Commissioned by the Australian String Quartet
First performance by the Australian String Quartet, Adelaide Town Hall, Adelaide, 5 September 2013
Andrew Ford: String Quartet No 5 (2013)
The request from the Australian String Quartet to write a work for their 2013 season came in May 2012, on the very day that I completed my String Quartet No 3 for the Brodsky Quartet. That I said yes to the ASQ, in spite of the fact that String Quartet No 4 (for the improvising quartet, the NOISE) had already been commissioned and had to be written first, was partly a matter of immediately having a very clear idea of how the piece might go. Unlike No 4, it would be fully notated; and unlike No 3, which is in four movements, the fifth quartet would be in one long movement. I also knew that it would start slowly and build to a multi-layered climax in which there would be a big tune played by the second violin, simultaneously elaborated in the other parts. And that, very broadly, is how the piece turned out, though for most listeners it will not, perhaps, be the most striking thing about it.
On 5 December 2012, my father died unexpectedly and I flew to England to be with my family and attend his funeral. At the funeral there was just the one hymn, ‘To Be a Pilgrim’, which we sang because it had been Dad’s school song. The hymn is the work of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in his capacity as editor of the English Hymnal, though he did not himself compose the tune he called ‘Monks Gate’. In fact we don’t know who composed it, because it was a traditional dance tune that Vaughan Williams ‘collected’ from Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monks Gate in West Sussex, finding that with a few adjustments it fitted John Bunyan’s famous words. (As it happens, the words were also adjusted for the hymnal, Percy Dearmer ditching lines about fighting giants and remaining undaunted in the presence of hobgoblins in order to placate 20th-century sensibilities. A pity, I’ve always thought.)
Flying home to Australia, thinking about Dad, and with that tune stuck in my head, it occurred to me that this might be the very tune that arrives at the climax of my string quartet. And so it is, though for the keen-eared there are hints and fragments of it from as early as Bar 3 and it never really goes away. But it would be quite wrong to think of this piece, with its neutral, generic title, as being about my father, and still less about his death. It’s not. It is the piece I always intended to write, based on the component parts of a very good tune.