January 6, 2020

Gavin’s Notes:

String Quartet no. 4 (2019-20)

There is a gap of over 22 years between my third and fourth string quartets, and this new one is inevitably conditioned by the evolution of my work through that period. During that time, I have a written a great deal of music originating in mediaeval and renaissance forms. For example, I am on my seventh book of madrigals, much of which sets Petrarca and since 2002 I have composed new versions of the entire collection of the 12th century Laude Cortonese manuscripts resulting in 54 works for voices, and the last one of these was finished yesterday. Curiously enough, however, although I have written much for strings over the years, whether for orchestra or in chamber music, I have often omitted violins! Indeed, at the heart of my own ensemble is a quartet of strings, two violas, cello and double bass – as a bass player I have a strong feeling for the lower sonorities – but these four string instruments are not a string quartet. The string quartet, more than any other ensemble format, is defined by the four instruments that have maintained a historical pedigree from Haydn through to Shostakovich and beyond, and any composer embarking on a string quartet does so in the light of its history.

The differences between my fourth quartet and the others is strongly conditioned by aspects of early music. In many places the harmonic range is greatly simplified, especially at the beginning and towards the end. Often the instruments are played without vibrato, or are bowed sul tasto to give a quasi-baroque sound, or quasi ponticello like a consort of viols (and I have a number of works for viol consort too). There are solo lines for individual instruments that have the quality of a vocal lauda, and, at the same time, there are sections where instruments share melodic material, like extended vocal lines, maintaining the essential extended four-way conversational character that has been the essence of the ensemble throughout its long and rich history.

The fourth string quartet is dedicated to my friend Carlo Boccadoro, and to the Smith Quartet, who have played all my quartets, and who I have known and worked with for many years.

Gavin Bryars