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ClassicsOnline Home » ALWYN, W.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Novelette (Maggini Quartet)
For British composer William Alwyn CBE the string quartet was the “most perfect of mediums”. His String Quartet No. 1 of 1953 recalls the sound worlds of Dvořák, Janáček and Smetana, while repaying his debt to the Czech tradition with memorably original music. Almost 22 years later, his Second Quartet, ‘Spring Waters’, was prefaced by lines from Turgenev’s novel of the same name: “My careless years, / My precious days, / like the waters of springtime, / Have melted away.” The passionate opening of his Third, composed in 1984 and Alwyn’s swansong, leads to a conclusion of elegiac serenity.
By David Denton
Composing string quartets throughout his life, William Alwyn was so immersed with the task of achieving four equal voices, that he eventually considered only three worthy of publication.
Those who have had access to his manuscripts would describe his dismissal of his earlier works as needlessly harsh, and one would hope that Naxos might be persuaded to issue the four quartets written between 1932 and 1936. Born in 1905, he had to terminate his education while still a teenager, though by then he had impressed his mentors to such an extent that at the age of 22 he was offered the post of composition tutor at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He was to become a prolific film composer, a genre that largely funded his time spent as a ‘serious’ composer. The three string quartets are tonal, modern and highly personal statements, unease never far beneath the surface in the First Quartet of 1954, giving way just over twenty years later to a sense of anger that he had not fulfilled all he wished in life, the clue coming from the subtitle ‘Spring Waters’ and referring to a poem of life’s ending. The Third, and his last major score, is even more biting and corrosive, its impact both large and thought provoking. The disc ends with his early Novelette, a score of immediate attractions. The music is often technically challenging, but is supremely played by the Maggini Quartet, Lorraine McAslan’s many violin solos a display of outstanding technical brilliance. I have no doubt that these are major 20th century quartets, and I strenuously urge you to explore them.
William Alwyn (1905–1985)
String Quartets Nos. 1–3 • Novelette
Amongst Alwyn’s considerable œuvre which includes works for orchestra, voice, opera, film, piano, and chamber music, music for the string quartet figures quite predominately, beginning with his earliest attempts at composition through to his final years as an active composer. Alwyn began writing for the medium in 1920, when he produced his String Quartet in G minor at just fifteen years old. The years 1923 to 1936 produced a further twelve string quartets, so fascinated was the composer with this “most intimate of mediums”, as he called it, and hoping to rise to the challenge of balancing the four instruments with equally interesting material to produce a satisfying whole. With each successive quartet he became more confident, also producing an Irish Suite (1939–40), a few shorter descriptive pieces which include the atmospherically charged Three Winter Poems composed in 1948, that he dedicated to his former teacher, John B. McEwen, who was also active as a composer, producing sixteen quartets in addition to many other works for a variety of mediums.
It was not until November 1953, however, at the age of 48 when he completed his String Quartet in D minor that Alwyn felt fully satisfied with his work for the medium and counted it as his first real Quartet No. 1, labelling it as such, and disowning all his previous attempts. This seems somewhat harsh, as in particular the four string quartets he produced between 1932–1936 contain some truly memorable ideas, which are worthy of a revival and deserve to be heard again after receiving enthusiastic reviews at their respective premières. In all three quartets presented here one can hear the influence of Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček, which Alwyn readily admitted to in a fascinating essay entitled My Debt to Czech Music. In particular, there are traces of Dvořák and Smetana in the Quartet in D minor whilst in the second and third quartets one can hear shades of Janáček. These influences, however, are subconscious and are absorbed into Alwyn’s individual compositional technique. The D minor Quartet is cast in four movements. The first, a Moderato e grazioso, opens with a motto idea that later appears more fully in the cello and is then answered by the violin, which develops into a very rhythmic fortissimo section giving way to a more languid mood culminating in a passionate climax before reaching a pulsating rhythmic figure leading to a sudden and mysterious pianissimo conclusion. The will-o’-the-wisp Allegro molto, a scherzo in all but name, is followed by the emotional heart of the quartet, a sublime Adagio. The movement begins darkly conveying a somewhat brooding atmosphere before leading to the contrasting central section in which, muted, the second violin, viola, and cello provide a throbbing chordal accompaniment over which the first violin steals in with an ethereal melody of soaring transcendent beauty, quite unlike anything else in Alwyn’s entire output. The melody is then passed to the cello before the opening idea returns to close the movement in quiet stillness. The rhythmically driven finale, Allegro molto, provides a dramatic conclusion to the piece with only brief respite provided by a more tranquil middle section culminating in an fff climax in which the cello and first violin reprise the melody heard in the first movement before leading to a fiery vigorous coda. The D minor Quartet received its première on 1 May 1954 given by The New London Quartet (Erich Gruenberg, Lionel Bentley, violins, Keith Cummings, viola, and Douglas Cameron, cello).
The String Quartet No. 2 ‘Spring Waters’ was completed on 11 September 1975, almost 22 years after the D minor quartet, and inhabits quite a different sound world from the first, less romantic and with a more abrasive and austere quality. Alwyn heads the score with the four lines that preface Turgenev’s novel Spring Waters, which are as follows:
My careless years,
My precious days,
Like the waters of springtime,
Have melted away.
My careless years,
My precious days,
Like the waters of springtime,
Have melted away.
The composer clearly states, however, that the work is essentially an abstract composition, with the words just providing an initial spark for the beginnings of the piece that happen to reflect his own feelings at reaching the age of seventy. The first movement Moderato (“the ‘spring waters’ of high hopes and romantic illusions”) begins pianissimo with a murmuring figure in the cello that is then taken up by the viola and second violin over which the first violin enters with a melody answered by rhythmic phrases in the cello that forms the seeds from which the whole work germinates. These initial ideas go through a number of permutations culminating in a passionate statement of the cello’s rhythmic figure stated fortissimo by all four instruments in unison. The movement ends calmly Sempre lento with a theme that the composer says is intended to convey a sense of “resignation and disillusionment”. The second movement Allegro scherzando contrasts an energetic idea stated at the outset with a more lyrical graceful theme, and in the words of the composer “recalls the lost turbulence of youth and young love, but seen ‘as through a glass darkly’”. The desolate final movement Adagio, (not, however, without its dramatic outbursts), is in the apt words of the composer, “the daunting prospect of old age, ‘all passion spent’ is emotionally stated in a bleak fugue, only to be brushed aside in an upsurge of passionate resentment; but the fugue returns, though not for long, and the work ends on a triumphant note – death is not defeat”. The String Quartet No. 2 ‘Spring Waters’ was commissioned for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Norwich Music Club and first performed at Blackfriars Hall, Norwich on 29 May 1976 by the Gabrieli String Quartet (Kenneth Sillito, Brendan O’Reilly, violins, Ian Jewel, viola, and Keith Harvey, cello) followed by a performance with the same artists at the Maltings, Snape, Suffolk as part of the Aldeburgh Festival on 5 June 1976.
The String Quartet No. 3 was completed in the spring of 1984 and turned out to be Alwyn’s last major work. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Sir Cecil Parrott, diplomat, author, translator, and good friend of the composer. The idea for another string quartet germinated in Alwyn’s mind after he had attended recording sessions for the first two string quartets by the Quartet of London at the Maltings, in 1982. The composer remarks, “…again I was filled with the desire to compose yet one more work for this most perfect of mediums.” The first of the Quartet’s two movements, an Allegro molto begins with twelve rhythmically biting percussive chords announced fortissimo by all four instruments after which a restless motive in the viola and second violin provides the accompaniment to a forceful theme on the cello, which is then echoed by the first violin. This mood is contrasted with a more lyrical second subject first announced by the viola. These motives are further developed leading to a passionate outburst of the second subject in which the theme is stated in the upper regions of the violin and cello in unison accompanied by a tremolando figure in the second violin and viola. A brief scherzando section follows before a return to those percussive chords announced at the outset (although this time comprised of different notes), the restless motive on viola and second violin accompanies the opening theme this time (in reverse rôles) on first violin and then echoed by the cello. A further development of these ideas leads once again to a passionate reprise of the melodic second subject announced fortissimo by the first violin and cello accompanied by the tremolando figure in the second violin and viola. A brief mood of calm follows before a few measures of the Scherzando section return, leading the movement to a sudden and unexpected conclusion. The second and final movement, Adagio, provides an elegiac conclusion to the Quartet. The peaceful opening gradually gains momentum leading to an Allegro waltz section that incorporates a soaring pianissimo melody announced in the first violin accompanied by a pizzicato figure in the viola and cello. The waltz theme returns leading to a passionate restatement of the first violin’s soaring melody announced this time fortissimo. A gradual decrease in dynamics and tempo returns us to the mood of the opening and the work ends in a peaceful serenity providing a moving and fitting swansong to Alwyn’s composing career. The Third Quartet received its première in Blythburgh Parish Church, Suffolk on 13th June 1985 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival given by The Quartet of London (Carmel Kane, John Trussler, violins, Simon Rowland-Jones, viola, and Peter Willison, cello).
Alwyn’s delightful Novelette was composed during 1938–39 especially for the Oxford String Quartet Series published by Oxford University Press. The idea of the series was to present a number of short easy pieces lasting two to three minutes by living English composers of the day, which in addition to Alwyn included Thomas Pitfield and Felix Swinstead. The term “easy”, however, should not be taken too literally, as some of the pieces are more serious and ambitious and go beyond the mere elementary level. The Novelette comprises a rhythmically driven opening with the main theme announced fortissimo by the second violin and cello in unison, which is then passed to the first violin and viola also in unison. This leads to quieter gentler melodic middle section before a return to the opening theme fortissimo this time presented on the first violin accompanied by second violin and viola and bagpipe drone in the cello. After a brief reprise of part of the secondary theme mezzo piano the piece ends with a conclusive accented fortissimo chord.
(Alwyn’s written words are reprinted with permission of The William Alwyn Foundation and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library)
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ALWYN, W.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Novelette (M...