Hugh Wood : String Quartet No. 3
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This work is one continuous movement. The fact that it is divided into twenty-four sections will not (I hope) be apparent to the listener. But the work was built in sections and some reverence to them provides the best way of describing its formal construction.
What happens in the first ten sections is this: a set of chorale variations is gradually invaded by ‘birdsong’ elements. The ‘chorale’ first appears as a vestigial harmonic progression in a low register, which is then expanded and decorated. The ‘birdsong’ characteristics are marked by a swoosh upwards of arpeggio, a dripping pizzicato figure and, in particular a chirping motif first heard on the first violin.
The following lines by Donne appear in the score during this part of work:
For I am very dead thing,
...and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; and it is the dayes
During the next eleven sections music begins to awaken. From rustlings sul ponticello melodic fragments emerge gather into a sustained melody for the viola. Its climax is quickly succeeded by brief urgent phrases, interrupted by a distant subito adagio, in turn interrupted by a vigorous version of the opening of the whole work.
This sequence of events then recurs in a varied way. This time the sustained melody is on the cello, and the vigorous concluding section contains both viola and cello melodies in counterpoint with each other.
The epigraphs to be found in the score during this section are from George Herbert:
How fresh; O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! Ev’n as the flowers in the spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recove’d greennesse?
So the climax of the work is reached, a lyrical one. As it ebbs, there is a foretaste of the final section, interrupted by a self-quotation from an early song - a setting of Laurie Lee’s poem, ‘April Rise’. A final citation from Herbert stands at the head of the final suction:
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain’
And relish versing...
Now the distant adagio theme is fully revealed and treated at length. With one further interruption of the ‘birdsong’ fragments it grows in energy towards the end.
This piece was started on 29 November 1976, worked on during April 1977, taken up again in December, and finished on 10 April 1978. It was first performed at the Bath Festival by the Lindsay Quarter on 31 May 1978. It is dedicated to Alexander Goehr.
© Hugh Wood
Even without background knowledge, the work seems to present a narrative... From the opening potent ghostly shavings of sound to the resolute strived-for conclusion, the ideas and gestures add up to a compelling whole.
Colin Anderson, www.classicalsource.com, 14/06/2012