String Quartet No 2

Genre: Instrumental

Mood: Dramatic

Forces: String quartet

Length: 20 Minutes


String Quartet No 2 “The Doorkey” (2001) in 4 mvts: Restlessly; Threnody; Salty Dances; Finale.

Commissioned by Mike and Rosemary Tonge for the 21st birthday of their daughter Helen.

Sheet Music

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Programme notes

String Quartet No2 ‘The Doorkey’ (2001)
Programme notes © F L Dunkin Wedd

Restlessly; Threnody; Salty Dances; Finale

My second string quartet was commissioned by Rosemary and Mike Tonge as a 21st birthday present for their daughter Helen, second violin in the Rivoli Quartet; accordingly the second violin is more prominent than is sometimes the case. In our initial discussions about the piece, we agreed that it should try to portray complex emotions - joy shot with pain, peace disturbed, achievements subverted.
Throughout the piece motifs and keys struggle to establish themselves and when they succeed, do so only briefly; melodies are shattered, movements don’t finish in the key they start in. The first and last movements are in unsettling time signatures, exemplifying its tension and restlessness, and the middle movements give little relief. I inscribed it with the appropriate line from Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.
The first movement begins with a three quaver figure - it was only after I had made this figure a motif for the piece that I realised how neatly it fits the words ‘Helen Tonge’. The opening material is fractured and tense, but soon a second figure appears; this is smoother, but the tension continues with shifting harmony, never quite resolved.
The two styles, fractured and legato, are developed: resolution seems to be in sight, with more satisfactory harmonies, and a jazzy rhythmic idea develops which combines the two styles. It could almost be a pop song - if it were not in 7/8 time.
But we are not at peace yet. The fractured style returns, this time more tragic than fearful. The legato idea follows - also changed; it leads back to a variation of the jazzy rhythm, which returns us to the opening three quaver ‘Helen Tonge’ figure - revitalised by changes of mood and harmony, but still fretful.
The second movement is more lyrical, but its warmth is subverted by unsettled harmony. The melodic theme starts out in fine style, but fails, starts again, tries different keys. The cello opens a section in 3/4; harmonic changes take us back to the opening theme, which almost establishes itself at last - albeit in a different key. But it ends unfulfilled.
The third movement is a bit like a Minuet and Trio - except that the minuet is a Sea Shanty, and the trio a Hornpipe. But the humour is still flecked with darkness: an Eb pedal note continues throughout the hornpipe, with the tune over it passing to increasingly distant keys and back again, whilst the shanty is plodding. There’s Shostakovitch amongst the Gilbert & Sullivan….
The finale is in 5/4 and starts out in F major - a close relation to the D minor of the first movement. The opening 16-bar statement is full of a strong rhythmic drive, with a repeated riff on the cello, but this is interrupted by fractured and legato figures reminiscent of the first movement. Again like the first movement, it then goes jazzy, and shifts from key to key. But the atmosphere is more amused than tense; this feeling is reinforced when a jazzy theme almost like a fairground calliope combines the fractured and legato figures.
Then things start to fall apart, with unresolved chords, and we again hear the ‘Helen Tonge’ figure. The calliope tries again in different keys, but is cut off midstream. The opening figure returns, now with a melody on the second violin. There’s a false ending in D major - a cheerful version of the piece’s original key. But the opening figure returns again. It appears to end in D major again. But in a Haydn-esque twist, the final notes are in C major. If this were Haydn it would be wonderfully witty; here it’s like coming home, but finding that home is not quite what you thought it was.


First performance:
9 March 2002, The Rivoli String Quartet, Tonbridge, Kent.