David Matthews A Song and Dance Sketchbook (1995)
For piano quartet
As the title indicates, this is not so much a piano quartet in the classical tradition as a series of six short, independent movements, none of them lasting over three minutes. The majority are in dance rhythms, one is pure song, and movements 4 and 6 are song and dance. The work was written very much with the players of the Schubert Ensemble in mind, and is dedicated to them.
1. Counting the Beats The title has nothing to do with Robert Graves’ poem but rather with Count Basie: the piano part is written in homage to him and refers especially to his classic recordings of the late 1930s. I imagined the quartet as a jazz ensemble where the players would be introduced one by one, beginning with the cello, who plays pizzicato throughout, the piano, viola, and finally violin. Each plays a different kind of music.
2. Solitary Tree This is the title of a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich - one of my favourite painters - which I saw in the German Romantics exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London in January 1995. As I looked at the painting I heard the first chord. The piano plays this and then only three chords at the end: the remainder of the movement is for string trio, and has the slow triple metre of a sarabande. There are several references to the English folksong The Three Ravens.
3. Lost Waltz This was at first called 'last waltz', but the change seemed appropriate: the players are searching for a waltz which probably now exists only in the irrecoverable past. So the piece has a certain melancholy. The strings are muted throughout. There is another reference to The Three Ravens on the piano near the end.
4. Caprice A Scherzo for solo viola, with a more lyrical trio. The cello joins in the abbreviated repeat of the scherzo.
5. Lied ohne Worte This is largely a transcription of an earlier song of mine for voice and piano, Hälfte des Lebens, to words by Hölderlin. This was also set by Britten in his Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, and I have included a near-quotation from the last of Britten's songs, Die Linien des Lebens, on the cello at the end. This movement is dedicated to Donald Mitchell whose seventieth birthday fell in February 1995.
6. The sun has set The beginning of the finale is another near-quotation: of the opening of the slow movement of Schubert's E flat piano trio. Schubert's cello tune is based - rather distantly - on a Swedish song called The sun has set. I have transformed the tune into a somewhat gypsy-like folksong that I imagined Schubert might have heard instead. There is another Schubert quotation, from the late A major piano sonata, in the middle of the movement. In Schubertian tradition, there are some rather abrupt modulations.
© David Matthews
A Song and Dance Sketchbook was commissioned by the Newbury Spring Festival for The Schubert Ensemble of London with funds from Southern Arts and the Schubert Ensemble Trust. It was first performed by the Schubert Ensemble at the Newbury Spring Festival on 12th May 1995.