Arcadia 2016 Event 6 - Programme Notes

‘At Home and Abroad’ 6

Sunday 2nd October 4 pm, St. Giles Downton, SY8 2HU

Adam Gorb (b.1958) String Quartet No.1 (2001)

Writing this work was one of my greatest challenges as a composer.  In the first place, I was given the opportunity to write a chamber piece with my own decision in instrumentation, as opposed to being prescribed a particular instrument or group of players – greater freedom of choice can prove problematic as opposed to liberating.  In this particular case, having been a great fan of the Maggini String Quartet for many years, the choice was a clear one for me.  Secondly there is, of course, the awesome tradition of the string quartet repertoire.  I cannot write in a musical vacuum and the thought that composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tschaikowsky, and more recently Janáček, Bartók, Britten, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Ligeti and many more were breathing down my neck made me doubt my thoughts and notes even more than usual.  Thirdly, I wanted to write a work without any pictorial, literary or philosophical stimulae, and the pure form of the string quartet seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

My initial thoughts for the piece were to complete a trilogy, which started with Klezmer for solo violin (1993) and continued with the Violin Sonata (1996).  The latter work starts with pure innocence and ends in a more sombre mood.  The opening of this quartet, which is played without a break, magnifies this mood into one of black despair – very slow, grindingly dissonant and punctuated with silence.  After a long, desolate violin solo there is a sudden rearing up and the mood then lightens for a while, with more flowing material for instruments in pairs, before a harsh cello motif undercuts the relative tranquility.  This leads to a climax heralding a return of the opening chord sequence.  A despairing viola melody leads to the end of the first section.

There is now a long silence, then the same music that ended the first part starts up again, but metrically altered to be part of an extended Allegro movement.  The mood, after a muttering start is that of increasing violence and tension, with a particular rhythm in 13/8 time coming to the forefront.  In the middle of this passage there is a tribute to the finale of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet No.3 with each instrument having a chance to display itself in turn.  A furious culmination is reached with a stark statement of the pervading rhythm; there is another silence, and the third part again adopts the procedure of starting where the previous section left off – this time to something much calmer and more enigmatic.  This, in turn leads to a Presto section (a variation on the earlier Allegro), and there is a perceptible lightening of mood and texture as the music suggests something more jazz-inflected.  A further increase of tempo to Prestissimo has the quartet all playing tremolando.

The final section (after another silence) starts with a long, impassioned melody for all four instruments playing in unison, then the opening material returns for a final time.  A gradual ascent leads to a crystallising towards a tonal centre of G sharp minor, where the work ends with a brief restatement of the very fast tremolando music.  The whole piece lasts about half an hour and was commissioned by Bromsgrove Concerts for Mixing Music, with funds provided by the Performing Right Society Foundation, and is dedicated to the Maggini Quartet.

Programme Note by Adam Gorb, 2014

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Dover Beach for Baritone & String Quartet op.3
Text by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

By the time Samuel Barber graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he had developed into a fine baritone and was in some demand as a recitalist.  It was Barber himself who made the first recording of his own Dover Beach, a nine-minute setting of Matthew Arnold’s 1851 meditation on the human condition through the sea that begins with the regular roar of the advancing and receding water producing an "eternal note of sadness."  The sea is likened to the former existence of Christian Faith girding the human race, which is now withdrawing.  Interestingly, this poetic evocation of the apparent implications of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species preceded the publication of the latter work by almost a decade.  The same thoughts must have struck Sophocles, leading to the illustrations in his tragedies of the human condition.  Without Faith, mankind lives in a joyless and pitiless world, but people can still make existence bearable through love.

Water, it seems, was an important image for Barber.  In the same year which produced Dover Beach, he arranged the Adagio from his String Quartet, op.11 (heard earlier in the festival), a piece which he described as a river gaining momentum on its way to the sea.

The opening in D minor is an atmospheric evocation of the calm sea seen at night in an austere texture comprising two solo violins, one of which presents a steady, undulating rhythm while the other invokes the pensive main theme.  A brief foray into the major introduces "Sophocles long ago heard it on the Aegean".  The tension rises as dissonance increases until the climax arrives with “Ah, love, let us be true”.  As the outburst subsides, the violin texture of the opening returns, with the incessant overlapping of short motives.  The coda of the last three lines of text recapitulates via the cello the main theme of the melancholy opening.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Edward Elgar (1857-1934) String Quartet in E minor op.83 (1918)
1. Allegro moderato;  2. Piacevole (poco andante);  3. Allegro molto.

The violinist Adolf Brodsky had been urging Elgar to compose a string quartet since 1900 when, as leader of the Hallé Orchestra, he performed several of Elgar's works.  Consequently, Elgar first set about composing a quartet in 1907 after enjoying a concert in Malvern by the Brodsky Quartet.  However, he put it aside when he embarked with determination on his long-delayed First Symphony.  It was after enjoying an evening of chamber music in London with his friend Billy Reed’s quartet, just before entering hospital for a tonsillitis operation, that Elgar decided on writing the quartet, and he began it whilst convalescing, completing the first movement by the end of March 1918.  He composed that first movement at his home, Severn House, in Hampstead, depressed by the war news and debilitated from his operation.  By May, he could move to the peaceful surroundings of Brinkwells, the country cottage that Lady Elgar had found for them in the depth of the Sussex countryside.  The String Quartet was thus the first of three chamber works - the others being the Violin Sonata and the Piano Quintet - that he tackled in 1918, inspired by his Sussex surroundings. 

Two months later, Elgar set aside the quartet, firstly to compose the Sonata and then to make a start on the Quintet.  Fortunately, he resumed work on the quartet in October 1918, beginning the second movement on his wife’s birthday and producing a work she likened to “captured sunshine” (and subsequently requested that it be played at her funeral, which it was).  Elgar began the third movement on 8 December 1918 and finished it on Christmas Eve.

We should note that Elgar returned to chamber music after a long absence, and the War years had been spent on composing a miscellany of mostly large-scale or theatre works to help the war effort.  His choice of genre is all the more interesting in that this supreme choral and orchestral composer was not naturally a chamber music composer.

Three of the four great works from this period (including the Cello Concerto) are nominally in E minor, although Elgar included the key on the title page of neither the sonata nor this quartet, and their moods and indeed themes all have resemblances.  In the opening movement, two ideas make up the first subject:  one is a probing, questioning figure rising in stepwise movement over a 2-bar phrase;  the other is an answer of descending fourths, always in pairs.  These two motifs determine the musical character:  the rising semitones suggest tension, conflict;  the open intervals, usually descending, suggest emotional resolution.  The central section displays ever more jagged chromaticism up to the moment of climax, after which Elgar ends the movement with the question he asked at the beginning, but closing on the reassuring security of E major.

The slow movement, piacevole, was begun in October, when the end of the war was in sight, and was finished after the Armistice.  As in the first movement, two motifs dominate the songlike andante, with a gently moving triple metre.  The long sequential cantabile theme occurs, in full, three times, separated by subsidiary episodes which are consistent with the principal theme, and derived from it, using chromatic development.

After the probing of the first movement, and the peace of the second, the impassioned ecstasy of the third movement completes Elgar's vision within 30 minutes’ music.  Elgar honoured his commitment to the now ageing Brodsky Quartet by dedicating the piece to them but, after a private performance at the composer's Hampstead home on 7 January 1919, all three works were given by Billy Reed’s ensemble, led by Albert Sammons and with Raymond Jeremy (viola) and Felix Salmond (cello), at a Wigmore Hall concert on 21 May, 1919, constituting the official premières of the Quintet and Quartet together with an early performance of the Violin Sonata. 

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)  String Quartet in D, op.76 no.5 (‘Largo’)
1. Allegretto;  2. Largo, cantabile e mesto;  3. Menuetto, allegro;  4, Finale – Presto.

Haydn was always an experimenter, and this 23-minute quartet is one of his most unusual.  Uniquely in the op.76 set of quartets, Haydn begins this with a set of theme and variations.  During this Arcadia festival, we are able to hear two examples of Haydn’s very different approaches to variation form.  Whereas the ‘Emperor’ Quartet had the eponymous theme stated unchanged but each time by a different instrument, displaying variations in the accompanying textures, the variations in No.5 are more complex.  Yet the mood is light and undemanding in character – its theme is an elegant dance in triple time - and the innovation lies in the imbalance between this first movement and its successor:  this quartet is sometimes nicknamed ‘Largo’ because the second movement dominates the quartet both in length and in character.

Written in the unexpectedly distant key of F sharp minor, the movement is, quite simply, sublime in its passionate tranquillity – listen for the two appearances of the extended preparation for the subsequent heart-breaking falling suspension.  The third movement, in D major and minor, is a standard minuet and trio, while the fourth movement's Presto begins with insistent cadences, in a hammer-blow fashion similar to the ‘Emperor’ finale.  The movement’s jaunty tune scurries along with witty virtuosity until extended cadences bring it to a close.