Piece of the Week 62: String Quartet no. 2

The year 2006 marked the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. There were many celebratory concerts in that year, and one of these was a concert by the Quince String Quartet in the rather gloomy basement theatre of Essex University. Sponsored by the amazing Roman River Festival (now Wild Arts), I was commissioned to write a short string quartet which related in some way to Mozart. Mozart was of course a master of string quartet writing, and I suppose I may have thought ‘if you can’t beat him, join him’ by writing a work which used a Mozart quartet as its basic material. Thus my String Quartet no. 2 was born.

I have always been particularly fond of Mozart’s quartet, K.464. This was written in 1785 and is one of the ‘Haydn Quartets’ – the set of six which Mozart dedicated to Haydn. The last movement of this quartet is notable for the chromatic character of its main theme and for its use of counterpoint, and both features pointed me in a particular direction in my own quartet.

Another thing that I am  fond of is those sets of variations which, instead of beginning with the theme and then gradually adding complexity to it in the subsequent variations, start the other way round and only reveal the theme at the end (Britten’s Nocturnal – on a theme of John Dowland – is a good example). So that was also an influence here.

The last movement of Mozart’s K464 begins with a chromatically descending four-note passage starting on E, and this became the starting point for my quintet in which a ‘presto furioso’ section beginning with these four notes is contrasted with an Adagio section which begins with the same four notes, but now disguised by using octave displacement. Dramatic contrasts like this continue through the piece as the chromatic motif is worked through in various ways, and as the piece progresses this motif moves into the foreground and the harmony becomes more classical in nature.

On the whole it is a far more angst-ridden piece than Mozart’s beautiful quartet, so if you find it too much to cope with, just hang on and after about eight minutes you’ll get a bit of real Mozart in the final bars!

You can see and hear a scrolling score here on YouTube

Or you can just listen to the music on SoundCloud.

The Quince Quartet (who I believe no longer exist) did a wonderful job in bringing the music to life, though unfortunately I don’t have a live recording: the tracks above are digitally produced using NotePerformer, which provides a pretty decent impression.

String Quartet No. 2