Programme Notes: Instrumental Ensemble

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String Quartets


SONATA FOR TWO PIANOS 'The Lord will be a Refuge for the Oppressed; a Refuge in times of trouble' Opus 40 (1987)

Duration 20' 

3 movements

The Interdenominational Society for Soviet Jewry existed during the years of the communist regime in the USSR. It campaigned in the west for the release of Jews who were held in the USSR against their will. Andrew Downes saw in the plight of the “Refusniks” parallels with the tribulations and persecution suffered by the Jews throughout their history. In his Sonata for Two Pianos he turned mainly to the Old Testament and particularly to the Psalms for his inspiration.

The opening of the work is inspired by Psalm 10 verse 1:

“Why standest Thou afar off, O Lord, why hidest thou thy face in times of trouble?”

The music begins full of yearning and has at the same time a Jewish character. A more comforting mood then takes over, inspired by Psalm 69 v.33:

“For the Lord heareth the poor and despiseth not His prisoners.”

The movement moves into a long, energetic and agitated section before the yearning of the opening re-emerges. The end of the movement is full of pathos, but at the same time optimism.

The second movement is for the most part meditative in mood, inspired by Psalm 80, which likens the Jewish people to a vine which God brought out of Egypt and planted. It grew and spread, but its enemies cut it down. Twice in the movement the music becomes excited and perturbed, each time returning to the predominantly reflective mood.

The music moves into the third movement without a break and by means of a jubilant passage, which wants to herald a future of great hope. There immediately follows, however, a passage of sinister foreboding. The movement swings from the one mood to the other, but the final coda is a return to jubilation, like an announcement from God beckoning his people and their turning to him. In its final version the theme goes into “slow motion” as they walk to their refuge of eternal peace:

“Open the gates of Righteousness. I will go into them and I will praise the Lord.” (Psalm 118, verse 19)


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STRING QUARTET No.1 Opus 14 (1977) 17'
3 movements

The first movement of this quartet opens with a broad, song-like melody on cello, over a busy spiccato accompaniment on the upper instruments.  The violins and viola, in a strident bridge passage, carry the movement through to a second subject which is at first full bodied and then meditative in character.  The cello melody which opened the movement then becomes the central feature of a frenzied fugato development which comes to its climax in an inverted and emotionally heightened version of the second subject.  The strident bridge passage which linked the first two subjects now reappears to lead the movement into a jubilant recapitulation of the broad theme of the opening.

The second movement opens romantically with a serene, lilting melody played in octaves by the violins, with a lazy Alberti accompaniment.  The relaxed atmosphere seems to lead naturally into a jazz-like middle section, where each instrument appears to be improvising and yet is forming part of a tightly knit contrapuntal texture.  The serene, lilting melody reappears to close the movement.

Jubilant in mood and dance-like in character, the third movement also has a strong element of jazz.  The first theme has strong links with the opening melody of the second movement, but here it is attacking and rhythmical, with syncopated dialogue and double stopping.  The cello then takes on the role of the jazz-band double bass, and leads with a pizzicato accompanying theme into the main dance-like tune of the whole movement.  The opening theme returns briefly, but is quickly interrupted by a reappearance of the cello pizzicato theme, which becomes dominant, building up to a frenetic climax, and leading back to the big dance tune.  Here the first violin indulges in a soaring jazz-like descant.  The movement comes to its climax with a fugato-like development of the opening theme.  The viola and the cello, now with strident bowing, take up the cello's former pizzicato theme, while the violins punctuate with high triads, to bring the work to a jubilant conclusion.


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Duration 25 minutes

One continuous movement

Programme note to the first performance

This single movement work is dedicated to Kolkata-born composer, John Mayer, and has a strong Indian influence.  The work contains three strongly contrasting musical ideas, each of which develops organically throughout the work.  It is this organic growth, whereby very different themes evolve from each other, which allows such a long movement to remain whole and logical in structure, whilst at the same time giving full vent to the development of passion and feeling.  The first of the three main ideas is slow, melancholic and plainsong-like.  This is later accompanied by a thematically linked, harmonised arpeggio figuration, which develops into an important thematic idea in its own right.  The second main idea is violent, rhythmically and harmonically ragged, but still linked to the first.  The violence of this section culminates in triumph, but is then replaced by a reflective transformation more suggestive of the opening idea.  The final main idea of the work, again organically originating from the others, is obviously and strongly influenced by Indian classical music, and was conceived immediately after the composer visited Bengal in February 1994.  The drone of the tampura is suggested by the lower instruments, and the sitar-like flourish of the opening of an Indian raga is played by the violins.  Later the pizzicato on the second violin suggests tabla rhythms.  The section concludes with a passage of furious, multi-tempo music, evocative of the final, improvisatory section of the Indian raga.  This material is transformed into a triumphant coda at the end of the work.  As always, the composer finds it impossible to convey through words the heartfelt passion, tragedy and joy which can only be experienced through the sound of music, but he fervently hopes that these few words, inadequate though they may be, help his audience to enjoy this new work.


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Andrew Downes was asked to compose this Fanfare for the Brass Ensemble of the Birmingham School of Music (now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), directed by Frank Downes, to play at Graduation Ceremonies of the Open University in Great Britain.

The Open University has existed since 1970 in the UK. It was set up by the then Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Harold Wilson, to cater for mature students who for one reason or another (often because of World War II) had missed out on Higher Education. The students of the Open University study mainly at home by correspondence, listening to special radio and TV broadcasts and attending occasional weekend or summer residential courses.

The Graduation Ceremonies are held in various parts of the country, and from 1977 when this work was composed, most opened with this Fanfare for a Ceremony for many years. Following the retirement of Frank Downes, and then his successor Reg Reid, the Fanfare has often been played on the organ, by Marcus Huxley and Paul Carr.

Fanfare for a Ceremony has also been performed at numerous Graduation Ceremonies of Birmingham Conservatoire and Birmingham City University.

The work is scored for 13 brass instruments: 6 trumpets, 4 horns, 2 trombones and tuba. A solo trumpet begins the motif, immediately followed by the 2nd trumpet and then one instrument after another. Each take their turn in the tune and then hold their note. Thus a chord is formed and held. The 2nd subject is rhythmic and full of splendour. A central monumental and dignified section on lower instruments followed by rhythmic jubilant triplets on trumpets leads back into the theme of the opening. The piece is designed to be repeated as necessary and stop at the end of sections as and when the procession of dignitaries arrives at the platform at the graduation ceremony.


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