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String Quartet No 2 in A minor

'Vaughan Williams: Chamber Music' (CDA67313)
Vaughan Williams: Chamber Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67313 
Movement 1: Prelude: Allegro appassionato
Movement 2: Romance: Largo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 4: Epilogue: Andante sostenuto

String Quartet No 2 in A minor
In the case of the String Quartet No 2 it was the specific artistry of a performer that inspired the work. It arose from Vaughan Williams’s friendship with the viola player Jean Stewart, who as a student had played in the orchestra at the annual Leith Hill Festivals which he conducted, and had become one of his ‘honorary nieces’, as his favourite younger female friends were known. She had been badgering ‘Uncle Ralph’ to write a quartet for the Menges Quartet in which she played and, unknown to her, he had begun composing one during the autumn of 1942/3. Two movements were delivered to her on her birthday in February 1943 by a mutual friend, Ursula Wood (who was later to marry the composer after the death of his first wife Adeline). With them came a note from him explaining that he was having difficulty with the scherzo, which would arrive, hopefully, in time for her next birthday. Completed in 1944 it bore the dedication ‘To Jean on her birthday’, and on her personal copy of the score Vaughan Williams wrote ‘price 1000 kisses’. It received its premiere by the Menges Quartet on the composer’s 72nd birthday, 12 October, at the National Gallery, in the renowned series of lunchtime concerts which Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson organised during World War II.

That the work was intended to have a personal connection with its dedicatee is evident since the viola is centre-stage throughout, beginning each movement, ending two, and leading as thematic material is introduced and developed. The work’s composition between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies also has a bearing on its character, since it both looks back to the former, as well as ahead to the latter, and in particular to its harmonic tensions with the juxtaposition of the keys of E minor and F minor and also the use of the interval of the augmented fourth.

Reflecting its title, ‘Prelude’, the first movement is comparatively short. It opens dramatically with the viola’s sweeping, tempestuous theme. Later, tremolos recall the gales that ‘blow the saplings double’ in the composer’s song-cycle On Wenlock Edge, and although a secondary theme is clearly identifiable it does not provide respite from the prevailing stormy mood.

The title ‘Romance’ for the second movement seems out of place since this is a bleak musical landscape, made all the more barren by the instruction to the musicians to play without vibrato. This, combined with the contrapuntal nature of the music, seems consciously to evoke the sound of the Jacobean viol consort. Further on in the movement solemn chords alternate with brief sorrow-laden commentaries from the viola, although an exultant key change to C major brings light flooding onto the musical landscape.

In the Scherzo all the instruments are muted apart from the viola, which makes its anxious, sinister triplets all the more menacing. This fragmentary theme was derived from the 49th Parallel music where it depicted the Nazis on the run. Once again the viola is prominent, for instance, where it has a bravura melody in double-stops. The absence of a contrasting trio heightens the overall tense mood.

The final movement, ‘Epilogue’, is subtitled ‘Greetings from Joan to Jean’ since its theme was intended to depict the character of St Joan in an unrealised film project of Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name. With it too comes a change of direction and character in the music, which recalls the finale of the Fifth Symphony or the last section of his suite for viola, chorus and small orchestra, Flos campi. Like them, the quartet concludes in a spirit of benediction and serenity.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2002

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