This is the third in our series of newsletters focusing on individual pieces of chamber music, chosen by members of the Strings Attached team. This one discusses another (relatively) modern work. We make no apology for focusing on another modern piece. Feedback from members is consistent in requesting more modern compositions, yet we remain much less familiar with them than with the great works of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are harder to come to terms with and need more work.
Here Andrew Polmear writes about Michael Tippett’s String Quartet No.2.
I first heard this work about 10 years ago and was struck by the second movement, a sparse, slow, fugal Andante. I couldn’t make much sense of the other movements, but the Andante so thrilled me that I bought the parts and played it with my amateur, and initially reluctant, string quartet. It wasn’t just the serene beauty of the movement, it was the fact that it was technically easy and we amateurs could play it.
Since then I’ve listened to the whole quartet so much I’m at home with it all.
You can hear a quartet apparently called Wellesz Rhapsody play it on Youtube here. Egon Wellesz was a British/Austrian composer who died in 1974 and he called his opus\ 87 Rhapsody. Why that’s given as the performer of this piece on Youtube is a mystery to me. But it’s a good performance.
Youtube also has performances by the Heath, who played Tippett’s Quartet No.5 for us at a coffee concert in 2016, the Lindsays and the Tippett Quartet, but with all these you only get one movement at a time, which is tiresome. The Tippett Quartet performance of all five Tippett quartets is available free on Spotify. You need to download the app.
The first movement is a joyful mass of swirling, off-beat rhythms. There is melody but it goes on for line after line and you can never quite capture it. And just occasionally the players come together in unison with what feels like relief. Halfway through and again at the end, there’s a delightful descending limping scale down to a conclusion.
Then there’s that second movement. The second violin comes in first with two slow crochets which rise a semitone from C sharp to D followed by a rest. Then two more crochets, falling this time from C sharp to C (written as B sharp, but that’s a technicality) then another rest. Then a few more slow crochets and that’s the theme which each player has in turn: cello next, then viola, then first violin. There’s no sense of momentum, just absolute absorption in the moment. It’s not sad, it’s not joyful, it’s deeper than human emotions; it’s the music of the spheres.
It’s almost a relief to find that the third movement is back to the vitality of the first but even more so. The rhythms are crazily all over the place. And every now and then a folk song breaks through the apparent chaos. It’s thrilling.
As soon as the fourth movement starts you realise that everything else has been leading to this. The opening is quite martial with a throbbing loud rhythm from the cello. Themes from the other movements are used to create an atmosphere in which the players struggle to survive in the chaos. There are occasional moments of peace but instruments are dragged back, one by one, into the maelstrom. Only in the last few bars is peace finally restored.
It’s very interesting to note what was happening in Tippett’s life when he wrote this piece in 1942, just after writing his oratorio A Child of Our Time. The quartet was first performed at the Wigmore Hall in March 1943, just 3 months before Tippett was sentenced to three months in prison as a conscientious objector. He served 2 months in Wormwood Scrubs, coming out totally unrepentant. He seems to have been less reconciled to his homosexuality than he was to his pacifism, but he was already benefiting from Jungian psychoanalysis. He ended A Child of Our Time with the words “I would know my shadow and my light” – a very Jungian concept referring to the fact that different, apparently incompatible, aspects of a personality can co-exist. There is an enormous amount of struggle in this quartet but there is resolution and certainty too. Who can say whether his personal life has any bearing on the music?
These are difficult times for us all, and especially difficult for musicians. A survey by the Musicians’ Union found that, in the 10 days of lockdown covered by the survey, UK musicians lost £20 million of income. Strings Attached has therefore made a donation to the MU Hardship Fund on behalf of us all. Any member who wants to do the same can click the link here.
Do you listen to and watch musical performances online? Here are three websites we mentioned last time:
Chamber music: Yourclassical.org
Opera: The Royal Opera House
Orchestral: The Berlin Philharmonic click on ‘how it works’.
Do you know of any websites offering free performances that our members might be interested in? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we will publicise them.
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