Movement 1: Allegro energico
Movement 2: Larghetto affettuoso
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro leggiero
Movement 4: Allegro agitato – Un poco più moderato – Vivace
Stanford showed the piece to Joachim, who played it over with colleagues in Berlin in 1897, and it was offered to the firm of Breitkopf & Härtel for publication. Had they issued it, the composer’s career might have followed a very different path. Ever afterwards, Coleridge-Taylor nurtured the hope that he might achieve success in Germany to match that which he had realized in the USA on his three visits there between 1904 and 1910. He taught himself German to a good standard and had agreed to conduct his Violin Concerto in Berlin in 1913. Sadly, this was an engagement which he did not live to fulfil; Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia on 1 September 1912.
The tempo direction of first movement, Allegro energico, encapsulates the mood. The principal subject is launched by a forceful, thrusting figure on the cello’s C string accompanied by syncopated viola and pizzicato violins; the 6/4 metre allows Coleridge-Taylor an almost infinite variety of rhythmic freedoms and flexibilities which are in evidence from the outset. That this is a true ensemble piece and not just a vehicle for virtuoso display by the clarinet is also immediately clear—the soloist sometimes fulfils a subsidiary role in the texture, filling in the harmony or doubling string lines at the octave. Indeed, the second subject is not played in full by the clarinet until the recapitulation.
The Larghetto affettuoso (in B major) is beautiful, open-air music, the principal theme having the qualities of an idealized folk song. It provides a fine example of the composer’s love for irregular phrase-lengths, its two elements being respectively five and four bars long. The music’s tender character is enhanced by the muting of the accompanying violins (and, in the recapitulation, the viola too). A subsequent appearance of the theme on the upper strings of the cello is ravishing, and equally exquisite is the descant of the first violin which floats, pianissimo, high above the clarinet’s final reprise of it. The movement concludes with a brief cadenza-like parlando passage for the solo instrument and a final, gentle descent into a sweet repose. This is music of the deepest sensibility.
The Scherzo has a double time-signature—3/4 9/8—and at the heart of the movement is the interplay between the division of the beat into twos and threes (even within the bar). The rhythmic exuberance does not stop there, however: themes seem to stutter and sudden dynamic contrasts constantly delight. The gentler trio is based on another appealing melody which shows the influence of Dvorák.
The finale, Allegro agitato, begins with a driving rhythmic germ leavened by a Scotch snap which recurs melodically in the second strain of the principal subject and which assumes increasing significance as the movement progresses. The second subject unfolds and extends in a continuous stream until the development section proper begins; it does so with the principal subject in an unabashed G minor—a bold harmonic stroke in a movement in F sharp minor, and one typical of Coleridge-Taylor. A moment of stasis ushers in a fond reminiscence of the Larghetto, after which the coda, marked Vivace and now in F sharp major, whips up excitement in a manner which may bring to mind the end of Dvorák’s ‘American’ Quartet.
The Clarinet Quintet demonstrates beyond any doubt that Coleridge-Taylor was a gifted composer of chamber music. The thematic references between the movements give rise to a structure of remarkable subtlety and sophistication which arises from real inspiration, not mere artifice. Reviews of the London premiere in 1895, of performances in the USA in 1974 (after its eventual publication by Musica Rara) and, indeed, of The Nash Ensemble’s recital at Wigmore Hall in London in December 2006, come to much the same conclusion—that this is the work of a finished master, not of a student.
from notes by Lionel Harrison © 2007