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 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 Janacek, Bartok, 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 reinstatement of the very fast tremolando music.
The whole piece lasts about half an hour.
I have called this work String Quartet No. 1 in the hope that I will write another one before I die. It was commissioned by Bromsgrove Concerts for Mixing Music, with funds provided by the Performing Right Society Foundation, and is dedicated to the Maggini quartet.