Michael Tippett: String Quartet No.1


Three out of the five string quartets that Michael Tippett (1905-1998) composed during his lifetime were written in a ten-year period between 1935-45. A 30 year gap between the third and fourth scuppered the composer’s initial plan of writing four quartets during one period. Initially composed in 1934-5, the First String Quartet was heavily revised by Tippett and was not premiered again until 1943. All five of Tippett’s string quartets remain challenging works in the 20th century repertoire, with them also being recorded a number of times by famous string quartets such as The Lindsays, The Heath Quartet and The Tippett Quartet.


The Music
Movement I – Allegro

The opening movement, littered with polyphonic voices, represents Tippett’s lyrical style. The undercurrent of energy is felt throughout the movement, with the dramatic twists and turns constantly keeping both the listener and performers on their toes. Through the anguish a lyrical style takes hold of the movement and the music could be described as pastoral. Tippett’s unison writing creates bold sequences that balance the four different voices of the ensemble. Big dynamic changes oppose soft lyrical interludes creates intensity within the music. Tippett’s array of complex textures are watered down near the end to leave a single voice to conclude the movement.


Movement II –  Lento cantabile

With a sweetness to the sound, the ensemble lets the violin lead on the opening melody, before it is spread out evenly across the four voices. Once again Tippett’s complex harmonic and textural language creates thin layers that slowly build across the movement. The slow tempo feeds this idea and the long drawn-out theme is eventually handled by all four voices in the ensemble. The fluctuation of subtle dynamic changes adds intensity to the music, before the movement ends quietly.


Movement III – Allegro assai

The fugal finale shows Tippett’s jazz influences through complex rhythms and harmonic language. Similarly to the other two movements, the complexity of the music carries the tempo and keeps both the players and listeners on their toes. The intensity of the rhythms throughout bring out clarity in the music as well as a vibrant take on a fugue. The energetic finale rushes to the end before a set of aggressive chords are played tutti to conclude this complex quartet. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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