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String Quartet No 1


The first movement of String Quartet No 1 begins gently in E flat with a theme reminiscent of the opening of Haydn’s ‘Lark’ Quartet and is freely contrapuntal in design. At length, there is a sudden forte outburst on unison viola and cello, and the movement gains in urgency and intensity. Consequently, the key of E flat gradually loses its stability until, after an extended burst of activity, the music arrives at a muscular fugato, begun on first violin, that propels the argument torwards its opposite pole, the key of A. When this is reached, there is a modified reprise of the opening, now in A, and the music returns to its former tranquillity and innocence. However, A cannot gain the upper hand for long, and disturbances are caused by little fragments from the fugato invading the calm texture. As they build towards the final climax of the movement, A loses its hold, and E flat regains control, though a sense of conflict still remains.

The second movement begins with a set of seven variations on a palindromic theme for solo viola. (Palindromes have remained a crucial component in Simpson’s work, culminating in the monumental String Quartet No 9 of 1982, which is cast as thirty-two palindromic variations on a palindromic minuet by Haydn.) Even though this viola theme is unharmonized, it clearly traces the same tonal outline as the first movement, starting in E flat, rising to A at its mid-point, and falling sadly again to E flat. Each of the seven variations, which are strictly palindromic, follows this course, and the result is a prolonged effort to establish the key of A, but each attempt is baffled. Despite this, the opening variations breathe a serene lyricism, following one another in an inevitable sequence. Tension rises in the third variation and accumulates through the ensuing three variations until a severe crisis is reached in the seventh. Because of this, the music is forced to break free from the structure of variations, and Simpson hurls the listener into a turbulent double fugue as the two opposing keys collide with maximum force. A major is the victor, and the first violin, as if released, flies into excited running passages. The intensity subsides as the composer introduces a final reminder of the first movement’s opening theme, decorated at a late stage by delicate arabesques from the violins. The coda is a naive, innocent dance of almost Haydnesque simplicity, the key an unclouded A major. Robert Simpson once remarked that he composed these closing pages at one stretch, on a sunny afternoon in Regent’s Park: ‘Perhaps there is something wistful about the music,’ he says, ‘hence the marking poco pensoso’. The attentive listener might even detect a veiled quotation from a Beethoven symphony amidst these peaceful sounds.

from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1990


Simpson: String Quartets Nos 1 & 4


Movement 1: Allegro moderato, semplice
Movement 2: Andante, grave – Allegro – Tempo 1

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