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String Quartet No 10 'For peace'


Of the Tenth Quartet Robert Simpson says, 'its subtitle refers to its generally pacific character and to the firm conviction, based on clear logic, that unless the human species makes a conscious and decisive choice against violence, the technology it now has (which cannot be unlearnt and against which mere fear is no permanent safeguard) will sooner or later destroy it. Einstein's view that humanity must now change its way of thinking is at once compelling and pessimistic — he was not naive enough to suppose that this would happen. Nor is this composer. The music however, is not an outburst of tormented anxiety; instead it tries to define the condition of peace. This excludes aggression but not strong feeling.'

The composer has also said that the last thing he wanted to perpetrate was yet another of those shrilly protesting screams of agony so common in proselytizing or propaganda works. We do not need to be reminded of the horrors of war Robert Simpson himself saw plenty of them as a pacifist during the Second World War working in London on a mobile surgical unit during the Blitzkrieg. The programmatic representation of horrors with which we are only too familiar can easily be theatrical, but music has the potential to express positively the nature of peace, as many great composers have shown. This Quartet shows that Simpson has learnt this lesson from such past masters. He has, in particular, appealed to our past heritage by making a firm commitment to fundamental and time-honoured principles (in a similar way, those facing the prospect of warfare in the nuclear age commonly appeal to all that is good in our heritage and find consolation in the beauties of nature). The sinewy interweaving of contrapuntal lines in this Quartet recalls the style of Elizabethan and Jacobean consort music, and the prominent use of the fifth (even, occasionally, as the interval at which parts are doubled) derives from the fundamental character of the instruments themselves.

There are three movements, of which two large ones frame the brief Scherzo. Pedals and repeated notes (which are, after all, only a more dynamic form of pedal) play a large part in each movement. In addition, all three movements start with two parts that seem to grow out of a single pitch; and there is much use of a phrase that, as the composer puts it, 'rises through a natural (or flat) note and descends through a sharp one.' Each movement has one climactic point: in the first (a structure derived from sonata form) this comes when the second subject is given an enhanced recapitulation; in the Scherzo the climax appears and disappears very quickly — as does everything else in the movement; in the Finale the climax takes the form of a fugue which subsides into a Haydnesque epilogue of quiet graciousness based on all the elements used in the work up to that point. At the end the opposing sharp and flat keys are held in perfect balance, co-existing without any sense of strife to make a remarkable illustration of the condition of peace.

from notes by Lionel Pike © 1988


Simpson: String Quartets Nos 10 & 11
CDA66225Archive Service


Movement 1: Allegretto
Track 1 on CDA66225 [8'12] Archive Service
Movement 2: Prestissimo
Track 2 on CDA66225 [2'25] Archive Service
Movement 3: Molto adagio
Track 3 on CDA66225 [16'29] Archive Service

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