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ClassicsOnline Home » RUBBRA, E.: String Quartet No. 2 / Amoretti / Ave Maria Gratia Plena / Piano Trio in 1 Movement (C. Daniels, Roscoe, Maggini Quartet)
The English composer Edmund Rubbra described the string quartet as ‘the purest and most lucid texture available to a composer’, his essays in the form enlivened by Beethovenian vigour and song-like beauty. It is a testament to his profound compositional craftsmanship that even when deploying diverse rhythms simultaneously or releasing the latent potential of what he called the ‘most positive yet mysterious intervals’, Rubbra weaves fascinating musical textures
into a satisfying whole. His Piano Trio No. 1 foregoes mere virtuosity for spiritual intensity, while several songs show his sensitivity in setting Medieval and Renaissance texts.
Edmund Rubbra (1901–1986)
String Quartet No. 2 • Amoretti • Ave Maria Gratia Plena • Piano Trio No. 1
The eleven symphonies of Edmund Rubbra place him among the master minds of twentieth-century English music, with something Schoenberg credited to Sibelius and Shostakovich, “the breath of a symphonist”. His chamber music included three violin sonatas, two piano trios and four string quartets; the latter form Rubbra called ‘the purest and most lucid texture available to a composer’. The quartets were composed at intervals of between thirteen and fourteen years, and Rubbra regarded each as a musical “summing up” of a
The Second Quartet (1951) was commissioned by a leading British ensemble, the Griller String Quartet, and first performed in May, 1952. After a First Quartet dedicated to Vaughan Williams, he here looked much further back, to the master of them all, Beethoven.
Rubbra’s only four-movement quartet has a home key of E flat major. The first and last movements are built along similar lines; reflective openings lead to vigorous dance-like music. Given the scherzo’s driving energy, a surprising proportion of this work is ‘vigorous and dance-like’, perhaps as Rubbra’s debt to his teacher Holst. For him, musical form sprang from the nature of the themes, so it was vital to get those right. For example, would they invert?—That went back to a crucial childhood experience, the reversal of light and dark in his bedroom after overnight snow. There is inversion at the start, with two ideas appearing in ever-new ways: a semitone, up and then down, and a falling fourth that immediately turns upward. Each of the middle movements is far more of a piece. Rubbra’s title for the second, Scherzo polimetrico sounds intimidating, so too his description ‘an essay in the unification of metrically diverse parts, developing a procedure strongly in evidence in the Elizabethan madrigal and the instrumental Fantasy’. And the score looks strange—different instruments playing patterns of three, four or five beats barred differently from each other, like the wildest inter-war Hindemith—but it does not sound like that. ‘Madrigals and fantasies’ notwithstanding, Rubbra’s music is never pastiche, it never harks back. Two things stand out—a quite four-square opening melody, returning just a couple of times, and a tendency towards seven-in-a bar, no harder to absorb than the five-time ‘waltz’ in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony. The music’s unflagging energy becomes ever more demonic towards the end. A comparable Beethovenian vigour and “sprung rhythm” are found in music by Michael Tippett, Rubbra’s near contemporary. Rubbra subtitled his slow third movement Cavatina.
In a string quartet that could allude only to Beethoven’s late B flat Quartet, Op. 130, expectation is aroused, nor is it disappointed. A profound air of meditation hints at
the rarefied, perhaps mystical music in the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony written a couple of years later. An important idea from the slow movement of the Fifth reappears, a rising line built of the basic pillars within the octave (tonic to dominant up to tonic, i.e. fifth followed by fourth). This beautiful use of what Rubbra called the ‘most positive and yet mysterious intervals’ anticipates by thirty years a ‘culmination’ of his thinking in the Eleventh Symphony, the only one really obsessed with a single interval, his ‘mystical’ fifth. Such fifths, accompanying Rubbra throughout his life, were ‘his’ intervals, like the major sevenths and minor ninths that gave Schoenberg’s mature music its special ‘distorting-mirror’ quality.
The finale is another rapidly-changing tapestry of ideas, not a theme and variations though that could be a good pattern to bear in mind hearing its many short sections. The closing one is dominated by a new melody or ‘chorale’, another rousing four-square tune that migrates from one part to another accompanied by a quieter version of the dance rhythms. It should make for a riotous conclusion, but this is Rubbra, so do not rule out one more surprise.
Rubbra, like Vaughan Williams, was a “late developer”. Not for him was the early assurance of Britten, and it was not until his early thirties that he began to feel confident to write in large-scale forms. Before this, song was the medium through which he could most successfully express himself.
The earliest song here, O my deir Hert, Op. 5, the first of the diptych Ave Maria Gratia Plena, dates from 1922. In this song, Rubbra sets the same text as set
earlier by Peter Warlock as a choral piece, Balulalow, and by Herbert Howells, for voice and piano, both coincidentally in 1919. It is doubtful, however, whether Rubbra was aware of either of these settings as neither was published until 1923 and he was certainly not part of the Warlock circle. A liking for medieval or early renaissance texts was in the air. The song, in fact, is one of a number Rubbra set with string accompaniment in this period, a contrapuntal medium to which he felt naturally drawn. Only this one, however, he thought good enough to polish up and publish over thirty years later, in 1953.
Its companion, O excellent Virgin Princess, Op. 77, was composed only just after the Second Quartet (1951) and shows not only a mature mastery of the quartet
medium but a wonderful freedom in the vocal line, not present in the earlier setting. The two songs were published together in 1953 and dedicated to Wilfrid and Peggy Mellers. Mellers (1914–2008) was a Rubbra pupil and went on to have a distinguished career both as a composer and innovative academic.
Rubbra’s appreciation and knowledge of the music of the renaissance is well known and both these songs and the Amoretti set of 1935 have more to do with the character of the English renaissance consort song than with the more “romantic” approach of, for example, Butterworth’s Love blows as the Wind blows (1911–12). For settings of Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) this is especially apt. The Amoretti are in fact the second set of Spenser settings: the first, for tenor and string orchestra, were published as Five Spenser Sonnets. It is thought that the second set were also originally written with string orchestra in mind and it was only when Rubbra began to revise the cycle for publication in 1942 that he realised the sparer textures of a quartet would be more appropriate for words of such private and passionate love.
The piece was probably written as an expression of Rubbra’s love towards his second wife, Antoinette, whose portrait as a teenager by her sister Elizabeth adorns the front cover of this recording. Antoinette Chaplin was an able violinist whom Rubbra met in 1930. They soon toured together as a duo and fell passionately in love. Rubbra’s Second Violin Sonata of 1931, his first totally successful large scale work, was written for her. There are many beautiful things in this cycle, most notably the third song which is a searching statement of unrequited love and the final setting which hints at both the sensual and spiritual side of Rubbra’s musical personality. Both are important to appreciate for a fuller understanding of his music.
Three years earlier, in 1950, Rubbra completed one of his most remarkable chamber pieces, the Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 68. This was written for his own piano trio, the Rubbra, Gruenberg, Pleeth Trio, who gave its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival in July, 1950. A second trio did not follow until 1970.
Although in one movement, like Rubbra’s last two symphonies, it is divided into three distinct sections, the last being a set of variations or meditations as Rubbra preferred to call them. In writing the work Rubbra aimed to make “both instrumental texture and form as unified as possible”, so no instrument, especially the piano (Rubbra’s own instrument, of course), is ever used for virtuoso display.
Written soon after his first Latin Mass setting, the Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici, which marked his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1948, this piece shares that work’s spiritual intensity and sense of timelessness, especially in the still heart of the trio, the three slow meditations. These follow from a delightful Episodio scherzando which in mood and rhythmic complexity is strongly linked to the Scherzo polimetrico of the second quartet. As the last meditation dies away, a solo cello quietly restates the opening theme, leading
to a triumphant coda with downward scalic bell-like passages bringing the work to a deeply satisfying and exultant conclusion. From early childhood, the sound of bells meant much to Rubbra. They emerge in many works but none more prominently than here.
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