Commissioned by the Australian String Quartet
First performance by the Australian String Quartet, Adelaide Town Hall, Adelaide, 5 September 2013
String Quartet No 5 was a finalist in the 2014 Australian Music Centre – APRA-AMCOS Art Music Award in the category ‘Instrumental Work of the year’.
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.
Ford's music always tends towards structural originality and his reference points seem to be the shapes of narrative rather than classical musical form. After some ethereal harmonics, the String Quartet No.5 starts with a simple rising stepwise theme that initially hints at a mood of solidity and comfort. This quickly changes to something more ambiguous and unsettled as the theme strives up the whole-tone scale. There is a spiky interlude and rapid return, which raises the music to the high register leaving it in the seraphic stratosphere as though referring back to the harmonics of the start. This section trails off beautifully into the twilight. That might have been enough but unexpectedly one hears a hymn as though listening from outside, and suddenly we have spirited, even bacchanalian, variations on the tune known as 'Monks Gate' or 'To be a Pilgrim'.
The ending is ambiguous, back to earth and pernickety, and one is left as though after a dream one neither remembers nor understands. It was among the best of Ford's pieces I have heard.
Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald
Andrew Ford has come up with a teasingly simple idea for a string quartet. Three plain but familiar-sounding melodic notes keep reappearing against an ever-changing textural backdrop - they nag one's aural memory until 'To be a Pilgrim', the English hymn, materialises in full at the very end. Ford's single-movement String Quartet No 5 is clever, but it is also as honestly hale and hearty as the hymn itself. At the Adelaide Town Hall on Friday night, the Australian String Quartet played it with great fervour.
Graham Strahle, The Australian
Rooted in Bunyan’s poem, 'To be a Pilgrim', set by Vaughan Williams, it is a wholly engaging piece. Valiant, too, as the text requires. Ford is brave, supremely confident. Passages of combined plucking and bowing . . . whistling harmonics, tantalising fragments of the theme, satisfaction when he relents and gives us the whole hymn. But never complacent. His cheeky ending warns against taking anything too seriously.
Elizabeth Silbury, The Advertiser
A memorable program included a new work by Andrew Ford who, on his way home from his father's funeral in England, mulled over 'To be a Pilgrim', the only hymn sung at the service. In fragments, the melody is cunningly woven into the work, which falls most pleasingly on the ear. There is nothing maudlin about the work; it is in no sense a dirge. Much of it, in fact, glows with positive energy, with a deal of it rhythmically dance-like. It's frankly fascinating, at times quasi-folksy fare but not without moments of introspection. I'd like to listen to it again.
Neville Cohn, The West Australian