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String Quartet in A major 'On Greek Folk Songs'


Boughton’s string quartets were written in 1923, at the height of his London success with The Immortal Hour. The first, in A major and based on Greek folk song, is dated June–July; and the second, in F major and subtitled ‘From the Welsh Hills’, August–September. Both reflect the buoyant mood brought about by fame and fortune and the acquisition of a third wife, Kathleen. Indeed, the F major quartet is a loving souvenir of a holiday they spent at Beddgelert in August 1923. Both quartets were first performed at a series of three chamber concerts he presented in London’s Aeolian Hall in 1923: the ‘Greek’ quartet on 12 October, and the ‘Welsh’ on 19 October. Critical reaction was decidedly mixed.

Typically, however, Boughton had caused offence by advertising his concerts as being ‘not for high-brows, but for the general musical public who still believe in the common-chord and an occasional tune’, and offered an even greater hostage to fortune by adding that there were to be ‘no free tickets even for “the profession”’. At the third concert (26 October) he repeated the quartet (the ‘Greek’) which the critics had most disliked.

Though a medium as complex as the string quartet is scarcely calculated to appeal to the ‘working men and women’ whom Boughton sought to address, it seems that the actual performances were not as immaculate as they might have been. The critics, therefore, could only make of them what they heard. And certainly both quartets test to the utmost the skill and agility of even the most dedicated performer. Their movements follow traditional Classical formulae with a degree of rhapsodic freedom that makes them difficult to grasp at a first hearing. The subtitles Boughton gave to each movement may also have been more of a hindrance than a help, though each was intended only as an indication of ‘the preponderant emotion’. Nor can the fact that he insisted that the audience listen in a darkened auditorium, with the players behind a screen, have added to the success of the occasion.

A question hangs over the thematic material of the ‘Greek’ quartet, though in this instance Boughton admitted the incorporation of folk song. Unfortunately he did not specify particular tunes, their source or vintage. All that he did allow was that the material had been derived from incidental music (now lost) that he had composed for the Glastonbury Festival’s 1922 production of The Trachiniae of Sophocles, and to a lesser extent from modal studies he had undertaken before setting to music Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Alkestis of Euripides (Glastonbury, 26 August 1922). Again, the quartet’s movements, though proceeding almost without a break in pairs, are given subtitles as ‘clues’ to their emotional content, but these are also declared to have ‘no further meaning or value’. The third movement, however, is by way of being a memorial to Sheerman Hand, whose untimely death (suicide?) in September 1922 had deprived Boughton of a friend and trusted administrator.

from notes by Michael Hurd © 1997


Boughton: String Quartets & Oboe Quartet No 1
CDA66936Archive Service


Movement 1: Apollonian
Track 8 on CDA66936 [7'49] Archive Service
Movement 2: Dionysian
Track 9 on CDA66936 [4'16] Archive Service
Movement 3: Threnody
Track 10 on CDA66936 [7'28] Archive Service
Movement 4: Aphrodisian
Track 11 on CDA66936 [7'48] Archive Service

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