellectual grip was worthy of [Elizabeth] Maconchy herself.

Paul Conway – Tempo, Winter 2009