Livestreamed concert live from the JdP Music Building
Performing live at the JdP Music Building, the Villiers Quartet give the world premieres by Florence Anna Maunders and Philip Herbert from their From Home Commissions. They also play the only string quartet written by suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth, and Alan Bush’s dramatic Dialectic for String Quartet.
The piece was intended from the start to be written as a response to lockdown, staying at home during the pandemic. The music on one level deals with that sense of being stuck in one place through restless ostinatos, looping repetitions and obsessing over single pitches. A lot of the writing deals with very close polyphony and close harmony within and around the pitches of the quartet's open strings, so the harmonic tension maintains the same level of "tightness" through dissonance in most of the piece. On another level, this piece contains references to the musical "obsessions" which carried me through lockdown - I wrote about 40 pieces through 2020! - and you can pick out passages which reveal my interest in Arabic maqams, Persian dance rhythms, the forceful rhythmic pulsations of dubstep and drum 'n' bass music and a kind of "musical breathing" in which phrases "inhale" and "exhale".
-Florence Anna Maunders
Ethel Smyth – Quartet in E minor (1912)
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, (1858 – 1944) was an English composer and a member of the women’s suffrage movement. Her compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral works, choral works and operas. She was the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, and she was greatly admired by contemporaries such as Mahler and Tchiakovsky.
In her Quartet in E minor, the opening Allegro lirico is a movement of great freshness and thought, with dense part-writing and rhythmical language. The second movement, Allegro molto leggiero is mischievous in quality. The slow movement, Andante, has a nobility of emotion. The finale, Allegro energico, begins with a fugue. The rhythmically unusual main subject is quite striking.
The backdrop to this piece, is the narrative of how elderly, vulnerable and disabled people were treated across the timescales of the pandemic, when facing critical illness. There were times when relatives were contacted and asked to sign DNR orders, by a doctor, on behalf of an incapacitated patient. This has sparked the process of an Inquiry to protect the rights of vulnerable people which had been violated. The attitude to do away with some patient’s lives if they were of a certain age seemed to be prevalent, rather than trying to treat their condition, during the pandemic.
This piece strives to capture in a microcosm, the journey of a patient who straddles delirium, Parkinson’s, and loss of mobility: whilst relatives experience anxiety, concern, uneasiness, watchful concern and solicitude.
Alan Bush – Dialectic (1929)
Alan Bush (1900-1995) was a British composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and political activist. He was a committed communist, and his uncompromising political beliefs were often reflected in his music - his string quartet ‘Dialectic’ is no exception.
Bush wrote several large-scale works in the 1930s, and was heavily involved with workers' choirs for whom he composed pageants, choruses and songs. His pro-Soviet stance led to a temporary ban on his music by the BBC in the early years of the Second World War, and his refusal to modify his position in the Cold War era led to a more prolonged semi-ostracism of his music. As a result, the four major operas he wrote between 1950 and 1970 were all premiered in East Germany.
Alan Bush has said that his work ‘Dialectic’ owes its title to its musical construction. The opening bars provide the source from which the whole of the rest of the movement is derived. Five main themes are stated developed and recapitulated in combination with one another, and finally their contradictions are resolved in a mood of optimism.
Named after Villiers Street in London, the Villiers Quartet encompasses the grand and iconic spirit of the extraordinary music tradition in Britain and has been praised for “exquisite ensemble playing” (Seen & Heard International), and their absolute “commitment and virtuosity” (The Sunday Times). The Villiers Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at the Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University.
Hailed as “Champions of British Music” (The Observer), the Villiers Quartet has become one of the most recognised quartets in the UK for the performance of British music, releasing acclaimed recordings of works by Elgar, Delius, Peter Racine Fricker, William Sterndale Bennett, David Matthews, William Alwyn and Kuljit Bhamra, MBE. In 2020 they gave the world premiere of the complete 1888 Delius string quartet, featuring movements in their original versions uncovered by Professor Daniel Grimley from Oxford University.
In 2020 the Villiers Quartet initiated new digitally-based projects including VQ Discovery: Beethoven Discovery, an online course to study Beethoven’s quartets in-depth whilst in lockdown; #VQCreate, mentoring secondary school students online to compose new music for string quartet; and From Home: VQ Commissions, commissioning new works from diverse British composers to celebrate the VQ’s 10th Anniversary season for 2021. These works will be premiered at the Oxford Symposium led by Dr. Joanna Bullivant and Prof. Samantha Dieckmann, “Diversity and the British String Quartet”.
The Villiers Quartet has been broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Leamington International Quartet Series, and on NPO Radio 4 live from the Concertgebouw. The VQ has been featured on BBC’s In Tune and also BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show with pianist Alexis Ffrench and double bassist Leon Bosch. The VQ was the featured quartet on the score to the BBC film Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The VQ presented masterclasses in the UK and abroad at Oxford University, Duke University, Dartmouth College, University of Nottingham, Syracuse University, Cal State LA, Jacksonville University, and Indiana University South Bend. ambassadors for British chamber music, the VQ has given premieres and performances of music by British composers including Anthony Payne, Alexander Goehr, Martyn Harry, David Matthews, and Elizabeth Kelly
The broad curiosity of the Villiers Quartet and its passion for teaching and performing have made the VQ a valuable resource for students and audiences alike. Inspiration comes from the heart of the Villiers Quartet’s philosophy: to believe in the art of string quartet.
This project has been generously supported by the Oxford Humanities Cultural Programme, Arts Council England, the RVW Trust, The David Willets Fund for Teaching Innovation, and supporters of the Villiers Quartet’s From Home Commissions Fund.