The three string quartets in this album were all written within an eight-year period between 1993 and 2001. Though I had longed to write for this medium for a number of years, it was the offer of commissions by two ensembles — The Maggini Quartet (nos. 1 and 3) and Smith Quartet (no. 2) — that finally got my creative juices flowing and focused.


In the case of the first quartet I was propelled into an intense burst of creativity by a lecture on physics. The details of this lecture — who gave it, where it was given, and so on— are now lost to my memory, but what grabbed me was the realization that all matter — including our physical bodies — is made of the same stuff: star dust. So the first movement might be called ‘a fugue without a subject,’ as particles of this stardust swirl around each other, go their separate ways, collide, or merge. The second movement might be described as ‘stargazing from outer space,’ while the finale re-establishes gravity and earthbound energy.


The second quartet, though following quickly on the heels of the first, was forged in a rather different way and is altogether more concise and compact. Whereas with the first it had been the extra-musical that had governed the conception of the whole piece, with this second quartet it was what the listener will hear in the first two seconds that yielded all the raw material needed. This short motive is treated to all manner of variation – inversions, expansions, and so on – and is present in some form or another throughout the 15 minutes of the entire work. I have embedded some elements of traditional forms such as scherzo and slow movement into a freely flowing single span that might allow this quartet to be described as being in a compressed sonata form.


Whilst they were created in quite different ways, the first two quartets are more stylistically related than may seem obvious from my descriptions. The third quartet however, is a rather different animal – more reflective and inward looking. It has four movements, with the first movement mostly being centered around the note ‘D.’ The opening introduction appears above a D major chord which becomes a single D. D is the ‘source’ from which all the notes of the piece emerge. In this movement various material is presented and repeated but never fully developed. Strong elements of tonality are mixed with twelve-tone series here, and indeed throughout the entire piece.


In the Scherzo, twelve-tone series or fractions of series have their fullest use, especially in the middle section where each voice with its own series plays in counterpoint with the other voices.


In the slow movement the tonal ideas from Movement 1 start reappearing, and in the central psalm-like passage, the twelve tones of each voice are treated in their most consonant and melodic form. The climax of this movement harks back to the scherzo material from which we are brought again to the first movement. This third movement ends with C major under arpeggiated figures. The Maggini quartet described it as like the play of sunlight on water.


The final movement becomes the development of all that went before with reminiscences of other movements surfacing fleetingly. But though this movement has a wider perspective than its companions, the germ of the initial idea is still present: the D of the first movement containing the embryo of the bubbling underwater spring growing and transforming through rapids and pools on its way to the final broad expanse of the sea.


Although the original idea was a river’s journey, the actual form and metamorphosis of the musical content naturally took precedence and developed in its own way during the writing process.


I dedicate this album to the memory of my dear and much lamented friend David Angel (1954–2017), long time second violinist of the Maggini Quartet. I allow myself to look back with great pride and no little thanks on a couple of things he said in characteristic encouragement. After the Magginis had taken delivery of the first quartet I was, like many composers, in a state of some doubt about what I had managed, being faced with the cliff of greats in the canon; it really helped when he told me that despite a period of intense study of the quartet scores of Bartok, Ravel, and others I had come up with something that was quite different to all of them. And of the opening of the third quartet he was to write later about first rehearsing the piece: “And so, we began to read through the first movement. The three lower parts put down a second inversion D major chord pianissimo, out of which the first violin spun a warm and glowing melody. At once we felt that this could only be written by Eleanor Alberga.”  I quote below from my original programme note and David’s revealing view of the work as the quartet learned it. — Eleanor Alberga


A Review


“The Maggini quartet commissioned my first string quartet in 1993. That three-movement work was a personal depiction of looking outwards at the Universe and its mystery; the astonishing fact that all matter that exists is made of the same ‘stardust.’


In String Quartet No 3 there are references to the first, both in style and in its idea of a unit expanding and transforming into many things. But this is a more inward-looking and gravitational arena. The initial theme was one of a transformative journey, my image being a river from its source to its final destination.”


A view from its Commissioners, The Maggini Quartet:


“The hint that we had upon receipt of this work from the composer was that her starting point was the image of a river from its source to its final destination. Having heard and played many of her previous works, it was with interest that we noted that the composer used both tonality and twelve tone techniques equally in this one. (When she told me that the second movement would be a scherzo, the third a slow movement, and the finale fast, I teased her that she was writing us a conventional quartet!).


“And so, we began to read through the first movement. The three lower parts put down a second inversion D major chord pianissimo, out of which the first violin spun a warm and glowing melody. At once we felt that this could only be written by Eleanor Alberga. We read through the rest of the movement, which seemed to grow out of, and return to, the note D. We recognised references to the composer’s first quartet, which was also written for us. The music felt both richly harmonic and lyrical; indeed passages which at first appeared to be more angular, with unison rhythms in separate bows, the composer asked us to play smoothly and melodically. We came across passages which called for the rapid plucking or strumming of the note D, an unprecedented demand which proved very difficult. Working with the composer, various ways of strumming were tried, until first violinist Laurence Jackson hit upon a solution which met with unanimous approval. He dipped his two plucking fingers into some crushed rosin, which caused them to stick to the strings when he did a piano-like trill with them, creating a delicate yet vivid effect.


“The second movement, a scherzo which begins with short bursts or statements of varied lengths, was played through, probably at two thirds of the correct speed. Even at this slow pace, the music had a very strong immediate impact upon us. At first the metronome mark for the movement seemed extraordinarily fast. Many composers have said that speeds conceived in their heads turn out to be impractical on instruments and are very relaxed about slight tempo alterations. Many composers but not this one: Eleanor is a composer who is also a brilliant performer herself, with an uncanny feel for what can work, and she can be gently insistent about keeping to her marks. Initially we struggled with passages that pitted the two violins against the viola and cello in some extremely fast syncopations, and later ones, when each player goes their own way with great variety of rhythms and a profusion of very rapid semiquavers. However, the composer made us use a lighter touch, with more of a feeling of movement, even of rushing, the image being of rapids and rushing streams. Sure enough, once the notes and rhythms became familiar, the composer’s tempo made more and more sense and the movement emerged as one of the most brilliant scherzos that we have ever played.


“The third movement struck the quartet immediately as serene and lyrical. At its climax is a flashback, recalling elements from the scherzo, after which the movement is gradually taken over by rapid natural harmonics in triplet semiquavers. The composer insisted that even at the quietest dynamic these passages needed to be played firmly enough for clarity. The effect made us think of the play of light upon water.


“Eleanor told us that the finale developed all that preceded it, and as players we recognised material in different guises from the three previous movements. After an introduction of constantly changing texture and pulse, the pace quickens into an utterly infectious syncopated dance-like movement. With ever-changing bar lengths, and teasing cross rhythms that pit the violins against the viola and cello, the effect is a delight for players and audience alike, but took painstaking rehearsal to achieve. However, for me the most difficult and most remarkable feature of the movement is the long build up of constant semiquavers, largely in 4/4 time, yet with each player having different off-beat accents. Here our prior knowledge of the composer and her music proved invaluable. We were sure that the off-beat accents should be felt as syncopations off a basic crochet pulse, and the composer confirmed this. It took much work, both individually and as a quartet, but the final build up, the transition of the quick semiquavers into the melodic climax, pictured by the composer as the river finally flowing into the sea, remains one of the most thrilling that we have played.


“Eleanor’s third quartet is a work of immense richness and variety of feeling, colour, rhythm and atmosphere; after some four performances we feel we have just begun to scratch the surface.”


— David Angel, 2nd Violin, Maggini Quartet, September 2001



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