(with grateful thanks to Professor Daniel Grimley of Merton College, Oxford)
For a generation of musicians who lived through the terrifying events of the First World War, responding to the seemingly incomprehensible impact of the conflict became a compelling creative challenge. Many promising younger figures, such as George Butterworth and Ernest Farrar, paid the ultimate price, killed in action on the Western front. The legacy of the war left its mark in other ways on the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who spent two periods of active service as an ambulance orderly in France. Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius, close contemporaries but almost diametrically opposed personalities, were too old at the time of the warâ€™s outbreak to be called up for military duty (though Elgar was briefly a member of his local Hampstead Constabulary). For both men, however, the war had a profound effect upon their later work, and it is impossible to separate their two remarkable string quartets from the historical circumstances of their creation.
Elgarâ€™s initial response to the war was to engage energetically in patriotic music-making activities intended to raise the public spirit. But the strain induced by the harrowing news from the continent eventually precipitated a nervous breakdown in 1917. Elgarâ€™s wife, Alice, arranged their removal from London to a rural cottage on the edge of the Sussex weald. It was here that Elgar finally began to recuperate and compose once more, completing a series of three new chamber pieces (the Violin Sonata, Piano Quintet, and String Quartet), alongside his Cello Concerto. Elgar began sketching the quartet in the latter half of 1918, just as the war ground brutally to its conclusion. The first performance of the work took place privately on 19 April 1919, and the public premiÃ¨re was given at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May by an ensemble including violinists Albert Sammonds and W.H. Reed, violist Raymond Jeremy, and cellist Felix Salmond.
At the start of the war, Delius and his wife were living in the village of Grez-sur-Loing, just south of Paris. As the Germans advanced swiftly toward the River Marne in the conflictâ€™s opening weeks, they were forced to leave their house temporarily and evacuate to OrlÃ©ans, where Delius was deeply moved by the sight of wounded servicemen and other refugees. Though they returned briefly as the German line was repelled, Thomas Beecham persuaded them to travel to England in November 1914, where the Deliuses stayed for the next 8-9 months. Here, Delius embraced the opportunity to hear music being performed both in London and elsewhere. â€“ at a HallÃ© Orchestra concert in Manchester, for example, he was introduced to the Harrison sisters, Beatrice and May, for whom he would later write his set of three string concertos and sonatas. The Deliuses returned to France permanently in late November 1915, and in a letter to Percy Grainger dated 11 January 1916, he wrote: â€˜we are so glad to be back in Grez again â€“ our Garden was terribly neglected so we are both working in it every afternoon â€“ No gardener is to be had â€“ Otherwise one does not feel the war here whatever.â€™ Delius began to write his String Quartet in the spring, completing the first version of the work (in three movements) in June. It received its first performance by the London String Quartet at the Aeolian Hall on 17 November 1916 (where Albert Sammonds was again the principal violin). The Musical Times wrote of â€˜a serious contribution to musical art â€“ the most important, in fact, that has been heard in London during the present seasonâ€™. Delius was nevertheless dissatisfied with the score, and revised it the following year, reworking the outer movements, adding a scherzo (drawing on material from an earlier abandoned quartet written c. 1888), and completely recomposing the slow movement, Late Swallows.
Delius never destroyed the materials for the first (three-movement) version of his quartet, and the autograph score, sketches, and an incomplete set of copied parts survive in the British Library.
For this recording, the original 1916 versions of the opening movement and of Late Swallows have been reassembled, and they present a fascinating comparison with the more familiar later (1917) version of the quartet. The original version of the opening movement (marked Allegro moderato) was more heavily scored, and has a much richer, darker hue than the later revision. The differences between the two versions of Late Swallows are much more radical. Formally, the two versions follow the same basic plan, but the original version opens with an elaborate ascending arabesque in the first violin, suggesting perhaps the soaring flight of the summer migrants in the movementâ€™s title. The middle section is also recomposed: the original music has a Mahlerian sense of poignancy. It will never be clear exactly why Delius changed his mind about the original version of his Quartet, but this rare glimpse into his compositional workshop is a significant discovery.
Hailed as ‘champions of British music’ by the Guardian/Observer, the Villiers Quartet was the winner of the 2015 Radcliffe Chamber Music Competition, and holds the position of Quartet-in-Residence at Oxford Universityâ€™s Faculty of Music. Named after Villiers Street in Londonâ€™s colourful musical epicentre, the Villiers Quartet encompasses the grand and iconic spirit of the extraordinary music tradition in London. One of the most charismatic and â€œadventurousâ€ quartets of the European chamber music scene, the Villiers Quartet has developed an international reputation for its performances of English composers including Elgar, Britten and Delius. The Quartet has been featured in numerous festivals including the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, the Brit Jazz Fest, the Hungerford Arts Festival and the British Music Society. Their internationally acclaimed VQ New Works Competition encourages audiences to interact with contemporary music performance online, and supports the creation of new works for string quartet. Known for championing the works of English composers, the VQ has presented master-classes at Dartmouth College, the University of Nottingham, Syracuse University, Goshen College, and the Indiana University South Bend. The VQ is also Quartet-in-Residence at Nottingham High School, where they oversee an extensive chamber music programme for young students. Their dÃ©but recording for Naxos, Robert Stillâ€™s The Four String Quartets (8.571353), won high praise from Gramophone and received five stars in Classical Music Magazine. The VQ was the featured quartet on the soundtrack to the BBC television drama Lady Chatterleyâ€™s Lover, and they have been featured extensively on BBC Radio 3 in live performance and on the programme In Tune.
More details can be found via www.villiersquartet.com and the VQ can be followed on social media www.facebook.com/thevq and www.twitter.com/villiersquartet
Marketing, Promotion and Further information
This new CD will be fully serviced to UK press and media. Advertising will include appropriate classical magazines both in print and online. Please request a review copy of the disc from email@example.com (and interview requests can be accommodated quickly via the same route).
This new CD follows two highly acclaimed releases on the Naxos imprint – Robert Still: The Four String Quartets (8.571353) and Peter Racine Fricker: The String Quartets (8.571374).
Both works will be performed in Concert on 17th May at the VQ Season at Nottingham High School and on 6th June at the Devizes Arts Festival. Other dates are in process of being confirmed.
An invitation only CD launch event will be held on 24th May at The Liberal Club in London. To be added to the guest list, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org