CHRISTOPHER WRIGHT – Early Works – SQs Nos. 1 & 2

British composer Christopher Wright [born 1954] has written at least four string quartets. In this post, I shall be discussing Nos. 1 and 2.

The first quartet opens very quietly; 40 seconds elapse before you hear any real music. A sombre mood ensues until some dissonant interjections appear; this is heady stuff. A brief pause leads back into the introduction with a harmonised violin melody. Now more ensemble interjections occur. There seems to a pause between each mini-section, as consonant violin melodies become slightly dissonant. Further interjections are followed by a mournful cello melody, before a dancing violin leads into a chaotic moment; this then morphs into a solo cello section. The chaos returns for an extended period until a quiet passage takes over; it’s very peaceful, featuring violin harmonics. Out of this develops some further atonal melodies, followed by another pause. The ending is again a little chaotic, finishing on several abrupt chords.

The second movement is marked adagio and features a haunting solo violin. This is joined by a second violin and brings about a very special moment. The cello enters and the music slowly edges forward. A hint of atonality and a slight rise in intensity enhances this prolonged atmosphere. A pause renews the peaceful mood; the violins are very sparse. The sound is very soft now as a subtle pizzicato interlude leads the movement to completion. This is a fine movement, very delicate.

The final movement goes straight into chaos but soon diminishes in intensity. There are strong, dissonant violin lines here, sometimes with a heavy rhythmic emphasis. Another pause creates a new mood which is a light dancing section. Gradually the dissonance and the intensity rise for another extended period, until a chaotic ending takes place. Quite a noisy movement really.

The second quartet has an opening with tempo, which makes for a change. It doesn’t last for long as a solo violin reaches out over the ensemble with a finely crafted melody, while strings hold a sustained chord in the background. The violin hints at atonality and a burst of energy leads to a chaotic first violin, together with atonal ensemble interjections. As we move towards the end, pizzicato prevails; this lowers the intensity briefly. A slightly aggressive passage concludes this movement.

A slowly walking cello commences the second movement. What a fabulous feeling! Gentle violin notes abound, with some string sound effects in the background; very appealing in an abstract way. There is a harmonic shift to a new key and the cello walking ceases. We are led into an increase in dynamics and a prominent violin melody; strings quiver underneath. Now we have a quiet passage for a time, but all the while there is tension in the air. The mood finally breaks and the violin and cello converse with much vigour. A new section brings pauses and violins adding short, discrete statements that cry out. String sound effects dominate as the end comes with shimmering violins, gently fading.

A strong violin statement introduces the finale. Slight chaos follows as the violins play with much conviction; there are also solo violin passages. When the ensemble enters, there is a lot of musical movement going on, driven by a strong rhythmic impetus. A pause leads to a new mood, with the violins intertwining, swapping and overlapping phrases. Another pause brings a taut section, with much tension in the violins. The ensemble returns with snippets from the opening and an interestingly harmonised violin line completes the work.

I would categorise this music as measured Modern. It has plenty of moments of peace, together with some elements of an avant-garde style. These include great contrast in dynamics, use of silence, atonal melodies, rhythmic complexity, aggressive passages and some just plain noisy sections. I still found it interesting, and somewhat different to what I am accustomed to hearing. I expect I make it sound more radical than it really is. Strangely, quartets Nos. 3 and 4 are more conservative. I intend to discuss these at a later date.

These works can be found on a CD titled Wright: Four String Quartets, on the Nimbus label by the Fejes Quartet. The disc is freely available on Amazon US and UK.

It is on Spotify – look for the CD with a picture of four coloured sheds on the beach. The whole disc is on earsense and several quartets are also on YouTube.

Listenability: Some of the most confronting works I have reviewed. However I still look forward to discussing Nos. 3 and 4.


2 thoughts on “CHRISTOPHER WRIGHT – Early Works – SQs Nos. 1 & 2”

  1. Nice to hear from you Steve. I’m glad someone’s happy!
    Check out the historical download of Bartok 6th I mentioned, you won’t be disappointed.

  2. This is yet another great composer I’d never heard of before! Your explorations into the string quartet medium have exposed me to a lot of fantastic music. I agree that Wright’s music has a lot of tension, and he’s not afraid to use strange effects to complement conventional ensemble music. The cello writing in the Adagio of the first quartet is exquisite.

    My apologies for not having been around lately, my wife and I just got back from a trip to Budapest. I noticed you had posted the Bartok 6th quartet, definitely the most somber of his quartets and one I hadn’t listened to attentively until now.

    Keep up the good work!

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