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ClassicsOnline Home » BLAKE, H.: Spieltrieb / String Trio / A Month in the Country (Edinburgh Quartet)
Howard Blake is well known for his superbly effective film scores, and this programme brings première string quartet recordings of the award-winning music for A Month in the Country and the famous Walking in the Air theme from The Snowman. New discoveries emerge in the sensual and atmospheric ballet Leda and the Swan, and a specially revised String Trio. One of Britain’s foremost and senior ensembles, The Edinburgh Quartet celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the commission of Blake’s dramatic Spieltrieb.
By Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency
Howard Blake (b. 1938)
Spieltrieb • String Trio • A Month in the Country
Howard Blake writes: My relationship with the Edinburgh Quartet goes back to 1960, the year it was formed, when, as a piano student at the Royal Academy I gave a concert in the Leith Hall with violinist Miles Baster, as a result of which he was presented with the opportunity of creating and leading a brand-new string quartet to which he devoted virtually his whole life, leaving behind a fine legacy of performances and recordings. I was honoured to be asked to compose a work to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary and thought a lot about what form it should take. Beethoven has been much associated with the quartet and is often considered the weightiest of quartet creators, with the last quartets seeming to move away from sonata form into a freer space where he seems to be playing with ideas more than working with them. There is a remark attributed to Mozart when accused of not taking music seriously enough: ‘The verb that qualifies music is to play’. Beethoven’s near-contemporary, Schiller, in fact developed a theory that there is within all of us an ‘urge to play’ and this urge if followed can take our minds and ideas to the highest possible level. Present theories in regard to ‘lateral thinking’ are saying the same thing. Schiller called it ‘Spieltrieb’ and it is by no means impossible that Beethoven was aware of it. I decided to write ‘whatever came into my head’ and to allow the form to go wherever it felt like going. The beginning is furious, if not thoroughly bad-tempered. (moderato risoluto) Where to go next? Straight to a slow and poignant canon in four parts (lento espressivo). What about some furious fun and high spirits (Presto)? Out of nowhere comes a sort of cradle song with a very high harmonic on the first violin (lento triste), but its innocence doesn’t last and a feeling of fear develops. Enough of that, here’s a little D major dance played pizzicato (Moderato a giocoso). Against the dance the cello plays a fast reiterated note almost like a drum—where can that take us? Amazingly we burst back into the bad-tempered opening on full throttle, violins doubling at the octave and fierce rhythms in viola and cello at the tenth (Moderato appassionato). It seems absolutely logical and somehow absorbs our poignant canon into it as well (Moderato più sereno). It comes to a second point of repose. I hear a fast, insistent leaning semitone idea (Presto) and feel it needs virtuoso variations against it for each player—cello, second violin, viola, first violin, whose variation is in G sharp minor and ferocious! But it slows down, and comes to a third point of repose. And what comes out of that? Surprisingly the cradle song, now very sad and in B flat minor. It feels that it must go to D flat major and lo and behold it turns into an instrumental transposition of the nativity song from The Passion of Mary, seeming somehow inevitable and moving to an ending of utter serenity.
In 1986 Howard Blake was commissioned to write the score for the film A Month in the Country, directed by Pat O’Connor and produced by Ken Trodd for Euston Films in conjunction with Channel 4. Scored for string orchestra only, it won him the British Film Institute’s Anthony Asquith Award for Musical Excellence. The film starred Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Miranda Richardson, and the script was adapted by Simon Gray from the book by J.L. Carr. It is a story of two former soldiers coming to terms with the horrors of the Great War amidst the serenity of the English countryside. One is an archaeologist excavating in a rural churchyard, the other is uncovering a mural as part of the restoration of the church. As sections of the mural gradually re-emerge, so they rediscover themselves and come to terms with the iconoclasm of the first world war. In 1992 the composer created a concert suite for string orchestra from the film score, a recording of which was made in 1993 by the Northern Philharmonia conducted by Paul Daniel.
Miranda Jackson wrote: “The first movement speaks of an idyllic pastoral scene, but a dark shadow lurks beneath the beauty and serenity. The second is a march which sounds almost incongruous played on sweet-toned strings rather than trumpet and drums. The Elegy conveys desolation, man’s inhumanity to man and the overturning of ideals. The fourth movement is a rustic dance, interrupted briefly by a reference to the previous movement. It is as if a young veteran, determined to blot out the horrors of the past and make a new start, is haunted by intrusive memories. The final movement is a resolution. Beauty still exists, though perhaps with added poignancy, and idealism is not dead.”
This string quartet, transcribed from the Suite for string orchestra, was specially made by the composer for this recording in March 2010.
In 1977 Dame Lynn Seymour and Howard Blake were commissioned by the Royal Opera House to create an orchestral ballet as part of Her Majesty The Queen’s Royal Silver Jubilee Celebrations. It was called The Court of Love and was given its successful première at Sadler’s Wells on 1 March. Shortly after this a proposal was received from BBC Omnibus for the creation of a ballet for television. Lynn Seymour wanted another subject that could be treated erotically and Howard Blake suggested Leda and the Swan. Lynn Seymour not only liked the idea but was even in favour of incorporating a reading by Christopher Plomer of the famously erotic poem of W.B. Yeats. Producer Bob Lockyer felt this was going too far and in the event a complete score was composed for string quartet, recorded by the Delmé on 20 July at BBC Lime Grove and the filming completed. The screening, however, produced some shocked reactions from both public and press in regard to the near-nudity and overt sexuality. The material was prepared for possible performance as a concert work but no further productions or performances resulted and this is the first performance and recording of the quartet as a concert piece. The musical style of the quartet hints at the fin de siècle symbolist atmosphere surrounding Maeterlinck, a half-veiled world of shadows, languour and sensuality.
The String Trio was composed shortly after the Piano Quartet, Op. 179 (1974) [Naxos 8.572083: Music for Piano and Strings] and by request of the three string players who had recorded it with the composer as pianist: Jack Rothstein (violin), Kenneth Essex (viola) and Peter Willison (cello). The quartet broke up shortly after this, however, and although it was briefly read through, no performance was ever given. In March 2010 the composer returned to the manuscript and revised it for this recording.
The complete eleven-minute suite of The Snowman was originally created for a Classic FM compilation album entitled George Martin Presents and recorded by the Medici String quartet in 1993. This album presents a string quartet version of the theme song on its own, recorded in this way for the first time.
Howard Blake is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and in 1994 received the OBE for services to music.
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