for string quartet
5 mins.

First performed by the Endellion String Quartet at the Royal Northern College of Music on November 14th 2007.

Programme notes

Threnody, which lasts six minutes, was written as a farewell to my old and much-loved friend Christopher Rowland – violinist, quartet-leader and teacher extraordinaire – who died in June 2007. It was first performed at the Royal Northern College of Music on November 14th 2007 by the Endellion String Quartet.

When I visited Chris to say goodbye, three days before he died, I found him singing (over and over again) the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante K.364. High on a cloud of diamorphine, he had been singing this melody for nearly twenty-four hours, under the impression that he was coaching students. After his death, I could not get it out of my head for weeks, and shall always associate it with him.

To make my piece, I altered some notes of Mozart’s melody, translating it into my own eight-note mode so that the style would not jar; but I kept intact its contours and the heartrending upbeat phrase which is its emotional core. The theme is passed around the quartet, morphing as it goes through a set of eight variations, each quicker than the one before. The eighth variation is exactly three times the speed of the original theme, and leads into a coda and back into the original slow tempo – at the end of which the first violin is left floating as a disembodied harmonic.

Two other allusions connect the piece with the string quartet repertoire to which Chris devoted his life. The “Muss es sein?” motto from the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet is quoted in the first, sixth and seventh variations; and the pizzicato phrase which opens the fourth movement of Bartok’s fifth quartet is used as a counterpoint to the theme, and reappears in the eighth variation in order to lead us into the coda and back to the original slow tempo.

Giles Swayne 2008