Textural invention is at once evident in the opening of the String Quartet No 1 in G major Op 44 where a pleasing thematic idea in the first violin is supported by a duet of running quaver counterpoint in the second violin and viola with punctuating pizzicato crotchets in the cello. The idea is subsequently developed by the cello as the paragraph expands, both in range and melody, until Stanford brings us to a pivotal Neapolitan harmony. Here the metre slows temporarily as the dynamics fluctuate between p
on spacious minim chords before yielding to the cello’s second subject in the dominant. The second group consists of several thematic strands – a broad melody initiated by the cello though continued by the first violin, a dotted figure which becomes increasingly more prominent, and an imitative figure reminiscent of Dvorák’s Sixth Symphony – all of which figure prominently in the expansive development. To close the exposition Stanford gives us a reprise of the Neapolitan harmony from the transition and, in Mozartian fashion, a brief restatement of the opening idea. The highly processual development and recapitulation truly reveal the ambitious scope and concept of Stanford’s attitude to ‘absolute music’. Over the course of almost 100 bars there is a sense of ebb and flow as one mood gives way to another, where a seamless sense of progression and variegation provides an underlying continuum for a series of episodes in which thematic strands from the exposition emerge in new guises. Moreover, Stanford’s innate instinct for drama surfaces not only at climaxes but also at points of tonal catastrophe, notable instances being the re-appearance of the second subject (in C minor) and further tranquil interpretation of this material in D flat, an event which serves to calm the development’s more agitated disposition. An impression of transformation and developing variation also permeates the recapitulation, most notably in the extended coda where expositional ‘memories’ and developmental transformations are given further oxygen.
The Scherzo owes its variegational rondo form to Brahms’s Second Symphony. Each of the rondo repeats gives a different ‘version’ of the opening idea, while two ‘trios’ (marked Presto) are interrelated by material although they differ in their metrical treatment. A broad, generous diatonic melody, so abundant in Stanford’s mature instrumental works, occupies a central place in the slow movement. On its return Stanford adds an equally sonorous countermelody in the viola, the added texture of which provides a platform for the second subject’s impassioned climax. A gigue-like spirit infuses the fugal opening of the finale and the contrapuntal demeanour of this movement is disrupted only momentarily by the longer note-values of the second subject (though even here the gigue rhythms continue to pervade the background). It is a movement for virtuosos and was no doubt written with the accomplishment of Gompertz’s CUMS Quartet (which included Haydn Inwards, Emil Kreuz and Charles Ould) in mind.
The first performance of the Op 44 Quartet, by the CUMS Quartet, took place in Newcastle on 22 January 1892. The composer was not there to hear it since, in the weeks immediately prior to the performance, the influenza epidemic, so feared by Dvorák, spread to Ireland and was responsible for the death of Stanford’s four closest relatives including his mother. But after a holiday convalescing in Limerick to recover what he described to J A Fuller Maitland as his ‘scattered and stunned senses’, he heard Gompertz and the quartet play the work in Cambridge on 17 February. It was given its London premiere at a Monday Popular Concert at St James’s Hall on 27 November 1893, with Lady Hallé, Alfred Gibson, Kreuz and Piatti, where it gained the approbation of Bernard Shaw.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2005