Contemporary British composer William Alwyn [1905-1985] wrote thirteen string quartets. I have always been fascinated by the concept of bird migration so I have chosen String Quartet No. 10, titled En Voyage, and another named quartet, No. 12, Fantasia, to discuss.
Firstly En Voyage, which is in four named movements.
Departure – The work commences with a solo violin, which is soon joined by the ensemble. A cello introduces a constant rhythmic pattern and the first violin develops some strong melodies. There is definitely a feeling of leaving here as the first violin express over what is now an ensemble ostinato. The dynamics soar, only to subside again to a cello motif and the first violin, repeating a phrase which has been heard before and is the dominant musical fragment in the movement. Soon it goes solo, with occasional interjections; it is very precious. A sweeping cello line leads to a solo violin to conclude.
Seabirds – A repeated viola phrase underpins the opening, which is very aggressive. The violin dynamics are particularly strong. There is plenty of forward movement here, while the ensemble diminish in power, and exchange phrases between themselves. The music is still hectic, just not so loud. This chaotic episode gradually recedes and individual instruments dialogue in a sparse manner. The opening melody returns for a moment, then the dynamics and tempo increase, leading to a powerful end.
The Lonely Waters – A violin and viola ostinato set up a mood for the cello to make a considered melodic statement. It wanders freely with the music again sounding like its title. This feeling goes on for some time until a slightly dour, full section ensues. It doesn’t last however, and we are now in a most gentle mood with the solo cello expressing a simple, major key melody. The ensemble ostinato resumes, in a gentle manner, and the movement fades out.
Trade Winds – This short movement opens with forceful, bird-like sounds, and a positively dynamic cello. A pizzicato section follows, where both violin and cello express in a measured way. The tempo and intensity return, and each instrument flails away until a more mellow passage ensues. As in the third movement, there are various major key melodies here. Another hectic passage of dialogue leads to an ending on a cello note.
This is a charming piece of program music, evoking sounds and moods associated with bird migration.
Now on to Fantasia.
This relatively brief work commences with an extremely prominent violin, over a distant background. Soon another violin steps forward and we have a section where both violins engage in combative mode. A brief pause allows for a gathering of breath. The violins are quiet here, and there are some wonderful, melancholy harmonised passages. A repeated major melody occurs, and the ensemble drifts around it. A quivering violin leads to a more chaotic section; it eventually peters out.
Now a violin repeats a slightly dissonant phrase, and it is joined by the ensemble. This is a most abstract section which lasts for some time. It slowly subsides into a cello moment and the violins become progressively quieter. A solo viola background brings forth a flurry of animated violins. A strummed cello leads to an intense bowed solo cello passage. The ensemble now produces a gentle, almost modal mood; there is no harmony to be found here. Nearing the end, strings begin to quiver excitedly in the background and a violin motif builds in intensity, only to fade to a conclusion.
I discussed Alwyn’s Second String Quartet, Spring Waters, in May 2016 and found it to be a charming work and commented about ‘quietly mild atonality and dissonance’. These later quartets definitely show his development in these approaches.
The review CD, titled String Quartets 10-13, performed by the Tippett Quartet on Somm Recordings, is available on Amazon US and UK, and the disc is on Spotify. There are also many quartets on YouTube. As previously mentioned, earsense gives him a good coverage.
Listenability: Fine Contemporary British works.