String Quartet Op.32

Composed: 1997-1998
Duration: 21 minutes
Commissioned: By The Droitwich Concert Club in celebration of their 25th anniversary with additional funds from the West Midlands Arts Council.
First Performance: March 1998, given by the Duke Quartet at the Droitwich Concert Club

  1. Allegro con energia; meno mosso ed appassionato; piu vivo
  2. Allegretto scherzando
  3. Adagio e molto expressivo; Presto agitato

The medium of the string quartet has always held a supreme position in the output of many composers during the past 250 years. One thinks of Haydn in the 18th century, Beethoven in the 19th and Shostakovich, Bartok and Tippett in the 20th. A great many other composers have at some time attempted to write for this particular combination of instruments and it seems almost as if one has to write a String Quartet if one is to be perceived as a serious composer.

Ian Venables’ previous works – the Piano Quintet Op. 27 and the Song Cycle Invite, to Eternity for Tenor and String Quartet Op. 31 – provided him with ample reason to write for String Quartet alone. When the Droitwich Concert Club approached him with the idea of a commission for their 25th Anniversary Year, it was he who suggested writing for that medium. The project gained further momentum when the West Midlands Arts Council provided additional funds.

The work is cast in three movements. The first is, at times uncompromising and violent, but is contrasted by slower, more reflective ideas. A quasi scherzando melody drives the movement towards a recapitulation of the opening material but ends in sharp contrast as all four instruments wind down in both tempo and dynamics to a sustained and unresigned A flat.

The second movement provides a delightful contrast to the high ‘angst’ of the first. It is whimsical in mood and allows all four instruments to form a delightful dialogue with one another. Built around two melodic ideas, a trill-like accompaniment seems to dominate the whole movement as it twists and turns through various tonalities. This short movement ends as abruptly as it began with rushing semi and demi-semiquavers adding to the drama.

After the light-heartedness of the second movement we are unexpectedly returned to a more serious and poignant sound world. Opening with a desolate theme played by the solo ‘cello, this is one of three main melodic ideas which permeate the whole of this lengthy movement. The second theme is a quasi hymnal idea with increasing rhythmic movement and repeated notes dominating; the third is a fast-moving motif that creates tension by its use of contrasting time signature, an ambiguous harmonic language and rapid double notes. The central feature of this movement is a fugue, the subject of which relates closely to the opening ‘cello solo. This is one of the most dissonant passages in Ian Venables’ output to date but, as always, this seeming chaos finds resolution from a momentarily errant tonal centre. After a moving and passionate climax based entirely on the earlier repeated note idea, a recapitulation of the opening material and a truncated development leads to a flurry of double notes as the movement cascades to its final bars. Six chords end the work as violently as it began.

Ian Venables’ String Quartet is dedicated with permission to Sir Michael Tippett.

Music Sample: String Quartet Op. 32 (beginning)