Phantasie Quartet in Fminor Bridge (1879 – 1941)
In 1905 Walter Cobbett, the compiler of the indispensible Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, initiated a competition for the composition of “Phantasies”, short continuous pieces of chamber music, the name a nod to the Elizabethan Fancy or Fantasy. Over the years, winners included many now well-known names, for example Herbert Howells, John Ireland and Benjamin Britten. However in the first year the first prize was won by William Hurlstone (remember his trio played by Clarion 3 last season?) and the second prize by Frank Bridge for his Phantasie Quartet in F minor. Although played without a break, this work is in three sections. The first starts with a vigorous march, followed by the second subject, in Bridge’s words “a delicious sort of crooning”. After some development, the crooning theme appears before the first subject, giving an arch form to the section. The second section plays the role of a slow movement, with a lovely melody. The final section begins in a jolly mood, and there are moments of recall of the first section before the strong ending.
First ACMC Performance
On Wenlock Edge Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
- On Wenlock Edge
- From far, from eve and morning
- Is my team ploughing
- Oh, when I was in love with you
- Bredon Hill
A.E. Housman’s collection of poems “A Shropshire Lad” was published in 1896. Its emotions of love and loss in the beauty of the English countryside, melancholy and bittersweet, won it a large following. The poems’ content, and their simple, ballad-like structure, appealed to many composers in the early twentieth century (much to Housman’s distress), and several settings were made, for example by Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth, E.J. Moeran and Vaughan Williams in his song cycle “On Wenlock Edge”. Written in 1908-09, this was one of the earliest and best, and the six poems that he chose encompass a range of feeling, from bitter, present grief, to quiet resignation and the realisation of the littleness of the individual in the great scheme of things, and even a touch of humour.
The use of a string quartet in addition to the piano as accompaniment, was an innovation in English music, and allowed for great depth of colour and expression. Vaughan Williams had just returned from Paris, where he had gone to study and acquire “a little French polish”, from his contemporary Maurice Ravel. Ravel’s influence seems apparent at the very start, where the strings vividly evoke the wind that tears across Wenlock Edge, as it has done since the time of the Romans, quickly come and quickly gone. The brevity of human life inspires the gentle second song. The third, “Is my team ploughing”, a conversation between a dead young ploughman and his friend, seems tragic and inevitable, like a border-ballad. There is a flash of rather cynical humour in the brief “Oh, when I was in love with you”, before “Bredon Hill” which is for me the most memorable of the cycle. The simple melody seems like a folk-song, and the music vividly recalls the distant bells of the beginning, and the solitary passing-bell at the end, and perhaps is also an echo of Ravel. The final song rounds off the great sweep of the composition, with its ending of quiet acceptance and fulfilment. In this song-cycle, Vaughan Williams succeeds wonderfully in making the whole greater than the sum of the two parts, words and music.
Last ACMC Performance: a group including the Gabrielli Quartet – January 1968
Songs for voice, viola and piano Bridge (1879 – 1941)
Far, far from each other
Where is it that our soul doth go?
Music, when soft voices die
The first public performance in 1908 of Bridge’s songs was a family occasion. His sister-in-law Ivy Sinclair sang, Bridge himself played the piano, and the viola was played by Audrey Alston. She is best remembered today as Benjamin Britten’s first viola teacher, and in 1928 she made the first contact between Frank Bridge and his most famous future pupil.
First ACMC Performance
Piano Quartet no. 2 in E flat op. 87 Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Allegro con fuoco
Allegretto moderato, grazioso
Finale: Allegro ma non troppo
The second piano quartet was written in 1889, some two years after the rather better-known piano quintet, when Dvořák’s powers and reputation were at their height. His publisher Simrock had long been encouraging him to write for this combination, knowing that sales of the score to amateur musicians would be very profitable. Dvořák wrote to his friend Göbl: “I’ve now finished three movements of a new piano quartet and the finale will be ready in a few days. As I expected it came easily and the melodies just surged upon me. Thank God!” In all, composition of the quartet took only around six weeks.
The strings alone first state the confident theme, answered with little fragments from the piano. A transitional passage in dotted rhythm leads to the flowing second subject, introduced by the viola. The development concentrates on the first subjects, before Dvořák brilliantly contracts the recapitulation by beginning it at the second subject. The slow movement, which starts with a delicious cello theme, has as many as five melodies, including a melodramatic section in the minor. The allegretto is a gentle waltz, where at times the piano sounds just like a gypsy dulcimer, and with a strange oriental flavour to the second theme. The central trio with its dotted rhythms is typical Dvořák. The finale, which is unusual in starting in the minor key, sweeps along, full of bucolic energy, before the final pages “to which only a full orchestra could do justice!”
Last ACMC Performance: the Schubert Ensemble of London – October 2003