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.’