New Composition: String Quartet No. 2, ‘Locomotion’

String Quartet No. 2 is Robert Howard’s most ambitious work to date, as the second of this year’s forays into long-form compositions, the first being Piano Sonata No. 1, ‘Bells.’

The 30-minute piece mimics the elements of a traditional string quartet, with four movements in the expected forms, but uses a conceptual title – ‘Locomotion’ – as a ‘compositional stimulus in creating extended pattern-based textures, as well as the development, or journey, of motifs and themes,’ in the composer’s own words. In this, Robert was inspired by his own love of train travel. Other than these textures, however, there is no attempt to evoke particular imagery, giving the listener freedom to interpret the music in their own way.

The first movement is in loose sonata form, based around E modal minor, or Aeolian mode, subtly recalling the folk-influenced 20th-century British music that has formed the background to the composer’s oeuvre.

The second movement bears the hallmarks of a busy scherzo, and a pleasingly sentimental slow movement follows in ternary form, with syncopated rhythms and rich harmonies building slowly upon a ground bass in the first theme, leading into a more ethereal second theme, before the first returns and dims a niente.

The extended finale grows out of the previous movement, with a rondo-like jig theme on another ground bass. Contrasting episodes feature modulating material, as well as a secondary theme in C. The final section sees a cyclic return of the first movement’s first theme, now at the finale’s faster tempo, and in the closing key of G minor. Throughout its half-an-hour duration, the piece journeys through various main keys, ascending by a perfect fourth for each movement, from E minor, through A minor and D minor, finally culminating on G minor, thus making the full work an example of ‘progressive tonality.’ The piece as a whole sees much use of canonic, or heterophonic, textures, and a move towards more polyphonic textures than in previous works.

String Quartet No. 2 is dedicated to the composer’s lifelong friend and colleague David Kernick, marking 20 years of involvement in both Prescot Parish Church Choir and the Prescot Festival of Music & the Arts. Commenting on the piece, David said: ‘I especially enjoy how it bears all the distinctive traits of Robert’s music, while at times recalling teasingly yet fleetingly so much of the great string quartet repertoire, such as that of Alexander Borodin, Maurice Ravel and Philip Glass. As a departure into new territory, along with the Piano Sonata, it is very successful and more than deserving of a live concert performance, which I hope we’ll see sooner rather than later.’

2023: The Year So Far…

It is hard to believe we are already three quarters of the way through 2023, but it has been a productive year so far for Rob.

As well as Postlude in Glory for organ, the Coronation-inspired Fanfare in Canon for brass quartet and a substantial revision of the earlier Invocation & Dance for bassoon and piano, the year has seen a foray into extended compositions: The three-movement Piano Sonata No. 1, ‘Bells,’ and the four-movement String Quartet No. 2, ‘Locomotion,’ clocking in at 23 minutes and 32 minutes, respectively. Note all that scores continue to be available for download at Sheet Music Plus.

Rob’s sacred choral repertoire remains in use in worship, with Prescot Parish Church Choir, among others, singing Bread of the World, God So Loved the World, I Gave You Love (The Good Friday Reproaches) and Glory, Love, and Praise, and Honour. The solo voice and piano version of the 2022 Ave Maria has received four performances – a ‘mini-tour’ – with David Kernick singing it in Prescot, with the composer at the piano, and again in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral for the Francis Neilson Lunchtime Concert in March. This latter occasion also included the solo version of God So Loved the World, repeated for the Easter Vigil at Prescot Parish Church. Soprano Abigail Birch-Price also sang Ave Maria, first at All Hallows’ Allerton in May, then the following month as part of the Prescot Festival, again with the composer accompanying.

Listen to Abigail Birch-Price singing Ave Maria:

Jubilate Deo is as popular a choice as ever for choirs, enjoying several high-profile performances in 2023, by the massed community choirs of Liverpool Cathedral (Liverpool 64, Gilbert Scott Singers and Liverpool Cathedral Junior Choir) at cathedral concerts in April and July, under the direction of Ian Wells, with Ian Tracey on the organ.

Christopher McElroy conducted the Choir of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (pictured) singing the piece three times in July, each with Richard Lea on the organ: At the cathedral mass for the Sacred Heart, at the Prescot Festival, and finally in a remarkable 140-voice choir, in combination with the boys, girls and lay clerks of Liverpool Cathedral Choir, at their highly successful Coronation-themed ‘Fit for a King’ concert. They also joined the voices of the Prescot Festival Chorus to sing Rob’s Glory, Love, and Praise, and Honour in June (conductor Ian Wells, organist Peter Kwater).

Notable first performances have included the solo organ piece Postlude in Glory, given by James Luxton of Liverpool Cathedral at his solo recital at the Prescot Festival. September’s annual Parish Musicians in Concert, also at Prescot, saw a first performance of Praise the Lord (David Kernick, tenor, with Rob at the piano) and a premiere of Berceuse for piano.

Festival Still Flourishing

As it approaches its 20th year, the Prescot Festival of Music & the Arts is still going strong, with 2023 audiences averaging over 200 for main evening concerts and 1,700 in total. As well as seeing performances of his own works on the 19th annual programme, Rob conducted his South Liverpool Orchestra in the Proms-style Festival Finale (pictured below). The 10-day schedule was the occasion for debut performances from the Choir of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, pianist and organist James Luxton, and the Phil Shotton Big Band (pictured above). There was also a first-time event at Prescot’s new Shakespeare North Playhouse. Other concerts throughout the year featured Skelmersdale Prize Band in March (raising £125 for the festival, after costs) March, and Parish Musicians in Concert in September (raising over £330 for the parish).

Rob’s post as Assistant Head of Music Faculty at St Edward’s College, Liverpool, continues to occupy his weekdays. As conductor of the secondary school’s junior, senior and chamber orchestras, Rob has wielded the baton for two packed performances of A Night at the Musicals, a Leavers’ Concert in March and a Summer Concert in July.

Despite school commitments, Rob still finds time for regular performances as Principal Bassoonist of Liverpool Mozart Orchestra and Liverpool Bach Collective, ongoing conducting engagements with Prescot Parish Church Choir, and high-standard, sell-out performances conducting Phoenix Concert Orchestra in British and US Light Music in concert at St Ann’s Church Aigburth, and South Liverpool Orchestra in Coronation-themed repertoire at All Hallows’ Allerton and at the Prescot Festival in June (see above).

New Composition: Piano Sonata No. 1, ‘Bells’

With three movements running to 23 minutes, the Piano Sonata, completed in 2023, is a departure for Rob, but there remain elements of his signature compositional style alongside the new.

Subtitled ‘Bells‘, the piece plays with a variety of bell-like sounds within the broadly expected contours of a traditional sonata, with the outer movements framing a middle ‘slow’ movement.

The first movement, ‘Chimes,’ opens with an expansive motif in octaves, spanning the whole length of the keyboard, from E1 to A7, with an alternating pattern that suggests a kind of call and response between the bass and treble extremes. A second theme explores closer, richer harmonies in syncopated rhythm, with more melodic suggestions springing up in the bass. These are treated in loose sonata form, with the two themes stated, then developed before being restated. As with many of Rob’s compositions, the flavour is programmatic, with the shape and texture not just suggesting the literal bells of the title, but provoking the imagination in other ways; the opening theme, with its sparse but effective harmonies and wide ranges easily suggests big spaces and broad landscapes, for example. The contrastingly prescient atmosphere of the second theme propels the imagination through subtle moods that feel sometimes optimistic, other times ominous.

The second movement is brooding and meditative, gradually building on a simple opening idea. The sonata is dedicated to ‘my family,’ and this movement, titled ‘Requiescat’ (Latin: rest [in peace]) suggests those beloved family members now departed are in mind. What begins with haunting uncertainty ends with a satisfying sense of hope. The ever-richer harmonies and ever-busier rhythms and sounds crescendo both literally and figuratively, through quavers, then triplets, and finally cascading semiquavers that lift our minds into the ether. The movement ends with just a single melodic line, lingering on the tonic, supertonic and, finally a lone mediant, or the third note of the major scale. It is alone but nevertheless represents a natural, harmonic resolution.

The third movement sees the composer return to a minimalistic style that has characterised much of his past work. The repetitive, clockwork motion suggests the mechanics of the ‘carillon,’ a set of tuned bells whose music has inspired many keyboard composers, notably, eg, the French organist Louis Vierne. The carillon, for which the movement is named, is a moto perpetuo whose rumbling bass compels us from a portentous beginning to a bright, celebratory flourish of bells. The colourful use of harmonic modes unites Rob’s style with that of his 20th-century forebears, especially those who found inspiration in the traditional folk music of the British Isles.

The sonata comes full circle, the triumph of the final movement fading and giving way to a forceful restatement of the motif that opened the whole work, then an inconclusive final chord, with bare fifths in the bass and a clashing sharpened tonic in the treble stave. The clash is never resolved; the chord fades niente – to nothing.

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