Newsletter #46

In these difficult times, and especially with the cancellation of the last coffee concert, Strings Attached has been thinking of ways we can keep in touch with members. Something we do occasionally with each other is share musical discoveries we’ve made. We would like to expand that to the whole membership. They would not necessarily have the professionalism of Chris Darwin’s programme notes but they would focus on an individual piece of music with a link to an online recording.

We start with Andrew Polmear sharing his discovery of Sally Beamish’s second string quartet.

Sally Beamish  String Quartet No.2 ‘Opus California’

Sally Beamish was born in London in 1956 and began composing at the age of four. She began her professional life playing viola but two things changed her career: she had her first child and her viola was stolen. Neither of these fits easily with continuing as a professional player and so in 1990 she moved to Scotland and did what she had always wanted to do; compose full-time. She now lives in Brighton and Hove.

The piece I have chosen is her second string quartet, available from Youtube  here. There are other versions on Youtube but this one gives you a performance with Sally herself on viola and Tim Crawford, who’s been playing in Brighton and Lewes since he was a child, on second violin. It’s short, four movements in just 10 minutes. It’s “accessible” for the listener who is unused to Sally’s work but it’s not easy to play. Sally says that after playing it herself she resolved to make future works easier on the players. She also says that in rehearsal she kept waiting for the viola to come in, forgetting that she was the viola player.

She composed it in 1999 in response to an invitation by the Brodsky Quartet for works inspired by Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets. She chose the first movement of Beethoven’s opus 18 No.4. His opening theme inspired her first movement, his first bridge passage inspired her second movement, and so on. Is it necessary to know this? Absolutely not. If you like the piece it’s fascinating to learn where it came from, but each quartet stands or falls on its own merits. Beamish 2 is totally unlike Beethoven 18/4 in mood. If you want to explore the relationship between the two works there’s bar by bar analysis on the Welsh Joint Education Committee website, available here.

A second question is whether it’s necessary to know that Beamish No. 2 was prompted by a visit to The Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, California. She herself says that the first movement “Boardwalk” was inspired by the types “strutting their stuff” along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk;  the second movement “Golden Gate” by the view of the bridge in mist, seen from the air; the third “Dreams before Lullabies” is a gentle cradle song; and the fourth “Natural Bridges” is named after a beach where there are spectacular rock formations. Again, it’s quite unnecessary to know all that, any more than you need to know that the model of Picasso’s “Le Rêve” was Marie-Thérèse Walther, whom he picked up on the street when she was 17. The work hits you right between the eyes. Later, you can find out how it came about.

So, to get to the music. The first movement bounces about all over the place. There are moments of lyricism when one instrument breaks out against the background syncopations of the others, but overall it’s jazzy, sprightly, vital and essentially light-hearted. The second movement is a totally different world: serene, mystical and timeless. The third is dominated by a rocking rhythm but it’s complex and defies the laws of gravity enough to keep any baby awake. The fourth is a sinister, helter-skelter piece. Individual players try to break out from time to time but they seem trapped by the throbbing base. Relief comes in the final two jazzy chords. I love it. I just wish it were longer.

Do you want to listen to more music online? We know of three websites offering free performances. They are:

Chamber music: The Wigmore Hall

Opera: The Vienna State Opera

Orchestral: The LSO

Do you like the idea of an occasional newsletter like this?  Let us know by emailing .

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