Nick Barnard, violinist and composer, reflects on Sir Malcolm Arnold’s
String Quartet 2
Just last weekend, the string quartet in which I play – the Salieri Quartet – had the great privilege and pleasure to play the closing concert of the 1st Padstow Arts Festival, devoted to the work of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir John Betjeman. Our programme closed with a performance of Arnold’s ‘String Quartet No.2 Op.118’.
The process of bringing this piece to performance has led me to reflect on the second quartet in particular, and the evolution of a performance in general. This is therefore, by definition, a very personal group of opinions. Before moving onto the specifics of the Arnold Quartet, I should put them into context. We placed the Arnold as the only piece in the second half of a programme, where before the interval we had played Haydn’s Op.76 No.4 “The Sunrise” and the first public performance of Matthew Taylor’s ‘String Quartet No.7’. Matthew is the Artistic Director of the Festival as well as being the husband of the 2nd violinist in the quartet. The composition of the programme seemed appropriate because Haydn is known to have been one of Arnold’s great musical heroes - and of course Matthew has done a great deal to promote the work of Malcolm Arnold, both during the composer’s lifetime and since his passing. We will be repeating this programme as part of the Blackheath Concert Halls Sunday Morning Series on January 31st 2010.
I should say straight off the bat that I consider Malcolm Arnold to be a genius in the truest sense of the word. His 2nd Quartet is not only one of this composer’s greatest and most personal works, but it is also one of the 20th Century’s finest string quartets. My perception of genius is an artist who has a unique perception of the world around them. A creative spirit who is able to not only stay faithful to the truth of their own vision, but also create works of Art that communicate that vision to a mass audience. In this way it stays personal to the creator but becomes personal for the viewer/listener/reader too.
When any new piece of music enters the public domain it is going to be subjected to a variety of analyses and critiques. These will range for “first night reviews” – rarely deeply considered but often defining as far as a piece’s reputation is concerned - through to academically learned dissections. For me as a performer coming to piece there has to be a third path, which hopefully finds a route more considered than the former and yet more humane than the latter. Great works of art are by definition a testament of their creator at that moment in their creative arc.
I always think of Vaughan-Williams’ comment on his 4th Symphony “I don’t know whether I like it – but it’s what I meant”. To my mind that is exactly our job as a performer, to read the runes and find out what is “meant”. To further expound that theory, Arnold in particular is a composer who critics have endlessly misunderstood. Those who criticise the sudden appearance of a “banal” tune are missing the point in assuming that its appearance is a kind of conjurer’s desperate trick; the pulling of a melodic rabbit from a hat because all else has failed. If at first we cannot explain its appearance, we have a responsibility as a listener/critic to dig deeper for an explanation. Arnold is simply too fine a composer to place even the simplest of details in a composition by chance. But conversely to over-analyse any work is to miss the point too. Famously Jaeger presented Elgar with a detailed analysis of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ showing all the thematic inter-relations that Elgar claimed(?) to be unaware of. Perhaps he was being somewhat disingenuous but the basic truth remains – the form serves the music, not the other way round, and the great composers intuitively produce formally satisfying work that is primarily created by their artistic compulsion.
For myself, I can only do a work justice if I can create a narrative that works for me here and now, and also feels true to the composer. The greatness of the Arnold Quartet springs not from any particular compositional device or musical trick. To my mind it is the terrifyingly bleak context in which it was written – a refiner’s fire from which this great artist was able to forge a piece which, along its troubled path, both illuminates and exorcises. The flaws (if you wish to term them such) are part of its triumphs. The genesis of the work is well known. By this time – the score is signed off by Arnold on August 12th 1975 – Arnold was based in Dublin and was at his lowest ebb having even attempted suicide. The effortless fluency and melodic profligacy of the earlier works has been replaced by a terse almost austere style of utterance that was to find its ultimate expression in the 9th Symphony – a work that without ashadow of doubt has yet to achieve the recognition it deserves. This is not an “easy” work to perform, so over an extended rehearsal period various ideas coalesce.
I am no amateur psychologist so I apologise for the presumption of making the following observations. The quartet strikes me as being a study in alliances and oppositions. In his earlier works Arnold writes with a melodic fecundity unmatched by 20th Century British composers. Here the opposite is true – the players ally themselves in groups of 2 against 2 or sometimes 1 against three and hurl motivic material at each other. The very opening matches the first violin and cello against the other players yet by the 25th bar the alliances have switched. The first movement especially seems to obsess with the concept of warring pairs. Even within an alliance harmonically there is conflict with chords grating against each other with semitones or minor ninths. This is one of the most driven (and driving) pieces of sustained agonised writing I know. There is not a single amendment to the basic tempo marking through the entire movement until the mystifying thirteen bar balmy coda. But even here there are mysteries to explain; the 2nd violin is excluded from the final two bars. Its absence is not musically significant – the other instruments play a unison D (notice it isn’t harmony instead it is a grudging unison – the lower pair finally resolving onto the D for the final 6 beats) but it is odd, which suggests to me an extra-musical significance. The feeling of omission or being left out springs to mind.
Of course the opposite of being left out is to be the only part playing. An extraordinary feature of this work is the number of passages where a player is playing alone. I don’t think for a moment that this is a conscious “I will now write a solo” choice by the composer, but is it really too much of a leap of the imagination to think that this might reflect a state of mind where exclusion and isolation are pre-eminent? The most extended - and I think hardest to rationalise musically for myself - is the passage that opens the second movement following on from the uneasy truce at the end of the first. As is well known, Arnold was often inspired by his musical colleagues to write pieces for them and often one senses he encapsulates elements of their character in the music. This quartet is dedicated to Hugh Maguire who led the Allegri Quartet for the first performance and it could be argued that this section and the Irish Jig that follows (apparently playing such jigs was very much a Maguire party-piece) is no more than such a tribute. Indeed I am sure that that is in part an explanation, but again I cannot help thinking that Arnold goes deeper than that alone.
The solo is well written for the violin – the chords lie comfortably as do the skirling flourishes. It is the obsessively repeating glissandi (marked slow gliss – sempre simile) that is the centre of the mystery. On one level you can see them as an encapsulation of moving from dissonance – the tritone of the B flat/E natural clash – to another unison on E (although never an absolute unison as it combines an open string with the stopped equivalent the string below). But it is the repetition of this idea that is the most baffling. Seven times you play the same figure before repeating a further eight on a lower string. The sole direction is a gradual diminuendo across the repetitions. In a situation like that I feel that the performer has to trust the composer and play literally what is on the page – hopefully the audience and time will decide whether or not the musical gesture works. After a pause – it is always tempting to dive in but usually best not to – the 1st violin, still alone, starts the afore mentioned Irish jig. This is exactly the kind of passage that gets Arnold’s detractors most gleefully sharpening their knives of derision. Arnold has this knack of writing an original melody that you are sure you have known all your life. And following the admonition “..all you can do with a folksong is repeat it and play it louder..” that is exactly what his does. If it wasn’t in a string quartet you know he would have scored it for a piccolo since it fulfils the same function as the Irish pipe melody in the 8th Symphony. This is resolutely in G major but after 16 bars of stoic silence the other instruments crash in – another tritone away in C sharp minor (the key in turn about as remote from the tonal centre of D that frames the whole work).
There is something so bloody-minded about this opposition - three against one and the intervallic difference that its presence strikes me as being more than purely musical it must be symbolic. Throughout the rest of this movement alliances and pairings are formed and severed much as they were in the 1st movement but the over-riding imbalance of 3 to 1 is the predominate combination. From rehearsal letter M to the end the lower three instruments insistence on C sharp minor increases – effectively 21 bars of hammering away at that key against which the 1st violin plays a stark G major based melody in octaves. But right at the end when the other three instruments have given up the leader hurls down a defiant 3 chords of G major. It is almost theatrical in the sense it is clearly saying, “no matter what you do I am still here doing what I want to do”.
The slow movement that follows is the emotional heart of the quartet. It paints as bleak a landscape as any in British 20th Century music and is the equal of the great quartets of Shostakovich and Bartok. It is also, I think, the hardest to “bring off” in performance. The problem here lies with what Arnold has not written. Extended passages of this movement have almost no directions for the performer at all. A dynamic can seem to relate to 16 bars with not a single other indication of any kind. The temptation is therefore to apply “good performance practice” to these passages and to view the absence of any instructions at best as a mistake and at worse as some kind of indication of failing powers. In both instances I think this is potentially fatal. As so often – with many composers – I believe that we as performers should trust the composer. Perhaps, just perhaps, if nothing is indicated we should add nothing. This is not always an easy thing to do because we are all trained to be “musical” – adding dynamics and phrasing in the best possible taste. But instead it can be very exciting to risk doing nothing. This was our approach to the quartet as a whole and this movement in particular.
The bi-tonality of the 3rd movement’s opening evokes for me an uneasy alliance between 2 groups (here the viola and cello) who on some level have agreed to co-operate but at the same time each tries to assert their ascendancy over the other. Both melodically and harmonically the parts seem to imply conflict in alliance – they play together grudgingly. This deliberate mis-matching makes it very hard to bring-off in performance – at some point you worry that your audience will assume you are just playing out of tune! When, after 13 bars, a moment of consonance is achieved – a glimpse of the D major which will end the work – even there instability is implied with the viola playing lower than the cello and the root of the chord – D – missing. During the passage that follows, as the other players join there is another of those fascinating dilemmas whether to “trust” the composer or not. Arnold writes many long slurs over adjoining notes and often several bars. As a player it is often tempting to split these phrase markings. That way one can maintain a richer sonority and tonal warmth. But what if part of the effect Arnold is after is the very stretching and thinning of the tone precisely because one is obeying the phrase marks? I characterise these as the musical “theatre of failure” – almost as if part of the unwritten drama of the piece is the players struggle to sustain the tone beyond a reasonable point. It brings up an interesting debating point.
The expectation these days is for technical perfection whether on CD or in the concert hall. I would argue that many pieces do not wholly benefit from an overly cultured or moulded approach. There is something so much more exciting and engaging about watching a tightrope walker who might indeed fall rather than someone who certainly won’t. Also, if you are trying to evoke some of the bleak despair of that time in Arnold’s life surely total control and precision are not the illustrative tools best suited to the task. For sure this is a tricky path to tread but I think we have become so obsessed with technical glamour that all too often artistic truths can be lost along the way. Of course I have no idea whether Arnold consciously pursued any of these ideas here but I find them helpful as a “hook” on which to hang one’s performance.
At the centre of this movement is a passage quite unlike anything else I know in all or Arnold’s output. At rehearsal letter F, after all the conflict and abrasive writing that precedes it we are presented with a 16 bar Chorale. Suddenly all four players are playing as one with widely spaced rich consonant chords. There are three markings; pp (very quiet), sul tasto (to be played over the fingerboard giving a wispy ethereal tone) and semplice (simply). In a heart-breakingly poignant way the phrase slips down and down over the course of the sixteen bars. Harmonically it moves from A flat major down to E major and is harmonised with almost textbook rigour. Again, it is very tempting to add phrasing, perhaps a crescendo here, an echoed phrase there but I feel very strongly that we must trust the composer and do no more or less than he says. The thinned out tone and the descending phrase creates a tragic sense of collapse. This is in many senses the lowest point in the quartet to continue forward on that path would lead to oblivion. But instead of the movement ending there immediately we are pulled back from the edge by a now ascending phrase at a 1 beat canon (the conflict is renewed) marked f (loud) and naturale (cancelling the sul tasto marking). After an extended passage where the violins ally themselves once more against the lower strings the Chorale sequence is thundered out – same chords, same voicings – but now a sustained ff (very loud) but again with no further markings. To my mind this now has vehemence and a sense of refusal to accept a fate that seemed inevitable only some 32 bars earlier. This outburst exhausts the energy of the movement and the music collapses back to the intertwining duet of viola and cello from the opening, the cello finally left completely alone on a middle C. Part of Arnold’s true genius here is to produce music that looks frankly unimpressive on the page but that in performance is fiercely powerful and uniquely his own.
The Finale is initially disconcerting in its normalness – the opening is a model of decorum and good quartet writing – a relaxed step-wise melody in the 1st violin, harmonic accompaniment from the two inner parts and a rhythmic bass line. But this easy-going bonhomie cannot last for long. As the material starts to develop the cracks appear, the accompanying rocking figures now include a dissonant major 7th and there is a sense that each instrument is trying to assert a musical ascendancy over the others. By letter G what was appealingly stepwise melodically has become queasily chromatic. There is a sense of hanging fire, a gathering storm perhaps. The lower two strings give up and leave the violins playing a kind of disconsolate musical tag before they in turn lapse into silence. Then in the last of the quartet’s extended solo passages the viola tries to re-establish the carefree mood of the opening but again dramatically (rather than musically) I find the absence of the other players telling. To my mind it is almost as if they don’t wish to collaborate with this attempt at geniality and so boycott it. There is an attempt at a straight recapitulation, which barely lasts 12 bars before it is hijacked by a furious Vivace. Battle lines are immediately drawn – again the upper half of the quartet pitched in unison against the lower.
There then follows a passage, which aurally is the most striking in the quartet. The top three players chase each other in wild sliding harmonics as the cellist grinds away at a motif based on the Vivace’s opening material. This is the ultimate alliance in opposition. Nominally the three instruments are in opposition to the cello. However within this they in turn oppose each other. Technically the effect is simplicity itself. Each player has a two-quaver figure that plays across fractionally different parts of the beat to the other two. Again on paper it looks basic if mildly interesting. To the ear it has an extraordinary manic energy. From there on the movement builds with ever more frantic desperation. Arnold throws in every trick of canons at one beat’s separation, scalic passages with instruments playing in adjacent 2nds (this is really hard to bring off – one’s every instinct is to tune to one’s colleague!) After a repetition of the wild glissandi there is what one might formally call a recapitulation (rehearsal letter N) but by now there is an impending sense of disaster, the accumulating energy and fraught power seems to offer no controlled ending. Which makes Arnold’s solution as audacious and unexpected today as it must have been at the first performance. A plunging scale brings us to a hymn-like Lento resolutely in the D major we have been seeking for the previous twenty-five minutes.
Am I alone in hearing a Sibelian echo here in the syncopating inner parts over the tonic/dominant bass line and the simple (step-wise again) hymn in the first violin? I’m thinking of the very end of Sibelius Symphony No.2 (also in D major, also written in 3 beats per bar) where with just eighteen bars to go he introduces a new step-wise melody. For all the similarities the effect is quite different. Arnold’s solution has little of the confident triumph of the Sibelius but I do not think that is his intention. Despite the simplicity of the writing here (compared to what has gone immediately before) there is an underlying strain. Again Arnold marks phrase lengths that makes it all but impossible to sustain a warm tone – sustains a ff dynamic at this tempo for anything more than three beats is a considerable technical feat!
Finally the music fades away before a very traditional cadential sequence of D min7 +9 to E min7 to three repeated D major chords. D major is one of the warmest keys for strings – between the neutrality of C and the brightness of E it allows each instrument to have two “open” strings to resonate sympathetically. But somehow the result here feels like no victory and certainly no triumph. At best I can characterise it as having a sense of “I’m still here, bloodied but unbowed”.
At a couple of minutes short of half an hour this is a fairly standard length for a quartet. Both of the other quartets in our programme time at a couple of minutes less. But the playing experience of the Arnold is far more exhausting. It is a physically demanding work, but it is the sustained intensity of the work that takes its toll on the players. As I said to the Padstow audience, this is not an easy or comfortable listen but as a testament to a great artist and his pulling back from the abyss I find it to be both compelling and intensely moving.
Nick Barnard, October 2009
For further information on the Salieri Quartet http://www.allstrings.co.uk/
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