String Quartet No.1
(Robben Island)

The world première of String Quartet No. 1 (Robben Island) took place on the 4th October 2000 at St John's Smith Square, London. This first performance, by the renowned Allegri String Quartet, was in the presence of Her Excellency Cheryl Ann Carolus, High Commissioner for the Republic of South Africa. Also present was Professor Denis Goldberg who was originally on trial with Nelson Mandela, and who spent many years in prison in South Africa. The concert benefited the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. The Allegri String Quartet subsequently toured the work beginning with a performance at the Turner Sims Concert Hall (Southampton) on Saturday 11th November 2000 followed by three further performances in 2001 at Oxford, Nottingham, and Hull. This was preceded by their discussion and performance on BBC Radio 3.

 

The American première of String Quartet No. 1 was performed by the Amernet Quartet on February 15th 2004 at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center as part of Amernet's conTempo Series. This prize-winning quartet, based in Cincinnati, has received international acclaim and is the newly appointed Patricia A. Corbett String Quartet in Residence at Northern Kentucky University. Acclaimed by the New York Times as “immensely satisfying…their fine performances were most notable for the quality of unjaded discovery that came through so vividly.”

Chorale 1
Agitated and violent
Lilting, but with edge: Restless, quasi-dance
With some panic: From afar
Majestically: Joyous
Chorale 2

Programme Notes

From the composer’s point of view it is somewhat dangerous to be too prescriptive about a work. A musical experience is a varied and developmental process and strong leads about the makeup of a piece imply just one level of understanding and perhaps appreciation. But in this case, where I have tried deliberately to link a contemporary event with the arguably formal and revered medium of the string quartet, I feel compelled to give the background to the movements.

 

Robben Island had for a number of years been a symbol of great suffering and suppression of basic human rights. But when I came to visit the island around Christmas of 1999, having already begun this quartet, I realized that it was also a place of beauty and mystery, and of course immense inspiration. I appreciated also that it is simply a piece of land, only temporarily abused since its formation. So the piece needed to reflect characteristics as well as events, and therefore it emerges only gradually, almost like the island appearing out of the mist. If it feels uncertain and edgy, then all the better. The second movement had a working title of ‘the road from Natal’, where Nelson Mandela was arrested before his final trial. It is violent, a siren wails in places, although on occasion the chasing has odd elements of farce. For the opening of the third movement I had in mind the misery of being transported to the island, tired, battered, and full of fear and trepidation. A later section is marked ‘Restless, quasi-dance’, and this relates to the earlier history of the island. For some time it was a leper colony and I wanted to convey a lifestyle and mental energy that would be so strange and difficult to comprehend by those on the outside. It draws to a close with more reference to modern times, a confrontation of imprisonment and a theoretical slamming of a cell door gives it a dramatic finale. The fourth movement had a working title of ‘isolation’ and I have used pizzicato chords to symbolize a heartbeat that both stops and runs into panic. An equally nervous ‘pacing up and down’ can be heard in the second violin, viola and ‘cello. This movement gives way to a re-emergence of the opening chorale, but this time with a little off-beat, reggae-like rhythm in the pizzicato first violin. Here I had in mind the hub of ‘real-life’ that was so near to the islanders, and yet so far. And then a fifth movement that had a working title of ‘spirit’. Being marked ‘Majestic: Joyous’ it speaks for itself, and is a celebration of one of the major successes of the twentieth century. The work draws to a close with an ornamented version of the original chorale, but this time it finishes with a closer reference to the national anthem of New South Africa.

 

In programme notes I usually shy away from structural comment, I think I have been worn down by the dominance that ’analysis of what someone has done’ takes over the ’act of creation’. But I will mention here the opening motif of the national anthem of South Africa. I first hid this in a second subject of a Sonatina for guitar some years ago. It was no coincidence that I settled on this on the afternoon that Mr. Mandela walked from Robben Island. I later experimented with it in a student piece for orchestra, and both of these gave me the preparation for this larger scale work. The rising third of the opening to the national anthem forms the basis of this quartet, as does the three-note response. But in this piece it is not the structure that is important, it is the human element. Yes, this is a tribute to one man, but to the spirit of many others as well.

 

 

The Allegri Quartet

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson