String Quartet No. 3

1: Crotchet = 92. 11: Scherzo. 111: Crotchet = 72. 1V: Finale

The Maggini quartet commissioned my first string quartet in 1993. That three movement work was a personal depiction of looking outwards at the Universe and its mystery; the astonishing fact that all matter that exists is made of the same “stardust”.

In this String Quartet No3 there are references to the first, both in style and in its idea of a unit expanding and transforming into many things. But this is a more inward-looking and gravitational arena. The initial theme was one of a transformative journey, my image being a river from its source to its final destination.

It has four movements; the first movement mostly being centred around D. The opening introduction appears above a D major chord which becomes a single D. D is the “source” from which all the notes of the piece emerge. In this movement various material is presented and repeated but never fully developed. Strong elements of tonality are mixed with twelve-tone series here, and indeed throughout the entire piece.

In the Scherzo, twelve-tone series or fractions of series have their fullest use, especially in the middle section where each voice with its own series plays in counterpoint with the other voices. However, the use of twelve tones is very free with many different series and variations of these.

Twelve-tone structures are carried into the slow movement. Solos introduce their own series or part-series which are answered in accompaniment figures. But here the tonal ideas from movement one start reappearing, and in the central psalm-like passage, which appears twice, the twelve tones of each voice are treated in their most consonant and melodic form. The climax of this movement harks back to the triplet scherzo material from which we are brought again to the first movement, ending with C major under arpeggiated figures.

The final movement becomes the development of all that went before -particularly the first movement - with reminiscences of other movements surfacing fleetingly. But this movement has a wider perspective than its companions.

Although the original idea was a river’s journey, the actual form and metamorphosis of the musical content naturally took precedence and developed in its own way during the writing process. The germ of the idea is still present, however; the D of the first movement containing the small embryo of the bubbling underwater spring, growing and transforming through rapids and pools on its way to the final broad expanse of the sea.

c. Eleanor Alberga Feb 2001

Eleanor Alberga - String Quartet No.3
A view from its Comissioners, The Maggini Quartet

The hint that we had upon receipt of this work from the composer was that her starting point was the image of a river from its source to its final destination. Having heard and played many of her previous works, it was with interest that we noted that the composer used both tonality and twelve tone techniques equally in this one. (When she told me that the second movement would be a scherzo, the third a slow movement and the finale fast, I teased her that she was writing us a conventional quartet!).

And so, we began to read through the first movement. The three lower parts put down a second inversion D major chord pianissimo, out of which the first violin spun a warm and glowing melody. At once we felt that this could only be written by Eleanor Alberga. We read through the rest of the movement, which seemed to grow out of, and return to, the note D. We recognised references to the composer’s first quartet, which was also written for us. The music felt both richly harmonic and lyrical; indeed passages which at first appeared to be more angular, with unison rhythms in separate bows, the composer asked us to play smoothly and melodically. We came across passages which called for the rapid plucking of strumming of the note D, an unprecedented demand which proved very difficult. Working with the composer, various ways of strumming were tried, until first violinist Laurence Jackson hit upon a solution which met with unanimous approval. He dipped his two plucking fingers into some crushed rosin, which caused them to stick to the strings when he did a piano-like trill with them, creating a delicate yet vivid effect.

The second movement, a scherzo which begins with short bursts or statements of varied lengths, was played through, probably at two thirds of the correct speed. Even at this slow pace, the music had a very strong immediate impact upon us. At first the metronome mark for the movement seemed extraordinarily fast. Many composers have said that speeds conceived in their heads turn out to be impractical on instruments and are very relaxed about slight tempo alterations. Many composers but not this one: Eleanor is a composer who is also a brilliant performer herself, with an uncanny feel for what can work, and she can be gently insistent about keeping to her marks. Initially we struggled with passages that pitted the two violins against the viola and cello in some extremely fast syncopations, and later ones, when each player goes their own way with great variety of rhythms and a profusion of very rapid semiquavers. However, the composer made us use a lighter touch, with more of a feeling of movement, even of rushing, the image being of rapids and rushing streams. Sure enough, once the notes and rhythms became familiar, the composer’s tempo made more and more sense and the movement emerged as one of the most brilliant scherzos that we have ever played.

The third movement struck the quartet immediately as serene and lyrical. At its climax is a flashback, recalling elements from the scherzo, after which the movement is gradually taken over by rapid natural harmonics in triplet semiquavers. The composer insisted that even at the quietest dynamic these passages needed to be played firmly enough for clarity. The effect made us think of the play of light upon water.

Eleanor told us that the finale developed all that preceded it, and as players we recognised material in different guises from the three previous movements. After an introduction of constantly changing texture and pulse, the pace quickens into an utterly infectious syncopated dance-like movement. With ever-changing bar lengths, and teasing cross rhythms that pit the violins against the viola and cello, the effect is a delight for players and audience alike, but took painstaking rehearsal to achieve. However, for me the most difficult and most remarkable feature of the movement is the long build up of constant semiquavers, largely in 4/4 time, yet with each player having different off-beat accents. Here our prior knowledge of the composer and her music proved invaluable. We were sure that the off-beat accents should be felt as syncopations off a basic crochet pulse, and the composer confirmed this. It took much work, both individually and as a quartet, but the final build up, the transition of the quick semiquavers into the melodic climax, pictured by the composer as the river finally flowing into the sea, remains one of the most thrilling that we have played.

Eleanor’s third quartet is a work of immense richness and variety of feeling, colour, rhythm and atmosphere; after some four performances we feel we have just begun to scratch the surface.

David Angel
2nd Violin, Maggini Quartet
September 2001