MICHAEL TIPPETT – The Third String Quartet

British Contemporary composer Sir Michael Kemp Tippett [1905–1998] wrote five string quartets. I have selected String Quartet No. 3 for discussion as it contains two very expressive slow movements. It was written during 1945-46.

The work opens with an extended chord which leads into a short violin statement, followed by a pause, leading to a restatement of the opening chord and violin melody. The music now becomes energised for a time, before gradually becoming more measured. Again there is a pause and the next music heard is the sound of two busy violins in a duet, until the cello and viola move in behind them. The violins begin to make assertive statements and the intensity drops, at least in volume. Another long section of two violins ensues, before the return of the cello and viola. The assertive violins dissipate for a moment, further reducing in volume and intensity. A violin duet carries the movement to the end, which is a sustained chord.

The next movement is an andante and the music commences as a lone cello played pizzicato, jazz style. A violin begins with a lamenting melody as the cello is strummed, somewhat lute-like. A short section of two violins expressing lyrically, is most alluring – the combination of the two violins has a quiet spiritual effect. The cello returns, bowed this time, before reverting back to first pizzicato, and then the strummed sound. Heavenly violins reach out to create a stunning soundscape, with the cello providing occasional support. I could listen to this movement on repeat, it is so satisfying. Nearing the end, the cello becomes more conspicuous, moving from long tones to pizzicato and further strumming, with all instruments concluding on a faded chord.

The third movement is the shortest in the work, and the most rhythmically propulsive. Skipping violins criss-cross at tempo as the cello bounces behind them. The violins are most excited as they carry the music forward. A short, harmonised interlude for cello and a violin is very effective, even dropping in intensity for a moment before the violins return with a race to a final flourish.

The fourth movement, marked lento, is the emotional heart of the work. An almost inaudible, shrill violin is the first sound heard. First the second violin, then the cello join the music and the dynamics rise very rapidly. A pause brings a powerful solo cello section, which is quite long and is occasionally interrupted by the two violins. Now the opening feeling returns, the shrill violin set against the long, resonant tones of the cello. The violins returns to the lower register and rapidly, we have a return to the previous dynamic passage with the cello repeating its earlier statements. A pause brings about a new mood as the cello drones, and a violin expresses long notes – this is music of great depth. A gradual return to the dynamics results in a chaotic passage which closes the movement.

Without a pause the finale commences with a mysterious feeling, again slightly chaotic. This soon abates but the violins are still a little hectic and the cello adds to the feeling in intermittent bursts of energy. The violins are insistent and make for a fascinating section exploring a mild atonal mood which eventually concludes the work on a strong, held chord. The CD liner notes describe this movement as a ‘gentle, relaxed fugue’. I didn’t find it relaxed and I doubt whether the audience at its 1946 premiere would have either.

What a pleasure it was coming across a quartet with two slow movements – I find the piece to be beautifully balanced in its construction.

My review CD, fairly old, is titled The String Quartets, performed by the Britten Quartet and contains Nos. 1-4. This version can still be found on Amazon UK. The composer subsequently wrote a Fifth Quartet and there is a version by the Heath Quartet which contains all five works in a 2-CD live set. This too, is available on Amazon US and UK. There are also two single Naxos discs featuring various quartets.

The Heath Quartet is on Spotify and there are several quartets on YouTube. The Britten Quartet is one of two versions on earsense.

Listenability: Mid twentieth-century modernism. Very listenable with some stunning moments.


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