Howard Skempton on Moving On

The British composer writes about his new work for string quartet.

Howard Skempton on Moving On
Howard Skempton (Credit: Katie Vandyke). Please note, the previous image used here was incorrectly labelled.

There are more than two types of composers, but it is clear that some like to write for mixed groups of instruments, whereas others favour monochromatic ensembles, examples of which would be the choir, the brass band and the string orchestra. British composers would seem to tend to fall in the latter category. This may be due to diffidence, or fastidiousness, but it could also be symptomatic of a sensibility more at home with flexibility and understatement. Ambiguity is the (rumpled) order of the day.

With this predisposition to gentle, companionable volatility in mind, the string quartet should hold no fears. Yes, we have a duty to take note of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

The first in the field will always have an edge. We can stand on the shoulders of successive generations of giants, but the first generation will probably have the broadest shoulders. Or we can find models further back in time. If distant models lend enchantment, it is because they leave us (and we can approach them) with greater freedom.

My first two quartets, Catch and Tendrils, took their cue from an English idea of the fantasia; from Gibbons and Purcell. A “catch” is a canon, and Tendrilsis an unbroken sequence of fifty-five canons.

My new piece, Moving On, commissioned by the Harrogate Festival, also begins as a canon. The initial theme is plainly diatonic but, transposed each time it is introduced, quickly employs all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This was my aim: to have my cake diatonically and to eat it chromatically!

To compose a piece is to experience it in slow motion, but one can still have a sure sense of timing, and one's flair in this regard is one of the hallmarks of the composer. One should know intuitively when a change is needed; when the flow can be stemmed, or when the “moving on” has to move on! In my new quartet, metre and tempo are constant, but there?s a subtle change in rhythm about halfway through.

The last part of the piece is a waltz, an old piece rescued from limbo. I have no qualms about using “something I prepared earlier”, as long as that “something” is unpublished and long-neglected; and as long as its use is irresistibly appropriate in a new context. This adoption of an old accordion tune, a surprising turn of events, is a characteristic shift of gear (and shifts of gear can happen in both directions) from “theme” to “melody”. If the interest in symmetry and chromaticism is ongoing, melody is never far from the surface and, usually in the heat of the moment, is bound to assert itself, like a prominence bursting from the sun.

The medium can inhibit or facilitate the conjuring of a tune. In a piece for church bells, conforming to the centuries-old tradition of method-ringing, symmetry holds sway; the appearance of melody becomes fortuitous, even if it is possible, through a measure of ingenuity, to encourage it. Writing a choral piece or string quartet, any opportunity for melodic writing can be fully exploited. In Moving On, there was an urgent need. All music worth listening to, even when slow or contemplative, is marked, or coloured, by a sense of urgency.

Howard Skempton


The Brodsky String Quartet will be performing the world premiere of Howard Skempton’s Moving On at Harrogate International Festivals on Sunday 24 July at 8pm at St Wilfrid’s Church, Harrogate. The Quartet will also play Shostakovich, Golijov, and Beethoven, and deliver a pre-concert talk at 7pm. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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