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Programme Notes: String Quartets




String Quartet 1 Opus 24

Very much an experimental attempt, which later found resonance in Brazil, including performances. There are five moments. The 1st evolves over a pedal point, but remains on one level quite static. The 2nd is similar, but over an ostinato and with refreshing interruptions. The third a dissonant somewhat threnodic march with lyrical interludes. The 4th is a tonally ambiguous lyrical movement and the 5th develops variations over a ground bass.

Leudelange, Luxembourg and London, 1988

For the Lang Quartet, Heidelberg

String Quartet 2 ‘For Spring and New Life’ Opus 35

The 1st movement offers a slow renewal, ever stronger. A fleeting 2nd movement and the 3rd, equally fleeting, features chorale-like phrases over a running bass, with pauses and questions. A second section, ostinato pizzicato, supports strident but still lyrical phrases before the return of the first section. The 4th movements begin with more lyricism over pedal points with interruptions from irregular pizzicato passages. References to and adaptations of the opening of the 1st movement lead to a quiet ending.

Leudelange, Luxembourg, 1989

For Spring and New Life

String Quartet 3 ‘Fachwen’ Opus 107

The Fachwen Quartet was composed at Swn y Llyn, my home in Wales, during the turbulent and unpredictable summer of 1997. The work is dedicated to my daughters, Kate and Amelia, who offered love, light, hope and sanity during these tormented and difficult weeks.

There are four movements. The 1st is a gentle lament – and the most ‘relaxed’ – whereas the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements represent attempts to retain control which are at times obsessive (2), questioning (2) and operatic, dramatic, violent and dissonant (4)

Woven into these textures are fleeting evocations of another source of inspiration – the roots and continuity of community characteristic of Wales and of Gwynedd in particular and here represented by a mix of half-hymn and almost-folksong which, after some attempts, concludes the work.

Recorded by the Jan Becher String Quartet at State Opera House, Prague, in July 1998

Fachwen, Wales, 1997

For Kate and Amelia Bullock

String Quartet 4 ‘Faust’ Opus 114

The Faust Quartet was composed in Luxembourg just before Christmas, 1997. The brief quotations from Goethe’s Faust were added to the respective movements when the process of composition was already complete, and so the listener is free to read as much or as little of these references into the music as he or she chooses.

What remains fixed is the character of each movement. The 1st strives lyrically (Faust: … that I may experience the innermost connections of the world … ), the 2nd is a clear schizophrenic blend of sereno and sardonico (Mephistopheles: … I am the spirit who constantly negates … ), the 3rd contrasts the bucolic (Auerbach’s Keller: … will nobody laugh, nobody drink?) with a meditative, sweet and highly disturbed trio (Gretgen: … but! – everything that drove me to it, God, it was so good, so lovely!) and finally the 4th movement is a restless and disintegrating act of will, the Promethean opening being only perhaps and partly re-established in the closing bars (Faust: … you must! You must! And if it costs my life … ).

Recorded by the Jan Becher String Quartet at State Opera House, Prague, in July 1998

Buschdorf, Luxembourg, 1997

For David Charlston

String Quartet 5 ‘Prague’ Opus 115

A wistful 1st movement with an impassioned middle section, the first part being repeated with varied textures. The 2nd movement is sombre, with serious chordal passages which attempt to move towards the light. Emotional and hopeful music, despite the uncompromising ending. This is followed by a light, ambiguous scherzo with some echos of Dvorak and includes a fragmented Trio with short, sharp, stabbing phrases. After an almost light and whimsical opening the 4th movement remains restless, unsettled, and evokes the previous movements.

Buschdorf, Luxembourg, 1998

Dedicated to the Jan Becher String Quartet, Prague

String Quartet 6  Opus 129

Sad music, an extended theme, a more animated middle section with passionate interruptions and attempts at consolation provided by short chordal passages. The consolatory idea continues in the 2nd movement, provided by three chord ascending sequences alternating with ethereal high passages. The finale remains sad with a central animated section and a texture of lyrical ricochets. The whole work represents a necessary but provisional farewell.

Fachwen, Wales, 2000

For my Mother …

String Quartet 7 ‘Winds of Change’ Opus 151

1: 'Winds of Change’ urgent music with a flavour or two of Zelenka’s Requiem towards the end. ‘Ar Lan y Môr’, movement 2, is based upon the Welsh folksong ‘Ar Lan y Môr’ and the 3rd ‘Portraits and Dreams’ develops further the evocative motif from Zelenka in a passionate movement which also summarises and reworks material form the preceding movements.

Written in the Czech Republic, Aberffraw and Fachwen, Wales, July 2003

String Quartet 8 ‘American’ Opus 152 

The first movement ‘Monument Valley’ takes a Navajo melody as its baseline and proceeds to a cinematic expansion with some hints of Dvorak (it is the ‘New World’!). Indeed the 2nd movement is entitled ‘From the New World’ and speaks for itself. The last movement, Diamond Belle Saloon is a perpetuum mobile version of saloon music / hoe down and much else besides.

Written in Monument Valley, USA, Aberffraw and Fachwen Wales, Summer 2003

String Quartet 9 ‘Denisa’ Opus 159 

Written for Denisa Krotilova, a friend who died too soon …. Three movements: ‘Vortex’, ’Dream’ and ‘Memory’.

Fachwen, Wales, Summer 2005

String Quartet 10 ‘Emynau’ (Hymns) Opus 173 

Fragments of Welsh hymn tunes are combined and recombined: ‘Rheidol’ and ‘In Memoriam’ in the 1st movement, ‘Gwahoddiad’ in the 2nd and ‘In Memoriam’ again in the 3rd.

Fachwen, Wales, Summer 2008

Dedicated to Carys and Arwel Jones, Cae Eboni

String Quartet 11  Opus 196


Having relocated, physically at least, from Eryri to the Austrian Alps, this Quartet was written in Hinterthal, Austria in the summer of 2011, an attempt at integration, reconciling a long 'Welsh' melody (written for my 3rd Quartet 'Fachwen') with various elements of what I love to hear in Austria: gentle Tanzlmusi, Alphorns, schnalzen, an Einmarsch, my 'Seepferdchenpolka' melody, the bells of Hinterthal heard from the Torscharte early one Sunday morning ……

Hinterthal, Austria, Summer 2011

Cysoniad â Sŵn y Llyn

String Quartet 12 ‘Winterlicht - Winter Light’ Opus 207

A winter journey towards Light, in three movements.

Canach, Luxembourg, November 2012

String Quartet 13 ‘Die Reise - The Journey’ Opus 210

1   Unerwartete Abfahrt - Unexpected Departure

2   Langsames Zurückkehren - Slow Return

… with many hidden and less hidden references to Mozart's 'Magic Flute’

Hinterthal, Austria, April 2013

Dedicated to Ulf Schindel

String Quartet 14 ‘Schatten - Shadows’ Opus 214

Four movements. Past lives, people, places, past music ... Shadows.

Canach, Luxembourg, June 2013

String Quartet 15 ‘Fragmented Winter, Slow Return’ Opus 226

Two movements: Fragmented Winter; Slow Return. The 1st, almost nightmares, the 2nd almost a developing hymn.

Canach, Luxembourg, March 2014

For Dieter Schlagkamp, Kate and Amelia Bullock

String Quartet 16 Opus 229

A very happy first movement! Essentially monothematic with some very occasional bitonal flavours. The 2nd is a restless scherzo with spikes, the trio being more relaxed. Finally a more idyllic, pastoral movement.

Canach, Luxembourg, 2014

String Quartet 17 ‘Triefen’ Opus 248

1: Etwas zum Nachdenken - Something to be considered

2: Auf der Brücke - On the Bridge

3: Triefen

A three movement contemplative journey ending at Triefen or Triafn - a geological phenomenon of great natural beauty where water cannot permeate beyond harder rock layers and is forced out in a dripping veil or curtain in Hinterthal, Austria. External and internal worlds contrast and combine ….

Hinterthal, Austria, May 2015

Dedicated to my daughter, Kate Emily Bullock

String Quartet 18  Opus 252

Haunting, restless,  dissonant and mysterious music, then a pizzicato scherzo 2nd movement in which eventual lyrical bitonal passages become more aggressive before combining with the opening pizzicato passage with which the movement ends. Finally, a courtly minuet-like opening dissolves into contradictory dissonance before reverting to my version of the 18th century shortly before the end.

Canach, Luxembourg, October 2015

String Quartet 19 ‘Changing Times’ Opus 259

The title and the music reflect the general uncertainty coming into all of our lives at this time. The 1st movement is uneasy and anxious, the 2nd sustained, hymn-like and anguished, the 3rd fleeting and substantial until a relatively consoling major key passage over a walking pizzicato bass before the bad news returns. The finale begins with a harsh outburst, followed by confusion and then almost happier memories over pedal points and a return to the extreme dissonance of the opening.

Senheim, Germany, January 2017

String Quartet 20 ‘Uncertain Times’ Opus 260

This continues the theme of Quartet 19 'Changing Times'. Now the Times become uncertain …… the 1st movement consists of a series of slow-moving ‘unanswered questions.’ The 2nd an uneasy waltz over a repeating three-note bass: the 3rd an ostinato nightmare which offers no compromise.

Senheim, Germany, January 2017

String Quartet 21 ‘Constantine’ Opus 264

A solo violin begins, slowly the rather tortured melodic line is supported by changing textures. The 2nd movement has the scherzo function, but is essentially a variation derived from the 1st movement. The ‘finale’ is ethereal, fragile and delicate.

Senheim, Germany, September 2017

String Quartet 22 ‘Pompeii’ Opus 275

Written after my visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum, early summer 2018. The three movements are:

1. Via dell' Abbondanza: Life Interrupted
2. Porta Vesuvio: Destruction
3. Tempio d'Iside: Frozen Ash

Senheim, Germany, Summer 2018

String Quartet 23 ‘Abschied - Farewell’ Opus 285

Two movements. The 1st alternates between grim energy and a kind of frozen ecstasy. The 2nd begins calmly and ends calmly with some tension meanwhile . 

Senheim, Germany, March 2019

String Quartet 24 ‘St. Petersburg’ Opus 289

More from a Russian phase which sadly cannot be repeated.

Of course melancholy, especially in the 1st movement. The 2nd is more active in the hectic sleigh-ride tradition but with quite interludes, although the forward motion remains ever-present. The last movement returns to the melancholy, contemplative mood, with some (but not many) moments of light.

Senheim, Germany, Summer 2019

String Quartet 25 Opus 294

Enigmatic mountain music followed by a disjointed and sporadic chromatic 2nd movement, almost hysteric. The 3rd movement is much calmer and more consonant, but the 4th returns to a mood of disjointed near-hysteria, to be performed furiously.

Hinterthal, Austria, November 2019

String Quartet 26 ‘Nadolig - Christmas’ Opus 296

'From Darkness Light reborn'

Three movements, partly based upon traditional Welsh carols and plygain.

Senheim, Germany, December 2019

String Quartet 27 ‘Alba’ (Scotland) Opus 304

Four movements, written in Germany in May 2020 and dedicated to the great Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, whose friendship I cherished and who helped me significantly at the beginning of my own journey.

Senheim, Germany, May 2020

String Quartet 28  ‘Frustgesang an Jens Spahn’ Opus 311

My protest at the endless limbo of lockdown and mis-managed covid vaccination policy in Germany.  The first movement is furious, the 2nd just sad, based on a 3 note motif, and expresses the enduring loneliness of enforced lock-down, separation from family, especially my new grand-daughter and a (then) uncertain future

Senheim, Germany, March 2021

String Quartet 29 ‘Sussex’ Opus 314

A four movement quartet based on a number of Sussex folksongs first collected in 1843.

1 A Sweet Country Life

2 The Shepherd Boy .... I've Been to France and Dover

3 The Plough Boy

4 The Poacher's Song .... The Sweet Rosy Morning (Hunting Song)

Chiddingly, Sussex, England, July 2021

Dedicated with thanks to Susan Bullock and Richard Berkeley Steele

String Quartet 30 ‘Evelyn’ Opus 318

Three movements, written in Hinterthal, Austria, August 2021 for my granddaughter. Each movement contains the opening three note theme, based on her name, and some of her favourite themes.

Hinterthal, Austria, August 2021

String Quartet 31 ‘Michelangelo's Finger’ Opus 321

A two movement work using the same thematic material in each movement. The first contemplative, mostly, the second agitated. In both an ascending or descending scale-like passage represents the outstretched almost touching fingers in the famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Redemption and enlightenment, offered, ignored, is almost attained.

Written in Hinterthal, Austria, October 2021

String Quartet 32 ‘Слава Україні’ (Glory to Ukraine)  Opus 328


String Quartet 32 'Glory to Ukraine' is so called because the first and last movements use phrases from the Ukrainian national anthem to form different musical structures and combine them with material from two folk songs. The quartet was written in a few days at the end of March 2022, my necessary response to the terrible Russian war of aggression.

Chiddingly and Hove, Sussex, England, March 2022

Streichquartett 32 „Glory to Ukraine“ heißt so, weil im ersten und letzten Satz Phrasen aus der ukrainischen Nationalhymne verwendet werden, um unterschiedliche musikalische Strukturen zu bilden, und mit Material aus zwei Volksliedern kombiniert werden. Das Quartett wurde Ende März 2022 in wenigen Tagen geschrieben, meine notwendige Reaktion auf den schrecklichen russischen Angriffskrieg.

String Quartet 33 ‘Bergklang’ Opus 331

A farewell to my flat in Austria. Three Movements:

1. Triefen: Rushing waters, fleeting ideas.

2. Dorfabend: Village (musical) evening - a parody, ad infinitum

3. Aros Mae (from ‘Aros mae'r mynyddoedd mawr’- the great mountains will remain). This last movement brings together passages from two other works with no real resolution. Upward moving unison passages repeatedly attempt to reach their distant destination. The phrases are based on the contours of the mountains which surround Hinterthal in Austria.

Hinterthal, Austria, July 2022

String Quartet 34 ‘Auerbach’s Keller’ Opus 336

A three movement Quartet marking my ceremonial visit to Auerbach's Keller in Leipzig with life-long friends on the occasion of my significant birthday. The movements are:

1 'Doctor Faustus contemplates' (appropriately contrapuntal)
2 'Riding the barrel' (appropriately demonically inebriated' and
3 'Caught' (or 'Captured') - a frozen soul which cannot change its position - depicted by a lonely and unchanging prolonged note in the 2. Violin.

Chiddingly, Sussex, England, April 2023

String Quartet No. 35 ‘Norah’  Opus 340

A three movement Quartet based on themes written for my youngest granddaughter.

Senheim, Germany,  August 2023 

String Quartet No. 36 ‘February’  Opus 347

Two movements, the second more elegaic. Bleak light punctuated with occasional hints of the coming spring, calm, settled and fundamentally hopeful music.

Senheim, Germany in the first days of February 2024

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