Piece of the Week – String Quartet No. 1

I wrote my String Quartet no. 1 – subtitled ‘Prelude and Metamorphosis’ – in 1989, at the same time as I was writing a commission for Colchester Choral Society called ‘Song to St. Helena’. The statue of St. Helena, the daughter of Constantine the Great, and the patron saint of Colchester, graces the top of the Moot Hall in Colchester (see image), where the choral work was first performed. During the course of the piece, musical material in the chilly and ‘earthly’ Phrygian mode (natural notes E to E) becomes transformed into the liquid and ‘heavenly’ Lydian mode (E to E with all notes sharpened except for E and B) for the final ‘Prayer of St. Helena’.

So I adopted the same material for my string quartet. The first movement is in the Phrygian mode – natural notes throughout – and is a lively moto perpetuo based on stepwise movement, sometimes interrupted by off-beat but calm chordal passages. The second movement is quite different, breaking the stepwise material up into isolated notes with some octave displacement, and moving gradually into a more sustained final section in the Lydian mode.

The first performance was given by East Anglia’s Landolfi Quartet in 1990, and several other quartets took up the piece. And, rather fittingly, the first movement was revived last year by a quartet providing background music to Colchester’s Oyster Feast. This, Colchester’s annual gathering of the city’s worthies (you have to be invited by the Mayor), celebrates the traditional oyster harvest for which the city is famed – and it takes place in the Moot Hall, beneath the St. Helena statue, where my quartet’s predecessor, ‘Song to Saint Helena’ was first performed more than thirty years ago.

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